Last year I read Abdelmajid Hannoum’s Colonial Histories, Post-Colonial Memories: The Legend of the Kahina, A North African Heroine. I did not review it, though, because of other priorities. The book, made up of several thoroughly researched and footnoted essays, deserves praise for its commitment to looking below official narratives and examining Tunisian, Israeli and Franco-Jewish narratives regarding the legend of the Kahina (Dhiya).¹ Those familiar with the Berber movement will likely also be aware of the story of the North African queen from the Aures Mountains in what is now eastern Algeria and Tunisia, who stood against the Arab Muslim invasion lead by `Uqba bin Nafi’ in the 7th century. The book is a valuable resource for those interested in the legend itself, Berber history and the history of North Africa generally.
The major drawback of Hannoum’s work, as I see it, is that he neglects to examine Auressian narratives: Afterall, the story of the Kahina took place in the Aures. From many of the Berberist and Francophile accounts of the Kahina one would presume that her struggle took place in Kabylia. While his Berber informants, mostly from Kabylia or in the diaspora, provide worthy insight, Hannoum’s work would benefit from explicit and in depth analysis of how the Kahina is remembered in the Aures by its Arab and Chaouia Berber inhabitants. Hannoum examines the works of Kateb Yacine in relation to the Kahina, and quotes the following chant from the Aures:
Ana sh-shawi wald sh-shawiya/Sakin fi luris, wladi mshunshiya/Baba Yugharta, Yamma dalkahina. [I am a Shawi [man], son of a Shawiya [woman]/I live in the Aures, my sons are mshunshiya/Daddy is Jugurtha/Mommy is the Kahina] (p. 140)
This, and the footnote following the song quoted above, make up the whole of the book’s direct discussion of the Aures in modern times with respect to the Kahina. Discussions of modern Berber views on the Kahina are for the most part limited to discussions of Kabyles, understandable in that the most prolific Berberists are of Kabyle origin and that the story was appropriated to the Kabyles by colonial historiographies and by the modern Berberist movement. For Hannoum’s purposes, it makes sense to examine the dominant interpretations of the legend, but the conflation of Kabyle narratives with Chaouia ones — and I mean this not in the sense of the modern cultural movement but in the sense of folk histories and stories — is not as helpful. Because the reader learns in a footnote that “A Shawi is someone from the Shawiya region,” (p. 159) and the ethno-linguistic identity of the Aures (which is inhabited by Chaouia-speaking Berbers and Arabs) is not made clear until this point, and even then vagueness persists. That the region is inhabited by Berbers (Imazighen) is not in question, but whether these inhabitants are Kabyles or some other set of Berber-speakers and what they think or believe about the Kahina remains to be established. Clarity in this respect would be an especially useful addition to a book that is already edifying and useful on a variety of other levels.
1. Hannoum also examines colonial French and Jewish, Arab and Algerian nationalist, Islamist, Moroccan and literary narratives.