The Search for Berber Identity: Kabyle Nationalism, 1949-1980

In “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement,” Fazia Aïtel describes a notable 1977 soccer match involving the Kabyle Berber team (Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie, or JSK) at the Algerian Cup soccer tournament:

“…the stadium was full and President Boumedienne attended the event. Nearly all the spectators, possibly 90 per cent of them, were Kabyle and the game became a focus for the Berber cause. Many incidents took place during the game. The president was booed… and the singing of the national anthem was disrupted as was the minute’s silence for the martyrs of the revolution. The JSK won the game and, given the tension in the stadium, the president had to leave via an underground passageway. The crowd celebrated the victory and marched towards the centre of Algiers carrying banners written in Tifinagh (the Berber language)… for the first time, a new word appeared and was chanted by the spectators: ‘imazighen’.”1

The incident proved a notable precursor to the ‘Berber Spring’ riots which occured only three years later, and came about as a result of a relatively recent surge of nationalism.  Although Kabyle nationalists would use the 1949 “Berberist crisis” within the Algerian People’s Party as a starting point for the establishment of their identity, nationalistic fervour only emerged in Algeria the decades following independence and government-sanctioned Arabization. While the period of 1949 to 1980 proved crucial to the development of modern Kabyle national identity, the topic has been little approached by historians in the English-speaking world.2 With its roots in the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” Amazigh nationalism, and its attempt to distinguish itself from French and Arabo-Islamic influence, evolved as a response to Arabization throughout the 1960s and the 1970s through Berber music, literature, language, and education, culminating in the “Berber Spring” of 1980. 


Pre-Independence Amazigh Identity

Early on, the Kabyle nation showed relatively little interest in having a separate national identity from the Arabs. In a 1993 interview, the “local representative for the ultra-secular RCD party,” recalled that “most of the parents of his generation… did not distinguish between Muslims and Arabs; for older Kabyles, the claim that ‘We are not Arab’ was tantamount to renouncing their Muslim identity, an unthinkable prospect.”3 Instead, it seems that Kabyles focused their energies on a united Algerian national identity which sought to separate itself from French imperial influence.

In her memoirs, Fadhma Amrouche, a Kabyle Christian, also mentions her disdain for French colonial rule: “As I set foot on Algerian soil [in 1957], I said, ‘Farewell, France!’”4 This is best epitomized by the attempts of the French to play Berber and Arab nationalism against each other during the Independence War, usually to great failure.5 Berbers such as Belkacem Krim and Ait Ahmed proved among the most important leaders for Algerian independence, and, as Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes, “Kabylians held commanding positions or were disproportionately represented in nearly every political and military grouping in the struggle against French rule.”6

However, to say that Berber nationalism during the independence war and before was merely anti-French oversimplifies the issue. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, for example, recognized the sometimes paradoxical views of Berber national identity when he described how nationalist leaders “emphasized the historical continuity of the Berbers in their resistance to foreign rule and assimilation… opposing assimilation did not preclude being steeped in the ways of the French language and culture, while also emphasizing fidelity to the Berber language and communal traditions, which could and should underpin the political culture of independent Algeria.”7 Additionally, he acknowledges that “the Kabylians disproportionate participation in the newly established French educational system resulted in French becoming the Kabylians’ second language to an even greater extent than among the rest of Algeria’s Muslims.”8 This is emphasized when Berber writer Katib Yacine stated that “the deepest alienation for an Algerian is not to think that he is French, but that he is an Arab.”9 Furthermore, during the war, Edgar O’Ballance notes,“Berber tribal leaders…were deeply engrossed in feuds, and several nominally either joined the insurgents, or declared for the French, with the sole object of obtaining arms for their own private uses.”10 Fadima Larouche implied this lack of Berber unity when she remembered her own precarious situation among the Kabyles and to the French, when she remarked “To the Kabyles, we were…renegades…to the army, we were Wogs, like all the rest.”11  The Berbers’ complex relationship with the French ultimately proved a fundamental aspect of Amazigh nationalism in post-colonial Algeria, becoming detrimental to the Kabyle population in the wake of the Arabized Algerian nation.


Arabization

During the colonial and post-independence eras, Algerian nationalists and government officials pushed for a unified Arabo-Islamic nation, smothering Berber culture in the process. Arabization, headed by Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj, sprung out of the earliest efforts of Algerian nationalism, beginning in the 1930s. As Benjamin Stora notes, the goal of Arabization was quite simple, to start anew in the wake of colonialism, described as “the battle against the perpetuation of the French language.”12 Martin Stone similarly reported that “the objective” of the program, “was the full transformation of of a Maghrebi European society into a purely Arab one.”13 Upon independence, Algerian presidents Ben Bella and Boumedienne implemented a policy of Arabisation based on the values of Messali, as “an attempt to restore a so-called “Algerian” identity to Algeria, aggressive Arabization measures were taken to eradicate all traces of the colonial past.”14 As Fazia Aïtel noted, “the process of Arabisation – which was to be implemented in classical Arabic, which few people in Algeria spoke or read – was intended to permeate all aspects of everyday life.”15 Furthermore, the imposition of classical Arabic “was often accompanied by a programme of Islamisation – that is, the enforcement of an orthodox notion of Islam displacing or eradicating North African traditional Muslim practices”16 This move away from French culture most directly hurt the Kabyle population, whose national identity was more influenced by the colonizers than their Arab counterparts. As Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress note, “the growing use of the written form [of Arabic] as the traditional language of literacy and educated speech in place of French had begun to threaten those Berbers who… had enjoyed an advantage from their proficiency in French, but for whom standard Arabic was a third or even fourth language.”17  Furthermore, they remark that Arabization went beyond simply a standardization of language and religion: 

“Direct cultural repression was a phenomenon that started as early as the mid-1960s, when the transmissions of the one Berber radio station became limited to four hours a day, and it became illegal to give children Berber names. Systematic repression of festivals, of musical groups, and finally the abolition of Mammeri’s course in Berber at the University of Algiers were all aimed at establishing the linguistic and cultural unity of the country, preventing the growth of Berberism into a political force.”18

The prevalence of Arabization in Algeria, intending to unify Algeria under classical Arabic and traditional Islam, instead galvanized the Berber population, who felt their own culture getting smothered.


1949 “Berberist Crisis”

The first major issue of Kabyle nationalism came about during the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” in the PPA-MTLD, where Amazigh leaders opposed Messali’s Arabization policies. Kabyle nationalists, inspired by secularism and communism and led by intellectuals such as Yahia Henine, Mabrouk Belhocine, and Sadek Hadjeres, directly opposed Ahmed ben Messali’s Arabic and religiously Islamic view of Algeria. They argued that Berber and Algerian Arabic dialects were the languages of the nation, and not the fusha recommended by Messali.

More notably, many of the movement’s followers were more militant than those of the Arabo-Islamic movement. As Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes, Messali and his ilk emphasized the distinct nature of Berber national followers by saying that “Kabyles could not be real Algerians, it was said, so long as they spoke the ‘jargon’ which ‘burns our ears.”19 Messali also accused the Berbers of being pawns of the French imperialists, who allegedly used Kabyle nationalism as a dividing factor within the party. Ultimately, the “Berberist” movement failed to gain any real traction, as many of the most radical aspects were purged out of the party and the issue was fundamentally swept aside. Azzedine Layachi briefly described the conclusion of the crisis when she remarked, “many Berber militants in the PPA and the MTLD ended up either leaving the movement or being thrown out. Others were assassinated.”20 While the crisis was quickly extinguished, it would remain as a rallying point for Berber nationalists during the post-independence era. As John Ruedy notes, “while these problems were eventually papered over, they were not resolved and would resurface from time to time as major issues in Algerian politics.”21 While the movement was relatively brief and quickly stamped out of the PPA-MTLD, and had little popular support, Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes that it showed the complexities of national identity in Algeria, and served as a catalyst for the intense clash between the Arabists and the Berbers in the post-colonial era.22


Post-Colonial Berber Cultural Identity

Music

In the 1960s and 1970s, despite facing pressure from an Arabized government, Kabyles began developing a sense of cultural identity through the popularization of Berber music, literature, language, and education. Music proved an essential part of the development of Amazigh identity. In 1969, Berber radical Mohand-Arav Bessaoud “organized the first Berber concert with great success,” using the event to spearhead the new Berber academy in France.23 For example, the very word “Amazigh,” (meaning “free people”) which Berbers would use as a part of their self-identity did not appear in the public consciousness until 1976, when Idir used the word in his song “Muqley.”24 Furthermore, Jane Goodman notes that the music of Idir helped propel Kabyle identity to the forefront, giving Berber identity an increased global recognition, particularly with the 1973 song “A vava inouva.”25 Furthermore, Fazia Aïtel recognizes the music of 1970s Berber singer Taos Amrouche as an important musical development in Amazigh nationalism. She remarks that Amrouche

“sang traditional Berber songs… though she gave these songs a particular dimension, singing them and recording them as part of a patrimony on the brink of extinction. Singing outside her own community to foreign audiences in France and elsewhere… she coupled her recitals with a new discourse about authenticity and the danger her Berber heritage faced – a patrimony that, she reminded her audience, also belonged to the world, so it was important for it be saved and protected…Her role, then, was predominantly involved with the recognition of the Berber situation and the cultural and historical mission of its supporters. She endowed her songs with an international prestige and provided them with a place in world music.”26

Idir ““A vava inouva” (1973)

The importance of music in Kabyle nationalism, therefore, cannot be understated, as the resurgence of traditional Berber songs (via Taos Amrouche) and Amazigh-inspired folk music (like Idir) provide a valuable voice for Kabyles, both in Algeria and beyond. 

Language

In Algeria and France, Berbers further strove to establish their identity by codifying and popularizing their languages. In 1968, for example, students of the University of Algiers formed the Cercle Culturel Berbère, which created the journal called Taftilt (‘Light’). Around the same time, another journal named Itij (‘Sun’) emerged, using the Tifinagh script.27 More important, however, was the subsequent popularization of the Berber language through the efforts of Mohand-Arav Bessaoud. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he “continued to address the working-class Berber constituency, and with the help of students and factory workers he published a bilingual monthly bulletin (in French and Berber) called Imazighène,” which sought to “focus was on the ancient history of North Africa and the defence of the Amazigh language.”28 Fazia Aïtel noted the popularity of the bulletin amongst Algerian students: “While its radicalism and sometimes virulent content led some to dismiss it or to disassociate themselves from it, the impression it left on students in Algeria was unforgettable. [Berber writer] Saïd Khelil…recounts ‘the emotional charge’ conveyed by the simple use of the Tifinagh alphabet.”29 In the 1970s Mouloud Mammeri “produced the first grammar of Kabyle Berber that was written entirely in Berber…and supervised a team of students who produced Amawal, the dictionary of Tamazight neologisms.”30 Around the same time, Kateb Yacine pushed for the popularization of Berber languages when he “encouraged the Kabyle translation of his play Mohammed prends ta valise” and “helped students to stage the play” with great success around Kabylia.31 As Azzedine Layachi writes, this linguistic push was not in vain, for “this cultural output [including music and literature] helped improve the status among the young of the Berber language in relationship to the formal Arabic and the national dialect.”32 These effort of codifying and popularizing the Berber language and alphabet, therefore, helped push it to a wider audience, helping preserve Kabyle identity in the face of heavy Arabization. 

Mouloud Mammeri

Education

Another essential element in the development of Berber self identity against Arabization was the growth of Kabyle-centered education, both in Algeria and in France. Berber-focused academia began in France during the 1970s, when the Groupe d’Études berbères at the University of Paris VIII “started to function in 1973 and fully emerged with the adoption by the university of a programme of courses in the Berber language and civilisation taught by Professor M’barek Redjala.”33 While the French Berber efforts proved important in promoting Kabyle identity in France and Algeria, the development of the University of Tizi-Ouzou proved absolutely essential to the development of Kayble identity. While the state opened the University in 1977 to ease overcrowding in the University of Algiers, however, its admission of largely Berber students caused it to evolve into a hotbed of Amazigh nationalism and discussion. Jane Freeman notes that by 1980, “the university was also a place where new forms of social organization were emerging. Young men from different villages and regions were coming together in a state-centered location, where age- and lineage-based conventions of public speaking that prevailed in their villages of origin were no longer operative.”34  Historians generally believe that the existence of the University directly played into “Berber Spring.” Bruce Maddy-Weitzman claimed that the university’s establishment and its push back against Arabization was one of the key precursors of the Berber insurrection.35 Jane Goodman takes this development a step further when she noted that “the events of April 1980 took on such importance because they occurred in a location where several rapidly expanding institutional networks converged…in particular, the University of Tizi Ouzou Hasnaoua.”36 The importance of Berber academia in the development of Kabyle nationalism cannot be understated, as it helped focus Berber identity into a more unified form. 


1980 “Berber Spring”

The development of Kabyle nationalism during the 1960s and 1970s culminated in the 1980 “Berber Spring,” the biggest development in modern Amazigh nationalism. As Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji succinctly describe the event, “an official decision to ban a lecture on Berber poetry at Tizi-Ouzou University in Kabylia coincided with protests and several days of unrest and clashes with police that left between thirty and fifty persons dead and hundreds wounded.”37 As Jane Goodman notes, “echoes were felt as far away as Paris, where some 600 demonstrated…at the Algerian embassy, against the orders of French authorities.”38 While the riots themselves were massive in scale, they alone did not turn “Berber Spring” into a defining moment in Kabyle identity. As Andrews and Ennaji point out, “the ban…galvanized students and teachers to take advantage of university organizations to cooperate with other Kabyle groups against the Algerian government.”39 While Kabyle protests were nothing new, historians and Berbers generally agree that “Berber Spring” marked the beginning of a united sense of Amazigh culture in opposition to Algerian Arabization. Andrews and Ennaji remark that, “the scope of the protests, the nature of their demands, and the ensuing crackdown ensured that the Berber genie could not be put back in the bottle…Berber Spring gave birth to a powerful ideology that linked the diverse concerns of Kabylia’s Berbers and gave them a common voice.”40 Berber Spring proved so pivotal to Kabyle identity that Berbers unofficially commemorate the event every year in Algeria and France.41 Jane Goodman describes the importance of the event in Berber consciousness when she notes its application both “forward and backward, superimposed on other violent episodes in Kabyles’ relation to the state”:

A deadly 1949 clash between Berberists and Arabo-Islamists over the question of Algeria’s national language is construed by one scholar as ‘the first Berber Spring’…alternatively, the Berber Spring has been seen as inflecting a later event…for example, a period of violence that began in April 2001… is popularly termed the ‘Black Spring,’ despite the fact that the insurrection lasted for well over a year.42

Thus, a 1980 protest which started from the government ban of a Kabyle lecture proved a pivotal moment in Berber identity in Algeria, as it for the first time presented Amazigh culture in unified opposition to Arabization, and became a symbol of Kabyle resistance. 


Conclusion

While “Berber Spring” proved the watershed moment in the development of modern Kabyle identity, it was most certainly not the first event. Instead, it arose from a rising sense of Amazigh identity throughout the 20th century, most often as a response of the Arabization in nationalist movements and government policies. The first notable attempt at establishing a Berber idea came in the 1949 “Berberist Crisis,” a failed attempt at bringing Kabyle issues to the fore in the Algerian People’s Party. While this ended in disaster, it provided impetus to galvanize Amazigh nationalists following Algeria’s independence. While the Algerian government imposed Arabized measures on the Kayble populace, Berbers pushed back by promoting their own music, language, and academia in the 1960s and 1970s, subsequently leading to the nationalist explosion of “Berber Spring.” Although the “Berber Spring” proved essential in the development of Kabyle national identity, the subject remains a contentious one even into the 21st century, with the Amazigh population still searching for their role in the mostly Arabized Algeria.


Endnotes

1 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement,” from French Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2013), 66. This paper uses the word ‘amazigh’ in place of ‘imazighen’ to describe Berber identity. 

2 The historiography of Berber national identity has been relatively unexplored, particularly in the English-speaking world. Many of the sources from the period of 1949 to the 1960s reflect this relative lack of interest in an identity distinct from “Algerian.” Much of the European literature often conflates the Berbers with the Arabs, particularly when reporting on the war, although some works such as Pierre Bourdieu’s The Algerians (1962) and Edgar O’Ballance’s The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62 (1967) attempt to describe the Kabyle population as distinct from the Arabs. Some sources, such as Fatima Amrouche’s autobiography, along with the literary works of Taos Amrouche, Katib Yacine, and Mouloud Mammeri reflect the complexities of Berber nationalism in the pre-independence period. Historians writing outside of Algeria tended to ignore Amazigh nationalism until the period of the Algerian Civil War, when Jane Goodman began interivewing Berbers about their memories of “Berber Spring” and its fallout, and Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress published their survey of the Berbers in 1996. Following the “Black Spring”violence of 2001, some more historians, notably Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Faiza Aïtel approached Berber nationalism, with the former emphasizing the role of Berbers in politics and the latter emphasizing the role of culture and national identity. Still, many historians of Algeria, such as Martin Evans and Martin Stone tend to make mere passing references to Kabyle nationalism, underplaying the role of the Berbers in many of the trials the country faced following independence. 

 3 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005), 32. 

4 Fadma Amrouche, My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman, Dorothy S. Blair, trans. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 166.

5 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria: Nationalism in the Making?” in  Minorities and the State in the Arab World, eds.Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, (Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner, 1998), 32 and Edgar O’Ballance in O’Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1967) 71. 

6 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria,” 37. The importance of Belkacem Krim in particular was noted by contemporaries such as O’Ballance in The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62, 47. 

7 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. 1st ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 46

8 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “The Berber Question in Algeria,” 35.

9 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen: The Development of Algerian Berber Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014), 111. 

10 O’Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62, (Hamden: Archon Books, 1967), 49 

11 Fadma Amrouche, My Life Story, 167.

12 Benjamin Stora, Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, trans. Jane Mary Todd (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001), 169-170.

13 Martin Stone, Agony of Algeria, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 52. 

14 Quote from  Janice B. Gross,”The Tragedy of Algeria: Slimane Benaïssa’s Drama of Terrorism,” from Theatre Journal 54, no. 3 (2002), 371. Martin Stone, Agony of Algeria, 52, describes the process and goals in greater detail

15 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 64. 

16 Quote from Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 64. Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria: Politicized Ethnicity and Ethnicized Politics,” from Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies, ed. Maya Shatzmiller (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 204-205, goes into much further detail about Kabyle resistance to Islamization. 

17 Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996), 273.

18 Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers,  274.

19 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 47

20 Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria”, 201. 

21 John Ruedy, Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 154. Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 108-109 and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 45-47 discuss this incident and its importance to Berber identity in great detail. 

22 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 47. 

 23 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,”  67.

24 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

25 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 49, Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 120, and Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 70.

26 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 69.

 27 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 121, and “Between Algeria and France,” 71.

 28 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 67.

 29 Ibid. 

30 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 113. 

 31 Fazia Aïtel,  We Are Imazighen, 121

 32 Azzedine Layachi, “The Berbers in Algeria”, 202.

 33 Fazia Aïtel, “Between Algeria and France,” 67.

 34 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 41.

 35 Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, The Berber Identity Movement, 81. 

36 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33.

37 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” from Minorites, Women and the State in North Africa, ed. Moha Ennaji (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2016), 64. Martin Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, 357, agrees with the estimates of Andrews and Ennaji. Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33, contests these numbers, stating that no one died in 1980. 

38 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

39 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” 76-77. 

40 Mathew Andrews and Moha Ennaji, “Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco,” 77. 

41 Ibid., and  Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 30.

42 Jane E. Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage, 33.


Works Cited

Aïtel, Fazia. “Between Algeria and France: The Origins of the Berber Movement.” French Cultural Studies 24, no. 1 (2013): 63-76.

Aïtel, Fazia. We Are Imazighen: The Development of Algerian Berber Identity in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture. Florida: University Press of Florida, 2014.

Brett, Michael, and Fentress, Elizabeth. The Berbers. Peoples of Africa.: Blackwell, 1996.

Amrouche, Fadhma A. M., and Dorothy S. Blair, trans. My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Andrews, Mathew and Moha Ennaji.“Berber Identity and Social Cleavage in Algeria and Morocco.” In Minorites, Women and the State in North Africa, edited by Moha Ennaji, 63-84. Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2016. 

Evans, Martin. Algeria: France’s Undeclared War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 

Goodman, Jane E. Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Gross, Janice B. “The Tragedy of Algeria: Slimane Benaïssa’s Drama of Terrorism.” Theatre Journal 54, no. 3 (2002): 369-87.

Layachi, Azzedine. “The Berbers in Algeria: Politicized Ethnicity and Ethnicized Politics.” In Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies. Edited by Maya Shatzmiller, 195-228. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce. “The Berber Question in Algeria:  Nationalism in the Making?,” in Minorities and the State in the Arab World, edited by Ofra Bengio and Gabriel Ben-Dor, 31-52. Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner, 1998.

O’Ballance, Edgar. The Algerian Insurrection, 1954-62. Hamden: Archon Books, 1967.

Ruedy, John. Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 

Stone, Martin. The Agony of Algeria. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Stora, Benjamin.  Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History. Translated by Jane Mary Todd. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001.

The Caretaker “Everywhere at the End of Time”: The Musical Depiction of Dementia

WARNING: This review and the album “Everywhere at the End of Time” addresses sensitive topics such as mental illness. Proceed and listen at your own risk. 

In early 2012, I went with some friends to Auschwitz in Poland and took a tour of the place which, some 70 years prior, was the location of some of the most horrific crimes ever perpetrated by man. Despite the relative peace of the place in the post-Nazi, post-Soviet era, the haunting, oppressive atmosphere has eroded little. Throughout the day, I felt nauseous, and even in the hours after my tour, I found myself unable to speak, and my stomach remained in knots all day- an attitude shared by my friends. Despite this, I left the experience a better person, more aware of the suffering of the innocents before me, and increasingly cautious of the ways, no matter so subtle, that such horrors can come again. The journey, despite its discomfort (or rather, probably because of it), is one that I believe all must experience in order to better themselves and perhaps even humanity as a whole. 

Now, it may seem odd that I begin a music review with a discussion about going to a former concentration camp. The reason why I do this is because the sentiment expressed is how I feel in regards to The Caretaker’s 2016-2019 opus “Everywhere At the End of Time.” This is an album that will make you feel uncomfortable, nauseous, disoriented, and it might even break you in the process, and it is precisely because of this reason that I feel that everyone should listen to this work of art. The project, headed by producer Leyland Kirby, consists of 6 albums (or stages), each musically describing the decline of one’s mental state through dementia. With each stage, the music progressively deteriorates, until it comes to the point where it cannot even be recognized as anything remotely “musical.” This musical disintegration is best shown by Kirby’s effective use of samples throughout the album. Introducing them in a relatively unchanged format with Stage 1 (the original pieces from the 1920s and 1930s are pretty recognizable with The Caretaker’s interpretations at this part), he repeats them with more static, distortion, reverb, and splicing as the project continues, achieving a deteriorating effect. Ivan Seal’s artwork helps beautifully compliment Kirby’s music- the album covers for each stage go from odd but clearly recognizable objects to the artistic equivalent of those “you can’t name any object in this picture” photos, to a complete blank canvas for part 6. All of these elements come together in a manner that forces the listener to contemplate on the nature of memories and the horror of dementia. After all, we are all simply just a product of our memories, so what happens when our experiences are gone forever?

“Everywhere at the End of Time” has proven so successful in its depiction of dementia that the project has gained a minor bit of notoriety on the internet. Many reviewers have considered it the “most disturbing album” they have ever heard. The project has even become a challenge on TikTok, which in all fairness having people listen to an album that spreads awareness of mental illness is probably one of the better viral tasks to come from the website. It is clear to see why it has gained its reputation, as Kirby’s use of musical symbolism effectively creates a massively emotional existential experience for the listener.


I decided to give a thorough review of this work of art, explaining each stage in detail, as well as noting in bold the descriptions which Kirby gives for each stage.

STAGE 1

Here we experience the first signs of memory loss. This stage is most like a beautiful daydream. 

The glory of old age and recollection. The last of the great days. 

The music of this Stage echoes the memories from a ballroom years past. Many commentators have described this as “the happy” part of the project, and it is easy to see why. The songs are simple and complete, and in the case of pieces such as “All the Loves of My Life,” can be downright lovely. The audience can be forgiven if they feel a sense of warm nostalgia when listening to these short, elegant pieces. For my part, however, I feel a sense of overwhelming sadness and unease, even this early on in the experience. The music reminds me of a past that is forever gone, that the best years are behind us. This melancholy atmosphere is further underscored when one listens to the original pieces that Kirby samples in this Stage- even here, The Caretaker’s versions are darker, slower and more sombre (compare Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches” with “It’s Just A Burning Memory” or Layton and Johnstone’s “It All Depends on You” with “Late Afternoon Drifting”). Furthermore, Kirby’s use of record scratches and pops could equally be open to interpretation. Some have seen the effects as a way to emphasize the nostalgic flavor of the tracks, while others have postulated that these showcase the coming storm of imperfect or even fading memories associated with dementia. Of course, neither of these approaches are mutually exclusive, and both effectively help paint a picture of a person’s mind slowly beginning to fade away. Even in this stage, particularly with the last few tracks, clear signs of trouble are coming. The music is already becoming more noticeably distorted and distant. Nonetheless, these are still recognizable as a song to sing and hum along to, but the dark underpinnings are less subtle.


STAGE 2 

The second stage is the self realisation and awareness that something is wrong with a refusal to accept that. More effort is made to remember so memories can be more long form with a little more deterioration in quality. The overall personal mood is generally lower than the first stage and at a point before confusion starts setting in.

Even though the songs still maintain a clear sense of melody and harmony, immediately the music is more haunting, lost, and disoriented. The signs were starting to become apparent in Stage 1, but the sudden shift in sound into more heavily distorted, warped music is nonetheless jarring. This is best reflected in the echoes and static permeating “Misplaced in Time” To see how far the disintegration has come even this early on, compare Al Bowlly’s “Heartaches” and “It’s Just A Burning Memory” from Stage 1 with “What Does it Matter How My Heart Breaks.” In this stage, the music is also more prone to abruptly ending, and even some melodies are difficult for the listener to clearly make out, creating an increasingly claustrophobic, haunting atmosphere. This is evidenced in one of my favorite tracks of the entire project, “Glimpses of Hope in Trying Times,” (based off samples of Paul Whiteman’s 1931 recording of the second movement of Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”) which at times reminds me of something out of a warped King Crimson or Van der Graaf Generator record. Much like Stage 1, the last two tracks of Stage 2 foreshadow the coming darkness of the following stage, with the final track “The Way Ahead Feels Lonely,” creating a hollow, forlorn atmosphere where the music simply sounds empty.


STAGE 3

Here we are presented with some of the last coherent memories before confusion fully rolls in and the grey mists form and fade away. Finest moments have been remembered, the musical flow in places is more confused and tangled. As we progress some singular memories become more disturbed, isolated, broken and distant. These are the last embers of awareness before we enter the post awareness stages.

The shift in sounds between Stage 2 and 3 is significantly less abrupt than the transition from Stage 1, and somehow that makes the music even more unnerving. Melodies and harmonies are still present, the deterioration is still apparent even from the first track, as the music seems downright sinister at times, and Kirby utilizes extensive use of reverb to make the music seem even more distant. If you are interested in seeing just how far the music has deteriorated by this point, listen to Russ Morgan’s “Moonlight and Shadows,” “Childishly Fresh Eyes” from Stage 1, and “Back There Benjamin,” the opening track for this Stage. More tracks end abruptly, and some have their endings drawn out for longer than seemingly necessary. Interestingly, Kirby also seems to begin mixing multiple songs into a single track, creating a more confused atmosphere. The deterioration is much less subtle than in previous Stages, with the decline being more dramatic and observable from one track to the next. While a sense of some sort of discernable melody and harmony is maintained throughout the Stage, Kirby continually makes it difficult for the listener to discern what instrument is playing what notes, or what piece is being sampled, and some parts of the latter part of this stage feel increasingly fragmented, like they are jumping around or trying desperately to search for something, most notably with “Burning Despair Does Ache.” Some of the tracks disintegrate to the point that pieces such as “Internal Bewildered World,” “Aching Cavern Without Lucidity” and “Libet Delay” hardly have this sense of melody, and disturbingly foreshadowing the upcoming stages, even Stage 6. By this point, it is clear the warm nostalgia of the ballroom days of yore is gone, and replaced with something haunting, terrifying, with the worst still yet to come. 


STAGE 4

Post-Awareness Stage 4 is where serenity and the ability to recall singular memories gives way to confusions and horror. It’s the beginning of an eventual process where all memories begin to become more fluid through entanglements, repetition and rupture.

This is where things truly begin to spiral out of control. Although some reviewers see Stage 3 as where things truly start to unravel , the shift between that part of the project and this one is perhaps the most jarring of “Everywhere at the End of Time.” Instead of the relatively short pieces of music that had recognizable melodies and harmonies in even the latter parts of Stage 3, the listener is assaulted by a wall of harsh noise presented in tracks no less than 20 minutes in length. While it seems like there are bits and pieces of the previous samples thrown together, they are so distorted that any attempt to connect them to the previous stages is an exercise in futility. In this cacophony, there are rare glimpses of melodic fragments that the audience longs so badly to maintain a hold of, but these moments are brief and quickly fade back into the noise. Something to note about Kibry’s comment of “fluidity,” is that while the tracks from the first three Stages are clearly distinct from each other, with Stages 4-6 there is little discernible difference between each piece, and they sometimes flow together seamlessly, although not necessarily in a clear segue like with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or “ The Wall.” Some of the music takes a break from the cacophony to foreshadow the utter emptiness of Stage 6, particularly in “Stage 4 Temporary Bliss State” and “Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions (3)” although not to the extent of the later parts of the project. Something interesting that I noticed from my personal experience listening to this stage is that when I listen to the end of “Stage 4 Post Awareness Confusions (3),” my brain somehow fills in the gaps between the drones with music that is simply not there. I’m not sure if there is anything to this or if my experience is unique, but I found it interesting enough to mention. 


STAGE 5 

Post-Awareness Stage 5 confusions and horror. More extreme entanglements, repetition and rupture can give way to calmer moments. The unfamiliar may sound and feel familiar. 

Time is often spent only in the moment leading to isolation.

Have you ever driven out in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to search for a radio station, but all you get is static? And perhaps, once in a while, you get a strange, distorted note, or a very, very distant voice from a talk show host miles away? And the more you drive, the more the static just overwhelms the radio and you know you are going further from any radio tower or sense of civilization that could help you? This is what this stage sounds like to me, and what any attempt to achieve a memory or a sense of self can be for those suffering dementia. For the most part, any sense of melody is gone, except for very, very rare moments, and even then it seems so distant, so secluded in static, it is almost indecipherable, and most certainly does nothing to match the original pieces/memories from the first few stages. Outside of these rare moments of relative bliss, the listener is attacked with a barrage of static and random, incredibly distorted instrumental noises that create a sense of, well, confusion and horror. The wall of noises thrown at me often made me disoriented, and even at times nauseous. Some of the sounds made within the cacophony sometimes to me sounds like cries of help and even heavily distorted screaming. It should be noted that unlike works such as the excellent “You Won’t Get What You Want” by the Daughters or Swans’ “The Seer,” the noise doesn’t seem to hit you in your skull so much as seem to slowly envelop you from within. The closest the audience gets to a break from this cacophony is the almost beautiful and endurable track “Stage 5 Synaptic Retrogenesis,” which foreshadows Stage 6 by throwing the reader into waves of drone noises, while still maintaining the same sense of loss and uneasiness that permeates the rest of the tracks through the static and indiscernible instrumental noises. Even in this environment, any sense of melody vanishes, and the listener is lost within the abyss of noise. Eventually, the cacophony returns at the end of the track and throughout the track of “Stage 5 Sudden time regression into isolation,” only to eventually fade into the absolute echo drones that dominate Stage 6, letting the listener know any hope of connection or recognition of anything is now gone. 


STAGE 6 

Post-Awareness Stage 6 is without description.

After the chaos of the previous two stages, the… nothingness of Stage 6 almost comes as a relief. Gone is the cacophony of noise thrown at the listener, but also gone is any musical sense, any hope of retrieving anything resembling a melody. Now, the listener is adrift in a sea of nothingness, receiving only faint echoes of anything amid the subtle static. I have heard others describe this Stage as being in a cave of pure darkness and isolation, with no light and no way out, and I honestly cannot think of a better way to describe the sheer hopelessness and loneliness brought out by the sounds. There are subtle references to Stages 4 and 5 in tracks such as “Stage 6 A brutal bliss beyond this empty defeat,” but even these grasps to the disorientation of before are so muddled and hidden by the static that they too tend to get lost in the nothingness. Some reviewers have noted that the musical emptiness could symbolise the acceptance of one’s fate, while others have postulated that it shows that the mind is so far gone that it cannot even form the most basic of memories. There is definitely an argument to be made for both of these interpretations, and I do not believe that the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the relative calm when compared to Stages 4 and 5 does seem as though there is a sense of peace and acceptance, but the underlying sombre mood, with the “echoes” sometimes even resembling heavily distorted and muffled screams, emphasize loneliness and isolation. This juxtaposition makes Stage 6 without a doubt the most unnerving of all of the different parts in the project. 

For a project of this length and scope, it could be difficult to tastefully and successfully stick the landing for the end. While I don’t want to describe the ending in too much detail (I feel like it is far more effective for the listener to go in blind), I will say that Kirby joins the likes of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in crafting one of the most beautiful and cathartic musical conclusions. I think it is impossible not to feel something when listening to the final 8 minutes of the album, and the listener is forgiven if they (as so many reviewers before) break down to tears from the sweet beautiful release afforded to the listener after hours of sheer musical breakdown. Does “Everywhere at the End of Time” have a happy ending or a sad one? Ultimately, I think this is left open for the audience to interpret.


This album is not for the faint of heart. If you are in a dark place mentally, I definitely recommend listening to this with extreme caution. That being said, I highly support art that makes those experiencing it uncomfortable, provided the artist treats both the audience and subject matter with care and respect. Much like Arnold Schoenberg’s “A Survivor From Warsaw,” which forces the listener to experience the horrors of the Holocaust, or Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” which details the pains of Poles throughout their history, “Everywhere at the End of Time,” will put its audience through the emotional gamut, but respects the listener and those affected by dementia. The project is one of, if not the greatest and arguably most important pieces of musical works to come out since William Balinski’s ambient 9/11 requiem “The Disintegration Loops” from 2003. For my own part, I found myself more aware of the sheer horrors of dementia, as well as doing more research and spreading awareness on the subject. I personally cannot recommend “Everywhere at the End of Time” enough, and I feel as though everybody who can stomach it should give this a listen. The experience is a harrowing one, but ultimately it enriches those willing to go through it.