Some time before his death, Nabile Farès confided to me his frustration at not having been able to write a novel that was close to his heart and whose title would have been La Mort du Conteur. I did not think that, a few years later, precisely on September 2, 2022, for lack of reading this novel, I would live it through the disappearance of my uncle Djafer Chibani, “last of the Mohicans”, as he nicknamed himself recognizing what he was specific in a Kabyle society where culture is reduced to its most folkloric component.
What is difficult to accept in the death of a storyteller is less the disappearance of the man for which life takes the time to prepare us than the silence that perfumes this same body.
A storyteller like Djafer Chibani always has a story to tell, a proverb to quote, an anecdote to develop, so much telling is a source of pleasure for him. Even the banal question “How are you?” makes flow the source of the imagination of the storyteller who always begins his response with an “Akken i s-yenna winna…” (As the other would say…). And to ask: “You know this story, don’t you?” Of course not, and the storyteller knows it. Moreover, he does not wait for the answer when he launches into his story.
What is also difficult to live with in La Mort du Conteur is the disappearance of the world that he carries, that he configures according to encounters and of which he alone has the key to let us enter it. We can tell ourselves that man is still among us, but this world, more alive than any living being, will be forever inaccessible to us. In this, the storyteller’s death impoverishes all of humanity.
A tireless activist
This fighter for the independence of Algeria and activist for the recognition of Amazigh culture and language was born on January 25, 1943 in the village Aït Aïch in the commune of Mekla in Tizi Ouzou. Very early on, he was noticed by the village elders for his ability to retain the knowledge they passed on to him. He has, to say the least, a phenomenal, even miraculous memory.
Already at the age of five, he remembered all the proverbs, poems and tales he could hear. We understand the old people of the village who put him at the center of tajmaât and said to him: “Cfu a mmi!” (Remember my son!). Seventy years later, Djafer Chibani collected some of the tales passed down to him and published them in a book called Cfu a mmi. The tireless activist has always felt responsible for this memory and for what is entrusted to him. For him, we do not hoard an ancestral art and knowledge, unless we want to stifle them. What is transmitted by the elders is a treasure that can only exist if it is shared with others.
A living library
Since every culture emerges and develops in a land that informs it, Djafer Chibani joined the struggle for the liberation of Algeria in 1955. He was 12 years old. Loaded with information and supplies, he escaped death many times. The pangs of prison where he spent two years of his life and the suffering of torture have, alas, not been spared him despite his young age. He was proud of never having betrayed his companions, nor Krim Belkacem and Ouamrane who, during a visit to the region, asked him not to leave the maquis before independence.
After independence, he left his country for France. There he engaged in the struggle for the Berber language and identity. He thus participated in the founding of the Académie Berbère and the ACB. He participated in the organization of the first Kabyle concerts, notably at the Mutualité. During this period, he made many acquaintances. He knew Slimane Azem, Cheikh El Hasnaoui, Taos Amrouche, Kateb Yacine… But it was a friend who suggested he meet Mohand Ouyahia.
It was in 1974. From their first meeting, a brotherly feeling united the two men. This bond has never frayed. This friendship was built on a common passion and ideal: theatrical creation and the adaptation, in Kabyle, of universal works. This is what Djafer Chibani and Mohand Ouyahia did through the theatrical troupes Muh Terri and Asalu, in which other actors like Nafa Moualek, Saïd Hemmac, Youcef Yalali took part… Djafer Chibani has fond memories of those nights when Mohya woke him up on the phone to ask him how to translate into Kabyle such and such a passage from a work he was working on.
Recognizing the wealth of his friend’s knowledge, Mohya had a notebook that he had bought only to write down the proverbs, expressions, poems that his fellow traveler could say to him in the course of a discussion. The latter always has a word transmitted by the elders to clarify or illustrate his point. Many artists asked him to find the right word that they lacked. Djafer Chibani has also guided several researchers in Kabyle literature.
Djafer Chibani’s artistic journey deserves a look. As an actor, he played in Am win yettraggun Rebbi, Mohya’s adaptation of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Si Lahlu (The Doctor in spite of himself by Molière), Si Pertuf (Le Tartuffe by Molière), Si Nistri ( La Farce by Maitre Pathelin), Tacbaylit (La Jarre by Luigi Pierandelo), La Karmoussette by Tayeb Abdelli, L’Arlette, Massajine and L’Enfer des Anges by Hamma Meliani. These are just a few of the many theatrical plays in which he took part. In the cinema, Djafer Chibani played in Avant l’oublie by Augustin Berger, L’Amour tagged by Bruno Carrière.
He also played the role of Fadhma N’Soumer’s grandfather in the eponymous film by Belkacem Hadjadj, the police officer in the first Kabyle film, Muhend Uceɛban by Reski Harrani and played in the series Arraw n tmurt and Ines, tudert of Ammar Arab. On the literature side, Djafer Chibani first published Ddeqs-nnegh at the instigation of Mohya, who typed part of the book on a computer he had just acquired. First published independently, then by the HCA, this book is a collection of tales, poems, proverbs and anecdotes heard or experienced by the author in his childhood.
He then published the collection of stories Cfu a mmi! at Editions du Terroir. It complements it with Cfigh… Cfigh which should be released soon. The transition to writing did not divert Djafer Chibani from oral transmission. Thus he told these stories in Kabyle or in French in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, associations… Knowing how to adapt his way of telling to his audience and choose the tales that correspond to the experience of that here, our storyteller is recognized as one of the best storytellers in France, which has earned him invitations to the four corners of France.
His disappearance is a loss for his loved ones, but also for all of humanity. It is a reservoir of living knowledge and the faithful witness of an era when the value of ideas took precedence over everything that goes away after planting a seed in the mind of every child and every adult who has had the chance to listen to it. It is up to us to cultivate it to keep his work and his memory alive.
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Tribute: The voice of storyteller and actor Djafer Chibani will no longer resonate
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