Si Mohand's isefra

Si Mohand (~1840–1906) was the major poet of Kabylia in the late 19th Century. A useful short bio found on wikipedia says that he was “[b]orn in a wealthy family, educated in traditional Islamic sciences (hence the title Si “doctor” which is added to his name), his life was marked by the strong repression which followed the Kabyle revolt in 1871 against the French colonial rule. He lost everything. His father was sentenced to death, his paternal uncle was sent in exile to New Caledonia, and all family possessions were taken over. Unlike his mother and his brothers, who emigrated to Tunis, he preferred to stay and live in Algeria as a dispossessed, working as a daily worker or practicing other less paid jobs. He never settled anywhere, but wandered all life long in Algiers or in other Algerian towns and villages inside and around Kabylie. Few deeds of his life are sure. The tradition remembers a visit he paid to the pious Cheikh Mohand ou-Lhocine, with whom he sustained an epic poetic duel (which is [not?] recorded up to now), as well as a journey on foot to Tunis, where he met his brothers but was badly welcomed. He died of tubercholosis at 57 in S.te-Eugénie hospital at Michelet.”

His poetry — oral compositions in Amazigh, i.e. Berber — were taken down in writing early in the twentieth century by Boulifa and commented on most recently by Younes Adli in his book Si Mohand or Mhand: Errance et révolte (Edif, 2000). My English workings are based on Mouloud Feraoun’s French versions in the latter’s Les Poèmes de Si Mohand, a bilingual Berber-French edition, published by Editions de Minuit, 1960. Below a few samples. I am including a transcription of the first poem in Berber, as that will give the reader a sense of the vowel music & rhyme schemes at play in the original poems:


Thikelta ad hhedjigh asfrou
Oua lahh addlhhou
Addinaddi ddeg louddiath.
Oui thislan ar dha thiarou
Our as iverou
Oui ilan ddelfahhem izrath :
An helel Rebbi athet ihheddou
Ghoures ai neddaou
Add vaddent addrim nekfath.

This is my poem:
If it’s God’s pleasure, it will be beautiful
And spread far and wide.

He who hears it will write it down,
He will not let it go
And the wise man will agree with me:

May God inspire them with pity.
He alone can preserve us:
When women forget us, we have nothing left!


I have sworn that from Tizi-Ouzou
All the way to Akfadou
No one will impose their law on me.

We will break, but without bending:
It’s better to be cursed
When the chiefs are pimps.

Exile is inscribed on the forehead:
I prefer to leave my country
Than to be humiliated among these pigs.


If I hadn’t lost my mind
I would have condemned the kif
Unworthy people take advantage of.

It is source of inequality
It has enriched the slave,
The wise man has stayed behind.

Oh my God, what an injustice!
How can you tolerate it?
Isn’t it soon the turn of the poor?


He took the vow of sainthood
And sinks into sin
The rosary around his neck.

Expect no charity, no clemency from him;
But his demise is near
God’s anger is on him.

You who unmask the hypocrite,
Why would we invoke you?
The day of the evil one will come.

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