Book review :contes chaouis par G . Mercier

Journal of Language and Popular Culture in Africa
ISSN: 1570-016X
Volume 3, Issue 1 (26 February 2003)

Book review Reviewed by
Abderrahman El Aissati :

Mena Lafkioui et Daniela Merolla.
Contes berbères chaouis de l’Aurès,
d’après Gustave Mercier (Berber Studies, Vol. 3).
Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. 2002. 163 pp.,
2 maps, 4 b/w photographs. Paperback,
€ 22,80 ISBN 3-89645-382-3, ISSN 1618-1425

Reviewed by
Abderrahman El Aissati
Tiburg University
The Netherlands


Documenting Berber oral literature in written form is a relatively recent, but fast growing practice. Transcribing Berber folk stories, fairy tales, poetry and other forms of oral literature in a phonetic transcription and/or a Roman alphabet has been common practice at least since the first half of the 19th century, although the 18th century did witness some interest in Berber studies as well (Bougchiche 1997: 26). These texts are always accompanied by notes in French or Spanish depending on the language of the editor/compiler. The French presence in Algeria from 1830 to 1962 and in Morocco from 1912 to 1956, and that of the Spaniards in Morocco between 1912 and 1956 were reason enough for different parties, like the military, to investigate the modes of life of the indigenous population, mostly Berber. Among the well-known works in this regard, one can cite Biarnay (1917), Basset (1920), and the manuscripts of Jean Podeur collected around 1950 (Podeur 1995).
Although most of the manuscripts found in Berber are transcribed in the Roman alphabet, the Arabic script has also had its share. An Arabic-Berber dictionary was compiled in the 12th century by Ibn Tunart, and religious texts in Tashelhit Berber were written in the Arabic script (van den Boogert 1995). These were mostly translations of religious documents. This script was also used in the compilation of Arabic-Berber dictionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries (van den Boogert 1998)
The original North-African alphabet, commonly referred to as the Libyan alphabet or the Tifinagh alphabet has been used in a variety of documents, and dates back to the pre-Roman era of North Africa. The Tifinagh texts are in the majority of an emblematic nature. They were used as epitaphs on graves of the noble citizens, or were inscribed in caves, and on rocks.
Despite the existence of a large body of literature on Berber, texts written in Berber remain scarce. Even nowadays, with the introduction of Berber in schools in Algeria, and the decision of the highest authorities to do likewise in Morocco, written documents in Berber are the exception rather than the norm. One of the major hindrances in this respect is the absence of an official standard form for writing.

The re-edition by M.Lafkioui and D.Merolla of the collection of texts previously published by Gustave Mercier in two little booklets (1896, 1900) has the merit of contributing to the circulation of Berber texts. The texts are in the Chaoui variety of Berber spoken around the town of Batna, and northeast of Biskra, in the village of T'koukt in Algeria. The variety spoken in this region has received very little attention. These texts are now made easily accessible for students of Berber languages and cultures, and for interested readers in general. The majority of the texts were related by narrators to Mercier in the village of T'koukt.
The book opens with an acknowledgement, followed by two maps to locate the language group, the table of contents (a practice not very common in the French tradition where it is left to the end), a presentation of the texts (pp.11-14), a linguistic overview of the Chaoui texts by Mena Lafkioui (pp.15-31), an overview of the narration of the texts by the co-editor Daniela Merolla (pp.32-43), and four black and white photographs taken in the Chaoui region by Merolla and M.Chiovoloni. The narrated texts take up pages 46 through 159, and are followed by a bibliography (pp. 161-163).
A few remarks on the editor's notes and the nature of the texts themselves are in order. The contribution of Lafkioui is a sketch of the phonological and syntactic characteristics of the Chaoui variety, from a cross-dialectal perspective. Her account is illustrated with examples from the texts in the collection, and also refers to previous studies on this dialect.
The contribution by Merolla introduces the texts in the collection, and provides an evaluation of the quality of the texts. Her statement regarding the loss of the oral attributes of a narrative once it is converted into writing is very true. However, I completely disagree with her assessment that the stories edited by Mercier as a whole are a very good example of the narrative art in Chaoui (p.42).

The texts
The book contains 21 texts of very different lengths, ranging from 7 lines (text 11) to around 180 (text 19). Texts 1, 6, and 8 to 14 are all between 7 and 14 lines long, and text 7 is 22 lines long. In her introduction to the book, Merolla explains that nine of these texts out of 16 in the 1896 collection are of "an anecdotal or comic nature" (p. 32), and that the low narrative quality in most of them can be explained by the purpose of their collection: they were originally meant as support for language study.
Of the fairy tales in the collection, the last one: "The Story of the Partridge and Serdeslas the Magician" stands out as a set of "interwoven and unfinished themes, and abruptly inserted new characters in the narration." (p.41)." This is not the only text with a poor narrative structure. Another story I did not enjoy reading is "The story of the Ogre and the Pretty Woman." Although this one has a theme continuation, it lacks any dramatic complication, denouement, or climax, which is common in the fairy tales I personally know from the Berber world, or the ones collected by native speakers (El Ayoubi 2000; Bezzazi 1993). In this story, A man decides to rescue a woman held captive in a cave by an ogre. He goes to the cave, asks the woman about the entrance which the ogre takes, waits for him, and shoots him between the eyes: no fight, no challenge, nothing. The protagonist spends the night in the cave with the woman. They both leave in the morning, he meets his friends who return with him to the cave, they want to kill him, he ends up killing them, and gets married to the woman. The plot sounds familiar, but the events are narrated in a very monotonous tone.
In addition to the low narrative quality of some of the texts, no less than 6 stories were translations of or adaptations from earlier publications. Text 10 is from Hanoteau (1858), texts 11 and 12 are from Basset (1890), text 13 is a translation of a fable from La Fontaine, text 9 was published in Ben Sedira (1887), and text 14 is an 'imitation' of a text from Hanoteau (1858). Texts 20 and 21 were communicated to Mercier by Père Bouillon des Missions d'Afrique in Arris, near T'koukt.
The paucity of data in the Chaoui variety should be reason enough for interested researchers to proceed to the collection of narratives from this area. In particular a native speaker of the variety in question would be well placed for such a task. Also, women should be approached for narrative material. A very successful case in point is the collection of fairy tales by Mohamed El Ayoubi (2000). One speaker of the Ayt Weryaghel variety, Fatima n Mubeh'rur, aged 89, provided enough material for El Ayoubi's collection (15 stories where 7 are between 6 and 10 pages long and 8 between 12 and 24 pages, in small type face). Another example of a native speaker who collected a very rich corpus of oral stories is Abdelkader Bezzazi (1993). His three-volume dissertation has unfortunately not been published, but a translation of part of the corpus into Dutch was (Bezzazi and Kossmann 1997). Reading the Mercier texts would give the uninformed reader a wrong idea about the oral tradition in Chaoui, both about the quality of the texts and their lengths. Hopefully the Berber Studies series will see the publication of a more representative corpus of the Chaoui variety.

The Language notes
The editors occasionally point out variations at the level of syntax, morphology, and phonology. Despite the usefulness of these notes, they are far from being consistent and clear. It is not obvious to me what the notes imply when I read that a certain form is a variant of another existing form: is this variation attested within the same 'Chaoui' variety or does it have to do with Berber in general? There is no indication in the introduction as to what the frame of reference might be. If the notes refer to internal facts of the Chaoui variety, then one is entitled to know how the editors have managed to establish these. There is indeed reference to native speakers who were consulted in the process of reediting the texts, but their task was limited to checking the meaning of certain words. I would be surprised if the editors went to lengths to establish the variation within the dialect in question.
At times the authors chose to indicate that a linguistic form is the phonetic realization of a corresponding one. For example, di lweqt-din is the 'de-assimilated' correspondent of [diluqeddin] "since then" (p. 46) and the assimilated correspondent of [inna-as] is [innas] "he said (to him)" (p.46)." Although some interested readers might appreciate these types of notes, others would remain wondering why the authors say nothing about the meaning of the preposition 'di' in Chaoui. Compared to other varieties of Berber (e.g. in most Tarifit varieities spoken in the Northern part of Morocco, the same preposition means 'in' or 'at'). In the opinion of the present reviewer, remarks having to do with the pronunciation tempo should be left out. A systematic description of different rates of speech would overload the text and still remain incomplete. Among other things, the rate of speech depends on the speaker and the type of text being delivered. Providing alternative ways of pronunciation for some forms would give the impression that the forms not commented on can only be pronounced in the way they are transcribed.
Comments on variation are also abundant at the level of syntax. Here also, it is not clear what the editors are referring to when they say, for example, that /h a yec/ is a 'syntagmatic' variant of /a h-yec/ where the personal pronoun /h/ would be placed before the aorist indicator /a/ (p.46). Again, in Tarifit the unmarked choice would be /a t-yec/ (note that /t/ corresponds to /h/ in Chaoui). It does seem that the authors refer to other Berber varieties when they make their notes (208 in total). However, it can be confusing when the reference is not clear. The reader might easily assume that the variation in question is attested ins one and the same variety, viz. Chaoui. A close look at all the texts in the book under review reveals that it is not the case.
Fortunately, the editors do point out that some of the notes were authored by the original editor, Mercier. One example commenting on internal variation is from Mercier 1896 (p. 106): waha ni<edda and waha i<eddan. I suspect that this note refers to the variation within Chaoui, partly because of the limited knowledge of other Berber varieties by Mercier. Other notes on Chaoui by Mercier also reported by the editors, like the deletion of the 'indefinite pronoun' is common practice in Chaoui (p.46).
The attempt of the editors to reserve the oral character of the texts (p.11) has proved not to be an easy task. For example, they proceed to 'correcting' the original texts by inserting the preposition I in a few cases (text 16, p.114, footnote 157; text 18, p.124, footnote 171, text 18, p.128, footnote 178). The editors might be right in correcting a mistake in Mercier's texts, but they might also be forcing the text into a form it did not have originally. It is common for native speakers also to make mistakes when speaking or narrating. Just how much adaptation or correction can be allowed remains an open question. The editors should have warned the reader about this issue in the introductory sections.
Similarly, it is not difficult to find counter-examples to observations like 'the addition of a prevocalic 'h' makes the pronunciation of certain words easier ("adoucir la prononciation")', like the sequence of three vowels in u a as-illef "and he would set him free" (p.46) knowing that Berber in general inserts a glide to avoid a vowel hiatus, for example: a arumi 'you Christian' becomes a yarumi, inna awal 'he said a word' becomes inna yawal, etc. This also undermines the attempt of the transcribers to 'preserve the oral' character of the texts, announced in the introduction (p.11).
Another point about the transcription. An additional level of morphemic transcription would have been very useful to the language student. The gloss translation provided by the editors indicates the meaning of utterances, but gives no indication as to what the isolated morphemes mean. It would be a tedious practice, but nonetheless more useful than the numerous notes by the editors. The reader would have more freedom to draw conclusions and make generalisations. The translation, which is now on the opposite page, is a running translation attempting to capture the meaning of entire sentences rather than specifying the meaning of individual morphemes. The advantage of this type of translation is that the reader can read through the Chaoui text without being inconvenienced by the interlinear translation.
Notwithstanding the critical points made above, the collection of texts in this book remains a welcome addition to a growing database of Berber texts. It gives an idea of the socio-cultural context of the Chaoui community. One can only thank the editors for the effort they put into this work, and hope their expertise will prompt them to bring out more texts in Berber.




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Podeur, Jean. (1995). Textes berbères des Aït Souab (Anti-Atlas, Maroc). Edités et annotés par Nico van den Boogert, Michelle Scheltus, Harry Stroomer. Aix-en-Provence: Edisud/La Boîte à Documents.



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