A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, March 21, 2014

Algeria's Ghardaia: Spelling and Etymology as Identity?

I haven't blogged about it, but there has been a recent resurgence of ethnic/sectarian clashes in Algeria's Mzab Valley, an oasis region in the Sahara where Berber tribesmen who speak Berber and practice the Ibadi sect of Islam live alongside Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims of the Maliki legal school (like most North African Sunnis). Actually, in my second month of blogging I wrote about an earlier outbreak of Sunni-Ibadi violence in the town of Berriane. The latest round of violence involves the town of Ghardaia, largest town in the Mzab.

The Algerian linguist-blogger Lameen Souag, whose Jabal al-Lughat blog I frequently quote, (as recently as noting his new book just a week ago), has a new post on a linguistic aspect of the conflict: "Ghardaia: etymology, spelling, and politics." It's interesting, and I hope he won't mind my doing such extensive quoting (the Linguistics professor explains it better than I could). Please go read the whole thing. He sets the stage thus:
What's going on is far too localised to be explained in terms of "Arabs" and "Berbers" (contra AFP); at most, it's between Chaamba (Sh`ānba) and Mzabis (Mozabites). But the Mzabis speak Berber, practice Ibadi Islam (a small minority sect), are native to the town, and have a famously strong mercantile tradition; the Chaamba speak Arabic, practice Maliki Islam (like the rest of Algeria), used to be nomads with a strong martial tradition, and by and large are less well off. . . .
And after some more background, gets to the linguistic aspect:
Oddly enough, however, not only language but even etymology is being used as a tool of division. As I looked through page after depressing page on the events, I was surprised to notice that, while Mzabi pages, and neutral ones, spelled Ghardaia غرداية (Ghardāyah), Chaambi pages rather consistently spelled it غارداية (Ghārdāyah). The latter spelling turns out to be based on a folk etymology, deriving the name of "Ghardaia" from Arabic ghār "cave" plus Dāyah, the name of a woman – who some Chaamba claim was from the Arab tribe of Said Atba, proving that Arabs got there before the Mzabis did (قبائل الشعانبة… بنو سُليم الجزائر.) Mzabis have a version of the same etymology, in fact (chanson amazigh mozabit) – but according to them, Daya was a saintly Ibadi woman from Touat, proving that they were there first.
Either version is problematic, since the name is pronounced ɣərdāya (Berber taɣərdayt), not ɣārdāya. The Said Atba idea is especially implausible: in 1053, when Ghardaia was reportedly founded, Ibadi Berbers had been trading across the Sahara for centuries, whereas Arab nomads had barely begun to reach the area. Phonetically, the more obvious etymology is Mzabi Berber taɣərdayt "mouse" – but who'd name a town "Mouse"? Delheure suggested a derivation from tiɣərdin "shoulders", a term found in Ouargli Berber, based on its topography (followed eg here). Dabouz compares it to a Nafusi term reportedly meaning "land next to a wadi". No proposal seems entirely satisfactory, which is itself an indicator of the placename's antiquity.
Be that as it may, this pointed use of "cave of Dāyah" reinforces my impression that what's going on is a mapping of economic grievances onto ethnic/religious categories. Adding this one letter effectively says "Mzabis own this place, but by rights it should be ours" – a thoroughly wrong attitude. الله يهديهم ويهدينا!
 The last line means "May God guide them and guide us."

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