Ah, Si Moh U Mhand Ah, Si Moh ou M’Hand,
Wi k id yerran If you could only return,
Att waliḍ zzman You would see our corrupt times
Ma k ɣiḍen widak yettrun? Would you pity those who weep?
Every Kabyle, man or woman, young or old, possesses the soul of a poet. Poetry is an intrinsic part of everyday life, and is used to express both great joy and great sorrow. A simple poem, an assefru, can give hope to the hopeless, find a solution to a problem or give comfort in adversity.
There are poems for every occasion. They accompany the tilling of the rough, stony soil of Kabylie; the weaving of a new burnous or blanket on the wooden loom once found in every Kabyle house; the picking of olives in the early morning, when lemon-coloured mist hangs like gauze amidst the trees; the drying of freshly-laundered linen on the sun-warmed rocks by the river, and the joyous verbal sparring between women drawing water at the village spring.
On weekly market days, amidst the smells of freshly slaughtered meat, of body odour, of manure and chicken droppings, stall holders compose poems on the spot to attract custom, not hesitating to throw in, with a wink and a shrug of the shoulders, an occasional sly allusion to amorous pursuits.
Huddled around the kanoun on winter evenings, with the logs shifting in the fireplace and sending out sparks, Kabyles could forget about the cold outside and the hunger pangs gnawing at their bellies as they listened to tales and poems about the victory of day over night, life over death, courage over cowardice, determination over resignation, love over pain and a steadfast heart over bad luck. Words are a way of liberating the soul, and, if the audience found it difficult to express their feelings in their own words, the storyteller or poet would do it for them.
Each village or tribe had their own particular poet or storyteller, the Imusnawen. The fame of most of these poets was usually limited to two or three tribes, perhaps a group of villages on one side of a mountain, the inhabitants of one single valley or of a particular town, but the poet recognised and appreciated by all was Si Mohand ou M’Hand. His poetry is considered as the intellectual property of the whole of Kabylie – and beyond.
Si Mohand ou M’hand n Ath H’madouch, also known as Si M’hand, was born around 1840 in the village of Icharouen, into a wealthy, middle-class Kabyle family of intellectuals, and was destined for a career as a traditional religious teacher, hence the respectful title “Si” prefixing his name.
His village, part of the Ath Iraten confederation, was razed to the ground in 1857 by the troops of the French General Randon in reprisal for the final stand of the Kabyle nation at the Battle of Incheridden, and a garrison town, Fort National, built on its ruins. He and his family fled to the neighbouring village of Agouni Djilbane.
More cruel repression was to follow the failed 1871 Mokrani Revolt (the French War) against French colonial rule. Si Mohand lost everything. His father, who had participated in the uprising, was sentenced to death and beheaded in front of him. His paternal uncle was exiled to the French penal colony of New Caledonia, and all his family’s possessions were forfeited. He was only saved from the guillotine by a French captain taking pity on the fatherless teenager, or, as it is sometimes said, by the captain’s young daughter taking a liking to him and begging her father to spare his life.
One of his most famous poems, born out of the pain he had suffered, has served ever since as a rallying-cry for all Algerians fighting against an unjust rule: “I swear that from Tizi-Ouzou/ To Akfadou/ I will bow my head to no-one./ I prefer to break than to bend/ I would rather be cursed/ Than live in a country/ Where the rulers are pimps./ Exile is my destiny/ By God, I prefer exile/ To submitting to the rule of swine.”
Unlike his mother, who returned to Fort National, and his brother Arezki, who emigrated to Tunis with what remained of the family fortune, he preferred to eke out a precarious living by working as a casual labourer, a farm hand, or in other poorly-paid jobs. He never settled anywhere, but wandered all his life from village to village in Kabylie, sometimes even as far afield as Algiers.
Few details of his life are known for certain. As Mouloud Feraoun once put it: “He was like a leaf carried away by the wind, one that could settle nowhere but back on the branch from which it had been torn.”
His poems can be roughly divided into those raging against French occupation and evoking his bitterness at his enforced exile and those, softer and more sensual, hinting at his various fleeting love affairs. In both, he shocked traditional Kabyle society with its formal societal organisation and its reluctance to talk about sexual relations.
In the former, his language is harsh and cutting, often comparing the French invaders to pigs (pigs being considered unclean by Muslims) and other animals. He is revolted by the idea of Kabylie, and by extension, the whole of Algeria, submitting to those beasts, and their “petty rulers,” that is, local collaborators. Using another animal metaphor, he likens Berbers to eagles — strong warriors forced into exile, like his uncle or Cheikh Mokrani’s brother.
“The eagle’s wings have been clipped and he has been condemned to exile. Dear God, such misery!”
In the more lyrical love poetry, he would concentrate on a detail of his lover’s dress or a physical trait; the fouta (apron) wrapped around her hips, her belt made up of various strands of coloured wool, the tattoos on her arms, a circular brooch pinned to her scarf or the sprig of basil tucked under it. More explicitly, he praises her “curved eyebrows,” her “hair flowing down to her hips” and her “spicy breasts.”
In a way, Si Mohand was a typical fin de siècle poet, lost in hashish dreams. He drank absinthe – la fée verte– and his clay pipe was always filled with kif (cannabis). Wine was also consumed in great quantities – to his mind, a bottle of wine contained a thousand perfect grapes, the gifts of the rich brown earth and a generous sun.
French scholars have often compared him to the dissolute Verlaine, but this is ignoring the cause of his very real pain, the tragic past behind his poetry. It was exclusively oral, as is often the case with Kabyle literature, and he would recite a poem or two in exchange for a hot meal or a bed for the night.
As he grew older, his health deteriorated. Often clad in a filthy, ragged burnous, he was stringy, bony and leather-skinned. He appeared to have been baked for ages in the Algerian sun, until all the juices had been cooked out of his flesh.
Ingrained dirt lay in every wrinkle of his face. His burnous was long and shabby as it trailed on the floor and he walked, with the aid of a staff, as if his bones were only loosely connected, shoulders moving like stones in a sack with every painful step. A greasy grey mane surrounded his lined face and intertwined with the long grey whiskers protruding from his upper lip and chin.
He finally died of tuberculosis, aged fifty-seven, at the Sainte-Eugénie hospital in Michelet, run by a religious nursing order, and was buried nearby.
His poems, which have been recited in every Kabyle village, marketplace and cottage for over a century, and transmitted orally from generation to generation, have been a source of inspiration to writers, poets and revolutionaries all over Algeria, and especially in Kabylie. They have been collected, translated and published by fellow writers Mouloud Mammeri and Mouloud Feraoun.
Si Mohand, through his works tracing his extraordinary life, his profound knowledge of the workings of Kabyle society and his visceral attachment to his people, had always fought against the destruction of his culture by the occupiers.
All the revolutionary movements and uprisings in Algeria since the nineteenth century have been inspired by his words, from the honourable outlaws of Kabylie, the moudjahidine of the Independence War, when Colonel Amirouche would quote his poems when resisting French attacks in the mountainous maquis of Wilaya III, to the students who rose up against Algeria’s dictatorial military regime during the Berber Spring of 1980.
His poetry – his isefra – will always remain as a symbol of the fight against colonialism and later, more insidious, attempts at encouraging a state of collective amnesia and ignorance of the true history of Algeria.