Kahina, The Woman They Don’t Love
Ghania Khelifi - 18/09/2012
Alongside the lavish official celebrations of the fiftieth Independence Anniversary, a small cultural association of the city of Khenchela (East Algeria) held a seminar on “Kahina, Amazigh queen and symbol of Algerian women.” This title has nothing to do with the official sounding slogans except that the Kahina does not belong to the pantheon of national heroes and her character is controversial.
The Kahina’s figure is disturbing when compared to emblematic figures present in the version of national history chosen by Algerian political authorities. More than other past characters, she crystallizes the fracture that exists between the fierce defenders of Arabism and Islam-exclusive components of Algerian identity and the supporters of the Berber dimension of it by recalling its Jewish and Christian history.
Who is this lady Kahina who has suffered the omerta of the Algerian government since the country’s independence? Her real name is Dyhia (the beautiful gazelle in Tamazight) and she was named Kahina, meaning soothsayer or witch by the Arabs. In 686, after the death of Koceila, another Berber leader who distinguished herself by her resistance to the Arabs, Kahina, daughter of King Aksel, reunites several Berber tribes of Eastern and Southern North Africa to lead the war against the Umayyad who came to Islamize and conquer central Barbary (the Aures in Eastern Algeria and Western Tunisia). This beautiful woman as described by popular mythology defeated twice the mighty army of the Umayyad invaders.
After five years of the reign, Kahina was defeated in 702 AD near Tebessa in the east of modern Algeria. She took refuge in Tunisia but she was captured and beheaded. Her head was sent as a trophy to the Caliph in Syria. This version fluctuates over time and historians, but the legend of the “beautiful gazelle” remains in North African oral tradition. Excluded from North African official history because of her Jewish religion fro some and Christian religion for others, she finds a place in the claim for Berber identity.
The Amazigh protests in Algeria unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate its presence in the official writing of history. Only a few writers like Kateb Yacine and academics have revisited her legend and its epic. It was only in 2003 that President Bouteflika, on his way to his third term of office and anxious to appease the revolt in Kabylia, conceded a first visit to the statue of Kahina erected by an association in the city Khenchela city, bastion of the identity movement.
The president of the Association for the Defence of Arabic language, a kind of dark guardian of the temple of the local islamobaathism, demanded that the statue should destroyed as an act of “kufr” (apostasy) because the Kahina died fighting Islam and Muslims. Kabyle activists of the identity movement also protested against the absence of inscription in the Amazigh language on the headstone. Without openly banning cultural or scientific events devoted to the Kahina organised by local initiatives, successive Algerian governments have never encouraged any serious research on this figure in the history of the Maghreb. Even if the site is classified, the remains of the supposed palace of the Berber Queen Khenchela receive no maintenance and nothing is done to reconstruct the course of this female warrior. The reasons behind this attitude are the same as those that explain why the door of national history was closed to Saint Augustine, the Berber king. These figures are closer to the people than FLN opponents the during the liberation war (1954-1962).
Kahina’s figure belies the official version of national history that has, until now, erased the Algeria pre-existing the French invasion in 1830, especially the Algeria that existed before the FLN (National Liberation Front). Granting the qualities of a military strategist, political leader and patriot to a Berber woman is not compatible with the Family Code which establishes inequality between men and women or with the persecution of Christian or Jewish Algerians. Belonging as much to the Algerians as to the Tunisians, Kahina was reduced to a figure folk because it is a reminder of the stubborn resistance of this region’s peoples to all the invasions whether on behalf of the Koran or the sword.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech