Thinking Chaouia

A while ago, a friend commented on my pronunciation of Batna, the name of a major Algerian city in the Aures region. The name is pronounced/written in Arabic as باتنة (Batna) and in Chaouia (the Berber language spoken in the Aures) as باثنت (Baathnat). I pronounced it as “Bathna”, by accident, though this is how I usually say it and how most of my older relatives do as well. The conversation was in English, and having mentioned the city with respect to the War of Independence, I was pronouncing other places in the region that had also played an important role, many of which either come in part from Chaouia or are Chaouia in toto. I therefore slipped into the fold. For the past few weeks, I have been looking into the region of the Aures, as it is my family’s region of origin in Algeria, and where I tend to go when I visit, as well as because I have noticed some attitudes towards the region from other Algerian-Americans.

At a meeting of the local Arab student group last month, I sat with a few other Maghrebines, eating and chatting. One of the other Algerians was of Kabyle origin, but was a polyglot in Arabic, Kabyle, English and French. Our conversation somehow turned to languages we would all like to learn, French topping the list for some of the other American borns who spoke Arabic already. Some of the others expressed interest in the idea of learning “Berber”. My fellow Algerian’s response to a Moroccan who stated that he wanted to learn “Berbarian” was characteristically Algerian: quick and sharp. By “sharp” I mean “harsh” (though not necessarily unintelligent or incorrect by any means). She informed him, in so many words, that the language was not called “Berbarian” or “Berber” but Tamazight, and that if he wanted to learn a barbarian language (this was my favorite part) he ought to stick to French and/or German, which illicited snickers from round the table. Clearly, she was irritated, particularly since the gentlemen had previously referred to Berbers (Imazighen, in case she is reading this) as “hill tribes”. But, to his credit, he had also mentioned that he thought the language was “pretty” and that he respected its resilience through time.

This episode got interesting when another Algerian-American made his way to our table, and said “Why all the fuss about Berber? It’s not even a real language.” My good Kabyle friend with a sharp tongue was again irritated, and when I inquired as to why he believed that, he said that “There are so many different dialects, you can’t possibly call it a language by itself.” I actually agree with that, but it was obvious that the two Kabyles at the table did not and they launched a barrage of squawks about how there is one Amazigh people and language and so on. I felt it necessary to tell them that if they were under the impression that there was a singular Tamazight, they should attempt communication with a Taureg or with me, a Chaouia, in their “dialect” to prove this. “Typical Chaouia!” was the response, and I could not help but laugh, and when others started laughing, the tension was diffused. Nevertheless, the view advanced was that Chaouia are less loyal to their Amazighity (Berberness) than are Kabyles or other Imazighen, when I would venture to say may be true in some respects, but that it is merely a different conception of it, especially in respect to the larger Algerian identity.

I should note that any objective take on the Algerian side of the “Berberist” movement will show that it is, in the words of Hugh Roberts, “a peculiarly Kabyle affair”. And while, as Roberts notes, there is nothing stopping Chaouias or Mzabites from joining it (and Chaouias are increasingly orienting themselves in its direction, though with an especially Chaouia flavor), it is mostly the domain of those from further north. Why? I would venture a guess and say that Chaouias do not view themselves as being so historically alienated/marginalized from the Algerian national project as Kabyles have, and that the have through time intermarried more often with Arabs and been more keen on their religion and the importance of Arabic as the literary language of Islam than Kabyles. They did not and for the most part do not see Arabic as a threat to their identity, and have been active participants in Algerian national life since colonial times. (This does not mean that Chaouia members of the Amazigh movement have been exempt from state oppression by any means, though.) Kabylia and the Aures are two regions of historic resistance in Algeria; the Aures were the strong hold of the Dhiya (the Kahina) against the Arabs, and before that they were home to the Numidian kings Masinissa and Jugurtha (Yugurten) who resisted Carthaginian and Roman encroachment. Alistair Horne put it rightly when he said that among Algeria’s Imazighen populations “revolt, and revenge in the Corsican fashion, were honoured occupations from time immemorial.”

During colonial times, the Kabyles were famous for their resistance to the French yoke during the late 1800’s, and the Aures, under the leadership of Ahmed Bey and the Chaouia tribes surrounding Constantine and its vicinity, resisted the French fitfully. It has often been said that the Algerian Revolution was launched from the Aures by sons of the Aures (many of the FLN’s and ALN’s early leaders were Chaouias by blood or by tongue). The names Benboulaid, Larbi Ben M’hidi, Si Elhawas, Hadj Lakhdar, Abane Ramdane and others should be familiar to students of the Algerian Revolution, and they are all names of Chaouias. Kabyles, too, threw their lot into the fight and many revolutionary leaders were of Kabyle origin.

A major difference between the two peoples was that while the Chaouias never made any significant effort to assert their Amazigh identity into the struggle (i.e. requesting specific recognition of their identity in charters or special guarantees from the leadership with respect to their region, etc.), the Kabyles did. They were quickly marginalized by the leadership (the struggle between those who saw Algeria as an “Arab-Muslim” polity and those who saw it as an “Arab-Berber Muslim” one, or in some other combination or isolation of those terms was resolved by sidelining the “Berberist” leaders in the leadership and propagating a more Arabist view), and the bad blood resulting from this fed resistance to Arabist authority among the Kabyles, as it rightly should have. At the same time, the Chaouias basically accepted the Arab-Muslim narrative, fitting themselves into the Muslim side of that equation. The Chaouia were often loyal members of the FLN, and when independence was won, they were well placed within the military ranks. The country’s second president, the famed Arabist Houari Boumédiène (b. Mohamed Ben Brahim Boukharouba), was of Chaouia background, and so too were many of his favored appointees, for instance, Brahim Brahim — a Chaouia — was put in charge of the national military service. Many members of the military brass, and unfortunately many of those who have been accused of greivous offenses against the Algerian people, were or are also Chaouias. Khaled Nezzar (former member of the junta that took over after the 1992 elections were canceled, and who is now hiding in Europe), and Laimine Zeroual (former president during the Civil War) are also of Chaouia origin. Many Chaouias make themselves through military services, and as a consequence, one finds that they are intensely patriotic in most cases (though this not to say that almost all other Algerians are not! Algerians are well known for their pride in their country.).

The Chaouia hold deeply to Islamic tradition, and many who support the usage of Arabic over Tshawith, other Berber languages, or French will explain their position by stating that “Of course we speak Arabic, we are Muslims“, and see no contradiction in linking the Arabic language (not necessarily personal Arabism) with Islam. Being that North Africa has yet to have a meaningful indigenous Christian community since antiquity, many Algerians (and other North Africans) link the Arabic language to Islam (Islam, after all, did arrive with Arabs, as opposed to much of the Arab East where pagan, Christian and Jewish Arabs predated Muslim Arabs by many centuries). This is changing as secular ideas become more clearly articulated, but it is nevertheless still the case with many people. I can see this pattern in my own family, where a lot of the younger generation speaks Arabic as their native tongue but still identify as Chaouias, and understand the language to some extent. They see their knowledge of Arabic as integral to their understanding of Islam and, for lack of a better word, “civilizational” placement.¹ And I would add that most of my male cousins in Algeria are in the military, have been in the military, want to be in the military or see it as the only viable prospect for their personal advancement (which is something that the military represents for many Algerians: the prospect of social mobility and secure employment).

Why have not Chaouias become resented to the extent that Tikritis and Alawites have in Iraq and Syria, respectively? I would argue that the Chaouia have not dominated any branch of government so thoroughly that it has become to be seen as an edifice of control on their part. This is true, first of all, because the Algerian National Army was for many years made up of conscripts serving a compulsory national duty that was seen as a part of nation building. It brought together Algerians from all regions and indoctrinated them into a strong national bond, while breaking down geographic barriers and prejudices (though those obviously never went away, as is the case in any country). Thus, numerically the Chaouia were not really ever over represented numerically in the military, though they were in the officer corps and positions of authority because of patronage and disproportionate interest.

In the second place, the Chaouia lack the blatantly chauvinistic attitude seen in the previous two groups. Chaouia officers never sought to use the military as a vehicle for making their community paramount above all the others; most of them explicitly and categorically rejected any conception of “regionalism” on nationalist grounds. I think that the reason that so many Chaouia were appointed to top positions in the military during the Boumédiène period was that they were loyal to him in the first place, not so much because they shared an ethnic affinity with him. Algeria lacks the “clan” politics (though such extended families do exist) found in the Arab east or in Morocco, as the French smashed these traditional social structures (along with just about everything else). In place of loyalty based on blood-ties, Algerians instead of have loyalty based on a variety of other factors, including ideology, common experience, etc.² Those who favored an Arabist view grouped together, those with “Berberist” views did the same, as did Islamists. A famous quote from Boumédiène that floats around the mouths of his admirers and on the Internet runs like this: “I don’t believe in regionalism and if regionalists demand that the Chaouias need to be represented then I tell them: I am a Chaoui, I am here, and that will be enough for them”. Whether or not this was true is up for debate. That his reign was part of a grand Chaouia conspiracy is occasionally thrown around by his detractors, as well as special interest groups, but I do not think that the idea that the prominence of the Chaouia was plotted out in some tent with the aim of controlling Algeria to be realistic. I have heard it from Kabyles, and from Algerian Arabs, though in no large frequency.

In the third place, following along with the rejection of blatant chauvinism or regionalism, the Chaouia were keen to appear as most other Algerians, that is, as Arabs. The Chaouias in government did not champion “divisive” Amazigh-specific issues, perhaps to the detriment of the Imazighen as a whole. They championed the Arabic language, Muslim cultural identity and the rest of the Algerian Arab-Muslim narrative. It should have also been mentioned earlier that unlike Kabyle, Chaouia is not a written language in the traditional sense. There were comparatively few efforts to use the language for literary ends, and even fewer to standardize it. It is absent from most of the discussions on the topic of writing Berber languages. The French were not active in promoting literacy among the Chaouia and thus few attempted to write down their language as they did with the Kabyles. This may help explain, in part, why it was easy for Chaouias to adopt preferences for the Arabic-language as a language of literature and formality. They were not attempting to export their language or customs outside of the Aures. They also did not differ from the rest of Algeria in terms of their sectarian affiliation; they were (and are) as solidly Sunni as any other Algerian sub-population. Thus, many still assume that Boumédiène was no more than the standard Arab, and that many of the generals of Chaouia origin are as well.³ This is to say that the Chaouia were very close to the mainstream when it came to their politics and thus were not seen as a kind of overbearing force, except for when it came to implementing the Arab aspect of the state in Kabylie; then things got hairy, almost ironically [and pathetically] so, as it is the Amazigh president who is most closely identified with Arabist chauvinism in the post-revolutionary period among Kabyle activists.

Add to this history that the Chaouia have a reputation for being rough and tumble, and that the term is often used as a derisive one to refer to such young people, and you have basically the view that many Algerians carry of Chaouias. Berberists tend to dislike this kind of background because it de-emphasizes the place of the Amazigh identity and because it is perceived as being Arabo/religio-centric. Other might not have that view. My Chaouia background (partial background) has figured interestingly in how I am relating with other Algerians here in Boston; I have come across only two other Algerian-Americans who are familiar with Chaouia, because they can speak it too. Others can tell that my understanding of “Algerian” is from an Auresien one, and this leads to jokes that are not meant to be offensive, but sometimes end up being such. I will post on those later.

1 [Part of the reason that the Chaouia are so heavily Arabized is twofold: first, Islamic reformist schools were very popular in the Aures during the colonial period (in a way similar to which French-language schools were popular in Kabylia). These schools emphasized Qur’anic learning and the Arabic language. Second, many Chaouia have become highly urbanized since independence, as industrial opportunities expanded in the cities of the Aures and elsewhere. The languages or industry in Algeria are Arabic and French, and knowledge of French has always been scarce in the Aures, giving Arabic a bigger place. Thus, one finds that urban Chaouias tend to either be wholly Arabized (while still identifying as Chaouia) or partially so (being bilingual).]

2 [One finds that in the historic “Clans” of the Revolutionary leadership, individuals from vastly different areas who were entirely unrelated by blood were loyal to one another, and were determined more by with whom one served during the War than by whether or not one was related or ethnically similar or dissimilar to the others; the rivalry between the “Oudja Clan” and the Ben Bella clan precipitated the 1965 coup that brought Boumédiène to power; I might add that both Boutefliqa and Boumédiène were members of the Oudja “Clan”, whilst the former has his origins in Tlemcen and the other in Guelma, on opposite sides of the country. Other Chaouia political figures have included Ali Benflis, from Batna, who ran for President in 2004 after having served as Prime Minister, as well as Redha Malek, the diplomat that helped to negotiate away much of Algeria’s international debt (and who was a famous “éradicateur“, a hard-liner against the Islamists); those from the Aures may hold disproportionate influence, but as the influence of the military has declined under Boutefliqa, so too has theirs, and their views are in no way uniform. Many Prime Ministers have been from the Aures (especially during the War, when hard-liners prevailed), some favoring no amnesty for Islamists, other favoring it, other with a more leftist orientation, other favoring a more free market system The hard-liners are increasingly marginalized, along with the rest of the military, as the government has moved towards Reconciliation as its policy, as opposed to eradication.]

3 [It should also be noted that, according to William B. Quandt, Boumédiène doled out positions in his cabinet for Berbers “in exact proportion to their numbers in the population at large” (+/- 20%). Quandt seems to be unaware of Boumédiène’s origins in the Aures, but is keen to point out his emphasis on rural development in the major Amazigh regions (Kabylia and the Aures), noting that under his tenure, school attendance rose in those areas “more rapidly [. . .] than in the rest of the country”, but that this was part of an effort to reduce regional disparities within the country. An interesting factor he also mentions is that a Kabyle in the Ben Bella Political Bureau (e.g. Mohammedi Said) “was a fervent believer in Arabization, and was in fact given responsibility for promoting the use of Arabic in the administration and in the schools.” This comes from an article (“The Berbers in the Algerian Political Elite”) written no earlier than 1970 (from Arabs and Berbers: From Tribe to Nation in North Africa, ed. Gellner and Micaud, Lexington, 1972), whose emphasis is almost excessively on the Kabyle element, as most analyses of “Berber” matters in Algeria are. Thus, this analysis lacks the benefit of hindsight (Its conclusion states that “it seems [. . .] likely that for at least the next decade Algerian political life will not be seriously colored by Berber-Arab rivalries.” By the 1980’s, Kabyle identity politics had emerged as a major issue in Algerian politics, with the Tafsuth Imazighen being rather memorable, as well as the more recent upheaval in 2001. I am at the present time trying to procure more recent assessments of the matter, though, through my own research.) Quandt is clearly aware of the origin of many of the individuals of Chaouia origin during the Boumédiène/revolutionary periods and of the importance of the Chaouia in independent Algeria. “Many in the ranks of the military are believed to be Arabized Chaouia.” Between Ballots and Bullets: Algeria’s Transition from Authoritarianism, Quandt, Brookings Institution Press, 1998), pgs. 35-36. An ICG report from 2003 on “Unrest and Impasse in Kabylia” noted that “Shawiyya Berbers have tended until recently to be prominent above all in the army”, while noting that 5 of 12 Algerian PMs since 1979 have been Kabyles, 2 have been Chaouias (Benflis and Sifi), the report states that Redha Malek is of Kabyle origin born in Batna (I am not sure as to the accuracy of that though).

It should be further noted on a related note that during the early 1960’s, following independence, a rivalry between the Ben Bella government and various factions in the Algerian east arose, principally in Kabylia and the Aures. In Kabylia this was led by Hocine Ait Ahmed, who assembled a gathering of something like 2,000 men against the government. In the Aures, this was led by Colonel Mohamed Chaabani — a Chaouia — and, according contemporary accounts from Time, 9,000 Chaouia war veterans. That Ben Bella made enemies across the country is widely known. His Marxist economic policy and importation of the pieds-rouges (European leftist economic advisors), along with his tendency to try and play one region off of the other for his own benefit caused many hard-line nationalists, and religious people to dislike him (Algerian religious figures traditionally oppose socialism, and especially Marxism: a common Algerian saying goes like this; “a jointly owned donkey remains saddle-less.”). As Ben Bella’s defense minister, it should be mentioned, Boumédiène moved in French trained officers, many of whom were “externals” that had not fought most of the Liberation War within Algeria. After the coup in 1965, he redressed these grievances, as mentioned above (Boumédiène was also opposed to much of Ben Bella’s economic, social, and especially military policies). Chaabani, though, was executed by the Ben Bella regime in 1964, after the rebellion was put down, and his name was of ill repute in official history until the 1980’s. However, it is important to elucidate that this rebellion was not brought on behalf of “Berberism”, but was articulated in nationalist terms, and Chaabani was operating with a different set of grievances than Ait Ahmed was. The Front of Socialist Forces (FFS, Ait Ahmed’s party) was and remains almost exclusively in Kabylia.]


3 thoughts on “Thinking Chaouia

  1. I found this post very interesting. It is Superbly written and fascinating. I’d like to add that I am american and my dad is chaoui, so we have a lot in common. Your post was very enlightening. After having read it I’m curious about what motivated you to write on this subject. I feel that today algerian society and government accommodates its arab and Berber community almost as if they were indistinguishable. I was very interested to see this was not always the case. I look at the Berbers and worry about the fading away of the language and culture as large arab and European influence permeates traditional life. This seems to be an ongoing problem elsewhere in the world and have thought about ways to avoid that sort of cultural and linguistic extinction. Loved the writing!

  2. I came across this interesting essay by coincidence, and I feel I am lucky to read this from someone not living in Algeria, and yet still aware of its political, cultural and historical contexts. I am doing my PhD research in the UK about Chaouia and you have just enlightened me in many ways and directed lots of interests in the field. Many thanks for sharing! I would highly recommend it for any Algerian.

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