Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A new(ish) book on the Tamazight (Berber) of Tipasa

I've recently finished reading الأمازيغية - آراء وأمثال (تيبازة نموذجا) Tamazight: Views and Proverbs (the Example of Tipasa), by Mohamed Arezki Ferad (Algiers:Dar Huma 2004). It appears to be only about the third or fourth work ever written focusing on this dialect, but is unlikely to come to most English-speakers' attention, so I decided to review it, if only to remind myself what's in it.

The first half of the book is a set of essays on the place of Amazighness in Algeria's national identity, in which he argues that Algeria's Amazigh identity is undeniable, is relevant to the whole country and not just the minority that speak Tamazight, and complements rather than contradicts Algeria's Arab identity. The point is so obvious that it should scarcely need to be made; yet, as he notes, for decades the government used to make life difficult for those who spoke in such terms. He reminisces on his own experience (p. 54):

I remembered being excluded from the university and forbidden to teach in the history faculty in the early 1980s simply because I presented a thesis for my certificate of advanced studies on Amazigh history in Andalus in the period of the petty kings (reyes de taifa), and my viva was not scheduled until after great efforts, only to yield a blow that hit me harder than a thunderbolt: being excluded from the university and not hired by it! For the decision-makers back then thought that the thesis's topic reeked of anti-Arabism and encroachment upon the sanctity of this language which could never accept a rival! How great was my disappointment - I, a Kabyle born in a conservative environment built on Islam as its religion, Arabic for its writing, and Tamazight for its speech! I remembered - from as far back as I can recall - how we would study Arabic in Kabyle - yes, we studied Arabic in Kabyle, by the method of alif u yenqeḍ ara, ba yiwet s wadda, ta snat ufella... (ا alif has no dot, ب ba one underneath, ت ta two on top...) I remembered how we used to venerate the Arabic language and hurry to gather papers with Arabic writing on them when we found them scattered on the ground, for fear that some passer-by might tread on them with his feet... I remember how the name of "Mohamed Larbi" (lit. Muhammad the Arab) was on every tongue, with scarcely a family not using it, and the name of "Fatima" as a blessing for the Prophet (PBUH). For all these personal reasons, I couldn't understand the viciousness of the assault on the Amazigh dimension of the Algerian personality...

It is difficult for the uninformed reader to gauge whether his non-hiring was motivated by political or academic considerations; but in this quote, equally targeted at Arabists seeing Berber identity as a probably treacherous fifth column and Berberists seeing Arab identity as an alien false consciousness, he eloquently expresses the contrast between the absurd ideological concept of Arab and Berber cultures as opposing one another and the reality of traditional (and indeed modern) North African life where they intertwine inextricably. The degree to which things have improved in this regard is emphasised by the certificate he encloses from the Arabic Language and Literature Academy of Algiers stating that they've agreed to publish this book.

To reinforce the point, he devotes more than 20 pages to summarising the views of various leading thinkers of Ben Badis' Islah movement (an effort to reform Islamic practice in Algeria in the early 20th century that played a key role in reinforcing the idea of a shared non-French Algerian identity) on Berber, arguing that virtually all of them took this view (and hence that it must be the patriotic view to take...), along with a couple of Middle Eastern Arab writers whom he repeatedly mentions. He waxes enthusiastic about the constitutional amendment of 2002 that made Tamazight a "national language", and discusses the question of writing systems for Tamazight in its wake, coming out in favor of Arabic while acknowledging that, over the years of government hostility, Latin has taken the lead. While criticising the ideologues who oppose any recognition of Tamazight, he constantly dissociates himself from extremist Berberists who want nothing to do with Arabic or even Islam, warning that if the state doesn't promote Amazigh heritage, unsavoury characters of that ilk will. Here as so often in politics, it seems that extremists can be rather useful to moderates! While his doctrinaire political orthodoxy sometimes left me impatient for a more forthright style, it's probably exactly the right tone for his audience.

The second part, a set of proverbs of the area, will be reviewed in my next post.


shawi said...

Yes, extremism breads extremism!

Algeria is paying the price for the past failed policies.

I'm amazed how easy(for shawis)to understand Tachenwit. Very much like Tashawit. How do you explain that, Lameen? I realise that Tashawit and Tachenwit belong to the zenati branch. But given the location, you would think that Taqbaylit would be the closet thing to Tachenwit.

Lameen Souag said...

Especially since Tashenwit's speakers call their language Haqbaylith!

I've wondered about that. This feature of th- becoming h- (hella, hamurth, etc.) seems to be nearly unique to Tashawit and Tashenwit, and many other features are clearly shared. The same change applies, if I recall rightly, to the scattered Tamazight-speaking areas in Chlef, and Djebel Bissa near Tenes. Yet Blida, I've heard more than once, used to have a very Kabyle-like dialect. Extrapolating from where Berber has continued to be spoken, we can imagine that before Arabic arrived, Chaoui and Chenoui must have formed part of a single Zenati area, with a dialect differing significantly from Kabyle. But I can't think of any period in Algerian history when a political boundary ran along those lines. I need to check what Ibn Khaldun says about the tribes of the two areas. Of course, people move around all the time - but who moved where?

Jim said...

"This feature of th- becoming h- (hella, hamurth, etc.) seems to be nearly unique to Tashawit and Tashenwit, and many other features are clearly shared."

Irish has a similar development. In Irish it is diachronic. The explanation given was that velarized 't' becomes so dental in Irish that 'th' had to go somewhere else to have a life. But the problem with that is that becomes indistinguishable from lenited 's', so that's not much of a solution.

This doesn't happen in Scottish Gaelic because the non-velarized 't' is so palatal that it leaves velarized 't' in peace.