l’Argent de la Lune / Das Silber des Mondes a book review by Alaa Eddine Sagid

l’Argent de la Lune / Das Silber des Mondes a book review by Alaa Eddine Sagid

Interest in North African jewelry dates back to very early French colonial times in Algeria. Tens of publications are readily available for the keen and the passionate to survey the wealth of adornments from this rich region. Early explorers, ethnographers, photographers and state scholars have compiled tremendous and precious data in this field. They would often engage in very serious studies connected with cultural departments of the former French power or local countries public institutions. The neatly labelled and exhibited state collections in Paris or Algiers museums, owe them their extensive inventory. While this orthodox and pragmatic scholarly approach is essential to researches in this field, a more amateur point of view is always welcome. In this matter, like the French say ” Le hasard fait bien les choses” or “Chance would have it”. “L’argent de la lune” or silver of the moon stands out as a bright coincidence in a full moon lit night.

First coincidence is that of the collection itself. What started as a love gift from a caring husband to his wife Ms. ZANOTTI evolved into a gargantuan and exhaustive collection of Algerian pieces. The ZANOTTI’S lived in Algeria for a couple decades following independence as cultural correspondents. Since she was offered her first pieces, Ms. ZANOTTI would go hunting around in shops but often used to welcome a dealer at home who would bring her each time a pile of treasures to choose from. The worm was in the fruit!

Second coincidence is that of the author, MAKILAM, a celebrated Kabyle anthropologist lady based in Germany. MAKILAM is more famous for her books on the cosmogony of Kabyle women and its translation into the daily life signs and symbology 1,2.

I was fortunate enough to meet her at a book fair in Paris where she kindly indulged into narrating how all this began and evolved:

Starting with a common friend who introduced her to the Zanotti’s, thousands of jewels in cardboard boxes, commuting in a plane between Germany and Italy (where the collection is based) and a week long shooting session; 2000 pictures! the book was born at least ethereally, well rather the start of a long struggle: Following was years long battle with a first editor who would eventually let her down, she decided to publish the book using her personal funds. Makilam genuinely confessed that although familiar with the world of  Kabyle women , she knew nothing about the jewels. She had however the precious help of Tatiana Benfoughal (Author of a detailed book on jewelry from the Aures mountains in Algeria)3 ,who assisted her into pinning down the origin,names and use of the various pieces of the collection.

Makilam adds: “It was important to save this collection from oblivion and introduce it to the public”. Private collections although being connected to the subjective taste of the collector himself, have the high merit of preserving the ostentatious and the humble, the big and the small. They are true heritage conservators. Through this perspective, the Zanotti collection is indeed stunning: The variation of the famous Kabyle “Azrar” or necklaces published in this book is unprecedented, almost all in their original stringing, testifying to the fertile creativity of Kabyle women often shadowed by the excellent skills of their male counterparts. Worth noting among these necklaces, a sizable number of scented beads arrangements previously unreferenced . Ms. Zanotti clearly focused on this part of adornments where women had the largest imprint; the pure, heavy male workshops pieces of jewelry such as Anklets or fibulas are underrepresented with the presence of only a selection of round “Tabzimt” annular fibulas, some impressive in their dimensions.

The reader will find it interesting to sample the almost infinite variations on the simple North Algerian small and thin bangles which is also a novelty.

Also a remarkable presence in this collection of rarely published pieces from the deep Algerian south such as Tuareg rings or temporals or Saoura valley adornments. Though, this last section lacks precise labelling information, often relying on a vague and mysterious “South of Algeria”.

The result is a honest, personal and intimate book. It has a very strong amateur feel to it, mainly due to how the pictures were taken. A detailed and longish text, in both German and French, introduces the catalog. It highlights aspects of jewels history and ethnography in the country which the reader could largely skip if he has already access to other major publications.

Being Kabyle herself, the author obviously feels a bond to the subject of adornments from her own cultural background. At times I could feel a slightly “partial” direction to the historical narrative part of her text. Makilam however, refutes any political bias but do stress that jewels, aside from acting as a strong identity medium, do sometimes achieve a more socioeconomic mission. She reminds us that women from across Algeria, willingly gave their jewellery in the liberation and rebuilding effort of the country following independence.

In a last speck of nostalgia, the author grieves on the dwindling – almost disappearing- jewelry traditions in the Kabyle society. Perhaps it is her profound anthropologists quest in deciphering the signs in this old Berber society that inspired her last comments ” Jewels were an alphabet , a real language for a people without a writing system, in which one could read small stories and the big History”

” l’Argent de la Lune / Das Silber des Mondes ” is available for purchase at the author’s website : www.makilam.com

1-“Symbols and Magic in the Arts of the kabyle Women” , Peter lang 2007

2-“The Magical life of berber Women in kabylia” , Peter lang 2007

3-“Bijoux et Bijoutiers de l’Aurès” , CNRS Ed. 1998