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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 66-88

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Myth and Counter-Myth:
"The Berber" As National Signifier in Algerian Historiographies

James McDougall

In any event, one cannot deny, as certain propaganda has attempted to deny, the existence of Berbers in North Africa.

—Jacques Berque, Le Maghreb entre deux guerres (1962)

North African history has often been narrated in academic and political discourses through recurrent series of binary oppositions, of which the couple "Arab/Berber" is perhaps the most central. Routinely deployed as an explanatory principle of the sociological reality of Maghribi societies, and persistently invoked in the discourses of Maghribi politics, this device has been fundamental to practices of categorization and representation both among North Africans themselves and by outside observers. 1 In Algeria, in particular, it has provided the idiom for some of the most bitterly fought social conflicts of the past half-century.

My article is not intended as another restatement of this scheme. Instead, it explores the changing configuration of positions in a struggle to impose a culturally legitimate definition of reality. This struggle, I argue, is itself the underlying reality (or at least a productive fundamental problematic for embarking on analysis) of more visible conflicts that have periodically broken out in, and which continue to trouble, Algeria. It goes without saying that this question, as well as being acidly emotive in current politics, is steeped in a dense weight of history frequently experienced by [End Page 66] those concerned with an extraordinary affective intensity, despite (or because of) its distant provenance. This is a historical issue which reaches back into antiquity, even prehistory, as well as forward into the present.

On April 18, 2001, a high school student, Massinissa Guermouh, was shot and killed by Algerian police in Kabylia, the mountainous, predominantly berberophone region that hugs the coastline just east of the capital, Algiers, extending eastward for some two hundred kilometers. Twenty-one years after the "Berber Spring," and in an Algeria wracked by ten years of atrocious civil conflict, waves of protest and confrontation broke out between civilians and the Algerian state police forces, particularly in Kabylia, but also elsewhere. This "Black Spring" (printemps noir) turned into a wider movement, la protesta, continuing through the summer and autumn of 2001, with marches on the capital and sporadic violence in Kabylia. The legislative elections in June 2002 were boycotted in the region, with two major parties, the RCD (Rassemblement pour la Culture et la Démocratie, Rally for Culture and Democracy) and the FFS (Front des Forces Socialistes, Socialist Forces Front), whose principal constituencies are in Kabylia, abstaining from fielding candidates. As was the case twenty-one years previously, a broad-based movement of protest against the Algerian government's policies, acting as a vehicle for a number of interests and demands and arising from a complex syndrome of sociocultural, economic, and political causes, was largely expressed (in its slogans and symbols) and readily interpreted by the Algerian state itself and by outside commentators as a movement of "Berbers" (the Kabyles) against "Arabs" (the state). 2

From the colonial era (1830-1962), through the factional crises of nationalism in its gestative phase from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s, to the debates over "national culture" in the 1970s, the 1980 Berber Spring, and the contemporary Berber cultural movement in North Africa and the Maghribi diaspora, the Arab/ Berber dichotomy has provided a ready mechanism for reading the complex multiplicity (linguistic, cultural, ideological, and class) of Algerian society. In colonial Algeria, an elaborate system of oppositions was contrived between "Arabs" and "Kabyles," with the former generally denigrated as civilizationally unimprovable, the latter as "closer to Europe" in race, culture, and temperament. 3 In 1948-49, the revolutionary populist movement embodying the most radical aspirations of nascent Algerian nationalism, the PPA (Parti du Peuple Algérien, Algerian People's Party), experienced one of its most serious crises when one section of its leadership was purged by another under the indictment of "Berberism," a charge of divisive ethnic subnationalism perceived as a cultural-political heresy within the...


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