3.1. Family Background
Lalla Fatma is generally considered to have been born around the year 1830—coinciding with the fall of Algiers at the hands of the French—into a family of religious notables (known as marabouts
) in the village of Ourdja. Her family descends from a local saint: Sidi Ahmed Ou Mezian. According to Al-Warthilânî [20
] (p. 16) as cited by Feredj [8
], this ancestor was alive around the year 1740, and he was a renowned scholar who authored “many books about religion
” but who also had “an unequalled command of a variety of linguistic disciplines
” related to Arabic. Lacoste-Dujardin [21
] (p. 107) adds that until today, the saint’s lineage has given Kabylia and Algeria great religious and political leaders, amongst whom the poet Si Mohand U-Lhosine and one of the leaders of the liberation war of 1954: Hocine Aït Ahmed, who also was the founder of the first Algerian opposition party.
Lalla Fatma’s father was leading the zâwiya
founded by his saintly grandfather, Sidi Ahmed, in Ourdja. He was affiliated with the Rahmâniyya sufi order. It is worth mentioning that the founder of this tarîqa
, Muhammad b. ‘Abderrahmân (cc. 1715–1798) was himself a native of Kabylia who studied in al-Azhar (Egypt) before coming back to his home country and delivering his spiritual teachings. He was probably a contemporary of Sidi Ahmed Ou Mezian, and it is plausible that interesting scholarly exchanges took place between the two. Fatma’s father was likely doubly nurtured by the spiritual knowledge he traditionally inherited from his family, in addition to what the surrounding Rahmâniiya tarîqa
had brought to him. But what was the name of this father? Feredj [8
] calls him Tayeb, while Oussedik [9
] names him Mohamed. We will see when mentioning Fatma’s brothers the probable cause of the confusion in Feredj [8
] between her eldest brother Tayeb and her father. Hanoteau [1
] (p. 127) adds that the family of Lalla Fatma belonged to the tribe of Illilten.
With regards to Lalla Fatma’s mother, little is known with certitude. Nevertheless, Oussedik [9
] (p. 7) mentions that her name was Terkia n’ath Ykhoulaf, and suggests that the man to whom our heroine would be briefly married later, Yahia n’ath Ykhoulaf (also spelled Yahia Bû Ikhlûf), was a cousin on her mother’s side (pp. 10–11). The latter belonged to the tribe of Itsouragh, according to Hanoteau [1
] (p. 127). This is more likely true than what the poet Mufdî Zakarîa [22
] (p. 55), author of the Algerian national anthem, indicates when naming Lalla Fatma’s mother Lalla Khadidja, who has given her name to the tallest peak in the Djurjura mountains. As a matter of fact, the said Lalla Khadidja is another important female spiritual figure whose life in Kabylia preceded Lalla Fatma’s by a couple of decades. She was the widow of Moroccan shaykh
Mohammad Ben Aïssa who had been appointed by the founder of the Rahmâniyya tarîqa
as his successor. At the early stages of this sufi order, a leadership crisis threatened to divide its followers, but Lalla Khadidja’s wisdom saved the situation, as explained by Salhi [15
] (p. 14). The writer of the notes to Zakarîa’s poem [22
] (probably former Algerian minister of religious affairs, Mouloud Kacem Naït Belkacem, himself of Kabyle origin) considers wrongly that Lalla Fatma is Mohammad Ben Aïssa’s daughter, which is obviously a mistake.
For some reason, Lalla Fatma moved to the village of Soumer with her brothers. While Feredj [8
] supposes that this had happened after her father’s death, Oussedik [9
] (p. 7) gives a different version: it is likely that the father had ordered one of his sons, Tahar, to move to Soumer to run the local zâwiya
there. The existence of such a zâwiya
in Soumer is attested by Carette [23
] (vol. II, p. 310), which mentions the presence of “five marabouts
” running the zâwiya
of «Içommer», talking surely about Lalla Fatma and her brothers. But before attempting to explain what the meaning of marabout in Kabyle society is, we will try to figure out who those “five marabouts
A curious fact about Fatma’s siblings is the divergence between authors in giving their exact number and their names. While it is sure that she had at least four brothers, Oussedik [9
] mentions that she also had two sisters: Yamina and Tassaâdit. Whereas Feredj [8
] enumerates four brothers: Ahmed, Tahar, Cherif, and al-Hadi; Oussedik [9
] counts five: Mohand-Tayeb, L’Hadi, Tahar, Ahmed and Cherif. Interestingly enough, in such a patriarchal society as that of mid-nineteenth century Kabylia, the only name that seems to be retained without hesitation by History is Fatma’s, and not those of her male relatives.
A possible explanation for this confusion may be the fact that Tayeb (or Mohand-Tayeb) seemed to have stayed in Ourdja, the village where Lalla Fatma’s father had performed his duties as a shaykh
, seconding him, and probably succeeding him after his death, while Tahar seemed to have been sent earlier by the father to Soumer. As mentioned above, it is probable that Feredj [8
] heard testimonies in Ourdja about the shaykh
of the zâwiya
named Tayeb, and concluded hastily that he was Fatma’s father, whereas it seems that Tayeb was her eldest brother. It seems also that colonial primary accounts sometimes mixed up between Tahar, who led the zâwiya
of Soumer, and Tayeb.
Before concluding this section, we need to explain what a marabout is. This word is the way the French transcribed the Arabic term of murâbit, deriving from the notion of ribât, itself derived from the root r-b-t ربط, carrying a sense of bonding or tying. A ribât was a kind of military and educative institution where a group of people used to dedicate their lives to the study of religion, while they agreed to be mobilized at any moment to participate in jihâd campaigns. The name of Murâbitûn, (the plural form of murâbit) was taken by the famous Almoravid dynasty. This dynasty was founded by Yusuf b. Tashfîn and ruled the Maghreb in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Later, the notion of murâbit
, or what the Kabyles call in their language Amrabet
), was attached to a group of families considered—more or less—of nobler ascendance than commoners, and who were usually in charge of transmitting religious knowledge, in addition to playing an important role in social and political mediations within the Berber tribes. Roberts [19
] (pp. 158–163 & pp. 228–229) brilliantly analyses the rise of these religious lineages in the Kabyle landscape and the various missions and roles Imrabdhen
played in the pre-colonial context. Thus, belonging to a marabout
family in Kabylia was synonymous with being treated with deep respect. It is therefore clear that Lalla Fatma’s prestigious ancestry played a significant role in legitimizing her leadership in the eyes of her fellow countrymen, who attached great importance on such considerations, as noted by Lacoste-Dujardin [21
] (p. 107).
3.2. Education and Youth
It is very difficult to assess the level of education of a historical personality who left no written trace of her own, and about whom real facts are easily lost in the torrent of glorifying legends on the one hand, and of political considerations on the other hand.
Nonetheless, it appears that we can come close to broadly evaluating the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere in which she was brought up, by giving sense to some elements that went somehow unnoticed in the existing literature so far.
One remark by Feredj [8
] (p. 133), quoting Robin [24
] (p. 357), notes that after the French succeeded in defeating Lalla Fatma and her brothers’ resistance movement, they seized in/from the zawiya
of Soumer “160 books of high value in Arabic
” which belonged to her brother Tahar. The latter kept asking the colonial administration to restitute them with other belongings that had been confiscated, as stated by Feredj [8
] (p. 139). Yet, Feredj still expresses his doubts about Tahar’s level of education, concluding that he might have been a learned man, as he might have just inherited those books from his illustrious grand-father Sidi Ahmed Ou Mezian.
Another point of view is presented by Oussedik [9
] (p. 14), who claims that as soon as Tahar knew the Qur’ân by heart, he was appointed shaykh
in the zâwiya
of Soumer by his father. There, he started to learn other sciences, including astrology, and he soon became famous in the whole region for the “amulets
” and “talismans
” that he used to deliver to the population in order to protect and heal them from “evil eye
” and other occult dangers, in addition to his ability to predict events. Hanoteau [1
] (p. 127) describes Tahar as being “a marabout who was already famous in the country for being an inspired man predicting the future”
, while Randon [3
] (see Appendix A
) also insists that Tahar “was thought of as being an inspired man
Thus, while Feredj [8
] tends clearly to underestimate Tahar’s degree of learnedness, Oussedik [9
] probably embellished some fancy details about it, or at least expressed what the popular culture retained about him. As a matter of fact, talking about “predicting the future
” and giving “oracles
”, as is mentioned in many colonial sources talking about Lalla Fatma and her brother, denotes a superficial and superstitious interpretation of the spiritual and religious functions exercised by Tahar, and later by his sister as well.
Confusing spiritual insights with fortune telling is a common attitude found in primary colonial sources which tried to explain the influence exercised by Fatma and her brother by a higher level of cunning, taking advantage of people’s credulity. Randon [3
] (see Appendix A
) and Hanoteau [1
] (p. 127) (whose words are strangely very close in a way that suggests an influence of the latter on the former) mention that Fatma started to have “visions and dreams
”, in Hanoteau’s terms, or “visions and hallucinations
” in Randon’s, and to “communicate with the most renowned saints
”, in a way that made her deliver “oracles
” and predict the future.
What these sources didn’t take into account is the explanation of such phenomena within the framework of the Islamic notion of sainthood or wilâya
and the subsequent notion of karâmât
(prodigies) of which saintly people are endowed. As a matter of fact, one has to remember that the Rahmâniyya order, as Salhi [14
] (p. 32) puts it: “would appear more like a teaching tarîqa than a mystical congregation. It was inarguably the inclination towards the transmission and reproduction of the sacred scriptural knowledge that forged the personality of the Rahmâniya
While knowing that the “sacred scriptural knowledge
” in Islam forbids such practices as astrology and fortune telling, it is highly questionable that Lalla Fatma and her brother indulged in such activities. On the other hand, within the realm of Islamic spirituality, supernatural phenomena are acknowledged as being special gifts, or karâmât,
that God may grant to some of His creatures, as will be later discussed in Section 3.4
As far as education is concerned, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that, being the descending heir of a respected scholar and saint, as well as the local representative (moqaddam
) of a sufi tarîqa
that places much emphasis on religious scriptural knowledge, as explained by Salhi, Tahar was probably a learned man with sufficient intellectual and spiritual credentials to make him able to deliver simple religious teachings to Kabyle laymen. And contrary to Feredj’s [8
] conclusion, his insistence on obtaining his confiscated books would tend to prove that he was really attached to acquiring knowledge and couldn’t easily cope with being cut from such precious tools.
Assessing Tahar’s level of instruction can help us shed some light on Lalla Fatma’s own education. Oussedik [9
] (pp. 9–10) says that she had learnt, at the age of five or six, many verses of the Qur’ân, even though such knowledge was exclusively reserved for boys. She is said to have retained several sûra-s
simply by overhearing the boys reciting them. This information sounds highly plausible, as we know of many women of older generations in Algeria, from Berber as well as Arabic speaking regions, who had never been to school, but who managed to retain by heart some sûra-s
and verses of the Qur’ân only by listening to men or boys reciting them in their vicinity. How much of the Qur’ân did Lalla Fatma know by heart? It is impossible to answer this question, but it suffices to state that the more she learnt by heart, the more exceptional she would appear to her fellow countrymen.
More interestingly, Al-Bouabdelli [25
] (p. 311) affirms that Lalla Fatma was one of shaykh
Mahdî Saklâwî’s disciples, without giving any references or further details about this precious piece of information. Saklâwî was an eminent scholar from the Berber tribe of Ath-Irathen, whose biography can be found in al-Kacimi al-Hasani [26
] (p. 396). He had left Algeria after the defeat of the Emir ‘Abd-el-Qâdir in 1847—whom he had supported—and headed to Damascus.
A religious scholar himself, Al-Bouabdelli [25
] seems to have had a wide knowledge of the different ties and activities of members of the Rahmâniyya tarîqa
: as a matter of fact, Salhi [15
] (p. 79) refers to him as the editor of a text by a later shaykh of the Rahmâniyya, shaykh Mohammed Ameziane El-Haddad (the spiritual leader of the insurrection of 1871). His affirmation of such a link between Lalla Fatma and shaykh
Saklâwî must contain some truth.
Saklâwî (1786–1862) was the highest spiritual authority in Kabylia before he left for Syria. As the head of the Rahmâniyya order, to which Lalla Fatma and her family were affiliated, he had surely paid, within the exercise of his religious leadership, several visits to the zâwiya of Soumer. Being the sister of the zâwiya’s shaykh, Lalla Fatma might have, once again, learnt a lot from Saklâwî, just by eavesdropping, as she might have had a direct contact with him, benefiting from especially benevolent treatment from her brother, who might have allowed her to exchange openly with the great shaykh.
These remarks lead us to suggest that her spiritual education was probably more elaborate than what the existing literature tends to assume. In addition, we should also note that in Islam, and especially in its spiritual sciences, as Prophet Mohammad himself was illiterate, not knowing how to read and write is not necessarily synonymous with ignorance. Such great sufi masters as ‘Alî al-Khawwâs (d.939/1532) or ‘Abd al-‘Azîz al-Dabbâgh (d.1131/1718) were renowned for their deep spiritual knowledge which they didn’t acquire by reading books or learning from scholars, but are supposed to have received it directly from a divine source (‘ilm ladunî).
Therefore, although we cannot assert that Lalla Fatma knew how to read and write, elements from local stories transmitted from generation to generation tend to attest that she had some mastery of the Quran (some would claim she knew it all by heart) and was gifted with a rare eloquence that made her impress her interlocutors with the wisdom of her speech, in such a way that she became the favorite religious reference for the people of her region, as her reputation soon outshone those of her brothers’.
3.3. Personality Traits through Her Failed Marriage
Aside from her degree of learnedness, another aspect of her life has raised a large amount of conjecture: her turbulent approach to marriage. Without citing his sources, Oussedik [9
] (pp. 8–11) states that during her parents’ life, she turned down a great number of aspirants, and that then, when the pressure to marry was getting stronger, she started to simulate hysterical crises to discourage potential suitors. Her attitude angered her family who decided to punish her by forcing her into seclusion. Seeing her health declining, her parents felt sorry for her and set her free again. Later on, probably after her father’s death, her elder brother, Tayeb, agreed to marry her to her cousin, Yahia n’Ath Ikhoulaf, without waiting for her approval. As soon as she arrived at her in-law’s, Lalla Fatma showed her rebellion against this non-consensual marriage in every possible way: breaking anything she could lay her hands on, screaming, and mutilating herself. After a month of her defiant presence there, not letting her husband approach her in any way, her family sent her younger brother, Cherif, to bring her back home. However, the unwanted husband, humiliated by her stubborn refusal, decided to get his revenge through not divorcing her, which made it impossible for her to re-marry.
A shorter account of the story of this unhappy marriage is found in Feredj [8
] (p. 133), relying on a document dating from 1845 attesting of her marriage to Yahia Bû Ikhlûf, from the village of Aasker. He adds that Lalla Fatma returned to the house of her brother Tahar (the zâwiya
of Soumer actually) shortly afterwards. He states rumors that she continued to receive marriage proposals, mentioning especially Sherif Bû Baghla (see Section 3.5
above), but her husband never accepted divorce, despite the huge amounts of money different aspirants proposed to pay him. He concludes that Yahia’s refusal to divorce shows that he still loved her and didn’t lose hope of gaining her back some day. We are more inclined to think that, as Oussedik [9
] puts it, it was a sign of revenge more than of love, but, in a certain way, his attitude was a favor to Lalla Fatma, who didn’t seem interested in re-marrying anyway, preferring probably to dedicate her life to spirituality. As noted by Benbrahim [27
], this rebellious attitude gave rise to an expression in Kabyle: “Lalla n’Ourdja
” [the lady of Ourdja] to qualify any young woman stubbornly refusing to get married.
Whatever the reasons which led Lalla Fatma to adopt such unexpected behavior (i.e., resisting the family and social pressure to become a wife, and preferring a life of singlehood), this episode prefigures the vigorous temperament which distinguished her. In fact, she displayed through this recalcitrant attitude a singular mental force, as she clearly and firmly swam against the current. This psychological disposition would play a great role in forging her leadership. By standing strongly against a marriage she didn’t agree to, she was stating that she had her say on the matter, in a society where women rarely had a choice, in such circumstances, to express anything but shy consent or a resentful resignation.
Furthermore, she managed to emancipate herself from her brothers’ authority and edify the whole society to respect her for what she was, and what she was determined to remain. Her virginity and her lack of interest in starting a family, when added to her reputed piety and her prestigious religious lineage, protected her from being stigmatized for her choice. On the contrary, she seemed to have gained a greater esteem among the population as a woman who dedicated herself to God’s service and was not interested in earthly pleasures, even if celibacy is not greatly encouraged in Islam.
Fatma was barely fifteen when she was married. Still, at this very young age, her determination and obstinacy were firm enough to make her stand in front of her family and the whole society. From this trait, we can easily imagine what fervor and tenacity she would later deploy when guiding her people in their resistance against the French army.
3.4. A Saintly Aura
This paper is the first study that postulates clearly that at the core of Lalla Fatma’s leadership was the aura of sainthood with which she was most probably perceived by her contemporary countrymen, based on direct and indirect evidence collected from historical sources.
In order to describe this extraordinary woman and the ascendance she had over her people, colonial sources, especially Carrey [2
] and Aucapitaine [7
], employed such words as “prophetess
”, or even, more oddly “druidess
” and “Berber Weleda
It is needless to point out how inappropriate these words are in a Muslim context. The particular incongruity of a term like “druidess
” (the feminine form of the French word “druid
” i.e., a priest in the Old Gaulois religion) betrays the authors’ incapacity to understand the environment they encountered in Algeria, outside a simplistic reading of history, whereby the French used to compare themselves to the Romans who conquered Africa centuries before, bringing “civilization” to its people. Actually, by comparing the Berbers to their own ancestors before the Roman conquest (i.e., the Gaulois), French authors were showing indirectly their sympathy to the resisting Kabyles, whom they did their best to differentiate from the Arabs, who were more directly associated with Islam. This colonial vision also makes it easier to understand the numerous remarks that pervade such sources about a supposedly weaker degree of religiosity among the Kabyles, or what later historians have named, the “Kabyle myth”; and it didn’t matter if, within the same sources, these authors contradicted themselves when they later spoke of the influence of some religious leaders in enrolling Kabyles under their leadership in resistance movements. Roberts [19
] (pp. 143–146 and 228–229) masterfully analyzes this Kabyle myth and its origins.
What these primary sources failed to convey is that the local population of Soumer and its surrounding villages, if not the whole region of Kabylia, recognized in Lalla Fatma traits that pertain to sainthood, or walâya. This affirmation does not deny that these sources have also occasionally used the word “saint” to refer to her, a term that we consider the most accurate qualification that may apply to Lalla Fatma. However this word, “saint”, that colonialist authors used sometimes to describe Lalla Fatma, was overshadowed by a number of other terms that made it lose its real and first sense within the Muslim context.
While the common translation of the Arabic world “waliy” is generally “saint”, the original Arabic term expresses a relation of particular protection and support rather than the notion of holiness or sanctity embedded in the word “saint”. Hence the expression “waliy Allâh” would be more faithfully rendered as “God’s protégé” or even “God’s friend”. Without going into further details on this notion, to which an impressive number of studies have been dedicated in Muslim spiritual literature as well as in Western academy, we can assume that the population of Kabylia was attached to Fatma because they probably saw her as one of God’s protégés.
If they initially held her in high esteem because of her prestigious ancestry, they certainly had perceived later, in her life and personality, signs of a singular proximity to God; she is said to have learnt the Quran (partially or totally) without being taught; as a follower of a sufi tarîqa, she probably spent most of her time pronouncing awrâd and adkâr (litanies), in addition to performing daily prayers; she renounced a marital life, preferring to dedicate herself to God’s service; she was apparently well-grounded in matters of religion and spirituality, thanks not only to her male relatives, but also to her probable exposure to Saklâwî’s teachings; she joined her brother’s zâwiya, where she proffered her spiritual advice and guidance to whomsoever asked her for it; she reportedly fed the poor, healed the ill, and relieved the anguish of her visitors. It is therefore clear that she seemed to have gained the reputation of a wise and benevolent person whose opinion was highly sought after by men and women alike.
As her reputation of being a saintly woman started to spread, Lalla Fatma became the object of visits of people coming from different parts of Kabylia who wanted to consult her on various subjects, and ask her to pray for them. Thus, one of the Kabyle songs recorded by Hanoteau [1
] (p. 126) speaks of her in these terms: “Lady Fatma to whom we pay visits; she who holds bracelets and pearls
”. Actually, “paying a visit” here is used in its religious sense, as a commoner would do to seek the Baraka
of a pious person, dead or alive. Additional evidence of the saintly aura that envelops our heroine, at least in her people’s eyes, is the fact that even after her defeat and her forced exile out of Kabylia, in Beni-Sliman’s zâwiya
near Tablat (in today’s Wilaya of Medea), she continued to receive endless queues of visitors, some of whom came from Kabylia, and others from nearby Arab villages.
Furthermore, colonialist authors reported Lalla Fatma’s supposed ability to predict the future, relying on dreams and “contacts with the most renowned saints”, while underlining the population’s naivety in believing in such superpowers. Being unfamiliar with the Muslim interpretation of supernatural phenomena within the category named karâmât (prodigies)—of which truthful dream visions (ru‘yâ sâdiqa) and glimpses at the world of the Unseen (kashf) are parts—they couldn’t understand the exceptional deference shown to Lalla Fatma on this religious and spiritual basis.
It is worth mentioning, for instance, that in the scriptural sources of sunni Islam, that Kabyles followed almost exclusively before the arrival of the French, the Qur’ân and the Sunna place particular importance upon visionary dreams. The sura of Yusuf (number 12) and many hadiths attest to the role of dreams in giving insights about the future. Among the hadiths, let us cite the one reported by Abû Hurayra in Sahîh al-Bukhârî:
The prophet said: “Nothing is left from prophethood except glad tidings”.
They [i.e., the companions] said: “and what are glad tidings?”
He said: “the good dream.”
Another hadith, reported by Abû Sa‘îd al-Khudrî in Sahîh al-Bukhârî and by Abû Hurayra in Sahîh Muslim, mentions that the prophet had said: “the good dream represents one part of forty-six parts of Prophethood”. And to understand the relationship between piety and dreams, the version of this hadith in Sahîh Muslim adds: “and the most truthful of you in their speech are those who see the truest visions (i.e., dreams)”.
Colonial sources didn’t endeavor to analyze the notoriety of Si Tahar and his sister Lalla Fatma in the light of the Muslim theological notion of sainthood, or rather wilâya/walâya, and its corollary notion of prodigies, karâmât. They didn’t try to discover the link between the sacred texts—taught and transmitted in zâwiyas—and their oversimplification in the beliefs held by the majority of Kabyle’s laymen. These colonial chronicles seemed to have relied heavily, if not solely, on the way their indigenous informers—probably lacking a proper instruction in matters of theology and religion—reported on the miraculous superpowers attributed to Lalla Fatma and her brother.
However, even Feredj [8
] (p. 134, n. 8) feels somehow puzzled about reports on Lalla Fatma’s ability to predict the future, attributing such an expression, that is repeated over and over in the primary sources, to exaggerations and distortions of words of advice and wisdom that she might have given. What we think is that Lalla Fatma was gifted with a rare perspicacity and a highly intuitive intelligence that made her arrive very quickly at correct conclusions when talking to her interlocutors in a way that stoked their imaginations. She was most probably a very pious and truthful lady, devoting her time to prayers and good deeds, and she consequently used to have what the Islamic scholarly tradition calls “truthful visions”, i.e., premonitory dreams. These dreams enabled her to be ahead of her people concerning the events that the region underwent. She is purportedly said to have also predicted the final victory of the French, as Carrey [2
] (p. 232) observed.
3.5. Resistance to the French
Concerning the political engagement of Lalla Fatma’s family, as Randon [3
] puts it (see Appendix A
), they joined the resistance movement in 1847, during Bugeaud’s first expedition to Kabylia. As mentioned earlier, we know for a fact that Saklâwî, the highest spiritual guide of the Rahmaniyya, had supported the Emir ‘Abd-El-Qâdir’s efforts to resist the French and to build an independent Algerian State. We can infer from this position the existence of a nascent nationalist conscience within Kabylia, thanks to which the resisting militants would have been aware of the big picture of what was at stake, and would not have been fighting only for their local regional independence. But such an argument needs further scrutiny which clearly goes beyond the scope of the present article.
Nevertheless, it appears from different sources that Lalla Fatma and her family were wholeheartedly against the French invasion, and even when the Emir ‘Abd-El-Qâdir’s enterprise to thwart the French expansion stopped unsuccessfully in 1847, the wind of resistance didn’t cease to blow in Kabylia. We learn from Bourjade [28
] (p. 16, n. 3) that the village of Soumer was burnt by Colonel Canrobert in 1849, while Robin [29
] (p. 18) mentions that the Beni-Mellikeuch, a neighboring Kabyle tribe, considered that they managed to force this colonel to step back in July 1849. These two indications show that the village of Soumer and its vicinity were constant sites of unrest.
In the same year, Robin [29
] (p. 16) notes that our lady met one of the young leaders who continued the struggle for independence, sharîf
Moulay Brahim. Feredj [8
] (p. 134) mentions that she also received Si Mohammad el-Hachemi, another figure of resistance who had previously fought under the authority of Bû Ma‘za. Hachemi consulted her, with other Kabyle leaders, with the prospect of launching a new campaign, but he died shortly after this encounter.
She also met sharîf
Bû Baghla, who had been leading a movement of resistance in Kabylia since 1850, and with whom she seemed to have fought at least one common battle in 1854, according to Perret [30
] (vol. II, p. 132) and Robin [29
] (p. 288).
Concerning Bû Baghla, as mentioned in Section 3.3
, rumors circulated about his willingness to marry her, while Lalla Fatma couldn’t contract a new marriage since her husband didn’t consent to divorcing her, as in Feredj [8
] (p. 133). Not surprisingly, TV and cinema fictions on Lalla Fatma’s life (Janadi [31
] and Hadjadj [32
]) focused on this alleged impossible love story.
The most disrespectful account is what Aucapitaine [7
] (p. 159) had alleged as an actual cohabitation between the two. However, the strong aversion towards Bû Baghla that this author displays openly makes his testimony, which is based only on hearsay, more than untrustworthy. It is highly doubtful that if such a thing ever happened, Lalla Fatma would have kept the same huge respect she enjoyed from her people. Indeed, such behavior is not only strictly forbidden in Islam, but also severely condemned by the Kabyle’s particular set of rules, known as qânûn
s, as Roberts [19
] (p. 215) explains, about the ‘right to flight’ that Kabyle custom gave to an unhappily married woman. This right granted that the unhappy woman could leave her husband but only to return to live at her parents’ home, which seemed to be the case of Lalla Fatma. Without being properly divorced, she couldn’t contract a new marriage, let alone cohabit without any official contract.
More soberly, Perret [30
] (vol. II, p. 132), talking about the encounter between these two figures, points to “a mutual esteem” between them, and reports some words of encouragement that Lalla Fatma would have addressed to Bû Baghla during a battle they fought together in 1854, telling him, in a very colorful style, after he was shot and injured: “Sharîf, your beard will never turn into hay
”; knowing that the beard was a symbol of bravery, her message meant: you are really a valiant man.
Nevertheless, if she really spoke these words, it would tend to prove that Lalla Fatma spoke some Arabic (at least in its colloquial form “dârija”
) in addition to her native Kabyle language, since Bû Baghla was not a Kabyle and didn’t know this language, according to Robin [29
] (p. 35). This would corroborate our previous remarks about her degree of instruction.
As for the different battles which took place in Kabylia during the numerous French expeditions in the 1850s and ended in 1857 with the surrender of the whole region, historical sources are abundant in endless military details which we will mention here on a minimal basis, for two reasons. Firstly, because these military details are largely duplicated and are available in the primary as well as the secondary sources, and would make our study unnecessarily long; and secondly, because these details give only the victors’ point of view; they certainly ignore a large number of other elements that would have rendered the account of what had really taken place less partial.
Therefore, the first military event that we judge as important is the attested role played by Lalla Fatma and her brother Tahar in enrolling voluntary fighters in a special group of warriors called Imseblen
in the summer of 1854, when the Governor General of Algeria, Marshal Randon launched a campaign in Kabylia, mobilizing, according to Robin, around 12,000 men, among whom were several highly qualified generals. Robin [33
] authored a book on this special troop called Imseblen,
made up of young people who decided, on a voluntary basis, to join this particular group who obeyed specific rules. The author doesn’t hide his admiration for the rigorous organization of Imseblen
(pl. of amsebbel
, a word derived from the Quranic expression “fî sabîl Allâh
” i.e., “in God’s path”) and the heroism they displayed. He [33
] (pp. 8–9) explains that Tahar was in charge of enrolling these fighters, whereas Lalla Fatma “knew how to exalt the Kabyles’ religious bigotry and patriotism and to make them determined to lead a desperate resistance
Whereas Randon [3
] (p. 214) gives his version about this campaign, describing it as a victory that brought him Emperor Napoleon’s praise, Robin [33
] (p. 11) doesn’t hesitate to call this expedition “a relative failure
”, and reveals that Randon was forced to admit that he was not able to meet the objectives he set for himself of defeating Kabylia with such a small number of soldiers.
It was only three years later that Randon, returning to Kabylia at the head of an army of 35,000 men, managed to reach his long-sought objective of establishing his power firmly on the whole territory of today’s Algeria, of which Kabylia was the last recalcitrant region. It was during this expedition that Lalla Fatma was finally captured by the French on 11 July 1857.
The strategy used by the French army under Randon’s commandment during this second campaign benefited from the lessons learnt in the previous campaign. The French now had a better knowledge of the geography of Kabylia, they were more accustomed to the defensive methods used by the Kabyles, and most importantly, each time they defeated a tribe, the latter and all the other tribes which were its allies within the same saff
were obliged to surrender (for a better understanding of the structure of the saff
system at the level of tribes, see Roberts [19
] (pp. 123–137)). This meant that the defeated saff
of tribes would not only cease any fighting against the French, but were obliged to turn their weapons against those groups of tribes who still remained independent. Under such conditions, the last tribes to resist found themselves not only surrounded by French troops, but by fellow Kabyle fighters as well.
These were the circumstances in which the saff (group of tribes) under which Lalla Fatma and her brothers were operating, i.e., the Itsouragh, the Illilten, the Illoulen-ou-Malou and the Aït-Ziki found themselves to be the last bastions of resistance in the heart of Djurjura mountains, when all the other saffs were successively submitting to the French after fierce battles, forced as they were to surrender because of the imbalance between the means deployed by the two parties.
In such a desperate situation, there was still something to be tried in order to save the women of these tribes, at the head of whom was Lalla Fatma herself. The independence fighters took the women, children, and all precious objects they possessed to a place named Takhlidjt n’Aït Atsou (named by Carrey [2
] “Taklah”). This small village was hidden at the bottom of the ravine of Tirouda, in a way that made it invisible from the top of the mountain for strangers who didn’t know of its existence.
In the meantime, Lalla Fatma’s brother, Tahar (or Tayeb according to Carrey [2
]) contacted the French general Yusuf, pleading for the surrender of his village in exchange for not touching his family’s belongings. The French accepted the proposal. In fact, Fatma’s brother was trying to take general Yusuf to the village of Soumer after it had been emptied of its women and its most important possessions, leading him through pathways that left the village of Takhlidjt out of sight. But an incident happened around Takhlidjt that alerted the French soldiers’ attention to its existence. Some women were late in joining the others, and some Kabyle soldiers of those who joined the French troops saw them and followed them. When they arrived at the village, there was an exchange of fire that brought the rest of the troops to the place. After a hard fight, the French finally got possession of Takhlidjt and took all the people present, amongst whom Lalla Fatma was the most illustrious, prisoners.
It is on this occasion, the day of her capture, that Carrey [2
] (pp. 246–247) wrote the most detailed description of what Lalla Fatma looked like, showing how elegant, distinguished and dignified she was compared to the other ladies, but mocking somehow the exaggerated deference her people showed her. He also reported (p. 242) the following dialogue between Marshal Randon and Lalla Fatma, specifying that the exchange happened thanks to an interpreter. Randon had asked why her men shot the French troops, breaking the convention (i.e., the surrender) made by her brother. She answered: “God wanted it. It is neither your fault, nor mine. Your soldiers went out of their ranks to penetrate my village. Mine defended themselves. I’m now your captive. I have no reproach to you. You shouldn’t make any reproach to me. It was written this way!
Lalla Fatma, like other leaders of the Kabyle resistance, was forced into exile. Bertherand [5
] (p. 124) reports that her first choice of destination was Tunis, but doubts whether she actually went there before coming back to Algeria. Nevertheless, the rest of the sources, including Marshal Randon’s [3
] memoirs, state that she was sent the next day to the zâwiya
of Beni-Sliman, near Tablat, in today’s Wilaya of Medea, where she spent the last years of her short existence.
] (p. 139) mentions that her brother, Tahar, died after 4 years of captivity in 1861, while Lalla Fatma’s health started to decline quickly, to the extent that she was soon struck with paralysis. She didn’t survive very long after her brother’s death; she passed away in 1863, at the age of 33.