This week's window on the Middle East - April 22, 2013

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week, Beyond Arab vs Berber: the rich complexities of Algerian identity should be celebrated, not feared

Arab Awakening
26 April 2013
  • Beyond Arab vs Berber: the rich complexities of Algerian identity should be celebrated, not feared
  • I choose not to exclude: not losing my religions
  • The soul of Khartoum
  • Conflict and narrative
  • When none of your business is revolutionary
  • Beyond Arab vs Berber: the rich complexities of Algerian identity should be celebrated, not feared

    By Hicham Yezza

    Looking back on half a century of post-independence policies, the most damaging, and least forgiveable failure of Algerian governance is arguably not economic or political (though there have certainly been plenty of those) but a cultural and moral one: the failure to honour Algeria’s foundational ethnic and cultural diversity in all its rich and varied dimensions - in particular, the unwillingness of the country’s successive political elites to properly address Algeria’s “Question Berbère”.

    Anyone with a passing knowledge of Algerian - and, indeed, Maghreb - history knows it is a land of linguistic, ethnic and cultural hybridity: whilst virtually the entire Algerian population is nominally Arabic-speaking, at least a quarter (some unofficial estimates put this as high as 75%) of Algerians are Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa (though most prefer the autochthonous term: Amazigh). This has been the case for most of the fourteen centuries since the early waves of Arab-Muslim foutouhats (conquests) reached North Africa in the early eighth century, leading to the whole region embracing Islam and, as a direct result, the Arabic language. Nevertheless, Tamazight - the family of disparate but connected Berber languages and dialects - has persisted, and remains dominant in a number of regional enclaves across the Maghreb.

    Unsurprisingly, one of the key strategies of early French colonialism in Algeria has been to drive a wedge between Arab and Berber identities by vigorously constructing a narrative pitting an indigenous Berber population against an Arab, alien one. This classic ‘divide and rule’ approach proved militarily crucial to France’s ultimately successful conquest of the country over the course of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent efforts to consolidate its colonisation project. In line with the standard Orientalist blueprint, significant French academic and intellectual efforts were centred on sharpening this detected Berber-Arab dichotomy, and pushing its accompanying thesis that no such a thing as a Nation Algerienne had ever existed. This thesis, conveniently enough, was itself the cornerstone of the Algerie Francaise myth-making, later deployed to undermine the legitimacy of Algerians’ mounting calls for their right to self-determination. Ultimately, in launching their war of independence in November 1954, Algerians emphatically rejected this divisive bait, presenting instead an unshakeably united front against French hegemony, and rejecting numerous attempts to re-cast them into warring tribes fighting one another.

    Once independence was clinched in 1962- against overwhelming odds and at the cost of immense sacrifice - the challenge awaiting the young nation was enormous: in particular, the reversal of 132 years of systemic colonial assaults on Algerians’ indigenous cultural and linguistic heritage and identity. Many thus welcomed post-independence education policies that reaffirmed and rehabilitated Algeria’s Arab and Muslim identities. However, on the Berber question, the expected acknowledgement of what was, after all, an undeniable linguistic, historical and anthropological reality never materialised. Instead, the question was simply ignored, swept under the carpet like an unpleasant, minor historical interlude nobody was allowed to mention or revisit. To add insult to injury, those who dared challenge the official orthodoxy were routinely dismissed and silenced as enemies of the revolution and agents of la main étrangère (the ‘foreign hand’ of external powers).

    In the years since, in spite of a plethora of national charters and constitutional revisions, the recognition of Tamazight remained conspicuously absent from the menu of reforms on offer: a language that was spoken by millions of Algerians, often as their native tongue, officially did not exist. Instead, there was plenty of the opposite impulse: successive governments engaging in provocative, irresponsible, opportunistic policies seemingly intended to exacerbate differences, stoke up resentment and feed regionalist discourses. The largely well-intentioned Arabisation policy, aimed at overturning the damage inflicted by more than a century of colonial cultural suppression, morphed, for some, into a politicised drive to entrench an absurd supremacy of one facet of Algerian identity over another.

    Unsurprisingly, this perceived cultural injustice against the nation’s Berber heritage was seen by many as a mere confirmation of the systemic economic and political injustice against Berber-speaking regions. Over the years, these grievances have given birth to a number of protest movements and initiatives – official and clandestine, cultural and political, peaceful and less so – that have continued to grow and evolve. Earlier this week, on Saturday 20 April, Algeria marked the 33rd anniversary of the Printemps Berbère (the ‘Berber Spring’) of April 1980, a landmark episode that saw the country’s first major popular protest and strike movement demanding the recognition of Tamazight as a national language, which was brutally repressed by security forces at the time.

    On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, the capital of the Grande Kabylie, to commemorate the events, and to reiterate their calls for Tamazight to be constitutionally granted official status. In an ominous development, there were, in fact, two parallel protests. The first was organised by the Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Democratie (RCD), a national political party with an established constituency in the Kabylie region. The second, smaller demonstration was organised by the MAK (Mouvement pour l'autonomie de la Kabylie), a fringe movement that openly advocates the creation of a separate Kabyle state. For many observers, that a movement as extremist as the MAK has gained enough political ground to stage such public demonstrations is, more than anything, a serious indictment of the failure of successive national policies on the question of Tamazight.

    Official responses to these developments have been typically slow in taking shape but the signs, as always, do not encourage much optimism. Although a constitutional revision project is currently under way, there has been little indication that the status of Tamazight will be seriously reconsidered. Such complacent inertia is hardly surprising: to examine the history of Algeria’s handling of the question is to behold a litany of missed opportunities. At every major historical turn, the leadership of the day often wavered, prevaricated and then - more often than not - opted for the status quo or for the path of least resistance. With President Bouteflika poised to run for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in 2014, it remains unlikely that he, or any of his potential challengers, will think of the question as an urgent one. There are some positives, however: Louisa Hanoun, the leader of the Parti des Travailleurs (PT) - and, incidentally, the first female presidential candidate in the Arab world - this week became the latest political figure to support the official recognition of Tamazight.

    In today’s Algeria, it is nonsensical to speak of strict territorial delineations along ethnic or linguistic lines. The acceleration of the decades-long process of population movements from rural hinterlands to various urban agglomerations (itself a consequence of myopic politico-economic mismanagement), has meant that virtually every town has its fair share of the country’s ethno-linguistic palette. And yet, due to the coarsening of the discourse around the issue, the subject of national cultural identity remains largely taboo, best avoided if one wants to be left in peace or not treated as a trouble-making pariah.

    One thing, however, is certain: whatever happens in the immediate future, the handling of the issue of Tamazight will be a defining test of the courage and maturity (or otherwise) of the next generation of Algerian political leaders. After half a century of petty, divisive, irresponsible identity politics, a serious reconciliation project will be needed if Algerians are to start celebrating the fascinating multiplicities that make up their shared identity and heritage rather than seeing them as perennial, toxic battlefronts.

    I choose not to exclude: not losing my religions

    By Ahmed Kadry

    For once, the past ten days have seen me more occupied and engaged in events that are not happening in Egypt or the Middle East. Instead, the British element of my dual national dichotomy has emerged to the fore.

    This past Wednesday I sat at home and watched the funeral of the late Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister in the twentieth century, and to date, the only woman to ever hold this office. Taking place at the grand and colossal St Paul’s Cathedral, the funeral service saw a number of prayers and speeches delivered by members of her family, current Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Bishop of London, Rev Richard Chartres. But just as the previous week had seen the debate over her legacy rage on, her funeral would also not provide any respite, as boos could be heard from London’s crowded streets as the hearse carrying her body made its way to the fourteen hundred year old cathedral. It was only within the confines of St Paul’s that it felt like the debate over Thatcher’s legacy, at least for an hour, went silent. But a brief look at my Twitter TimeLine showed me I was wrong.

    “‘We are all Thatcherites now’ says David Cameron at the start of the most expensive political broadcast in history. Speak for yourself mate,” tweeted columnist for The Independent, Owen Jones, as well as writing this column published the day after. Jones’ tweet and article was just one of a number of reactions to the ceremony, which in itself became a platform of political debate regarding how tax payers’ money should be used.

    Then came the Boston bombings. Like people around the world, I was both shocked and appalled that a sporting event designed for athletes, charity raisers and ‘fun runners’ was the scene of such a devastating crime. And just like many Muslims and Arabs living in the west, we held our breath praying that the perpetrators would not turn out to be someone claiming to adhere to our faith, or hail from the Arab peninsula. As I write this, reports are emerging that the two suspects are of Chechnyan descent.

    Both these news items raised my self-awareness as a dual national of the conflicts that arise within this duality, and the complexity of being a Muslim in a period where this has the socio-political connotations that have been on the rise since the tragic events of September 11 2001.

    As I watched Thatcher’s funeral take place at St. Paul’s, I couldn’t help but feel extremely nostalgic about my childhood. Attending Church every morning for six years at the Roman Catholic school I went to. The numerous school trips I went on to churches and cathedrals across Europe, and the familiar scent of burning candles and a thousand year old mahogany. The Lord’s Prayer being read out at Thatcher’s services which I know line by line. All this, and I am a Muslim. All this, which I cannot admit to many of my friends in Egypt who are also Muslim but have not had to contend with this duality that I have experienced for my entire life. By the same token, one tweep watching Thatcher’s funeral also tweeted “Today is one of those rare days I feel more Egyptian than British,” which again shows that at any given time, date or event, we can jump in and out of identity association, even so far as our nationalities are concerned. In my case, while I have never considered myself a Christian, I cannot, inexplicably, shake away my Christian school upbringing.  

    I find it very difficult to differentiate between Jesus and Esa. I know there are differences in what each respective Holy text says about him, but for me he is the same man with the same message that I learnt in Religious Studies and Islamic Studies classes. And I also know that I am not alone in this as a Muslim Arab living in the west. For those I have spoken to and call my friends, it is something that we feel but know it would be frowned upon back “home.” Just last December one of my best friends, a practising Muslim, agonised over the decision of whether to put a Christmas tree in his house so that his son could enjoy the festivities that he was seeing all around him in London. A small decision but with a wider socio-religious implication. Does this make me a traitor to my religion? Can I be a Muslim and engage and participate within western or Christian traditions?

    Since September 11 2001, a false binary has been created within popular narratives: if you are Muslim then you must be a hater of the “West.” You must hate other religions because we have seen your preachers and your Islamic terrorists tell the world that other religious believers are infidels. For the most part I encounter people reasonable and educated enough to know that there is more to the story, and I can thankfully say that I have never encountered any abuse towards Islam that I can’t count on one hand. One of those brief encounters led me to write this poem. It didn’t matter that I had a British accent or had read the Bible, or was simply sitting on a London train minding my own business -  that day one gentleman only saw an Arab looking man in an Arab scarf and drew his own conclusions.

    My first reaction to the Boston Marathon was probably like yours. My second reaction was to bite my bottom lip and agonisingly scroll through the Breaking News article looking for the word “Muslim” or “Arab,” because that would have implications for me, thousands of miles away from Boston. If I was living in Cairo or anywhere where Arabs or Muslims dominate the population, this would have been a non-issue. But I don’t. I watched Thatcher’s funeral humming to He Who Would Valiant Be, and I said the Shahada for the victims of Boston, just as I always do for Egypt, Syria, and anywhere else where tragedy surfaces.

    The soul of Khartoum

    By Reem Abbas

    Tea ladies are women who sell flavoured tea and coffee on the pavements. Their customers sit around them on stools usually under the shade of a tree in any street in Khartoum.

    It is a breezy morning and being the Sudanese person you are, you crave a cup of tea. You turn to your right hand-side, you see a tea-lady and you begin walking her way. You take one Sudanese pound worth of Legimat (Zalabaya) and a cup of tea ‘with medicine’, the Sudanese word for tea spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cardamom. You are enjoying the delicious snack and you get up from the short stool and head to the tea-lady to pay her for the delicious snack. She is no longer there.

    You stand there in utter shock: but she was just there. Your curiosity drives you to take a right into a side-street and you find her sitting at the end of the street, with stools around her and customers sitting there enjoying their cup of tea. You pay her only after asking, what happened?

    “There was a police sweep coming our away, we are not allowed to be on main streets anymore,” she tells you. The Governor of Khartoum, Abdel-Rahman Al-Khider has been determined to “civilize” Khartoum in the past few months. The idea seemed well-intentioned in the beginning, a wider four-laned Nile street, a beautiful corniche for walking, cleaner streets and more greenery.

    The state government saw the need to civilize Khartoum by civilizing its people. The police raids on men who wash cars on main streets began: they would get picked up or prevented from doing their work by the police. The governor said they are making the streets dirty and it looks uncivilized. In all honesty, they could be given serious tips on how to keep the surroundings clean when washing a car, but most importantly, you are denying a large number of youth the only income between them and living a life of crime. After all, we could all think of million things to do other than standing in the sun the whole day.

    Then, we all turned to another job that is bringing an income to many families, especially families headed up by women. Tea ladies have become a part of our community, a “marginal” job at the centre of Sudanese life, whether for the civil servants or the unemployed youth and the underemployed journalists who keep a tab at their favorite tea ladies’ berth.

    There is Sara*, a young tea-lady in West Omdurman who worked at some company, but left after being subjected to sexual harassment by her supervisor and now works as a tea lady. Or Helewa, who fought with the rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) during the civil war and now makes a living making the best Zalabeya in Khartoum.

    Last week, Helewa wasn’t there, she was harassed out of that spot she favoured for years, by the police.

    I like the new greenery and the colorful benches on the side of Nile Street, but I also like Khartoum state with tea ladies on main streets and men selling peanuts and cold hibiscous juice by the side of the street.

    After all, they are the soul of the city.

    Conflict and narrative

    By Omer Harari

    Consider the desert cactus. It grows where little else can. Its fruit, (the prickly pear) in Hebrew, the sabra, is a common self-identifying metaphor for Israelis: rough and thick-skinned (and prickly) on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. Consider that the sabra is the fruit of the same cactus which is used as a perimeter for Palestinian olive groves. Consider the olive, for that matter, in whose oil David was annointed and whose leaves and branches have become synonymous with peace in both cultures. Consider now a group called Olives for Peace, who use olive growing and oil production as an avenue to bridge gaps between Israeli and Palestinian olive oil production. Or the Good Neighbors Water Project, who use the shared need for water as their avenue for developing projects that foster and depend on cooperation. But that's just one way of constructing a narrative.

    Another way, the one of separatist antagonism, focused on identity, takes for its starting point an opposition to they-who-are-not-us. The problem with this method of constructing narratives about enemies is it has a habit of making abstractions out of human beings: a person with a name and a family is reduced to that broad, static category of ‘enemy’. 65 years is a long time for conversations like this to go on. The symmetry of mistrust and mirror images is tragic in the very classic sense: it justifies racist paranoia in the name of ‘personal security’, violence in the name of ‘defense’, and separatism in the name of ‘coexistence’. The status quo is becoming fundamentalist. It is, as Howard Zinn might have said, a moving train.

    There is, of course, the contradiction of living overlapping lives while using separatist language, and when the language of separatism becomes inescapable, the counter-current becomes inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that despite all this there have been stories of interdependence all along. Autonomy is proving a difficult, stubborn fallacy. Israel declares itself a Jewish state while touting its religious minorities for diversity. There's the older Jewish man who became eyes on the streets, watching out for the safety of Palestinian children. There are the former violent activists who boldly put down their weapons to hear stories of their now-former oppositions: their own mirror images. This is another way to construct a narrative.

    "We, Palestinians and Israelis, are as if we are in a boat in the middle of the sea. So we have the responsibility to protect this boat, to reach the beach. And we cannot reach this beach by hating each other, by killing each other. We can reach this beach if we feel deeply our humanity, if we believe that we have to live together and we both have the same right to be alive."

    - Mustafa Shawkat Samha, a Palestinian activist speaking to the author and activist Maxine Kaufman Lacusta (as quoted in her book Refusing to be Enemies.)

    It's being painted in small, nervous brushstrokes now, but if the 3,000 or so people in attendance at the Combatants for Peace Memorial Day ceremony are any indication, it seems there is a new complicated narrative being written, appearing like sweet prickly pears on the cactus.

    It was April 14 at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds when thousands of Israelis and some 44 Palestinians converged at Combatants for Peace's 8th annual 'alternative' ceremony, larger than its predecessors. Combatants for Peace are the bereaved family members and former violent opponents who choose to instead construct dialogue, otherwise blocked off by restricted freedoms of movement between the West Bank and Israel-proper. In fact, 65 Palestinian members and activists were denied entry into Israel to take part in this particular experiment in building a collective imagination. I'll admit, sometimes it seems like the separatists might be winning. But I won't soon forget the courage we saw on April 14, which somehow seems more powerful.

    When none of your business is revolutionary

    By Ali Gokpinar

    Forget all you know about the Egyptian Revolution. There is another revolution in progress, that has had some visible signs in last week’s clashes in Khoussus and then the funeral ceremony at St. Mark Cathedral that left 7 people dead. Blame the Brotherhood, as many Copts and opposition parties do without having any evidence and forgetting that the Egyptian state has officially discriminated against non-Sunni citizens whether they are Shi’ite, Copts, Armenians or Bahais. Yet, what Coptic activists have done by rejecting the proposal that they should have their religious beliefs written on their ID cards is revolutionary. This is resistance by any means and might revolutionize state-citizen relationship in terms of religious freedom and rights.  

    Every Egyptian’s religion is recorded when a citizen applies for an ID card. Indeed, this undemocratic practice is the reason why Bahais are denied citizenship, as they do not belong to an Abrahamic religion. This procedure enables state power to penetrate every part of the citizen’s private life: for example, Bahais cannot marry Egyptians. For years, citizens criticized this practice of the state, but to no avail. Yet, it seems the None of Your Business campaign has found remarkable support among ordinary people, although some still argue that such a campaign is against religion. Many Egyptians have shared pictures of their IDs either by scoring the religious belief section out or covering that section.  If managed and propagated wisely, this nonviolent form of resistance might produce important results. Yet, the question is  - is the state willing to give up part of its armoury of control?

    This is where things get complicated. Neither the Egyptian state nor the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party would like to see such a change. The newly adopted Egyptian Constitution states that the main source of legislation is Islamic law. How can the state reconcile its relationship with its non-Muslim citizens if the state itself has such a strong pro-Islamic stance? Clearly, there is no way that Egypt is going to change its character any time soon. Yet, the state could both be Islamic and based upon universal human rights, creating an inclusive governance system. Skeptics would argue that Islam and human rights cannot coexist, but Islam gives important space to democratic institutions, human dignity and equality. The issue, however, is not one-way, given the religious institutions’ stance on personal status law and civil marriage. Both Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church have a long history of an orthodox stance on these fronts which they will not give up easily.

    Despite Pope Tawadros II’s recent policy changes towards church-state relations and justified demands for a new social contract, the Church might not support the None of Your Business campaign. In the eventuality that this campaign does not receive the support of the majority of Egyptians, however, the resistance might kindle further assertive sectarianism that would contribute to the instability of the country. The Egyptian political system is prone to such a threat if resistance proves futile. Yet, the Egyptian Revolution in the making has been a product of hope and has given hope to millions of people. This is exactly why we need to believe in such resistance movements, although it might take time to succeed. The revolution continues.

    Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


    We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
    Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData