Thursday, June 25, 2009

On the Amazigh and the Dark Side of Emancipation

This year, the annual festival Mawazine took over Rabat from May 15 to 23. Mawazine is a big deal – it attracts big international names like Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue – and my co-workers had been anticipating it for months, but I was to miss most of it due to a scheduled trip back home to the US. Nevertheless, a group of us gathered on the eve of my departure for a free concert at Place Moulay Hassan (better known to locals as Place Pietri, but recently renamed in honor of the now school-age crown prince). The main attraction and primary reason for our attendance was Imetlaâ, a Dutch band of Berber origin. Its members come from the Rif mountains in the north of Morocco, and belong to the growing community of Moroccan-Dutch (incidentally, their website explains that ‘Imetlaâ’ actually means ‘immigrant’ in Tariffit, the language of the Rif). Our group was excited to see them on stage; being Dutch, and some of us sharing this band’s Riffi heritage, we felt a certain connection.

We were not the only ones. About thirty minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, the square really began to fill up. Groups of young men, mostly, boisterously excited and energetic. Some had come bearing material expressions of their Amazigh-identity: I saw a boy with a knit cap in the colors of the Amazigh flag, and other subtle displays of the Amazigh sign on t-shirts, hands, and keychains.

The band was received with enthusiastic applause and cheers. The crowd did not simply sing along with catchy choruses; they knew every single word of every single song, and bellowed them out with such force and energy that the sound seemed to take up actual physical space. It reverberated through me – not just the weight of the sound, but the sense of connection that was being created and expressed here, this positive energy of recognition.

Here and there groups of boys, their arms around each other, draped an Amazigh flag over their shoulders and swayed it along with the rhythm of the music. I remember noticing this, and realizing that the only place I had ever seen this flag before was on the internet. I remembered not even knowing there was an Amazigh flag until a few months ago.

My thoughts were rudely disturbed by small groups of policemen who aggressively pushed their way through the crowd and, equally aggressively, dragged away not only those flags, but the boys who were waving it. This scene happened not just once, but repeated itself with two more groups. The Riffi boys I was with yelled at the proceedings with outrage and disappeared to follow the police with their prey. This scared me. I am overly sensitive sometimes; this aggressive police action truly and physically shocked me. I didn’t want to know how the offending boys were going to be treated, and I was afraid that any indication of protest on the part of my friends would subject them to a similar fate. I became afraid of the police that stood all around the square, and I became afraid of the crowd closing in on me. Luckily, my friends returned soon enough, and we resumed listening and singing along to the music, almost as though nothing had happened.

It’s strange, the way this works. An Amazigh band, singing in Tariffit, is allowed on stage in the middle of Rabat, as part of a festival sponsored by his Majesty the King himself. In a sense, you could say that this music is thereby not only tolerated but even promoted – by raising it up here on a stage, literally putting it in the spotlight, amplifying it with huge subwoofers, gathering a crowd of listeners – and all this in the middle of the political capital, mere steps away from the parliament and royal palace. All this – yet a single show of that blue, green, and yellow flag elicits this kind of hostile suppression. It seemed so bizarre to me.

But in fact it makes perfectly clear where the government stands on the Amazigh. The King has decided to tolerate, even help, the Imazighen develop and express their cultural heritage. There is a special institute devoted entirely to the standardization of Berber languages and the promotion of their expression through literature, music, fashion, and theater. But any political expression of identity is still considered a threat to the absolute power of the king and his government. The Amazigh identity has been reduced, in other words, to a non-threatening folkloric culture. From Hassan II, where it was not ethnicity but cultural expression that counted, we’ve graduated to a new situation, where it’s neither ethnicity nor cultural expression, but political activism that crosses the line.

The King’s overt efforts at the promotion of Berber culture help obscure the persistent suppression of Berber political freedom. This is the issue that so many have with the IRCAM: they see it as the King’s cover. As Farid says, the institute’s name says it all: it’s the royal institute for Amazigh culture. Whenever anyone voices protest over discrimination or suppression, the King is able to point to the institute he built and basically say, “but what are you talking about? I’m helping them!” And thus, essentially, they argue the IRCAM does more harm than good.

Apart from the police aggression I witnessed and the prohibition on displays of the Amazigh flag that it enforced, there are other clear signs of continued oppression. To name one: the prohibition on Amazigh names. Simply put, Moroccan authorities refuse to register any Amazigh names on official documentation such as passports, birth certificates, and marriage licenses.* The rationale behind this, apparently, is that individuals’ names must be ‘Moroccan’ in origin. Although one may wonder what could be more Moroccan than an Amazigh name, the government has here clearly chosen to interpret ‘Moroccan’ in a very particular way – and thus uses this simple legislation as yet another way to reinforce a particular, Islamic-Arabic national identity.

Simply put, despite the IRCAM’s work (and I’m convinced the IRCAM people have nothing but the best intentions) the Imazighen are still disenfranchised politically – whether it be due to direct measures of discrimination or a simple lack of involvement and lack of access to the political machine (don’t forget that Berbers are overrepresented in those marginal regions of Morocco that are so far removed from the goings-on at the center).

We could, of course, wonder why the Moroccan government chooses this particular route to national unity. Because it’s worth questioning whether forceful suppression of alternative ideas is really the most effective way to do it. It’s clear that Morocco wishes to base this unity on a shared political investment in a single government – and a shared religion. The fact that Morocco takes such pride in its cultural diversity (The Berbers! The Jews! The Subsaharan Africans! And the Arabs!) indicates that they’re not necessarily banking on any kind of ethnic or even cultural unity. This seems so progressive – yet they choose such a non-progressive way of building that political unity. Is it too idealistic to think that political agreement and universal investment in the national political system (and in the King, of course) is much easier to obtain if you give everyone a freedom of political expression within that system?

*This legislation has been extended to all embassies abroad – and so even Berbers in the Netherlands now protest the limits on parents’ choices in naming their children.

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