Vous ne pouvez pas nous tuer. Nous sommes déjà morts.
(You can’t kill us. We’re already dead.)
– One of the slogans used during the Berber Spring demonstrations.
In 1978, President Boumediène died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. As was usual in Algeria, nothing was known about the personal lives of those in power, with Mrs. Boumediène only surfacing after her husband’s demise. So when Boumediène’s death, officially from a rare blood disease, was announced, it came as a great shock to everyone.
He had been in a coma for months, although nobody knew it at the time. Even now, rumours still persist that he died from lithium poisoning, the lithium having been administered supposedly during an official visit to Baghdad. Make of that what you will.
Underlying the shock was apprehension about the future. The party rapidly elected a compromise candidate for the presidency, Colonel Benjedid Chadli, head of the Oran military zone. The party, note, and not the public. Algeria was still a one-party state.
Elections were a surreal experience in Algeria. There was usually only one candidate for any given election, with the results a foregone conclusion. Voting slips carried the single words “Yes” or “No”, with often only the “Yes” slips available. If, by chance, both “Yes” and “No” slips were available at the polling station, they were differently coloured, so onlookers could easily see how you had voted. Woe betide you if you voted No.
Turnout was always high – but that’s because if you were found not to have taken part, you and your family were in trouble. Often you could not obtain important administrative papers if you could not produce your voting card, duly stamped.
Recorded turnouts were always nearly one hundred per cent and there was always, of course, almost one hundred per cent approval given for the government’s policies or candidates. Holding elections was also a means of informing the government of any possible opposition.
The wonderful Kabyle comic and writer, Fellag, has written a brilliant monologue about this, in which a hapless citizen asks where the “No” slips are. He is fobbed off with excuses— amongst which is that they are not yet back from the printer’s. Polling station officials then start to eye him with suspicion and he is asked whether he actually intends to vote No.
Back-pedalling furiously, he answers that he was merely curious about the whereabouts of the “No” voting slips. Fellag then rounds off his monologue by saying that the poor voter was known to all and sundry for the rest of his life as “the man who wanted to vote No.”
In office, Chadli attempted to reduce the state’s role in the economy and ease government surveillance of citizens. Splendidly vacuous slogans like “For a Better Life” (Pour une vie meilleure) and “The Right Man in the Right Place” (L’homme qu’il faut à la place qu’il faut) were trotted out.
The puckish Algerian sense of humour quickly changed the slogan Du travail et de la rigueur, which roughly translates as “Work and Discipline” into Du travail à la rigueur, which translates as “Work, but only if absolutely necessary.”
Cheap, tacky electronic goods were imported in huge quantities and shoved on to a disgruntled public, in the hope of calming social unrest. It didn’t work, though, because Algerians wanted political change, not washing machines that were destined to disintegrate into a pile of rust flakes before the year’s end.
The first rumblings of unrest were heard, as usual, in Kabylie in the spring of 1980. Uprisings in Algeria have always begun in the Berber mountains, but this time it didn’t involve a national issue, it concerned their own survival as a people. The Berber Spring finally bloomed in flowers of blood, their tendrils reaching as far as Algiers with its sizeable Kabyle population.
The Berber Spring (in Berber, Tafsut Imazighen or simply Tafsut for “Spring”) called for the recognition of Berber identity and of tamazight, the Berber language. The uprising, with its subsequent brutal repression by the authorities, came after two decades of harsh Arabisation measures instituted by the government, which had refused to recognize Algeria’s Berber identity and had prevented tamazight from being spoken at any official event or even being acknowledged. It had been relegated to the status of a “dialect.”
I, although no expert, have studied the history of languages and know that a dialect is an off-shoot from a parent language, often becoming later a separate language. English itself was originally a West Germanic dialect. Everyone agrees that Kabyle is a Berber dialect. So are Chaoui, Tuareg, Mzab and the other varieties of Berber spoken in the rest of North Africa. But this begs the question — if Berber is itself a dialect, where, for heaven’s sake, is its parent language?
The suppression of all that was Berber had continued. Algeria’s most successful football club, the iconic Kabyle team, JSK, — Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie,had been renamed Jamiat Sari Kawkabi by President Boumediene, so as not to include the word ‘Kabylie.’ I have still not discovered who or what is Kawkabi. When a state-owned company later sponsored it, it became Tizi-Ouzou Electronics. Great care was taken not to use the dreaded ‘K’ word. Even Kabylie was no longer called by its name, becoming Tizi-Ouzou Province.
T’s minor act of rebellion had always been to wind down the windows of the car and put a tape of Kabyle songs on, with the volume turned up high. Driving through Oran, he would be at the receiving end of many puzzled looks, which would sometimes turn to downright hostility. The rest of Algeria had been informed that the Kabyles wanted to force everyone to speak their language, stoking up even more ill feeling.
The trigger for the Berber Spring had been the banning of a conference, due to be held in Tizi-Ouzou on the 10th of March, by the revered Kabyle intellectual, Mouloud Mammeri, author of two of the most famous works of French-language literature ever to come out of Algeria – Opium And The Staff (L’Opium et le Bâton) and The Forgotten Hill (La Colline oubliée).
Hundreds of Berber activists, students and doctors, were subsequently arrested in a coordinated action on April 20th, sparking a general strike. I have been told that the police had charged into student dormitories of the University of Tizi-Ouzou at the dead of night, viciously beating up the fleeing students, or shooting them on sight.
Students attempted to escape by flinging themselves out of the dormitory windows on to the hard concrete below, either killing themselves in the process or sustaining multiple fractures. Rumour had it that the parents of the students, still up in their villages in the mountains, were preparing their firearms in readiness for descending on Tizi-Ouzou in their hundreds to avenge their dead and injured children.
I, myself, although appalled at the atrocities, felt a small thrill at the thought that the Kabyles were again rising up, after decades during which their very existence had been denied, to reclaim their birthright as an integral, yet distinct, part of the Algerian nation, and as its still-beating intellectual and rebellious heart.
Ts friend, R, who had been sous-prefet of Arzew in the seventies, had been transferred that year to Tizi-Ouzou. Although half-Kabyle himself, he told us about the surreal situation in which he had found himself -– watching news bulletins on Algerian television describing at length the volatile situation in the Middle East, whilst, at the same moment, demonstrators on the street outside were throwing stones and petrol bombs at his official residence. Nothing about this, of course, was mentioned in the local or international press.
The Berber Spring was, in the end, violently suppressed by the Algerian authorities, with around three hundred dead and five thousand wounded, resulting in somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory for Kabyles and Berbers across North Africa. Few of the demands made at that time have been met by the Algerian government, who now constantly refer to Algeria’s triple identity— Muslim, Arab and Berber— whilst, in reality, doing nothing concrete in order to further Berber causes.
Tamazight has been grudgingly recognised as one of Algeria’s national languages, but still not, to this day, as an official one.