Monday, June 22, 2009

On the Amazigh, and Alternative Takes on History

Yesterday afternoon, Farid and I got in the car and headed to the beach for a lazy afternoon in the sun. As we whizzed south on the coastal road to Casablanca, I decided now was as good a time as any to ask Farid for clarification on a matter that had begun to confuse me a little.

“When did the suppression of the Berbers really begin?” I broached. “Was it a result of colonialism, or did it happen before then, too?”

Farid looked gravely at the road. With frustration in his voice, he responded. “They’ve always been suppressed. From the moment those Arab invaders conquered Morocco, they’ve thought of themselves as superior to the Berbers.”

I expected this answer. We were getting to the source of my confusion, and I pressed on.

“But what about those dynasties, the ones people call the ‘Berber’ dynasties? The Almoravids, the Almohads, the Merinids? If they were Berber, how was there suppression?”

Farid shook his head. “You don’t think Berbers were actually the ones in power, do you?” He asked, rhetorically. “That was just so that the Arabs could legitimize their dominance with the local people. It was always Arabs who had the real power. It was just a façade.”

I pondered this statement. This perspective is not one you’ll find in any history book, and it was new to me. I sank back in my seat, looked out at the beach-going traffic around us, and smiled at this new twist, or plot-thickening, in the saga of Arab-Berber relations.


History is written by the victors of time. Although it’s tempting to think of history books as factual accounts of the-way-things-were, there are multiple sides to every story – and it’s always the people who come out on top that get to stamp their version as ‘truth’ and send it on into posterity as ‘historical’ account.

Behind every official story, then, lurks an oppositional account. There is an unofficial alternative to every official recollection – and Morocco is no different.

Officially, Moroccan history goes something like this (and I quote, from a few trusty history books). About 13 centuries ago (this would put us in between the 7th and 8th centuries AD), Arab Muslims invade and conquer the Maghreb. The land they find had always been ruled by dispersed Berber kingdoms. No one knows exactly where these indigenous peoples originated, but they’ve populated all of North Africa as long as there have been written records to document their presence.* They speak a variety of related languages (in Morocco, these are Tariffit in the north, Tamazight in the Atlas, and Tashelhit in the south) that belong to the Afro-Asiatic family of languages.** They’ve dealt with invasions before – Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines – but they’ve always maintained a lifestyle characterized by a tribal social organization and animist religious worship. Until they are introduced to Islam, that is: receiving the Arabs as liberators from Byzantine oppression, most willingly convert to this new religion.

With the conversion of Berbers to Islam comes the unification of Morocco under centralized rule (and just in case you’re interested, this unified territory included the Western Sahara). Idriss I and his son Idriss II, Arab refugees who claim descent from the Prophet Mohammed, establish the first of a series of dynasties, its capital in the new city of Fes.

Attesting to the monumental importance of this moment in history are the banners that line the broad boulevards of Fes’ Ville Nouvelle these days. Underneath a green star and the number twelve, they read “douze siècles de la vie d’un Royaume” – ‘twelve centuries of the life of a kingdom’. These banners (and the festivities they accompanied) purport to mark the 1200th anniversary of this city’s existence, but in fact, Fes only figures as a synecdoche, if you will: while focusing on Fes, what’s really being celebrated here is the 1200th anniversary of a (relatively) unified, Islamic Morocco. The banner suggests as much in referring to a “royaume” rather than a city, and a little math confirms the truth. Fes was founded in 789 AD; the 1200th anniversary of this event should have been celebrated in 1989. What happened 1200 years before 2008 (in 808 to be exact), was Idriss II’s proclamation of Fes as capital of his new dynasty.

A number of other great ‘Berber’ dynasties follow the example set by the Idrissids, each combining a renewed religious orthodoxy with novel political opportunism. All dynasties hail from Morocco’s south: there are the Almoravids, the Almohads, and then the Merinids. Morocco lives through the European renaissance under Saadian rule, until they surrender power to the Alaouites, a family of Arab descent (and of Prophetic descent, no less) that still rules Morocco today.

This, then, is the official version. But what history books describe as civilization and unification through the combined forces of Arabization and Islamization, Berbers see as yet another episode in a long history of occupation and suppression. According to their alternative version of events, yet another civilization was forcefully imposed upon the Imazighen (this is how the Berber peoples refer to themselves. It is the plural of Amazigh, which means something like ‘free person’). Sure, some converted ‘willingly’ – it was either that or suffer great deprivation and disenfranchisement.*** Sure, there were ‘Berber dynasties’ – but the use of the term ‘Berber’ here more likely suggests Arabs’ efforts to legitimize their own rule in the eyes of the native people they were up against, than any real power in the hands of Amazigh tribes. And that’s a version I hadn’t heard before.

What I had heard before was this – this has made it into recent (post-Hassan II) accounts of history: after French authorities played out Arabs against Berbers in a divide-and-rule approach to colonialism, the Imazighen suffered considerable repression in the first few decades of postcolonial government. In the interest of both maintaining a national sense of unity, and of aligning that unity with the pan-Arab ideologies popular at the time in the Middle East, king Hassan II made life difficult for Berbers. Expressions of Berber identity were suppressed (including their languages), any political protest was forcefully squashed, and the accuracy of Morocco’s ‘official’ history was re-emphasized.

The new king, Mohammed VI, ameliorated the situation. He confessed to having a Berber mother (yes – for all his suppression of Berber identity, Hassan II nevertheless married a Berber woman. I think this may suggest that the issue was not ethnic. That is – the problematic Berber identity was not ethnically defined for Hassan II, but culturally and politically. Meaning that any Berber who identifies with Arab language and culture is fine), and proclaimed the establishment of a royal institute for Amazigh culture.

This is the IRCAM, the “Institut Royale de la Culture Amazighe.” Headquartered here in Rabat, this institute pursues the development and standardization of Berber languages (what with suppression, its development had been stalled in the pre-industrial age. This means Berber languages have quite some catching up to do with the pace of modern life…), the development of a Berber script (with widespread illiteracy and the suppression of these languages, Berber became a strictly oral language. The IRCAM chose tifinagh, an ancient script, as Berber alphabet), as well as the promotion of Berber cultural expressions – music, literature, theatre, and so on.

The king, in other words, is pursuing the emancipation of Berber culture. This is good, right? You would think it sounds great, and noble, and regal. I did. Until I arrived in Morocco this past September and was exposed to the alternative perspective by Berber friends. For more on this, stay tuned for the next post…

* These documents go back to as early as the predynastic Egyptian kingdoms.
** This clan also includes the semitic languages (to which both Arabic and Hebrew belong), as well as Ethiopian. All this means Berber is about as related to Arabic as French is to Russian.
*** Yet I don’t think any Berber today would reject Islam as the religion of an occupying force. I think that to them, Islam is as much the one true faith as it is to the average Arab.

1 comment:

travelingmama said...

I'm so glad you stopped by Travelingmama! I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog and your research! How long have you been in Rabat? If you ever come to Meknes you will have to stop by for tea and cookies!