Berbers and Others: Beyond Tribe and Nation in the Maghrib By Katherine E. Hoffman, Susan Gilson Miller

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Berbers and Others offers fresh perspectives on new forms of social and political activism in today’s Maghrib. In recent years, the Amazigh (Berber) movement has become a focus of widespread political, social, and cultural attention in North Africa, Europe, and the United States. Berber groups have peacefully yet persistently laid claim to ownership over broad areas of creativity in the arts, politics, literature, education, and national memory.

The contributors to this volume present some of the best new thinking in the emerging field of Berber studies, offering insight into historical antecedents, language usage, land rights, household economies, artistic production, and human rights. The scope, depth, and multidisciplinary approach will engage specialists on the Maghrib as well as students of ethnicity, social and political change, and cultural innovation.

The terms Leo’s ethnography illustrate the unsettled lexicon in use during this period. “Moors,” derived from the ancient Mauri, is a term, like “Turk,” sometimes meaning simply “Muslim” (just as for the Spanish, who would called the Muslims of the Philippines “moros”).

Here they are synonymous with (Muslim) “Africans,” whether black or white, but all Berberophone and primarily rural. More usually, especially in English, however, “Moors” are urban sophisticates, descendants of the Andalusian refugees to North Africa like Leo himself.

From the sixteenth century through the first decades of the nineteenth, endless energy was expended on the classification of a population that constantly eludes categorical capture. One careful account asserted that “Shelluhs” (ishelhin) in southern Morocco speak a language entirely separate from that of “Berbers” (of the Middle Atlas and Rif) further north.

The first European Berber grammar and dictionary assembled between 1788 and 1790 in Paris and Algiers on the other hand, insists that from the Sous to Jerba, the “Berbers” (who live in tents on the plains, like the Arabs) and the “Chuluhs” and “Cabayles” (inhabitatns of the mountains) speak “the same langauge” and “are everywhere nothing but one selfsame people…..the remnats of Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks and Vandals.” As for “Cabayles” or “Qabyles,” the term generally appears to mean simply “tribes” (from the Arabic qaba’il), i.e., rural people-most likely Berberophone, but not labeled as suc. Those that Napoleon’s spy, Boutin found among the “Turks, Jews, Negroes, Greeks, and Armenians, Moors or Agerians’ and Mozabites” of Algiers in 1808 were to him “mountain Arabs called Kabyles.”

The term was applied to the populations of the Atlas and the Dahra south and west of Algiers as well as to those of the Djurdjura and Babors to the east, and in 1830 the French army’s first proclamation s addressed “ila sukkan madinat al-jaza’ir wa ahali al-qaba’il,” “to the inhabitants of the city of Algiers and the people of the tribes,” i.e., to the rural population at large.

In the early 1840s, an English traveler still described Algeria as the land of “the Moors, Kabyles, Arabs, Turks, Jews, Negroes, Cologlies [kuluglari, descendants of Turkish fathers and local mothers] and other inhabitants.” 

If the inexact nature of this “ethnic” may seen from outside is itself instructive about the practices of categorization that our sources felt were important, it also illustrates how all such sources are external attempts to categorize a social reality that is not fully grasped. What their terms may or may not have meant to those so designated, and how they might have designated themselves, is far from self evident. The appropriate question here is, how useful it is to look in these sources for the ethnic distinctions of the sociological knowledge familiar to us, and how useful is that knowledge for understanding the cultural differences of the world they describe? Of-course, there are Arabs and Berbers, in some sense–as communities of language and heredity–in these narratives. But this distinction is far from clear; much less can it be assumed to convey adequately self designations, or understandings of cultural difference, among the people concerned.

The classifications of outside observers, however, do carry a naturalizing force of their own, especially when combined with the particular kinds of categorizing practice enacted by the modern state. Sociological “error” is after all, a way of making history, and perfectly capable of producing the conditions of its own truthfulness. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, new social and political dispensations structured around observations of linguistic and legal practice materialized categorical distinctions between “Arab” and “Berber” in more “orderly,” but much less subtle, ways.

It was not so much that, for the first time since the fourteenth century, French ethnography amounted to a “rediscovery of the Berbers as a nation in their own right” via the discovery and publication of Ibn Khaldun. Rather, the discovery of Ibn Khaldun and the reading of his categories-the great umam (in nineteenth-century terms, “nations”) of the word- through nineteenth century preoccupations with romanticism and antiquity as well as with the imperial rule and scientific racism, constituted “the Berbers” as a single definable “nation” (and/or “race”) in their own right– or rather, in the eyes of their self-appointed re-discoverers.

As Brett and Fentress observe, “Just as the Berbers [as such] had been invented by the Arabs for the purpose of Arab conquest and the Arab empire, so now they were finally resurrected by the French as a subject race to be kept apart from their Arab neighbors in the interest of French Hegemony,” and in the interest of their own “civilizational” advancement. French colonial mythology portrayed “Barbary,” Berber North Africa, as an eternal “land of conquest” destined to be the domain of a Western imperial invocation. Writers in this vein though to find ” the Berbers” a hardy, enterprising and martial race of uncertain provenance but clearly distinct from “the Arabs,” naturally belonging to a renewed Mediterranean sphere of Occidental influence.

In response, the Arab Islamic cultural nationalism of the mid-twentieth century created adoctrine of Mahgribi nations rooted in ethnic and spiritual homelands further east. The Berbers, as bani Kan’an (sons of Canaan”), having migrated from the Middle East in depths of proto history, were “Arab” in temperament and ancestry, Muslim by adoption and destiny. Nationalism riposted to the narrative of salvific, civilizing empire rescuing the Maghrib from “anarchy” and “despotism” with a civilizing mission of its own, rooted in the distant past of an independent people now promised their ultimate redemption from local “superstition” as well as foreign oppression.

Three converging factors reordered North Africa’s ethnic-cultural landscape between the 1880s and the mid-1940s, all products of the combined and interdependent development of colonialism and nationalism. First came a newly widespread, newly canonical definition of Islamic orthodoxy advocated by the salafi reformist movement. Second was the exclusive identification of “Arabs” and Arabic with Islam. Both by colonial observers obsessed with the dangers of “Arab” subversion and “fanaticism”, and by the spokesmen of cultural nationalism fascinated by the intellectual and political reinventions both of “Islam” and of the “Arab” taking place in Egypt and Syria. Third was a correlative reimagining of “Berbers” as something other than primarily Muslims. Even as Berber-phone nationalist activist adopted Amazigh (meaning “free” or “noble”) identity in the service of anti-colonial struggle, Arabophone nationalist ideologues were redefining “the Berbers” as primordial ancestors destined to disappear in a sacred salvation history now imagined as that of the Arab -Muslim nation. For colonial writers, they would indeed “disappear” if prudent colonial policy could not “save” them.

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El Aemer El Mujaddid

American born Moor, Author, History Researcher, Modernist, 720 Entrepreneur/ Corporate Mogul in the making; who observes & analyzes human nature for data mining purposes. Knowing is Half the Battle, Wisdom is needed for appropriate application of knowledge and right reasoning.

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