La Tribune: You have just created an organization with Ameziane Kezzar, Mare Nostrum (marenostrumarcadia.org), who aims to highlight Mediterranean antiquity. What is the meaning of your initiative?
MOHAND LOUNACI: Often we forget that the Mediterranean region has been subjected to Roman domination and influence, to Latin culture and Greek civilization. Or at least, it does take that into account for Western Europe, but it is not thought to include the countries of North Africa. Either voluntarily or because we still believe they are outside of history. The Mediterranean was frequented by many civilizations , and among the most important that marked the culture of this part of the world, there were the Greeks and Romans.
Europe today boasts, alongside its Christian heritage, the Greco-Latin heritage. But the Roman Empire, which lasted for many centuries, was not limited to Europe. The Empire flourished in Africa in material terms, as shown by the magnificent ruins of Timgad, Djemila or Volubilis; also on the cultural level with all African writers who have enriched Latin literature by their works. That sea which was that of the Romans, we also want to claim it as our own. Mare Nostrum, our sea. We are as much heirs of Rome and Greece as the Europeans. The number of ancient African writers who have written in Latin or Greek is quite telling. It is time for us to make Apuleius, Aulus Gellius, Augustine, but also Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon references of our culture. Thus we can participate in world culture.
You seem very attached to universalism. But one could say that what you present as universalism is that widespread feature of a people that no longer exists and whose role has been taken since by the proponents of colonialism?
Certainly if you want to talk about using “mythidéologique” (after Marcel Detienne) who wanted to make French arriving in Algeria and North African the descendants of the Romans in their civilizing mission. Now our goal is to show that we are entitled to a share of this Greco-Latin heritage, which, like it or not, is the basis of the culture of the Mediterranean humanity. The teaching of Latin and Greek in France was called “Humanities”. The Latins and Greeks show us nothing more that what were humans more than two thousand years ago: not very different from us.We are the heirs of this Libyan-Roman civilization that developed from the first century BC to the seventh century AD, as the French call themselves the heirs of the Gallo-Roman civilization. We have as much right to claim us of Greek and Roman history, literature, civilization which was that of our Roman, Greek or Numidians ancestors than Europeans. We must take our share of the spoils, from which the history of North Africa has distanced us. Hence the rapprochement with the texts from antiquity.
This link, we try to perceive it at first through myth, by adapting in Kabyle the Greco-Roman mythology. The myth among the Greeks is a story that depicts gods or heroes. It tells us the origin of the world, of gods, animals, plants and humans. But it is also a way to express the principles and values of a society in a roundabout and embellished way . It reports to the People imaginary and is transmitted orally from one generation to another in poetic texts, in works of art (statues, ceramics, temples …). All cultures have developed their own myths consisting of stories about their history, their religions, and their heroes. It is often said that the Kabyle had not myths. Why wouldn’t they have? The story of Anzar (rain god), if we do not look at it only with a folklorists point of view, is a myth. Yes, the Kabyle and Berbers generally have their myths but we must find them behind the rags that cover them since the installation of Islam in North Africa. Ultimately, our project, very daring I grant you, is to turn the attention of the Kabyle to a part of their history and their culture buried under the sands of time. Modernity is antiquity, change will come from there; for this change in perspective will we believe, give the material to produce artistic works from this re-rooting of Greek and Latin myths in African soil.
Highlight paganism and mythology, isn’t it a way to challenge dominant beliefs on which all countries of the Maghreb are built?
This is not our problem. This is not what interests us. Our concern is to find in antiquity a way to enrich our culture and especially our language. All cultural and artistic references of Europe were built from the Renaissance by incessant gaze toward this period of human history whose intellectual and artistic wealth is undeniable. In our small scale, we do what was done by European writers of the Renaissance. The task is more difficult but very invigorating! The dead languages, Latin, Greek, will give us more life, we are convinced of it, than a folkloric search for our identity. A culture dies if it is not renewed, so is a language. Furthermore, one can not deny that there is in Kabyle culture remains of a pagan dimension. It explains all the space given to the powers of nature, the guardians, iîessasen (vigils in Kabyle, ed), the powers of the house, etc. It is for us to give back a story, or rather to give to see a historical perspective that goes back to antiquity. There is no zero point, if we look at the past, we can look to the future with more serenity and live in the present without having to justify our presence here and now.
What cultural and linguistic elements do you think that this opening to ancient times can bring to the Kabyle and Berber culture and languages?
The aim is to enrich our language with words borrowed from Greek, Latin and also to have references shared by all. If you speak of Homer to an Englishman, he will know immediately who you are talking about. We can not simply ignore all these aspects and act as if our language and our culture can live in isolation. Create references, to talk about Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops in Kabyle, the Trojan War, Oedipus and others. To represent them, make them live in the language that we use every day. That’s our goal. In addition, most European languages have turned to the Greek and Latin seeking the words they needed to express abstract concepts or technological inventions. Why should we overlook such a treasure, which is within our reach, and we can legitimately take our share!
The translation and adaptation are an important aspect of your project?
Yes, the translation and adaptation are essential. We translate or sometimes we transpose Greek cultural elements to Kabyle, inventing words sometimes, especially from the Greek. We send our translations on the website “marenostrum.website.org” but we have other ongoing projects, including recording songs devoted to Greek and Libyan gods (ancient Northern Africans). However, this can only be a step. To access all the Latin and Greek literature whose authors are “Berber” and texts such as Plato or Aristotle, it will be necessary one day to claim that we also need to teach Latin and Greek in Kabylia’s schools. What I say here is somewhat paradoxical, because in France they try to dismantle all this teaching of dead languages because they would not be profitable. I am perfectly aware of this fact, since I am teaching these languages in France. However French and European literature, culture, art would not be what they are without the assiduous consorting with the elders at the heart of European education. Moreover, this is not because European education treats children as raw material from which we must draw a profitability that we should follow in this error. On the contrary, the school in this country being what it is, that is to say almost nonexistent, we need the audacity to propose bold initiatives for tomorrow’s school !
Do you have lots of echoes for your project? Isn’t it a way to refuse modernity in which we are immersed in a world increasingly globalized? Would it be more realistic and effective to look toward English ?
Thanks for the advice. We will try to think about it! No, no joke. Of course we think that our idea is original. But in this world in search of meaning, finding ancient texts and understand that there is nothing new under the sun, that men are still facing the same problems, the same joys, the same sorrows, this could only be invigorating. And if, as you say, we have neither echo nor public, this is not important because selfishly we take indescribable pleasure to translate ancient texts in Kabyle. We do not seek profitability, but only to give a poetic counterpoint to this world too disillusioned!
Interview with La Tribune in Tizi Ouzou, aug. 2011
Translated from marenostrumarcadia.org