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  • Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-Colonial Algeria by Hugh Roberts
  • Riccardo René Larémont (bio)
Berber Government: The Kabyle Polity in Pre-Colonial Algeria, by Hugh Roberts. London: I. B. Tauris, 2017. 352 pages. $110.

In Berber Government, Hugh Roberts examines the phenomenon of cultural separateness and self-governance in the Kabylie region of Algeria. Roberts offers the notion, which he sustains with evidence and analysis, that the people of the Greater and Lesser Kabylie, by dint of their rather extended period of self-governance during both the Ottoman Empire and under French colonialism, carved out both governmental practices and a degree of economic and cultural autonomy that set them apart from other colonized peoples in Algeria.

The notion of Kabyle separateness can be controversial partly because it may help bolster the perverse colonial-era French cultural policy that attempted to separate and elevate the people of Kabylie from other peoples of Algeria as part of a policy of divide et impera (divide and rule). Roberts's effort to explain Kabyle distinctiveness does not align with that particular project.

In this book Roberts tries to explain that both 19th and 20th century academicians who made claims of Kabyle separateness or superiority were in various ways mistaken. Starting with Adolphe Hanoteau, Aristide Letourneux, and Émile Masqueray and then moving to Ernest Gellner and Pierre Bourdieu more recently, Roberts argues that their explanations were wanting—albeit for different reasons. [End Page 695]

Roberts' alternate explanation can be discerned from the following:

This development was that of a mountain society which was egalitarian and unusually orderly, fiercely independent and highly integrated but also outward looking, and of an economy characterized by intensive and highly developed commercial craft manufacture and by an equally diverse pattern of commercial and labor migration. This society was regulated by a remarkable system of self-governance which achieved its final form between the early seventeenth and the middle of the eighteenth century CE and both constituted the framework within which a complex economic life could be carried on and simultaneously gave rise to an unusually complex and sophisticated orientation to central power (p. 32).

Roberts argues that the Kabyle economy was complex and that it interacted with other centers of political and economic power both in Tunis and in Algiers in which arboriculture, horticulture, and craft manufacture contributed to a vibrant external trade with these centers while at the same time provoking considerable labor migration. This combination of external trade and labor migration contributed to making many traders, manufacturers, and laborers from Kabylie quite mobile, which made them rather well-known outside of the region, while within the region they practiced a style of self-governance that was substantially nonhierarchical (among men to the exclusion of women).

Self-governance in Kabylie was extensive. Roberts explains that the residents of Kabylie worked to create a moral system that effectively combined both customary law and Islamic law to castigate the use of violence or even the threat of violence. This system created stability in Kabylie and provided a structure that made governance real and effective. This system was quite effective, enabling the residents of Kabylie to avoid the resort to blood feuds as a basis for conflict resolution, in contrast to the Middle Atlas of Morocco where blood feuds were pervasive.

These customary and Islamic law systems were then joined to a system of consultative governance rooted in what was called the jama'a or thajma'th. These were regularly held meetings in which men met on a weekly or biweekly basis to discuss and deliberate either judicial claims or policy matters that were relevant to the community. These deliberative bodies were usually organized by bringing together the men of several villages in a centuries-old practice had the effect of regularizing consultative governance at the local level.

With consultative governance in place throughout the region of Kabylie, the residents of the region had the social and institutional capacity to resist other centers of power that sought to dominate or influence them, whether that power would be exercised by regimes located either in Algiers or Tunis. With their consultative governance systems in place, the residents...


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pp. 695-697
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