Among (the Kabyles) the virtues of honesty, hospitality, and good-nature are conspicuous. It is not their misfortune alone that the lowlands know them no more…. it is (that) of the whole civilised world. Descendants of a mighty race whose culture once spread from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and the Hauran, from Crete to Timbuctoo and the Sudan, there are still to be found among them (a love) of the arts and sciences, the spirit of conquest, the capacity for self-government which, if developed, would make them again a great nation.
Melville William Hilton-Simpson (1925)
I have spoken a great deal about the Berbers and their illustrious history, but, apart from describing my visits to Kabylie, I have not talked much about my husband’s people, the Kabyles. The Kabyles are by far the largest of the many groups of ethnic Berbers scattered all over North Africa. They number between five and seven million, split between those still living in Algeria and those living abroad as part of the Algerian diaspora.
The appellation “Kabyle” comes from the Arabic word qabila (pl. qabaïl) for tribe, adopted by the French to describe these highland people. The French divided up the lands inhabited by the Kabyles into two administrative areas; la grande Kabylie, of which the capital is Tizi-Ouzou, and la petite Kabylie, with its capital of Bejaïa. However, for its inhabitants, Kabylie is simply thamurth. Thamurth means country, land, or simply home. It is similar in meaning to the Arabic word bled, from which, funnily enough, the English nickname Blighty for Britain is derived. Like Blighty, the word thamurth contains within it a whole wealth of unspoken longing and homesickness.
Greater Kabylie (la grande Kabylie), is a mountainous region to be found about an hour and a half’s drive east and slightly south of the capital, Algiers. Right at its heart lie the Djudjura mountains, part of the Atlas range, of which the high ridges run northwards to the Mediterranean sea. The inhabitants of these ridges are known as the Igawawen, taking their name from the neighbouring Agawa mountain peaks. They are the core of the Kabyle people.
The defeat of the Igawawen in 1857, outnumbered and outgunned at the battle of Icherriden, a few kilometres from my husband’s village, is generally taken to have brought the French conquest of Greater Kabylie to a successful conclusion. Traditional sources recount that the legendary Fadhma N’Soumeur herself took part in the battle and ordered that the fighters be tied to each other with ropes, preventing them from fleeing the battlefield. The impact of her involvement was such that she has been seen as the embodiment of Kabyle resistance against the French and has become known as the Kabyle Joan of Arc.
At that time, the Igawawen were a powerful confederation made up of two federations – the Ath Betrun and the Ath Menguellet, each federation being composed of four tribes. These are not tribes as one would usually understand the word, but groups of villages (thudrin), sharing a common language, territory and culture. Many other terms can be used to describe Kabyle political and social structures, amongst which are”clan,” kinship” and “lineage.” My husband’s tribe, for want of a better word, is the Ath Wekbil or Akbil, of the Ath Menguellet federation.
Their dialect, a variant of the Berber language, tamazight, is called thakabaylith. Each of the Berber dialects of Algeria retains its distinctive vocabulary and character and they are not mutually comprehensible as in Morocco. The Chaoui Berbers of the Aurès Mountains and the Kabyles can understand each other with relative ease, although there is a greater proportion of Arabic words in thachawith than in thakabaylith. By contrast, the tamahaq dialect of the Tuareg is all but incomprehensible to a Kabyle.
Greater Kabylie largely escaped the trauma of social disintegration engineered by French colonialism in many other parts of Algeria, as its steep slopes and narrow valleys did not attract European settlement. The region was more or less left to its own devices, the colonial administration preferring to govern it from a safe distance. It had been the same with previous foreign invaders: there are no Roman ruins in Kabylie like those scattered elsewhere in Algeria and no trace of Ottoman or Vandal occupation.
The Kabyle system of self-government has consequently been left largely intact. This is not the place to describe the inner workings of this complex socio-political system, but suffice it to say that it has been fine-tuned to an incredible degree, with its own body of law that has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Code or Islamic law; its code of honour and its system of village councils. The Kabyle village council is called the thajmarth, and is organised into two opposing sides, the sfuf, presided over by the amin — almost exactly like a mini House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker.
Kabyles earned their living mostly from their land, cultivating olive and fig trees and some fruit and vegetables. My father-in-law even imported fruit trees from America and planted them down by the river. The remains of his olive press are still to be seen in the village. Beautiful objects – chests, bowls, caskets and the wooden pillars, beams and doors of a typical Kabyle house (axxam) were carved out of wood from the forests of the Djudjura. The Igawawen also excelled in three other specialised branches of the craft industry: jewellery making, arms manufacturing and the manufacture of counterfeit coins.
Finally, the men of Greater Kabylie also found employment and notoriety as mercenaries. The French word zouave, meaning originally a “native” light infantryman is a corruption of zwawi or igawawen, but the tradition had already been established before the French. The Ottoman Dey of Algiers had an honour guard of over two thousand Kabyles. The tradition of Kabyle men seeking their fortune elsewhere, often leaving their wives and families behind, has been maintained. Many of the most haunting Kabyle songs are about the longing for thamurth or home, or are the lament of the women left behind.
Kabyles, although settled in their villages like the Mzabis, did not possess the latter’s religious fervour and eagerly accepted the implication of upward mobility offered by a French education. T’s grandfather and father were both highly educated for the time, his grandfather being one of the Algerians of Kabyle origin studying at the École Normale (teacher training college) at Bouzaréah near Algiers at the end of the nineteenth century. His father had been in his last year of secondary school in Tizi Ouzou, before his schooling was brought to an abrupt end by his eldest brother following their father’s death.
Thus developed a substantial Kabyle intelligentsia – French-speaking and modernist. Kabylie has become remarkable for the number of accountants, businessmen, civil servants, doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers (of whom T is one, of course) it has produced in recent generations. Not only that, but Kabyle writers, poets and singer-songwriters are amongst the most prolific in Algeria, some of their work reaching an appreciative international audience. Writers such as Mouloud Mammeri, Mouloud Feraoun, Tahar Djaout and Kateb Yacine; singer-songwriters such as Lounis Ait Menguellet, Idir and Matoub Lounès. There are even iconic French actors and singers with a Kabyle heritage: Daniel Prévost, Isabelle Adjani, Edith Piaf and Marianne Cotillard.
The political salience of the Igawawen was evident even at the time of the French conquest and it was they who provided the majority of the Kabyle element in the leadership of the nationalist movement from 1926 onwards. The full story of their vital role in the Algerian independence struggle cannot be told here, but the fact that they subsequently lost their positions in the national leadership of the FLN has been a cause for resentment ever since. Their enormous contribution to the war effort has been airbrushed from history. The concerted attempts to erase their identity have led to many uprisings, the most recent being the Berber Spring (tafsut imazighen) in 1980 and the Black Spring (tafsut taberkant) in 2001.
The scale and character of the igawawen contribution to modern Algerian politics cannot be dismissed as being simply a trait borrowed from the French cultural influence on their region, as a capacity for politics is not something that can be imported. It is bred in the bone.