29 years ago, Imazighen lost Mouloud Mammeri: a writer, a playwright, a researcher, an anthropologist, a thinker, … a father!
Like Ulysses, all his life was a kind of journey which took him back after long detours to his native land after a time consuming search to reconciliate his spiritual affiliation with his people. He made peace with himself but also with the legends, the values, the convictions and the aspirations of his fellow imazighen from Kabylia whose cultural heritage has been forgotten and persecuted. He became an “amusnaw” or a man of knowledge whose words, written or spoken have a special meaning for a whole people. He realized very soon that his people have made him the carrier of a torch which burns for freedom and democracy in a country were rational talk must overcome obscurantism, hatred and indifference.
Early in his life, Mouloud Mammeri became very fascinated by Amazigh poetry. His first book “La colline Oubliée” or “The Forgotten Hill” was written in French. It was not any kind of hill he had in mind, since Mouloud Mammeri was born in Kabylia in 1917 in a village called Taourirt or The Hill.
In the 50s, Mouloud Mammeri was a professor of French literature at the University of Algiers. He knew that Amazigh culture has contributed a lot to the Mediterranean culture since, after all, it belongs to a region which is a crossroad of civilizations. His first essay “La Societé Berbère” or “The Berber Society” published in the magazine Aguedal in 1938 showed a vocation at its early stage.
He already had a lucid vision of hispeople: a critical witness of the Amazigh society that he wrote “persists butdoes not resist”. The place of the Amazigh culture in the modern world was one of his earliest concerns. While surrealism was predominant in his first writings, like in “The Forgotten Hill,” soon he was backto earth with “Le Sommeil du Juste,” “L’Opium et le Baton,” “Le Banquet,” “Le Foehn” and “La Traversée.” At the same time Mammeri published essays on Amazigh literature. The publication of “Chants Berbères de Kabylie” by Jean Amrouche in 1937 was so emotional for him that he tried to get the original text ofthe book in Tamazight; he will preface the re-edited version of the book published in 1989, a book that he will never see because by thattime he had already left us.
After the independence of Algeria, he thought for some time that the end of the tunnel for the persecution of the Amazigh culture was near. He had new dreams. He tried to persuade the Department of Education to implement the teaching of Tamazight in the system. Once more, he was denied because according to some officials of the same department “Berber is an invention of the Pères Blancs” (as the French catholic priests were called in Algeria). The rebuttal of the language of his ancestors by these officials pushed Mammeri to a kind of crossing a desert. It was hard to swallow that while French, the language of French colonialism in Algeria for 130 years, can have free ride while Tamazight was denied existence. To add injury to prejudice, it was obvious that at the same time these same officials were celebrating the teaching of the language of Moliere to their children; in public they were showing a hate-relationship with French culture and French colonialism.
In the late 60s, Mouloud Mammeri developed a new transcription of Tamazight with Latin letters, a new approach different from the one introduced in 1894 by Professor S. A. Boulifa of the University of Algiers. Historically, Tamazight is one of the rare languages that has its own alphabet called Tifinagh; early scripts of Tifinagh were recorded in North Africa more than three thousand years ago. We can also add that there are speculations that Latin is a language of Egyptian origin and therefore of north African origin even if it has been subject to many modifications by the Greeks and the Etruscans.
With his new transcription of his mother tongue, Mammeri wrote a new grammar (Tajerrumt ) and elaborated a lexicon of modern words; both were published in France because Tamazight was forbidden from being even shown in public in Algeria. Around the same period, he contributed to the writing of the French-Touareg lexicon with Jean Marie Cortade.
In 1969, Mammeri published in Tamazight the celebrated “Les Isefra de Si Mohand” or “Poems of Si Mohand,” a folk hero and poet of Kabylia which will be re-published seven times.
Mammeri became director of the CRAPE (Centre de Recherches Anthropologiques Prehistoriques et Ethnographiques), which became under his leadership an ideal research center for Algerian and foreign students. The CRAPE Transactions on Prehistoric era and Anthropology became an internationally recognized publication in academia. All the success of the CRAPE could not help it to survive when an article written on cultural anthropology in the same transactions became the target of the political system in place that is denying one more time the existence of Berber history. The CRAPE was shut down. It was a great loss. No center of that dimension has ever seen lifein Algeria since the date of its closing.
Mammeri was a persecuted man and he always managed not to show it in public: after all, he was a “Free Man,” anAmazigh.
In the spring of 1980, while just anyone from the Middle-East or Europe canbe invited to Algeria to talk about almost anything, M. Mammeri was one more time denied the right to make a presentation on Kabyl poetry in the city of Tizi-Ouzou, the heart of the Kabylia region. The local population saw that as an outrageous act of censorship, and soon the whole region was in ebullition to vehemently denounce this act of denial of the existence of the Kabyl language. Such an act will have repercussions in the whole country for years to come. It was this incident that opened a window to the rest of Algeria, a sign of a new hope for a better life; a sign that mediocrity, intolerance, exclusions, lack of freedom should not have their place in modern Algeria.
Mammeri, the skeptical and independent humanist, the man who never made a judgment about anyone, found himself under fire from a certain media which used just any kind of tricks in order to discredit the man and his vision. Even his nationalism was questioned by certain “journalists,” hiding behind other causes, but who did not know the man, his activism in the MTLD (an underground political organization of the 50s which already was calling for the independence of Algeria), and his suffering during the French-Algerian war. He never talked about it. Only those who fought with him knew the facts. His open letter in the newspaper Le Monde to answer those who targeted him was a lesson on the dignity and commitments of the profession of journalist: “only truth should prevail in their articles, not lies”, he said.
In 1982, Mammeri found some kind of niche in France where, with some of his former students, he discussed the idea of creating a center of the same dimension as the CRAPE. However, it was in Paris at “La Maison des Sciences de l’Homme et l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales” that Mammeri received a cheerful welcome to continue his research. He founded with his good friend Pierre Bourdieu a center for research on the Amazigh culture known as “Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Amazighes” and together published the review Awal or word in Tamazight. He found an ideal place to do research on his own society and his people, something that never stopped burning in his heart. He dedicated his time to revive the Amazigh culture fromits ashes. No, the fire will never stop burning. His “Poemes Kabyles Anciens” published in 1980 were a robust reference to North African culture which has often been a victim of biased historians. While the culturalidentity of the Imazighen from Kabylia was beautifully narrated in “Poemes Kabyles”, other books like “L’Ahellil du Gourara” about the Imazighen of the southern region of Oran and and “Les Dits de Ccix Muhend U Lhusin” confirmed one more time his love and dedication to traditional life in Algeria. All his publications were beautiful contributions to universal culture.
It is, in fact, this universal perspective that became the focus of another one of his books “Le Banquet ou la Mort Absurde des Azteques.” Mammeri had a passion for history and truth; he is the man who wentto visit the roman vestiges of Rome, looking for traces of Jugurtha, the amazigh king who valiantly fought the roman legions. He narrated: “After being defeated, Jugurtha was thrown in the Latonies, a kind of underground cell used as a prison in Rome. I visited it. I have read the name Jugurtha among other names of enemies of Rome of that time. They thought that Jugurtha was going to die from starvation but it was not the case, so they forced a slave to strangle him. I always wanted to write a play called Jugurtha because he was the most magnificent of our freedom fighters.”
Mouloud Mammeri never wrote this play because of a car accident. On his way back from Morocco where he drove to participate to a conference, he was, according to the official version, killed by a tree that fell across the road. We may never know what really happened the day of his farewell to the man who loved so much Tamazgha , the ancestral land of millions of Imazighen.
He left us at a time where all the ideals he fought for all his life started slowly to become reality in Algeria. He can leave now. His work will be the main reference for many generations to come and the fire that he started in our hearts will never stop burning. Qim di Talwit a Dda Lmulud.