Quartier Latin, December 2011, at the heart of the Parisian intellectual quarter Messaoud NEDJAHI had give me an appointment to talk about his musical experience, his intellectual career and his daily fight and claim for Berber culture. Despite several university degrees, music takes up a large portion in his life. For him, the combination of musical notes and words becomes an ethnic arm, “a protest song”.
Mother land and Childhood
Messaoud Nedjahi is native from Tkukt, a region of the Aurès, a Berber word which signifies “massive”. The Aures is a wide historical and ethno-linguistic mountainous territory located in the east of Algeria, where live a Berber speaking group called Chawi. Mister Nedjahi is a Chawi born in region called Timsunin in January 24, 1954, the year of the beginning of the Algerian war.
His family possessed many fertile lands, dates fields and storage barns that they were obliged to abandon because they were chased by the French without a territory pass. They arrived clandestinely to Batna and settled in a more modern house that a friend of them gave them till after the independence in 1962. In Batna, Messaoud Nedjahi joined “L’Ecole Indigène”, a primary school special for the Algerian children, and carried all his scholarship there until the obtaining of his baccalaureate.
University Doctorate degrees, drawing and a passion for literature
Writer, psychologist, ethno-psychologist, musicologist, and the Ph-d in the ethno-musicology that he is carrying today at Sorbonne University, Messaoud Nedjahi’s career is very complex and even atypical. Poetry, guitar and drawing were his first passions. And then, literature joined the list. He has a collection of pencil drawings of white and black cinema stars that he has exposed at Cannes in 2004 in an exposition called “Stars du Cinéma Bis”. He has written twelve books and the thirteenth, which is around of L’Ane d’Or of Apulée is coming soon. His books examine mainly the question of Berber identity. He was one of the pioneers of the Berber “awakening in the Aurès. Here are some of his books:
- La Becquée n’a pas Suffit
- Aurès Insolit
- Massinissa, le seigneur des coquelicots
- Aurès Insoumis
- Ug Zelmad l’insoumis
- Aurés ou les Feuillets morts d’un Amnésique
- Jugurtha, l’héritier du Coquelicot
- Autopsie d’une identité
- Tamenraset sous la Neige
- Profession : Infirmière
- Les Anges Naissent aux Aurès
- Les Trois Précieuses
“I am not a militant even if my texts breaths identity claims. I sing my land, my mother land. I mourn it! I am not a militant I fight for my identity”
He says that literature has always been a part of him. Literature is the basis of his love for illustration. Until now, he is in a complete admiration in front of book covers of the “American pulps” that had oriented his readings into the “genre” and that had shaped his “fantastic” or even rebellious non-conformist side: “j’ai toujours créé mes propres repères au gré de mes folies”. The dissidence has caused his imprisoning several times and the destruction and vandalizing of some of his art exposition in the seventies in Algeria. But, this had never stopped his go forward his goal, an imprecise goal but, or at least, a non-structured goal. Someone can think that the multiplicity of the university degrees cans reflect a kind of lack of ambition of Messaoud Nedjahi, but for him “no more learning is dying”.
The initial university formation of Messaoud Nedjahi was psychology. He had been working in the field for a long time even during his thirteen years exile in the Saudi Arabia during the late 1980s and the 1990s. However, this was not his first formation. He was studying physics at the University of Constantine in Algeria. He shifted into psychology because of a woman. In fact, he felt deeply in love with a girl who was in the psychology section, his desire of being beside her pushed his to convert from science to letters.
Psychology is a kind of “self-autopsy”; it reveals the self. But, “many people do not accept what they discover”. During his military service in Algiers, Messaoud Nedjahi created a library in the psychiatric service where he exercised his job:” Everything was excellent; every patient had a duty and occupation. Sometimes, books were lost, stolen!”. “The thieves are not the mental patient, but normal people”.
Few years ago, in the Chawi culture, and in the Berber Culture in general, music is socially rejected. Music had not its place in the Chawi milieu except in marriages and circumcisions where professionals are paid to amuse the audience. Singers, a musician, and a poet were considered as “parasites, outcasts and kind of social dregs all coming from the mire. He “liked this mire”. He saw in it his true identity and not the one that they wanted him to adopt. When other people, at that time, had “Sheila, Dalida, Sylvie” as idols, Nedjahi admired Zerfa and her graceful dancing. When the others applauded Elvis Presley and the Beatles, he “get drunk” with “Aisa Jêrmûni and Zerzît Yusef”, two Chawi singers.
However, during his university days, he listened to other genres of music; especially Romanian songs and Indian Buddhist songs: “it may appear strange but, I was fond of Hare Rama Hare Krishna”. It was after the Woodstock that he came to the “protest song” because he already played guitar. He played songs of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Emmylou Harris, and Joni Mitchell. It was the sixties and the local formations multiplied. He played in many bands. Later, he created his own band, with some of his mates, the Lwacun.
Beside his professional work and his permanent studies, Messaoud Nedjahi continued to write and to produce music especially for his wife, the Chawi singer Dihya and other artists. After 1992, he concentrated all his musical and poetic work on his motherland and on IWAL, his eternal lost love.
The spring girl, “la fille de l’armoise” (the wormwood girl), IWAL is not only a childhood love but also the symbol of the free woman, Taazrit in Berber, in the Aurès. IWAL, which means eternity or the far future, was the daughter of revolutionary Chawi combatant in the Aurés during the Algerian war of independence. She was an ethnologist who did a great work on the Berbers and the Berber language during a delicate period in the history of Algeria.
In Fact after the independence in 1962, the new government imposed the Arabic language as a first language and forebode the speaking and the use Berber even in the streets. In the 1980s, there was a great revolutionary movement around that called “The dark Berber Spring”. Many people went to jail because, exiled or strangely died or disappeared because they claimed their identity as it was the case of Messaoud Nedjahi who was imprisoned several times and then exiled and IWAL who died in a strange accident, in her way home from the airport of Algiers to Batna, in December 1989. She came back to her country and death welcomed her.
Messaoud Nedjahi met Iwal for the first time when he was two. It was her birth day. His elder sister took him with her when he was just a baby to felicitate IWAL’S mother and to see the newborn girl, the birth of a “heroin”. At their teenage, they tried run away and go from Arris to Batna which had 60 kilometers distance without any means of transportation. It was, certainly, a teenage naivety.
In their way, they perceived a couple of kites, predatory birds of the hawk family, having a long, often forked tail and long pointed wings. IWAL started to imitate them with a dance which Nedjahi calls later “The Kites’ Dance”, and hummed an air which becomes a song entitled “The kites’ parade”. Nedjahi dedicated her thirty two songs corresponding to her age when she died. As “The kites’ Parade”, all the poems and the texts interpreted by Nedjahi for IWAL were inspired from real anecdotes.
“The wormwood girl”, for example, is the most painful song to interpret for Nedjahi because it reminds him about a particular scene that happened when they were at the university. In the seventies, Cuba gave to Algeria huge amounts of brown sugar that were stocked in storage rooms where people can get sugar for free. The man who was in charge of the distribution of the sugar was the Nedjahi’s uncle. So, the two little people get into the storage room and pigged themselves with sugar. As she was very thin, each time she ate sugar IWAL went on the weighing pan and asked him if she gained weight. This image came each time he sings “Yellis n Yizri” (the wormwood Girl), he never finishes the song:
Edj γadi busemmum as d emdî tabêrququt
Ur yelli ks nnem yemdîn timizîdîn
Ehwa d si tcihanin
Leave the green fruit and enjoy the tasty apricots
You were not the only one who tasted the brown sugar
Get down from the weighing pan
Messaoud Nedjahi talks about “a betrayed love”, a love that he lost in 1989. He was supposed to see her just before her coming back to her motherland in December of the same year. However, he missed the date and heard about her death only in 1992. Since 1992, he has tribute her memory every year. IWAL became the symbol of the Chawi woman, “the last Taazrit”, the free woman as she once said.
It’s going on through “Tarwa n Tanit”
IWAL is the inspiration and the “muse” of Messaoud Nedjahi. She told him that if “he stops singing and composing music, he will be a criminal”. Today, Messaoud Nedjahi carries on his ethnic work on the Berber culture, language and women through an association called “Tarwa N Tanit” ( the children of Tanit) which an “anthropo-ethno-socio-linguistic” research group for the achievement of a Berbero-Berber dictionary in Tifinagh, the Berber alphabet and writing.