Breaking the Silence: The Berber Cultural Movement, Globalization and Oral Traditions in North Africa

Breaking the Silence:


The Berber Cultural Movement, Globalization and Oral Traditions in North Africa



Breaking the Silence: The Berber Cultural Movement, Globalization

and Oral Traditions in North Africa

I. Introduction:

“I remember as if it were yesterday/ the clouds covered the moon/the catch of the trigger had let go/ a heat wave consumed the country./ You looked at me, oh mother, / I saw how full your heart was./ You said to me, ‘you, oh my son,/glowing beignet of wheat.’/ You put me in charge of my brother./ I will watch over him at my side./ He who is without fraternity is to be pitied.” (Idir and Ben Mohamed “I remember” quoted in Berber Culture on the World Stage, Jane Goodman).

            The Berber Cultural Movement (BCM), an identity movement emerging in the 1980s, calls for the emancipation of North African Berbers from the historical stranglehold of settler populations.  What is essential in this struggle is the recognition of Amizigh (or Berber) linguistic dialects and cultural identities.  Furthermore, it is a struggle for fraternity for, as Idir and Ben Mohamed explained, “He who is without fraternity is to be pitied”.  The opening passage creates the setting for this essay in other important ways.  This retrospective tone reflects at once the BCM’s nostalgic embrace of a nurturing mother culture and also the bitter remembrance of “the catch of the trigger”.  This passage also suggests an impasse that the Berber people had reached following a long drawn out, violent battle.  Indeed, the quiet that had immediately followed Algerian independence from French colonials in 1962, and Morocco’s own independence from French protectorates in 1956 had created a promise of new opportunities for the indigenous Amizigh populations.  This essay looks at this moment of self-reflection, cultural struggle and redefinition in light of a historical legacy of conquering settlers, divisive rulers, migration, and urbanization. 

One of the key aims in this paper is to make problematic the divide between rural and urban, showing the porous nature of these two categories as they relate to the historically rustic Berbers.  Globalization and migration has made this dichotomy especially hollow through the years, and is exemplified in the democratizing, and technologically savvy new social movement for Berber culture.  The essay raises the following significant questions: How has migration shaped Berber social dynamics in both rural and urban regions?  How has the traditional rural status of Berbers contributed to their marginalized status? How has the BCM drawn from traditional rural village life for symbolic and folkloric inspiration?  It is critical to ground the discussion of a Berber Cultural Movement in the complicated particulars of Algerian and Moroccan history.  Therefore, the paper asks how the aims forwarded by the BCM relate to histories of colonization and post-independence?  Also, how has the BCM differed between the neighboring countries of Morocco and Algeria?  The current era of globalization is focused on as offering a critical space for the Berber Cultural Movement to operate in, strengthening the movement’s goals and spreading its influence.   This social movement to recognize Berber language and culture stems from a long history of national subordination, migration and urbanization, and has gathered momentum in the current period of globalization through the emergence of a new Berber cultural poetics.  

  1. Historical Discussion of a Marginalized Berber Population in North Africa: Pre- and Post-Islamic State and Colonialism

Berbers in North Africa: A Historical Review

The indigenous Berber peoples have inhabited a wide stretch of North Africa for as long as records have existed of the area, and have endured the rule of various settlers over many centuries.  At one point, Berbers occupied a stretch of land extending from the Canary Islands on the west to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt on the east, and from the Sahara Desert on the south to the Mediterranean coast on the north.  The region today covers nearly all of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia while also containing parts of Libya, Egypt, Niger, Mali and Mauritania (Goodman, 2005).  Early conquerors of the region include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Vandals who have each left varying imprints on the area.  However, the most significant impact on the region would not come until the Islamic conquests of the late-7th and early-8th centuries.  Islamic rulers would impress religious and cultural norms on the indigenous Berbers in order to unite the region entirely.  Jane Goodman (2005) discusses this point, contrasting this period with early Roman rule:

Prior to the French colonial conquest, the Arabs arguably had the most enduring impact on Berber populations.  Whereas the Romans remained largely in urban centers and ruled outlying tribal groups through native leaders, the Arabs sought to unite the entire region under the banner of Islam (Goodman, 2005: 6)

The spread of Islam and acculturation by the local Berber populace was essential in the making of a strong political body.  The Berber-Islamic state would seek viability and stability “by implementing Islamic norms of community and statehood, identity and institutions” (Shatzmiller, 2000: xiii).  In the 13th century, the Marinids, a pastoral nomadic Berber population, came to power while championing Islamic institutions.  Maya Shatzmiller (2000) discusses this point in relation to the Marinid rule of the 13th century:

Acculturation to Islamic norms proceeded because it meant for them achieving stately coherence and wide support for their rule.  For them the Islamic state identity was gained by implementing Islamic institutions, government, legal, economic, and municipal structures, which were devised in the East, imported and implemented in the West on the strength of religion (38).

To establish an Islamic state, it was important for North African leaders to reach the non-Arabic speaking Berber populations living in remote rural regions.  To help make Islam more accessible to Berbers, texts began to appear in the 16th century that would translate Islamic writings into Berber using Arabic script (El-Aissati, 2001).  The following colonial period would see a climb in urbanization, as isolated Berber villages experienced large influxes of migration, and became increasingly tied to urban areas. 

Colonialism and Rural-Urban Migration

North Africa presented to European colonial powers prime development, urbanization and market opportunities, and was established in its entirety as a colonial outpost by the end of the 19th Century.  European colonial influence was especially prevalent in countries with the highest concentration of Berbers—namely Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.  Algeria was under French rule from 1830 to 1962, while Tunisia was a French protectorate from 1884 to 1956.  Morocco was at once a Spanish protectorate in the coastal regions from 1904 to 1956, and a French protectorate in the central and northern regions from 1912 to 1956 (  Although the results on the host nation are very similar, colonies differ from protectorates in one important way.  That is, colonies are governed internally by a foreign power, while protectorates—although still under control by external powers—have their own internal governments. 

North Africa appealed to European powers strategically through its location near major communication routes of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and as a significant crossroads for migration and trade between Europe and Africa.  North Africa would also present colonial powers with potentially lucrative market opportunities, large amounts of land for agriculture, and a wealth of natural resources and cheap labor.  In the following, Paul Silverstein (1998) suggests further benefits of colonial rule in his discussion of Algeria:

The conquest of Algeria played a significant role in the consolidation of France’s national integrity, allowing the country to slough off its less desirable urban masses, experiment with the norms and forms of modernity (urbanization, secular education), and provide a rotating reserve army of laborers vital for the country’s industrialization and later post-war reconstruction (Silverstein, 1998: 58).

The French indeed had many things to gain from their position as colonizer, yet their stay was often presented in altruistic terms.  Their motivations were characterized as democratic, and selfless, stemming from sacrifice and humanitarian goodwill.  Furthermore, the French offered a list of justifications for their presence in North Africa.  For example, as Silverstein writes, North Africa was described as a barren and foreboding desert: “By reinforcing the image of a pre-colonial desert land, French colonists created the myth that it was deserted.  In working the land, in making it fruitful and productive, they could justify their occupation of it” (72).  Colonialism in North Africa would have a dramatic impact on Berbers caught in a shifting pattern of rural-urban migration due to rapid urbanization.

            French colonialism would lead Algeria and Morocco to undergo deep structural changes that would affect their national economy, and civil society, while also disrupting Berber living settlements, and livelihoods.  For one, mountain villages in the Kabylia—the largest Berber region of Algeria—were systematically destroyed by French army troops from 1856 to 1871.  Their inhabitants were then removed and placed in model government villages that were designed “according to a logic of European social organization and surveillance” (64). This stripped the native villages of their natural flow and vitality, creating instead camps that would be easy to closely monitor.  Money was also introduced as the universal standard of value, and village markets were to be absorbed by the greater economy.  As a result, village economies would take on a more peripheral quality, and be wholly dependent on western markets.  More and more, urbanization lured rural Berber villagers to the city in search of new economic opportunities.  As author Benson Mojuetan (1995) explains, “Arising from the political and economic weight of the city was the disruption/disintegration of the surrounding rural structures, setting in motion a rural-urban exodus propelled by the pull of market forces generated by colonial capitalism” (Mojuetan, 1995: 128).  This exodus would also carry Berber villagers across national boundaries into neighboring countries, or across the Mediterranean into France where they provided cheap industrial labor.  Although rapid urbanization was underway in North African cities, existing industry was inadequate in supplying jobs to a growing workforce in need.  Mojuetan sums this up in the following:

These cities were “pre-indistrial cities”, distinguished by “urbanization without industrialization” and so few job opportunities existed to accommodate the swarm of peasants torn from the “rural bowels of the Maghrib”.  For most of the deracines, therefore, the only alternative was to “sink into the sub-proletariat of the slums and shanty towns”—the bidonville (125).

The bidonville, a French vernacular term for shantytown (“bidon”=tin can), expresses one of the central dramas of urbanization in underdeveloped countries.  Lured by promises of jobs, and a better livelihood, migrant villagers found instead the deplorable and unhygienic conditions of outlying slum settlements.  These already dense settlements become stressed even further by the arrival of refugees from rural areas after natural disasters.  This was especially the case in Morocco after droughts devastated farming lands in the 1930s.  Rather than investing on rural infrastructure and agriculture development, rural exoduses were allowed to go on unimpeded. Public housing in the large cities was too inadequate to take on these new inhabitants, who opted instead for the strained bidonvilles (Barbanente et al, 2007).  To rule more effectively, French colonial powers set Berbers against Arabs, and declared the indigenous Berber a natural ally.

The ”Berber Decree”, Divisive Rule

            French colonials would position Berbers as their natural ally in order to help justify their occupation—a tactic that would ultimately fail and breed opposition.  As Paul Silverstein (2002) writes, Arabs were shown to be tormenting the overwhelmed European-like Berbers:

The French colonial forces, then, not only found a natural ally in the Kabyles, but also a justification for the colonial conquest as offering them protection from the bellicose, feudal and religiously fanatic Arabs. As such, the French colonial state could claim itself as the rightful guardian of the true Latin Mediterranean unity, in opposition to the political rule imposed by the Ottoman Empire which arguably drew on central Asian and Arabian modes of social organisation.” (Silverstein, 2002: 3)

Steeped in racial genealogical theories of the time, Europeans viewed Berbers as having a common ancestral stock, and hence true Mediterranean allies.  Furthermore, the sedentary, mountain-dwelling Berbers, so reminiscent of France’s own beloved countryside peasants, were contrasted to the nomadic, unruly tent-dwelling Arabs (Goodman, 2005).  Colonial military reports often outlined ethnic boundaries between Arabs and Berbers, so that they could be ruled differently as subjects.  The result of these attitudes was the creation of the divisive Berber Myth, which deemed Berbers closer to Europeans and thus easier to assimilate.  Authors Joan Gross and David McMurray (1993) explain this dogma further:  

As in Algeria, the Morocco Berbers were understood to be the original inhabitants of North Africa, barely Islamized, fiercely independent of the sultan’s authority, relatively mild in their treatment of women, in short, candidates for French schooling, perhaps citizenship, certainly in need of protection from Arabo-Islamic influences (Gross and McMurray, 1993: 46).

The Berber Myth would not only cause friction amongst Berbers and Arabs, but also undermined important religious dynamics of Berber social life.  Although religious practices were somewhat different in the countryside, Berbers were still strong in their Islamic faith adhered to for so many centuries.  This myth would take center stage in May 1930 as the French administration declared a Berber Decree or Dahir Berbere.  As El-Aissati explains, “This decree was meant to institutionalize two different legal systems in Morocco: one for the Imazighen, deriving its essence from the local customary laws, and one for the Arabs, based on the Islamic law or the ‘Shariâa.’” (El-Aisatti, 2001:62).   Hoping to further divide their colonial subjects, the French administration succeeded instead to unite them in opposition against colonial occupation.  After fervent protests by both Arabs and Berbers, the decree would cease to apply a few years later (El-Aissati, 2001).  This background of Berber history, stretching before Colonialism and Arab rule, is needed to discuss Today’s Berber Cultural Movement.  The debates around an Amizigh cultural identity continue to bear the legacy of Colonialism, as Berbers struggle to define themselves in the postcolonial era.

  1. The Emergence of the Berber Cultural Movement- The Contrasting Case-Studies of Algeria and Morocco

Algerian Case-Study: Militancy and a Showdown for Recognition

Following a brutal war for independence, the Algerian state emerged with a nationalist orientation built around modernist Islam and an Arabization program meant to purge any trace of their colonial legacy.  Lasting from 1954 to 1962, the bloody Algerian war for independence was characterized by guerrilla warfare, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and became responsible for around 700,000 deaths and more than two million Algerian refuges (   Algerian independence was initiated and steered by the National Liberation Front (FLN), who took over leadership of the post-liberation government.  The one-party state headed by the military-backed FLN would stay intact for several decades.  This began to change however following national riots in 1988, which helped transform the state into a multi-party system (Joffe, 1998).  Latin American scholar Diego Carrion writes about the proliferation of civil society organizations due to a void in state-sponsored democratic arenas of wide political action (Carrion, 2001).  Here, he writes,

In response to the state’s inability to address local problems, there has been a flourishing of civil society organisations (CSOs) engaging in self-help initiatives, building social networks and mutual support groups in order to meet their basic needs. To deepen democracy and promote popular participation in resolving urban issues calls for clear guiding principles and methodologies (Carrion, 2001: 208).

In the wake of Algeria’s independence, lacking from the new political system were democratic spaces that established “a just equilibrium between the state, the private sector, and civil society” (213).  The Berber Cultural Movement developed very much as a civil society organization to confront these state-bred deficiencies.  In so doing, BCM was able to mobilize through social networks geared towards a unified Amizigh cultural identity.

The BCM struggled to gain legitimacy in the post-colonial state, as Berberist leaders pushed for the state to recognize the Berber component to Algerian national identity.  In her text Berber Culture on the World Stage, Jane Goodman describes the Berber language as pushed to the margins, as the nation rebuilt its identity around the Arabic language.  Here, she explains, 

The position of Arabic in newly independent Algeria was clearly fragile, and Arabization was an understandable and no doubt necessary attempt to create a national population that shared at least one common code.  Yet if Arabization was primarily intended to free the country from its reliance on the colonizer’s language, it also created a growing sense of marginality among Kabyles (Goodman, 2005: 36).

The Algerian state centered itself around the two pillars of Arabic and modernist Islam.  Kabyle nationalists disassociated from this vision, arguing against the forced linking of Arabic and the Muslim faith.  They argued instead for an Algerian state that promoted plurality, and accepted Berber language and Berber rights as a first-nations people.  The BCM took charge in a moment when the number of Berber speakers would go through an alarming decline.  In short, a consensus emerged that this not only threatened their language but that their cultural identity and tradition as a whole were also under siege.  BCM leaders pointed out that Berber was the only language native to the region, and Arabic, like French, was imposed on them by conquering visitors.  Berber dialects have historically been misunderstood and treated as inferior.  In fact, the language was erroneously seen as not rule-governed with its own alphabet and grammar.  Furthermore, this supposed evidence was projected onto the characters of Berbers themselves, as they were deemed unruly and irrational (Goodman, 2005).  Algeria rejected the arguments of Berberist leaders, building instead a state with one single language, religion, and culture in isolation from the rest of the world.  Although the BCM made a concerted effort not to reject the Islamic dimension of Algerian identity, Berberist leaders were still met with intolerance and persecuted.  These issues boiled over on April 20, 1980 in an historic clash with the state forever known as The Berber Spring. 

            In 1980, the Berber Spring gripped the nation, and attracted international press, becoming the rallying and launching point for the Berber Cultural Movement.  The events began on March 10, 1980 when renowned Kabyle scholar Mouloud Mammeri was forced to cancel his lecture on the role of traditional poetry in Kabyle society.  Mammeri was ordered by the Algerian government to do away with his lecture at Hasanaoua University in Tizi Ouzou on the grounds that he would “disrupt the public order” (33).  Ironically, it was not the lecture that would disrupt order, but its cancellation that sparked nearly two months of demonstrations and strikes.  On April 20, 1980, at the rise of dawn, riot police stormed university dorms, a factory, and a local hospital making hundreds of arrests and wounding hundreds more.  The day was declared the Berber Spring, and has been commemorated yearly ever since, celebrating the rights and the political gains of Berbers worldwide.  In the following, Goodman describes the conditions that helped set up Berber protests:

April 20 may be best understood not as an explosion of a repressed population but as a nexus where new institutional arrangements, dissemination pathways, and discourse practices converged.  It was surely no accident that the first generation to attend public school in independent Algeria—and the first generation to be greeted with the state’s Arabization program—came of age in 1980. (47)

The University of Tizi Ouzou, located in Hasanoua the intellectual and commercial center of the Kabyle region, played a pivotal role. 

The university was used as a state-sanctioned forum where new institutional networks could develop.  As Carrion had alluded to, a new civil arrangement had forged a democratic space to be heard and acknowledged by the Algerian public.  The setting was used as a dynamic avenue of communication to articulate a vision of a more tolerant, and inclusive Algerian state.  Three important dynamics were at play that helped make the Berber Spring so widespread and effective.  For one, the Arabization program established in Algerian public schools in the 1960s and 1970s would ironically help sow in Berber children a strong sense of cultural identity.  By repressing the Berber language, a desire for many was created to one day learn their forbidden mother tongue.  Also, by isolating Berber children, a ready-made network was established and used to discreetly spread a discourse around Amizigh identity.  Secondly, as mentioned above, the Algerian university governance system had created a significant public forum for students.  Lastly, the international press played a crucial role in garnering sympathy for the struggle by connecting the unrest to a human rights discourse.  As Goodman writes, the events that crashed on the scene in 1980 had left an influential legacy:  

If the Berber Spring…is described as a turning point in individual testimonies, it is also cast as a point of origin in both popular and academic publications.  In these accounts, April 20 is typically characterized in almost ritual terms as a liminal moment of reversal when a repressed population rose up against an absolutist, dictatorial state (31).

Although the events helped launch the BCM and was a source of pride for thousands, the immediate aftermath remained unsettling.  There was to be a sharp backlash against Berber cultural leaders who were increasingly persecuted, arrested and sometimes tortured.  Berber speakers were also met by scorn and regularly discouraged to speak in public, often being openly reprimanded for speaking their mother tongue.  The musical tradition dubbed New Kabyle Song for its focus on Kabyle folkloric traditions would become heavily monitored by the state as they censored songs, closed concert halls, and sabotaged recording sessions.  These singers were given the title “guerillas of song” as they were routinely harassed, arrested and beaten (Goodman, 2005).  Algeria’s movement for Berber identity differed from the movement in Morocco.  In many ways, the movement in Morocco was less confrontational and violent, which can very well be because the struggle for independence was itself less violent.      

Moroccan Case-Study: Silent at the Margins

            France’s geo-strategic involvement with Morocco intensified in the latter part of the 19th century, culminating in 1912 when France signed The Treaty of Fez and was authored the right to defend Morocco as its protectorate.  Although French occupation was less intense, authoritarian, and brutal here in comparison to the weary, and tragic colonial years in Algeria, France’s presence in Morocco was nevertheless very disruptive in economic terms.  French policy had shifted at the turn of the 20th century, in the period directly before Morocco was deemed a protectorate.  France had implemented a two-point strategy to protect their hold on the region.  The first stage called for a “peaceful penetration”, to develop all political and economic means that France had at its disposal to make the Moroccan government more dependent on France.  Secondly, France would launch a “diplomatic offensive”, to persuade all competing European powers to withdraw interests in Morocco (Mojuetan, 1995).  By 1912, France would see this strategy prevail, as they had significant political, administrative and economic power over the country.  France’s economic policies would cause major disruptions to predominant farming communities in rural Morocco.  As Benson Mojuetan explains, France would introduce a new form of capitalistic exploitation:

The capitalist structure of the agricultural enterprise in French North Africa, particularly in Morocco, entailed a new form of exploitation, the latifundium.  ‘By acquiring great domains, the colon moved away from farming, which was his justification, to…[agrarian capitalism], by which he stood condemned’, condemned to debt and insolvency.  He now ‘functioned less as a cultivator than as a manager’, in need of ‘considerable technical equipment and capital funds’, which explains his heavy dependence on the bank and the state for financial assistance (Mojuetan, 1995: 111).

This would play a pivotal role in further marginalizing Amizigh communities dependent on farming the lands for a livelihood.  With more and more land being consolidated in the hands of inept “land managers”, many Berbers were forced to abandon their villages for the urbanized slums of the bidonvilles.  These details play an important role to the emergence of the Berber Cultural Movement in Morocco.

            Algeria’s bloody revolution contrasts greatly from the more subdued Moroccan fight for independence, which in many ways is reflected in the BCM’s less militant stance in Morocco.  As it relates to colonial history, other important distinctions between the two neighboring countries can be made.  For one, Morocco has a longer history of statehood, and was never under Ottoman rule.  After enduring a long period of Ottoman rule from 1555 to 1830, Algeria would suffer through another 132 years of often-hostile French rule.  While Algeria was bogged down in a gruesome eight-year revolutionary war that led to around 700,000 deaths, Morocco’s struggle was far more peaceful in comparison.  During the war years of the 1940s, nationalism would spread amongst Moroccans tired of France’s control over their political and economic affairs, as the influential Istiqlal (independence) party was formed in 1944.  In 1953, The French deposed Sultan Mohammed V fearing that he was siding with nationalists.  Immediately following, the fight for Moroccan independence was launched as protests and skirmishes broke out.  Already in a horrific quagmire in Algeria, France was forced to return the exiled sultan in 1955, voiding their protectorate status, and thus granting Morocco its independence.  Naturally, state, economic, social, and cultural institutions were to undergo an intense transition period following independence.  Similarly to Algeria, tensions arose during this period between islamization and westernization, and between liberalization and protectionism (Barbanente, 2007).  Furthermore, the nations developed around alternative poles—at one end, Berberists, advocating for democratization and human rights, and the more conservative Islamists at the other end, oriented to the mythic Middle East.  A single revolutionary ideology and party headed independent Algeria, whereas Morocco had a more inclusive monarchy organized under the banner of “God, Homeland, King”. 

Forty percent of the Moroccan population claims Berber origins, making it fertile ground for the BCM’s demand for national recognition.  Bruce Maddy-Weitzman (2006) describes the vision of BCM leaders in Morocco: “they do not conceptualize Morocco in terms of the Muslim world only (al-Maghrib al-aqsa).  Rather their image of Morocco is one of a crossroads, geographically, culturally and ethnically (Maddy-Weitzman, 2006: 75).”  This would approximate the rhetoric used by the state, which paid lip service to the idea of formally recognizing Morocco’s Berber heritage.  For instance, on Throne Day August 1994, the king’s annual state of address alludes to the historically deep-rooted nature of Amizigh identity in the country.  In fact, the king exclaimed that “national focus” should be placed “on the authenticity of our history”, a longstanding desire of the BCM (Maddy-Weitzman, 2001: 32).  This would ultimately prove to be an empty promise however, as no such action would follow further obscuring this important cultural dimension.  The BCM here as in Algeria, has emerged out of a response to the lack of democratic spaces and political dynamics.  To this point, Diego Carrion explains “democratisation is a process of building up social dynamics, starting from the base of society—the community—and ascending to the national level. But local-level democracy cannot be established without it first existing at the national level (Carrion, 2001: 214)”.  On March 1, 2000, Berber intellectuals and activists throughout Morocco devised the Berber Manifesto.  The manifesto reviews a historical legacy of cultural hegemony and calls for the formal recognition of their national language demanding it be enshrined in the constitution.  Here, the authors write,

Our purpose in issuing this Manifesto is to express our determination to combat the cultural hegemony that has been programmed in order to bury a very important part of our civilizational heritage. Moreover, this hegemony endeavors to eliminate our original language and blot out the distinctive marks of the Amazighe dimension in our Moroccan identity, in spite of the depth, breadth and width of this dimension. (

The Berber Manifesto, and the BCM as a whole for that matter, has in many ways reflected an intellectual, urban bias.  Although the movement articulates the cause for all Berbers—rural and urban alike—rural Berbers are often unheard from, silenced at the margins by their very own.  David Crawford (2002) writes about this exclusion of rural Berbers from the BCM in “Morocco’s Invisible Imazighen”.  Here, he describes differences between these Berber villagers and urban elites:

At least some Moroccan Berbers still live far enough from the centers of power to be secure in their language (and culture) and thus it has not typically occurred to them to be militant about such things. The sort of discourse we find amongst internationally connected Amazigh activists bears on rural, illiterate Berber-speaking farmers, but such villagers are not (and cannot be) included in the production of it (Crawford, 2002:  62).

This opens up the discourse to an important critique—at what point does a cultural movement cease speaking for someone, and end up silencing someone instead?  Demands for cultural recognition take on a lesser sense of urgency when juxtaposed to the financial exigencies faced by impoverished villagers.  The platform created through globalization would prove pivotal in the success of the BCM, and help Berbers worldwide redefine themselves through traditional art, music, and poetry. 

  1. Globalization, and the Role of Berber Art and Poetry in the Berber Culture Movement

Globalization as Backdrop for the Berber Cultural Movement

            Beginning during the colonial era, globalization has transformed North African social dynamics, fostering new transnational networks, and global flows of people, culture, and capital.  As Branko Milanovic (2003) explains, it is important to discuss today’s wave of globalization in relation to colonialism:

Globalization was not merely accompanied by the worst excesses of colonialism; colonialism was not an accident.  On the contrary, globalization was colonialism because it is through being colonies that most of the non-European countries were brought to the global world. (Milanovic, 2003: 669)

This would dramatically be the case during World War II as colonial subjects were drafted into the French military to fight for European liberation.  Migration would increase during subsequent years following the war, as reconstruction jobs in war-ravaged Europe were plentiful.  In addition, those who served in the war were compelled for the first time to remain in Europe and reinvest their wages outside of their native country.  This would all change in 1974, as France, faced with an economic recession and growing national unemployment, would tighten their immigration policy.  During the 1950s, internal migration also grew to unprecedented heights, as many villages were destroyed during the revolution, causing hungry village refugees to flee to urban centers.  In fact, this would have an irrevocable effect on Berber village dynamics, shaping village life today.  Jane Goodman defines these dynamics with respect to development and immigration patterns spurred by globalization.  Here, she states,

If today’s village is largely configured in relation to national and transnational processes such as development and immigration, these processes are experienced on both sides of the village as continuous departures and arrivals, absences and presences.  The “village” must be continuously produced through the negotiation of presence and absence, belonging and exclusion. (Goodman, 2005: 77).

In short, globalization has changed not only the way in which the Berber village is organized but also the way it is conceived.  This would similarly be the case for the BCM, which has emerged during this period of globalization.

            With respect to the Berber Cultural Movement, globalization has ironically proven to be both the problem and the solution.  For one, the BCM has latched onto new democratic spaces linked to globalization, which have challenged the nation-state’s sole claim on global authority.  The BCM has also benefited from the dissemination of linguistic developments such as Berber translations through the close ties and flows of people and commodities between urban centers and periphery (Silverstein, 2002).  Furthermore, new technologies have strengthened group identity built around BCM claims: 

In the Amazigh case, globalisation has opened up new avenues by which to challenge the orthodox ethos of contemporary North African states. Most recently, the internet, the symbol, par excellence, of the contemporary global information revolution, has become an additional important tool in the construction of a ‘landscape of group identity’, i.e. the building of an ‘imagined’ Amazigh community worldwide.” (Maddy-Weitzman, 2006: 72)

Similar to other identity movements worldwide, the BCM views globalization as a threat because of its homogenizing effects on culture.  The paradox that globalization impresses on the BCM is summed up nicely by Professor Abderrahman El-Aissati:  

The paradox of the Amazigh identity movements is that on the one hand there are more threats to language and culture preservation, due to urbanisation among other things, there is [also] a rising stride among the Amazigh communities fighting for the recognition of their language and the re-evaluation of their culture. (El-Assaiti, 2001: 70)

El-Assaiti brings up another important dynamic—that is, globalization has induced the threat of a massive language shift in Berber regions of North Africa.  In this case, technology has become more readily available in the remote villages of the Kabylia and Rif mountains.  Televisions and radios blaring in Arabic are now commonplace in these regions, making the official language of Arabic more accessible.  Similarly, public schools set up in these distant regions has spread the use of Arabic in Berber homes.  Lastly, industrialization has pulled more and more people into the city where Arabic is predominantly spoken.  

Redefining Traditional Berber Poetry and the New Kabyle Song

            The collection of traditional Berber poetry has been an endeavor of scholars stemming back to the colonial period, for reasons other than the preservation of culture.  One of the first to pursue the scholarly task of collecting and translating traditional Berber folktales was the 19th century French academic Adolphe Hanoteau.  Employed by the French colonial administration, he aimed to glean information about the moral character of France’s colonial subjects in the remote mountains of North Africa.  This information, they envisioned, would provide psychological insight to their host’s daily lives and help the colonial administration rule their Berber subjects more effectively.  As Jane Goodman (2002) explains, art was seen by the colonial power as an essential measure of civilization:

Art—one of the four measures of civilization—would enable him to discover how the Kabyles thought, what they believed, what motivated them, and how they perceived the French. To find out, he attempted to observe the Kabyles in a place where he imagined them as showing their spirit unawares: their poetry. Finding out how they thought was important not only to monitor them better but also to explain the civilizing mission to the readership (Goodman, 2002: 91).

Translated directly into French, the poetry was never published in its mother tongue.  In fact, the people who authored these poems were never meant to have access to them in written form.  Rather, the poetry acted to justify France’s colonial exploits by painting a sensational, off-color picture of a wild-eyed bunch in need of civilization.

  A major Berber intellectual figure, scholar Mouloud Mammeri , would come on to the scene and change the way Berber poetry would be translated and viewed.  His was a more prideful account that delved into the nuance of Kabyle poetry.  Each poem was translated into both French and Berber, and Mammeri made pains to distance himself from earlier colonial translations.  Goodman describes Mammeri’s seminal 1980 book Poemes Kabyles Anciens

Mammeri’s 1980 collection of poetry represents a break with the works of his predecessors in two fundamental respects. First, Mammeri attempts to extricate Kabyle poetry from an ahistorical, essentialized realm, which he recognizes as a fabrication of colonial science. Second, via framing devices and translation strategies, Mammeri segments readers into two distinct audiences (Berber speakers and French speakers), and for the first time addresses a contemporary Berber readership in Berber exclusively (Goodman, 2002: 98-99).

The poems were both a source of pride and inspiration for young persons especially, who were often lost in Algeria’s Arabization program, and separated from their Berber roots.  In fact, Mammeri’s works would resonate with youth who launched The Berber Spring protests in March and April of 1980.  The Berber Cultural movement drew from Mammeri’s translations for symbolic motivation, as they did traditional village life in general.

            To the many Berbers living in the diaspora, the traditional Berber village acts as the elevated symbol of a now wayward tradition.  Cultural leaders of the BCM and New Kabyle songsters like the venerable Idir and Ben Mohamed praise the Berber village as the hearth of tradition, a link to an idyllic past, and in need of preserving.  Here, Goodman writes,

The Berber village has been “good to think” across three discursive traditions—colonial, anthropological, and activist—for well over a century.  It has been exhibited, miniaturized, staged.  It has been cast as an originary locus of cultural identity, visited by singers like Idir for inspiration, and made into a backdrop for diaspora performances and videos.  Detached from social process, the village has been turned into a figure of culture that bears witness to a collective Berber heritage (Goodman, 2005: 69).

In so doing, these young women and men were not only undertaking in the preservation of cultural traditions but in their transformation into reinvented forms as well.  As Goodman writes, not only poems were culled from villages but any artifact that hearkens back to this traditional setting was also collected.  Here, she explains,

with the revalorization of tradition instantiated in the music of Idir and promoted by the Berber Cultural Movement, a language of preservation had come to seem natural.  Young Kabyle activists regularly mined their own villages and homes in search of old pottery, tools, and clothing to display at the cultural exhibits that were beginning to take place across the region (Goodman, 2005: 70).

It is important to stress that the village can’t be pigeonholed as a simple trope, or as strictly a place of cultural tradition.  The village is an important site of daily life and is a locus of migration and continuous movement, containing a steady flow of people from rural areas to urban and back.  In the 1970s, the debut of the New Kabyle Song genre would bring about a closer examination of the village as both a place of movement and as a source of artistic inspiration.

            New Kabyle Song would position itself in between modernity and authenticity, the cutting edge and tradition.   These Kabyle musicians created a form of music that appealed to modern listeners through modern technologies yet stayed faithful to authentic Berber texts.  New Kabyle Song connects the ideological vision of the BCM with the mundane practices of daily life in Berber villages.  The music blends traditional Berber texts with Western folk Rock melodies and rhythms, acting as a “vibrant symbol of the contemporary relevance of their culture” (Goodman, 2002: 109).  In the following, Goodman details the unique way in which traditional Berber texts were collected by New Kabyle songsters:     

In looking at Idir’s and Ben’s collection processes against the practices of earlier collectors, a key difference emerges: Earlier collectors did not intentionally alter what they thought they had found. Their relationship to the poems they gathered is articulated through such strategies as genre attributions, framing essays, and footnotes. Ben and Idir, in contrast, collected with a desire to transform. Their relationship to the poetry they gathered is not presented around the text but is folded into the new poems themselves (103).

Ben Mohamed hoped to create in his artwork a forum similar to a film for Berbers to develop an “internal gaze”.  This mirror-like gaze would act as an introspective reference point into their selves and cultural traditions.  Indeed, many Berbers were now cultural hybrids in betwixt and in between new and past worlds resulting from all that has transpired through colonialism, urbanization, and globalization.  These crucial themes are to be explored further in Idir’s hit song A Vava Inouva.

            A Vava Inouva became one of the most acclaimed songs in the New Kabyle Song music genre, bringing the Berber language to the world stage.  Idir takes a traditional folktale similar to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which was recited by older women in the Berber village he grew up in.  A Vava Inouva, released in 1976, is sung by Idir behind western Folk Rock rhythms in a soothing, melodic voice and accompanied only by his acoustic guitar.  Goodman discusses the transformation of the traditional older women’s story in Idir’s song: 

On the one hand, the new song wrote over the older women’s story in such a way as to enable the previous text to acquire new significance.  Yet if the older text gained new visibility, it was also because A vava inouva worked in a refractory capacity: it displayed the women’s story through the lenses of distant products, styles, ideologies and circulation networks in a way that made the story — and ‘Berber culture’ more generally — interpretable in an entirely new manner. In short, the song’s internal gaze was produced through a process that configured Berber identity in relation to wider geopolitical events and entities (Goodman, 2003: 76).

This internal gaze is reflected through the song, which also exposes the intersection between modernity and authenticity.  The ancient folk story is surrounded by new verses and music thus modernizing the tradition.  The song creates a dynamic new synthesis for Berber artists to reach a mass audience in their own Berber tongue.  Furthermore, A Vava Inouva evokes gender and generation roles of “the old-style Kabyle Berber house”, which “provides a unity of place within which the generations come together, cut off by the snow from the surrounding world” (Goodman, 2005: 62).  Idir’s success was not simply due to the song’s popularity in western European markets.  Rather, the song came out at a time in the 1970s when radios and cassette players were becoming more widespread in remote Berber villages.  As Goodman points out, “Both the nature of the song and the technology through which it circulated helped to organize new spaces of reception, which may also have contributed to the song’s sense of novelty” (66).  This song would resonate greatly with generations in the diaspora exploring the many dimensions of their Amizigh identity.  To many, it was a vivid reminder of their childhood while to others it stood as a pristine symbol of their heritage:

For postwar generations raised in Kabylia, the song produced a new form of cultural memory: many would tell me of how the song evoked the evenings they spent as children listening to their grandmothers’ tales, snow blocking the doors. For those raised in the diaspora, A vava inouva came to stand for the homeland, taking on the mantle of tradition that it purported to represent (75).”

The confluence of globalization, linguistic, and artistic innovations have helped progress the Berber Cultural Movement throughout the decades.  In the struggle to attain cultural autonomy many have contributed to a new identity as contemporary Berber peoples.

V.                 Conclusion

What has followed the sharp “catch of the trigger” that Ben Mohamed so described for Berbers embarking on the 21st century?  For the fact that Berbers have yet to gain from their national countries formal recognition for their culture and language has proved too many all too painful.  The knowledge that they are the original known inhabitants of North Africa and make up a storied chapter of its history has added to the frustration.  The turn of the 21st century has in fact introduced a new threat, a new “trigger” to be leery of.  That is, less people are able to speak the language, and a nearby future without the language seems more and more plausible.  This paper explores the fellowship that has emerged during these troubling times under a banner of Berber culture. 

First, the paper discusses the history of Berbers in North Africa.  Throughout this history, Berbers have been unfairly treated and politically pushed to the margins.  The French colonizers pitted Arabs against Berbers to fracture and rule the colonized subject.  Furthermore, the various Berber populations in the Maghreb have been overshadowed and subdued because of their rural village status.  Movement into urban city centers and European cities have complicated social dynamics in traditional Berber villages.  The Berber Cultural Movement has varied greatly from place to place, contrasting sharply between the nations of Morocco and Algeria.  In contrast to Morocco, the bloody Algerian revolution has created a more confrontational and heated setting for the BCM, represented by the harrowing Berber Spring that took place on April 20, 1980.  Finally, Globalization has created the grounds to spread and organize the BCM across the diaspora.  This has loomed especially large with respect to oral traditions shared by Berbers, and transmitted through modern media.   The ongoing struggle, a critical source of inspiration, innovation, and passion, will inevitably one day end in triumph, and forever break the silence.

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