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Interview with an Amazigh Sociologist

Par A. Labari,
Date : 2004-12-14

by A. Larbi and R. Seffal
for Amazigh Voice* 2004-12-14

Amazigh Voice found Dr. Jean Ait-Belkhir in New Orleans where he is presently a professor of sociology at the Department of Social Sciences at Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). He is the co-president of the Race, Gender, and Class (RGC) Association, and co-director of the Center for Research and Teaching on Race, Gender and Race. He also was the co-organizer of the First Annual RGC Conference which was in October 1999 in New Orleans. In addition to being the founder and editor of the RGC Journal since 1993, Dr. Ait-Belkhir has published numerous books, and articles. His e-mail is The SUNO-RGC Project web site is

Amazigh Voice (AV): Prof. Aït-belkhir, could you tell us about your career and how you came to this country?

Dr. Jean Ait-Belkhir (J.A.): After getting my doctorate in sociology in the area of social classes, I left France in 1987 and came to the US to conduct research on behavior and genetics. I spent 2½ years at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I, then, moved to Wisconsin Superior University where I taught sociology for two years. After that I moved to Baltimore to do research on women and ethnic studies. I then went to New York where I taught and did research at the Michael Harrington Center at Queens College. Since September 1997, I joined the University of New Orleans (UNO) and SUNO (Southern University of New Orleans).

AV: What interesting experiences have you had in the different countries where you worked?

J.A.: I would like to focus on France, Algeria, and the United States. As I said, I got my Ph.D. in France. I remember one of my French teachers, who knew that my background was Amazigh background, used to tell me repeatedly that I was French. I also found later that France did not offer any academic opportunities in the areas of ethnic studies because of its mono-culturalism. Until then I knew nothing about ethnic differences or about the history of my roots. This led me to want to study the relationships between men and women. Before moving the United States, I went to Algeria several times and I started teaching urban sociology at the University of Algiers. However, the lack of material coupled with the government's program of Arabicization did not allow academic excellence. Somehow I felt uncomfortable and I had strange and mixed feelings about the teaching position. Having had these experiences, I moved to the US where I started to do research in behavior and genetics.

Later I taught sociology, women studies, ethnic studies and Native American studies. I have learned so much. I then moved to Baltimore to do research on class, poverty and Blacks. Now in New Orleans, I am working at two different institutions, UNO (University of New Orleans) and SUNO (Southern University of New Orleans). I finally started to open my eyes and my brain although, at first, it was first a cultural shock, but a step-by-step learning process, because UNO is a traditionally white institution while SUN is traditionally and historically a black institution. One can imagine the kind of reactions and relationship a teacher gets and builds up with his students. I must emphasize that, from the academic perspective and career, it is unfortunate that France and Algeria do not offer the kind of experience, which is characterized by multiculturalism.

To summarize, in the United States, a teacher can develop a multi-cultural perspective from both the students and the historical social context. In contrast, official Algeria and France offer a monoculture: one culture and the idea of one-way thinking. In such environment, it is very difficult to go off the track of the culture in power that is presented and allowed.

AV: You lived in Kabylia for a while. What were your perceptions of the Amazigh community? What experiences did you have?

J.A.: It will be very long to talk about my experiences in Kabylia or Algeria because I have been there four times. My first trip was at the age of 17. I went there when my father passed away, which was right after the war. I knew the members of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in France who sent me to Algeria to be educated. For me, however, it was a cultural shock. Until then, my father had raised me in France after my French mother had left us. That was when I was less than seven years old and my father wanted to go back to Algeria just at the beginning of the war. I did not speak Tamazight, but I was more looking for my own roots.

During my next trips, I expected something that Algeria was unable to give me. At each of my trips, I saw Algeria become more and more Arab, and I was confronted by the Arabicization program about which I had known nothing. My mind had only a picture of the Djurdjura mountains: That of small villages, hills, and fresh figs, which I really got to see when I went there. So I had nice pictures of Algeria.

My father believed very strongly in Tamazight, and he never talked about Arabic. When he talked about the Arabic language, he would always mention that, one day, Imazighen would have to fight for the right to their language and culture. He would say: "Tomorrow, you will be the one who will have to fight for a new Algeria. Today, we are fighting against the French, but tomorrow Imazighen will have nothing." That was the kind of education I got from my father.

I have been to Algeria several times and I have built ties with my relatives. However, I had to leave to get an education. At that time, many of the educators in Algeria were from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Pakistan. They tried to teach me Arabic. It was both a shocking and interesting experience.

From the age of 17 to 35 years, each experience was different because, in the meantime, I had developed a new self-awareness, a consciousness, and a new perception of my identity. I had a new feeling about what I should be expecting and started to understand what the Algerian government was trying to say to us (to me at least, as an Amazigh). I felt in me resistance building up, without knowing exactly what an Amazigh was. I had not learned that much, except what I learned from my father, which was mainly through speaking and singing.. Books were not available, so I did not develop my knowledge further.

AV: All over North Africa Imazighen are fighting to gain their cultural rights. In the case of the Tuareg community, the fight is basically one of survival. Based on the history and the sociology of Tamazgha (North Africa), can you comment on how the Imazighen as a community should build a society in which everyone can enjoy living?

J.A.: This is a very challenging and difficult question. The key is for the Amazigh movement or any movement that seeks to develop democracy and freedom is not to become the new power, the new master, and the new oppressor. The French left and now the masters are the Arabs. If the next ones in power will be the Amazigh people, they should not repeat the mistakes of the previous people in power. My argument here is based on my own experience while traveling all over the world. I will say that there is just one key to what I am doing.

We do need to develop multi-cultural education and perspective. My experience is that people of the mono-culture like the French or Arab or the Western states always present a dominant culture that does not allow others to express themselves, to build up their self-esteem, their self-concept, their own life, and their own identity as people are able to do it here in the USA. If one can do so, then he/she is on the margin, not at the center. Then he or she has to shift him/herself to be at the center to be able to develop his/her own history and own perspective. And thus, his/her children could be educated with his/her own perspective.

In Algeria, however, the education is so mono-cultural that Imazighen are being denied their identity. At the present, they are at the margin, and they keep fighting to be at the center. The mono-culturalists do not understand the shifting concept that has been developed in the United States through the African-American, the Native American, and the women movements and studies. In Algeria, for example, people should understand that maybe Imazighen have something very interesting to say from their own perspective just as Europeans, Euro-centrists, or Arabs present their own perspective and are not denied their own history. In contrast, Imazighen are claiming that their history is being denied and they are saying: " Please listen to our history, because if we know your history, you do not know our history. The question is then: How can I face you?"

If one culture is denied, then the other culture is the dominant one. Although dominant cultures have been important in the human civilization, other cultures should be neither forgotten nor suppressed. To answer the question, I will say that the solution is the understanding of the concept of shifting, which is a shift from the margin to the center. For example, today Imazighen are in the margin, and they are fighting to move away from it. They want to be in the center. That does not mean that they want to deny the Arab culture. That is not possible. The Arabs can still teach their own history. But Imazighen must seek to shift and continue to shift towards the center so that their history, culture, identity, perspective, and language are not marginalized.
The concept is therefore shifting so that my own roots, my own ethnicity, my own history, my own culture are in the center and that they are not denied and they do not remain in the margin.

I refuse to teach my children or my students that they do not have their own history and culture. I refuse to tell them that they have to adapt themselves to another civilization. Neither assimilation nor melting pot concepts are key answers. That is the reason behind my interest in multi-cultural education with a focus on race, gender, and class. They are key concepts in multi-cultural education. Examples in multi-cultural education can be between Arabs and Imazighen, French and Algerians, or between the whites and the blacks and so on.

The same parallel is found between men and women. The women's perspective will be very different from the men's. The solution is that both man and woman must be at the center and man needs to listen to the woman's voice, just like ACAA's magazine is called "The Amazigh Voice." People should listen to voices of women of Imazighen, in general to voices unheard before.

The solution is that a dominant culture must be made to listen to the voices of the non-dominant voices. This is why I refer to others as Latin, Asian, etc. VOICES.

AV: The North African states have not done enough to give the Amazigh culture the status it deserves despite the strength, the peacefulness and goodwill of the leaders of the Amazigh movement. This will put greater pressure on this movement. What do you think the possible consequences on the Amazigh community are?

J.A.: If today I am working on multi-culturalism, it is because I want to know more about my own roots. And in doing so, I am listening to the Native American, African-American, Asian, Latin voices and the voices of women. To come back to your question, the situation of the Amazigh culture is like that of many other people all over the world. The African-American, the Native American, and the Jewish people live similar situations. From an international perspective, it is not just us. It is the history of the world, which is the fight of cultures of minorities against dominant cultures. They seek their survival and want to shift from the margin to the center.
Since 1960 and 1970, and much before, the so-called minorities have been fighting against the dominant cultures. Today amidst the advent of the new means of communications such as the Internet and the media, the African-American civil right movements, and many social movements, have made it possible to be more aware of what is going on over the world. Although it may seem the same story as before, today we know more about each other.

For example, we know that Native Americans are fighting for their cultures just like the Amazigh people are fighting for theirs. So we can learn from each other and the only way to do it is to create the connections between the people fighting and to share information about dominant cultures.

Just like Algerians didagainst the French during the war, which is now an inside war. The consequences can be either assimilation or survival. There is no way all Imazighen can be assimilated. Some will be assimilated, but others Imazighen will never be assimilated. Not because they do not want to be assimilated, but because they reject the idea of being inferior. Because when you assimilate yourself to a foreign culture, it means that you consider yourself inferior and that the dominant culture looks like it is superior to your own culture. And that does not make sense. Because with education, media and communications, we become aware that we are part of the human history and we do not want to be out of the track of human history. The only way to gain recognition is to keep fighting. Peacefully, of course, because it is only the people in the dominant culture that will push us to fight with violence.

AV: In the best of cases, it may be very hard to have two dominant cultures in
the states of Tamazgha the same status. Doesn't that mean that there will always be a constant struggle for equal treatments and equal rights? What is needed to achieve the maximum in terms of equality and, in trying to keep them equal, what effects would that have on a society?

J.A.: One solution to Algeria's monocultural ideologies, that prohibit the use of language other than Arabic, should be to support the regional languages: especially in Kabylia, where the majority of the population speaks Tamazight. Algeria can use the Swiss model, a country with four regional languages: German, Italian, French and Romansh. In Algeria's case, it would be "one region, one culture, one language." Given the absence of multicultural studies in Algeria, the Amazigh should attempt to develop a multicultural approach. The theories of multiculturalism should represent attempts to change a mainstream mono-culturalism to multi-culturalism.

By looking at what is happening in the US for example in terms of multi-culturalism model, it is then possible to develop your own culture without disintegrating that of the other and without dividing the country.

AV: If the North African governments continue to deny the rights of Imazighen, the result could be a more radical situation. What would be the consequences?

J.A.: It can be a repeat of the 1980 events, which became known as the Amazigh Spring. If that happened that would mean repression, which results in the loss of life and the loss of hope. But down the road, the governments cannot win because they cannot kill the will of people.

I must say that people who are for a radical change in the movement or that may be considering violence as a solution do not think clearly about the issues. Sometimes there are more benefits when one listens to what people are saying or have to say. The government officials must adjust themselves to the evolution in the cultural arena, although some people find it very difficult to evolve and to open their minds.

AV: You mean, people in power?

J.A.: Yes, for people in power. They are brought up in, what is called in sociology, socialization. When you try to break down their socialization, you are attacking their rules, their myths, their beliefs, the way they have been brought up, and the ideas they have been taught. They are afraid of them breaking down because they afraid of what will happen afterwards. They are afraid for themselves and wonder who they really are. For example, when women challenge men, the latter start to wonder who they are: Are they men or women? Then comes the question of defining men's and women's roles.
The question is: How can we trust the people in power? From a historical perspective, one day they will have to recognize Tamazight because the movement is so strong. Remember the Berlin wall, nobody was waiting for it to fall, but it fell. Like Mandela, like Africans who were slaves from 400 years but today they are here free.

What we need is to continue our struggle and to keep going without making any extrapolation about what tomorrow will be. It is today that we have to fight for our culture and someday, sometimes, somewhere I am pretty sure that it will be alive and strong. Similar to my case, I did not have strong ties but I was self-aware because I want to be me when I look at you. I do not want you to tell me who I am. Each time you tell me who I am, which I am a not, I am fighting back because I got the education. That is why the education is a very strong tool. That is why we need to develop an education from an Amazigh perspective. We need to publish books, and develop research, and so on. That is the only way to survive. If you do not have these things, how can you back up what you have to say? A culture needs a written language, a literature, history, books, and historical books. Just like many Imazighen are doing. Today only a few people are reading the books, but tomorrow, these books would become the textbooks, which Amazigh children will use in schools.

So we need to move to the center and develop our own tomorrow. I know that in Algeria it is a struggle, especially with the current violence. But that may be the price to pay for a better tomorrow.

AV: You are the director of the Review RGC (Race, Gender and Class), and we understand that you are planning a special issue that focuses on the Amazigh Culture. Can you tell AV readers a little bit more about it?

J.A.: The RGC journal is very interesting and so are the reasons for doing an issue on Amazigh culture. I am doing an RGC issue for two reasons. The first is for my own personal experience. Although I was born in France, I feel that I am an Amazigh. I was told that I was an Arab. Here, I am in the United States and I ask myself: Who am I?
I enjoy education and my father had several times told me: "Ammi, asegmi d abecki (Son, Education is a gun)." You are too young to go and fight with Colonel Amirouche1 against the French." That was our model: Amirouche was there. I saw my father crying and screaming when he learned of the death of Amirouche, who became my model since. My father used to tell that I was too young and that tomorrow Algeria will need me. He told me: "You are Algerian first although you are born in France. You will have to decide for yourself when you want to go and what you want to do with your life."
My father was illiterate but very smart as a person. I had to read to him articles in French newspapers, but I was to young to understand the meaning of the words so I was always reading between the lines. Down the road I finally went to complete my education and attend the university.

I will go back to your question about my experience in the USA. I was teaching sociology at the University of Lake Superior. My students were mostly white with a few Native Americans. I found it very hard to connect with the students because of the textbook materials. I remember from my own experience when I attended a French School and I was being told that I was French. Here, the books tell the students that they are American without defining who were the native Americans. As I kept on searching, I looked for something to work on to connect with my students. Since I was not an American, I decided to get in touch native American scholars doing research on native Americans and to pull them together. The tasks were to gather material, and to do it my way. If I have in front of me Native American students, I cannot teach them history from the western perspective. I want them to look and seek history from their own perspective, to get a better understanding and to realize that they have something to say and that they too have a voice. That was the beginning of the RGC journal.
Afterwards, many people who asked me whether I wanted to do an issue on African-American studies, which I did. Then others told me that I should do one on Asian-Americans and I accepted. But the Amazigh issue is a special project. It is specific. After, I contacted the then-President of ACAA and I visited the offices of an Amazigh association in Paris. I don't want to be seen as a French Publisher or as I am seen as an American one. And if I published in Algeria, they will say that I am an Arab. I said how about, I am an Amazigh and I want to identify everything I am doing as an Amazigh. I want the issue to be written on Amazigh culture from an Amazigh perspective and written by Imazighen. This project is very dear to me because it is my gift to my father. I am trying to pay him back and tell him that I now understand what he had told me forty years ago. Now I understand when he said that my pen would become my gun. I was too young then to get a gun and go to war. But with my words and my pen I can also fight for Tamazight.

AV: What are your current projects in New Orleans and in connection with Amazigh issues that relate to your area of expertise?

J.A.: I have been publishing the journal for the last seven years. My experience has put me at the crossroads where I feel that I must give back something to my culture. I want to work as an Amazigh. I am now the director of the SUNO RGC center and co-president of the RGC institute. We have just held on first RGC conference. Our activities include book and newsletter publication. We also have just finished creating the RGC web site2.

By giving back something to the Amazigh culture, I am allowing myself to be me. One cannot be himself/herself if he/she is not himself/herself and if one does not know his/her roots the road will not lead him/her anywhere. Speaking about ties, my father's was Amirouche, for me it is my father. Through my father's teachings, I knew about the Djurdjura Mountains, the life in the villages before I even went there. When I went there, it was exactly as he had described it. He had also indicated not only will Imazighen have to claim their culture after independence from France, but they would also have to claim it among Imazighen themselves. How do Imazighen define themselves? Among Imazighen, some were doing business in France and profiteering during the war. Unfortunately, there exist also a fight within the society structure. My father did not have a Ph.D. in sociology, but he was the best sociologist I ever met in my life.

AV: Both the former Prime-Minister and the President of Algeria are Amazigh. How can you explain their opposition to Amazigh culture and language?

J.A.: The reason is that the power of a master is to make sure his slaves do their dirty work for them. The best master is the one who is able to have his/her job done by his/her own slave. Some people will never understand the concept of identity, and some may understand it later in their life. There are several levels of consciousness or self-awareness. For example during the war of independence, some understood its importance right away. Some did not care that the French were occupying Algeria. Today, some do not care that the Arabic is the dominant culture. As described by Frantz Fanon who said: "white mask black face". It is exactly the same. We should not focus on such people whose goal are power. The dominant culture has always used people and has assimilated them to better make use them. These people believe that the key is being assimilated. They are harkis3. They are people who live day by day without vision.

My research interests are people who move from the margin to the center. That is why I focus on women studies, ethnic studies, and class studies. I have not been looking from the perspective of the dominant culture. My interest is the bottom that has been shut off. I am looking for the voices of the other, which until now, had no voice. I do not want to waste my time listening to the voice of the dominant culture.

Now is the time to listen for the culture that has not been heard. Let alone waste my time on people who are slaves and are being used by the dominant culture. I draw information from my father's teachings. He was not against the French not against the Arabs. He was just for Tamazight. Just like here in the USA, there is an African-American middle class, which is out of the mainstream African-Americans. They are middle-class or even upper middle class without belonging to the mainstream Western civilization. They are out of the mainstream because most of them deny they are descendants of slaves. They deny they are black. They believe they can become white. They try to assimilate themselves to the white men's culture and putting down people who are trying to be African-American. However, in reality, it is impossible to assimilate yourself. If I want to be equal, I need to know my roots and myself. If you know yourself, I will be able to talk with you. But other people, who do not know themselves, will be wiped out from history because they cannot talk or present themselves.

Assimilation is not the answer. The people who can talk are Nelson Mandela and Amirouche. They are the people who fought for their identity and their culture. The goal of a dominant culture has always been to assimilate the others. One such example is the Arabicization program which. attempts to make Algerians in general and Imazighen in particular become Arabs.

The only solution is for one to become aware of his/her own identity. However, self-awareness comes with education, and without education the struggle fails. If you get your brains working, and you set yourself to understand what is going on, you may be killed. But tomorrow someone will come and continue the struggle. Your life has to be built up step by step. You have to make sure that the people are provided with materials. The weakness of our own culture is that, until recently, it has relied on orality. Oral cultures are fragile. When we die, we need to give something back and be able to pass on the torch. And the only way to achieve that is to produce something and to do something. Many people in the world are struggling like our people. They connect with each other at the international level and do whatever is necessary to keep their torch alive and reach their goals.


1- Colonel Amirouche, an Amazigh, was a strong military leader in the Algerian resistance and National Liberation Army.
2- Information updated in November 1999.
3- Harkis: (pl of Harki): A term used to refer to Algerian who joined the French army and fought against Algerian independence.
4- Amazigh ( pl. Imazighen): proper name to refer to Berbers.

* This article has been reprinted with permission of Amazigh Voice and the authors. For information on Amazigh Voice, see: A subscription form is available at:

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