The Amazigh Voice, June 1995
Reflections on the Amazigh Consciousness in Morocco

An Essay By Ahmed El Asser


Talking about Tamazight and Imazighen is a very long story. It reminds me of the stories my mother and grandmother used to tell us when we were kids. But the picture that comes to my mind when I think about the struggle of Imazighen is the one presented in the book "La mere du printemps", or Mother Spring, written by Driss Chraibi. In this book, he describes the struggle of Imazighen who lived in the Middle Atlas around 650-700 A.D and whose lives were threatened by the Arab invasion. At a certain point, the chief of the tribe, Azwaw, and his people had to confront the harsh reality that was facing them. The Arabs were moving closer to their tribe and stories of massacres and violent fights between Imazighen and Arabs were reported to them. To face the Arab threat, the chief met with his officers to try to devise a plan that would allow them to deal with the situation. Since no one in that place knew anything about the Arabs, the chief went to an old Jewish man and asked him: "You know the Arabs, they were your neighbors, what do you think about them?". The old Jew replied: "I know them and I know that they are people of the desert; they are seeking water and wherever they find it, they follow it. So, I am sure that sooner or later they will be heading toward Oum Rbai(1)". After the Arabs invaded the region, numerous fights broke out between the two groups and most of the invading army, led by Oqba Ibn Nafia, was pushed away from North Africa. Later on, another army, led by Moussa Ibn Noussair, invaded the region. For centuries, water remained the center of their fights, and year after year Imazighen found themselves constrained to move to places where everyday life was a challenge. Because of circumstances like these, today, all over Morocco, from South to North, East to West, a great number of Imazighen live in the most unhospitable and secluded regions of the country. I referred to this book because it portrays the struggle of the Imazighen of then and today for survival in a land surrounded by an invader that tried to dispossess them from their resources. Furthermore, it puts in perspective an important historical and economical factor that was at the origin of the reclusion of the Imazighen in the mountains and the desert, a factor that was favorable to the expansion of the Arabs but detrimental to Imazighen.

The Amazigh population of Morocco represents at least fifty percent of the total population of this country, and this excludes the Arab-speaking population of Amazigh origin, as well as the bilingual population which has always been considered Arab in all the censuses that have been conducted so far (2). Despite this high percentage, the Amazigh population at large lacks awareness as far as its rights and cultural and ethnic identity are concerned. This is due in part to its geographical dispersion and isolation, which contributed to the formation of several groups with different tendencies, and to the repressive policies of the government towards the Amazigh culture. The Amazigh identity consciousness has long been present among Imazighen of Morocco, years before the wars of liberation from the Spanish and French occupants, but it was not expressed publicly. The victorious war led by Irifiyen (3) against the Spanish and the one led by Imazighen of the middle Atlas and Icelhiyen (4) against the French added new elements to their consciousness and endowed them with the power that allowed the Amazigh people to express, at a national level, its demands for equality. Unfortunately, divisions among the Amazigh groups prevented them from achieving their goals by helping the government get back the control of power in the country and purge Imazighen of the middle Atlas from the army where they were very influential. Three decades have passed since the independence of Morocco and none of the promises for a fair society that the government made were concretized. With the new generation, largely educated, the Amazigh consciousness is being revived and the revindications of Imazighen consolidated. The cultural associations that have emerged in the recent years played an important role in spreading the message, educating, and raising the level of consciousness of the people. Moreover, the Amazigh cultural movements of Algeria have had a great influence in inspiring the cultural movements of Morocco. Because of this, nowadays more and more people are becoming aware of the identity crisis that their country is going through and are becoming more convinced that their survival as an ethnic group will depend on their taking destiny into their hands.

Notes

(1) Oum Rbai means "Imi n Tafsut" in Tamazight or "La mere du printemps" in French.

(2) According to Robert Montagne, the census conducted by the French government in late 1800's revealed that 75% of the Moroccan population was Amazigh and two thirds of the remaining 25% were bilingual, that is, speak both Tamazight and Arabic. He added that this bilingual population was Amazigh but it was counted as Arab. The census of the 70's indicated a much lower percentage (50% versus 75%), a direct consequence of the arabization process. There was no mention of the bilingual population.

(3) Irifiyen are the Imazighen who live in the Riff area located in the north of Morocco.

(4) Icelhiyen are the Imazighen who live in the High Atlas mountains, south of Morocco.

References

(1) Driss Chraibi, La mere du Printemps, Edition du Seuil, Paris, 1982.

(2) Robert Montagne, La vie sociale et la vie politique des Berberes, Comite de l'Afrique Francaise, Paris, 1931.