This is an exhaustive study of historiographical and literary representations of the late-seventh-century North African female leader, the Kahina, who first defeated the Arab invaders but was then defeated by them. The author traces all accounts of the Kahina, from the first narratives of Arab historians, written 150 years after the event, to medieval, colonial, and postcolonial historical, literary, and oral (folk) representations.

The Kahina’s identity cannot be known, the author explains, so it is possible that she was Berber, Arab, Byzantine, Roman, Jewish, Christian, or pagan. Thus writers over the centuries have constructed her to serve their specific ideological purposes. This does not make the myth of the Kahina less important, the author argues, but more so, as it represents and maps contestations about the true nature of North Africa and its transformation over time from what it once was (Berber, Roman, Byzantine, and Christian) to what it is today (Arab and Muslim). The author shows that these representations were rarely innocent and he traces to examine what may be called an ideological conquest … how North Africa, from its conquest by the Arabs to its independence from the French, was subdued ideologically by the elaboration of a mythology which has made it sometimes Arab, sometimes French, sometimes Berber, and sometimes Jewish” (p. xvii).

In Chapter 1, “From Memory to Myth,” the author analyzes Arabic historical accounts from the ninth to the fourteenth centuries, at the end of which time the themes of the myth were complete. Until then, however, Arab historians kept adding new themes, possibly from oral traditions not recorded by their predecessors or for other reasons. In these early accounts, the Kahina is mostly an antihero who stands in the way of the Arab Islamic conquest and civilizing mission. The Kahina also gathers folkloric detail in this period as an exceedingly obese and wild-haired sorceress, who spread terror and destruction in the land. It was the famous Ibn Khaldun who, seven centuries after the actual events, claimed that the Kahina belonged to a Jewish Berber tribe and traced Berber origins back to the Middle East. From then on the myth of the Kahina became tied up not only with the Arab civilizing mission but also with that of Berber origins.

Chapter 2, “Colonial Histories,” traces French and Jewish representations of the Kahina. The French colonial mythology, best represented by Felix Gautier (1927), represented the Kahina as a (Jewish) Berber defender of Roman, Christian North Africa against the Arab Muslim invaders. This allowed the French, first, to regard the Berbers as the truly indigenous North Africans subjected and oppressed by Arab Muslim newcomers and, second, to understand seventh-century Berber resistance against the Arab invasion as the Old and New Testaments’ resistance against the invasion of the Qur’an. In this chapter Hannoum also traces Jewish appropriations of the Kahina. Thus Andre Chouraqui (1952), a Jewish Israeli author of North African descent, saw in the Kahina the beginning of the ongoing struggle between Jews and Arabs.

In Chapter 3, “From History to Fiction,” Hannoum discusses twelve French novels, almost half of them written by women. Mostly these fictional works supported colonial historiography in that they promoted the cause of a French Algeria by excluding Arabs and presenting Berbers, flow assigned European origins, as natural allies. However, these novels also included a couple of anticolonial interpretations of the Kahina as a timeless lover of freedom. Jewish literary representations of this period presented North Africa as originally Jewish and thus fashioned for themseives a mythical North African ancestry. Chapter 4, “PostColonial Memories,” deals with Arab and Berber representations of the Kahina. Most influential were those by writers belonging to the Salafi movement such as Tawfiq Madani and Mubarak Mili. Inspired by the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh, these writers of the 1930s introduced the idea that the Berbers had only resisted the Arab conquests because they had initially misunderstood the civilizing mission of Islam. Moreover, since the Berbers were really Semites, they were not even really different from the Arabs. Hannoum shows how the Salafi writers reversed the French colonial mythology point by point, thus creating their own mythology later used by more explicitly nationalist writers.

In this chapter Hannoum also discusses the first truly decolonized history of North Africa by ‘Abdallah Laroui (1973). In the latter’s account, it is the Byzantine Christians who become the anti-heroes, as they caused the Arab defeat of the Berbers by withdrawing the support they had initially offered. For Laroui, the Kahina “serves to articulate the myth of a free North Africa, aware of its own identity, eager to keep its autonomy, and willing to fight for it” (p. 127). According to Hannoum, this representation of North Africa as integrating east and west is currently the dominant historical representation. The author conciudes this chapter with an account of contemporary Berber nationalists, who see the Kahina primarily as a non-religious Berber heroine who resisted the invading Arab Muslims—reproducing, but now for their own purposes, elements of the colonial mythology. While he mentions feminist representations of the Kahina as a powerful, militant, female leader in a precolonial Berber society in which women could at times become equal to or exceed men, these are not analyzed in detail and do not appear to present any new insights.

Chapter 5, finally, deals with North African literary representations from after the 1950s. While a discussion of authors such as Kateb Yacine and Nabil Fares may be indispensable, there is no doubt that the author is running out of steam at this point and that the book begins to read like a mere catalogue of references to the Kahina. For most African historians, certainly, this book’s interest lies in its earlier chapters on historiography and in the always sobering insight that historical writings reveal as much about the historians’ present circumstances as about the past they set out to interpret.

Wellesley College

Note: This review was used “Accessibility Option - TIFF Format” Some words may occur illegible. Please read the PDF file.

Leave a Reply