A Tunisia-born Jew and French officer who fought the Berbers in Algeria pioneered the counterinsurgency warfare still used in Iraq and Afghanistan
The “Berber Spring” of 1980, which culminated in a bloody government crackdown, was the point of no return for the Kabyle. In 1994 and ’95, 10 million Kabyles kept their children out of school to protest the Arab-only curriculum. Since 1981, autonomy or even independence for the Kabyle has been a popular, if not successful, cause.
There are at least three obvious points of tension between North African Berbers/Amazigh and Arabs. The first is over the historical fact of the Arab conquest. Every Berber I have met has told me that Amazigh were the original inhabitants of North Africa and that all of that land was once theirs. As one Libyan Amazigh told me, “I’m tired of hearing about the Palestinians and how the Jews took their land. What about how the Arabs took our land?”
There is also the fact that the official language of all the North African countries is Arabic—yet in Morocco 60 percent of the population are Tamazight or Berber-speaking, in Algeria 30 percent, and in Libya perhaps 10 percent. In most of North Africa, the Arabophone majority has suppressed or (in the case of Qaddafi’s Libya) outright prohibited the use of Tamazight, a language that is estimated to be anywhere from 2,200 to 3,000 years old; its tiffinagh script has more than 30 letters, differing somewhat from region to region, and some of them look like ancient Greek.
The third clear point of conflict is religious. Many Amazigh are at pains to distinguish between their moderate Islam and the intolerance sometimes found among their Arab neighbors. This Galula recognized in Pacification:
Of all the people of North Africa, they are the least influenced by Islam. They do observe the main religious rites such as the annual month-long fast, but not in a rigid way. The local Moslem priest has little moral or temporal authority.
Almost all Berbers will readily acknowledge that their ancestors were either Christian or Jewish before they became Muslim. Galula hints at this in a footnote, “St. Augustin was a Kabyle. Kabylia was Christianized before the Arab invasion.”
The French should have pressed hard on all three points of tension. They should have told the Berbers that they would be trampled in a new, professedly Arab and Muslim state, as in fact happened. They should have encouraged identity politics to alarm the Arab Algerians. They should have told the Berbers that the Arabs were fundamentalists and told the Arabs that the Berbers were secularists, both of which are exaggerations with a strong kernel of truth. (Even today the Kabyles accuse the Algerian military dictatorship of covertly supporting jihadi groups within the country while simultaneously telling the West that dictatorship is necessary to keep a lid on al-Qaida.)
Furthermore, Galula had an advantage over most of the other French field commanders in having been born and bred in North Africa. How could he have ignored the ethnic composition of the country in which he was fighting a fierce and protracted counterinsurgency campaign? In part, I would chalk it up to the tendency of French governments to downplay regional differences, to standardize language, and to cultivate a national, secular identity. France had fought a centuries-long battle to eradicate the use of regional dialects—a battle won only around the time of World War I.
Galula himself was not primed to value minority cultures or encourage cultural balkanization. He was an assimilated Jew whose family had embraced the possibilities of metropolitan France and its dominant secular culture. And he grew up in a time of growing anti-Semitism, when Judaism was best kept quiet. What is particularly ironic, and sad, is that Galula was also more or less a Berber himself by ancestry, a fact that he also did his best to efface.
David Galula was born in Sfax, Tunisia, to a Jewish family that claimed to be original to North Africa. One of Galula’s paternal first cousins, Magda Galula, told me that the family was from a town called Galula near the Libyan border, whose residents converted to Judaism 2,000 years ago. In other words, the Galulas were Berbers, or possibly a mix of Roman and Berber blood. They could have been nothing else if they were indigenous to North Africa.
But the Galula family had begun their emergence from centuries of traditional life in David’s grandfather’s time. Galula’s grandfather had been the doyen of the Jewish community of Sfax, and while his family spoke Judeo-Arabic rather than French at home, he sent his sons to French lycées, rather than the traditional Jewish schools common at the time. Galula’s father went out of his way to register David as a French citizen in 1924, when he was 5.
During Galula’s adolescence, anti-Semitism gained force in North Africa as in Europe. It was a time to keep one’s Judaism discreet. There were anti-Jewish riots in Sfax in 1932 and a pogrom that killed 23 Jews in Constantine, Algeria, in 1934. Galula went to the small, insular French military academy at Saint-Cyr, half of whose cadets were themselves the sons of officers, not exactly a philo-Semitic group just a generation after Dreyfus. Shortly after he graduated in 1939 all Jews were expelled from the French officer corps by the Vichy government. Later, Galula ignored his mother’s plan to arrange a marriage with a rich, attractive Jewish girl and married a Christian American he fell in love with while they were both working in China.
Re-reading Pacification in Algeria with Berber identity in mind, Galula’s willful blindness leaps out:
The Kabyles are aborigines belonging to the same Berber stock as the Schleuhs in Morocco.
They have their own language, quite different from Arabic, but it is only a spoken one, for they never developed a writing system.
How could Galula not know that the Berbers had a written language? His home town of Sfax is the nearest big city to Djerba, which is Berber, and to the Libyan coast inhabited by Berbers. (There was of course no “Libya” when Galula was a child.) Galula spent his teenage years in Morocco, a majority Berber country that has been the first to encourage a revival of the written language. Galula repeatedly refers to the Kabyles as illiterate: It is possible that the Kabyles he met had lost their ancient script, but it is also possible that they were literate in Tamazight—the written language Galula seemed to think didn’t exist.
Galula’s attitude toward the Kabyle whose loyalty he was trying to win was ambivalent: contempt leavened with grudging admiration for some features of the culture:
In spite of some intermarriage with Arabs, they have generally retained their distinct physical and intellectual features. Kabyles have a primitive yet definite talent for organizing, which puts them far above the Arabs in this respect. They have also an amazing sense of dialectic, which often put to shame some of my young officers when they thought they could press a fuzzy propaganda line on the villagers.
Perhaps, like the minority group Galula was a part of—the Jews—the Kabyles had had plenty of practice in arguing for their dignity and their rights. But perhaps because Galula was not given to emphasizing his Jewishness, he did not get the Kabyles’ passionate sense of their own identity.
The French blindness to Kabyle identity was tragic. It is arguable that the Algerian revolution worked out badly for all of Algeria, but still more so for the Kabyle. Meanwhile, Galula spun a brilliant theory that resonates with military strategists to this day—yet he ignored obvious facts about his particular area of operations that he was uniquely equipped to exploit, had he been open to seeing them plain. The lesson of Galula and the French in the Kabyle may be: Whatever a leader or a nation tries hardest to suppress in itself is likely to rise up and defeat it. It is too soon to diagnose the parallel issues for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are surely there.
In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel, an aristocratic Jewish family in Italy tries to wall itself off from the Holocaust