What’s in a Name?
The North Africa Journal | By Arezki Daoud | I chuckle, often in admiration, when I hear some interesting names that defy mainstream. Former World Cup alpine ski racer Picabo Street comes to mind, but also Ms. Krystal Ball, the American politician who is often called on US TV channels precisely to make predictions. Some names are just funny. Take actor Jason Lee who is reported to have named his kid “Pilot.” Or the names of the children of many celebrities like Fifi, Apple, Kal-El, Coco and Kyd.And so while there is no shortage of them, these names are very interesting in that they tell a story of a society where people embrace individualism and their right to chose. In such an environment, such freedom in naming leads to the inevitable freedom of creativity, further enabling opportunities in all sorts of sectors, from industry to arts, and from science to religion.
This comes in sharp contrast to what we witness in much more bureaucratically rigid societies. Case in point is the Berber names in North Africa. It turns out North Africans are not allowed to pick a name that is not permitted by the central and tightly-controlled administrations, therefore the regimes. Who makes the calls on what to pick and what to reject? The police and enforcement administration through the Ministry of the Interior. If the name you want for your child is not endorsed by the Minister, forget it. And that is cause of concern in many circles, including ethnic, cultural and civil rights advocates.
In Algeria, the Ministry of the Interior has asked the High Commission on Amazigh Issues (Haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité) to establish the list of Berber names that would be subject to official endorsement. The HCA has done exactly what it was asked and submitted 1,000 names for inclusion. But the list must have frightened the conservative pro-Arab and anti-Berber bureaucrats at the Ministry, because it was submitted several months ago without any feedback.
The HCA has done a thorough research and investigative work, documenting Berber names through the analysis of documents and writings of such historical figures as historian Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406), to the more contemporary ones like Kabyle author and researcher Mohand Akli Hadadou, Mostaganem University researcher Farid Benremdane and many others. Among the names inventoried and submitted to the Ministry for validation are the more known names of Yugariten, Massinissa, Gaya, and Yuva, all of whom are known to be political and military leaders of the old Amazigh Kingdoms. And then there are the less known names like Winrigh and Tifagur, according to a HCA official, Youcef Merahi.
The Algerian bureaucratic system is utterly outdated but it also acts as a barrier to any meaningful development in the area of cultural rights. Merahi says that in 1981, a law was enacted mandating an update of the list of names every three years. The last time such list was officially updated was precisely in 1981. The system has facilitated the use of names from what is considered popular culture in Algeria, with names propelled by popular soap operas from Egypt and the Arab world and even Turkey. But when it comes to Algeria’s ancestral history, deliberate efforts are made to block the use of such Berber names. Merahi cites the case of a father in the municipality of Aïn-Touta in the Khenchla Province, who was denied the right to use the names of Gaya and Micipsa for his newly born twin boys. It turns out Gaya and Micipsa were the father and grandfather of the ancient Berber King Massinissa, a central figure in the second Punic War (218-201 BC) fighting against the Romans, then against Carthage before establishing a Unified Numidian (Berber) Kingdom.
The stubbornness of the conservative administration means that hundreds of families prefer to wait for a change in the law rather than name their newborns with undesirable names under the current system. Sources in Algeria say that as many as 300 children remain without a name today because of an unwilling administration.
This problem is not just an Algerian issue. Virtually in every country where Berbers and other minorities live in North Africa and the Middle East, the right to name your children as you wish does not exist without some heavy regulation. This is because the conservatives continue to lean on Arabization policies to control entire populations, and the rise of Islamist conservatives will likely make things even more difficult.
In Morocco for instance, 11 out of the 17 Walis (Governors) or 65% of the Kingdom’s Provinces have the same first name of Mohamed, or a derivative of it like Hamid and Ahmed. I have no issue with that, in fact, my very own middle name is Mohand, a Berberized version of Mohamed. This is not a judgment call about the Governors themselves. Yet what is striking is that in a country like Morocco where the Berber population represents a sizeable portion of the general population, not a single Governor has a Berber name.
So as North Africans go through their political transitions and revolutions, there will be no success and positive outcome until cultural, civil and minority rights are enhanced in the legal system, respected, implemented and defended. Anything short of that is simply a failure of the political system and the return to bad old habits.
By Arezki MOHAND Daoud