The man handing out flyers for MacDonald’s at the north London underground station struck up a conversation with my son. He turned out to be an Algerian Berber.
Among the litany of complaints he had against his home government, his parents had been compelled to name him Karim, not being allowed by the authorities to give him an Amazigh (Berber) name. The repressed Berbers had to comply with a policy of forced Arabisation, but were pursuing a covert campaign against Islamist imams in Algeria.
Believing my son was from Israel, he said the Jews had every right to their land. ” You did not fall from the sky,” he exclaimed. When my son, switching to French to keep the conversation discreet, said he wished there could be peace between peoples in the Middle East, the Berber man said: ” non, pas la paix – il faut combattre l’imperialisme arabe.”
This incident took place only last week, but it brought home the very real sympathy that some Berbers have for Jews. It’s a bond that goes back centuries. The figure that most personifies shared roots and history is the female warrior Kahena, who heroically defeated the Arab commander Hassan in Tunisia.
Coincidentally, the Jerusalem Post has just run a short piece on the Kahena by Renee Levine Melammed. The Kahena belonged to a Berber tribe which had converted to Judaism. Kahena herself either converted with them or was Jewish by birth. Her story is shrounded in myth and legend.
Although she managed to fend off the inevitable Arab conquest by a number of years, the Kahena was not an uncontroversial figure. She undertook a cruel ‘scorched earth policy’ which did not endear her to her people, before dying in battle.
Levine Melammed then says that there are various contradictory accounts of what happened next: either her sons were killed with her in the battle near a well called Bir al-Kahina, or they remained with their adoptive brother (who had betrayed them to the Arabs), converted to Islam and conquered Spain together in 711.