Amrouche, Fadhma Mansour (1882–1967)

views updated

Amrouche, Fadhma Mansour (1882–1967)

Algerian-born Berber poet and folksinger. Name variations: Fadhma Aith Mansur. Born in the Kabylia region of Eastern Algeria in 1882; died in Brittany on July 9, 1967; an out-of-wedlock child, she was raised by French nuns; married Belkacem-ou-Amrouche, in 1899; children: eight, including Marie-Louise Amrouche (1813–1976) and Jean Amrouche (a poet).

One of the first, if not the first, women educated in colonial Algeria; uneasily suspended between Berber and French culture, Amrouche recorded the vicissitudes of her life in her autobiography My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman.

Fadhma Aith Mansour was born in a remote mountain village in the Kabylia region of Eastern Algeria in 1882, the illegitimate daughter of a young widow. Because she was born out of wedlock, Fadhma's life was at risk, as was her mother's, for the patriarchal code of honor stipulated that such "immoral" behavior must be punished in the harshest possible terms. To avoid violence against her daughter as well as herself, Fadhma's mother walked for six days to entrust the endangered child to the care of French nuns, the White Sisters who lived in a convent at Ouadhias. From 1887 to 1897, the bright young girl attended a secular school at Taddert-ou-Fella. Fadhma Mansour was one of the first, and possibly the very first, Berber girl to receive a Western-style education in colonial Algeria. Upon graduation, she began working in the linen room of the Saint-Eugénie Hospital in the town of Aîth-Manegueleth.

In 1899, Fadhma was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church and simultaneously married a young Berber schoolteacher, Belkacem-ou-Amrouche. The Amrouches had eight children and lived in the often precarious cultural region between Algerian life and that of the dominant European colonial regime. Despite her European upbringing, Fadhma remained deeply immersed in the rich cultural traditions of the Berber people, fiercely independent tribes of the Barbary Coast and the Sahara who had never been completely absorbed by the dominant Arab language and folkways.

In order to support a growing family, Belkacem-ou-Amrouche took a job with the Tunisian Railway Company and moved his family to Tunis. Soon after, they lost their son and fourth child, baby Louis-Marie, who died in October 1909. Because her husband was a loyal civil servant of the French colonial regime, in 1913, Fadhma's entire family was granted French naturalization papers. Fadhma gave birth to Marie-Louise Amrouche , her sixth child and only daughter, not long after. The onset of World War I meant increasing assimilation of French colonials like the Amrouches, as France drew upon the people of Algeria and Tunisia to replenish troops lost in the trenches. In 1918, Fadhma's first son, Paul-Mohand-Saîd, was called to the colors; fortunately, however, the carnage ended in November of that year and he never served.

Throughout her life, Fadhma Amrouche continued to expand her Berber legacy in song and poetry, a polestar for a woman caught in a cultural crossfire. The large Amrouche family, which now included Belkacem's aged father, Ahmed-ou-Amrouche, continued to live in Tunis and to be both Berber and French, Catholic and Algerian. But these divided loyalties often caused problems. For example, Amrouche's son Paul left his wife and child to seek his fortune in Paris, while her father-in-law left Tunis for the traditions of his home region of the Kabylia in 1923. It was difficult to know which path to choose.

Fadhma Amrouche lost three sons in quick succession. In 1939, her son Louis-Mohand-Seghir died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. The next year, 1940, France was utterly defeated by the Nazi armed forces in June, and Amrouche's first-born son Paul committed suicide at only 40. Before the year was over tuberculosis claimed another son, Noël-Saâdi, not yet 24. During these tragic years, Fadhma Amrouche overcame her grief by writing folk poetry and singing the wild, plaintive songs of her beloved Kabylia. At first, these stirring renditions of age-old laments and sagas were known only to her family and friends, but, with the passage of time, it became clear that Fadhma possessed an extraordinary gift and her fame grew. In 1946, she wrote down the fascinating story of her life (My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman). For a time, it appeared that she would be granted a serene old age.

But traumatic and bloody events continued to plague Amrouche's final years. The savage, atrocity-ridden Algerian war of independence began in 1954, the same year in which Fadhma's aged father-in-law died after a life of dramatic changes. For Christian families like the Amrouches, the war was catastrophic as they were regarded as traitors and puppets of the alien French Europeans. In 1956, Fadhma and her husband fled to France, taking refuge with their son Jean-El-Mouhouv and his wife Marie-Louise. What would prove to be only a temporary amelioration in the military situation prompted them to return home in 1957, but, in January 1959, her beloved husband died at their home in Ighil-Ali, and five weeks later Fadhma closed up the house to return to France. When her son died in April 1962, she wrote a new introduction to her autobiography. Although written earlier, the book now received a wider audience and rave reviews. Critics recognized the simple, moving chronicle as a classic account of determination and one woman's call to keep her cultural roots alive.

When Fadhma Amrouche died in Brittany on July 9, 1967, her lifetime achievement of preserving the Berber culture of her ancestors was increasingly recognized not only in France but in Algeria. This legacy of poetry and song was passed on to her daughter, Marie-Louise Amrouche, who recorded many of her own versions of the ancient poems and songs of the Kabylia. Both mother and daughter drew sustenance from the powerful traditions of their Berber past that continue to speak to the eternal concerns of humankind.


Amrouche, Fadhma A.M. My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman. Translated with an introduction by Dorothy S. Blair. London: The Women's Press, 1988.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia