Celebrating Berber new year marks shift in Algeria’s identity politics
Algeria will become the first North African country to celebrate the Berber new year as a national public holiday. The move signals a major shift in identity politics, which had been dominated by strife and tensions between the government in Algiers and most of the Berber-speaking population in the restive north-eastern Kabylie region.
Berber activists hailed Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision making the Berber new year day, Yennayer, a public holiday as the crowning achievement of a historic struggle and a victory against what they described as Algeria’s “cultural tyranny of Arabism and Arab Ba’athism.” The holiday will be on January 12 this year.
“Who would believe that under the leadership of this president, who had declared with an arrogant and threatening tone that Tamazight will never be recognised as an official language, that this language would be enshrined in the constitution as a national and official language and Yennayer would be declared a national holiday and paid day off for all Algerians?” asked Ali Ait Djoudi, a veteran activist from the Berber Cultural Movement, in a message on social media.
Algerian writer Amin Zaoui said: “At last, Algerians are reconciling slowly with their history, their ancestors and their identity.”
“There is a long way to climb the path of Lalla Dihya Kahena, Juba, Apulee, Massinissa and others,” he added, naming historical figures known for defence of Berber identity and territory.
Algerian writer Kamel Daoud said: “The decision to make Yennayer a national holiday was to be hailed because it would help, over the long run, heal deep wounds and harvest fruits in the future.”
Analysts said Bouteflika announced the recognition of the Berber holiday before the 12th anniversary of the implementation of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation to strengthen social and political stability ahead of the presidential election next year.
The charter, proposed by Bouteflika to end the civil war by offering amnesty for most acts of violence committed in the conflict pitting Islamist jihadists and the military, was endorsed by a referendum in 2005 and implemented in February 2006.
The conflict broke out in December 1991 after the army-backed government scrapped elections radical Islamists were poised to win. It claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, mostly civilians killed by Islamists.
“The decision over Yennayer came in these moments of doubts and multiple crises. It reinforces the cohesion of the nation by putting an end to unnecessary misunderstandings that are the result of a governance that lacked farsightedness and anticipation,” said Algerian writer Brahim Tazaghart.
It followed the recognition of the Berber language as an official and national language alongside Arabic.
“It is a historic and bold decision by President Bouteflika. It ends the dictatorship and obscurantism of the Ba’athist culture, which hurts us each day by brandishing its racist concept of the Arab nation and spawning hatred within society and undermining the nation’s unity,” said Algerian MP Khaled Tazaghart from the Future Front party, an opposition group.
Language and culture issues go to the heart of Algeria’s identity. It has been a determining factor in relations with other countries.
The French colonial authorities banned Arabic in primary schools in Algeria, dismissing it as a backward language. After independence, in 1962, nationalist leaders adopted an Arabisation policy to undo the linguistic legacy of 132 years of French occupation. Towards that end, they recruited thousands of teachers from Egypt and Syria to fill positions left by fleeing French teachers.
However, most of the Egyptian and Syrian teachers were members of the Muslim Brotherhood fleeing crackdowns by Arab nationalist leaders in Cairo and Damascus. Their massive presence in the education system sparked a backlash in parts of Algeria, especially in Berber-speaking areas, against what was perceived as Arab domination with claims that the Arab teachers had turned Algerian schools into “factories churning out fanatical Psalmists.”
The spread of Arabic influenced the Berbers for centuries, including from the 15th century and through the 17th century when Arabisation of Berbers was accelerated by waves of Andalusian refugees expelled from Spain.
Berbers maintained their traditions, dialects and rituals even after accepting Islam as a religion, mainly in Morocco and Algeria. Their total number in the two countries is estimated at 28 million.
Gradually, Algeria has met the demands of advocates of Berber culture and language.
A Berber uprising involving a school boycott in Kabylie region in 1995 by parents protesting that their children could speak but not write in their native language led Algerian officials to introduce the Tamazight language into primary education.
In 2002, the government recognised the language as a national one following a deadly protest. The language was recognised as a national and official language, on equal footing with Arabic, in 2016.
Berber activists have called on the Algerian government to allocate funding to the promotion and the use of their language. Thousands took to the streets in December to back such a demand.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.