The pride of being an Amazigh today in Morocco

In the last 20 years the country has opened itself to accept its Amazigh identity · A government institute promotes the language, but its real and official implementation remains pending · Changes coexist with social protests impregnated with Amazighism

An Amazigh protest in Rabat, 2019, to demand the release from jail of prisoners of the Rif movement.
An Amazigh protest in Rabat, 2019, to demand the release from jail of prisoners of the Rif movement. Autor/a: Javier Otazu / EFE
The wind has the magic to transform the dunes, and the time has the power to eliminate them. Thus, the wind of time buried the taboo of being an Amazigh in Morocco, for good. Today, the Amazigh language, culture and music reappear in the forefront of Moroccan public scene, not having to leave ever again. It needed a tireless push of the Moroccan Amazigh movement that resisted a half-a-century flood of Arabization and demolition of the language.

Now its script, Tifinagh, can already be seen on highway traffic signals, in the institutions, in the media and business advertisements. Moreover, in the capital, Rabat, an imposing building surrounded by wide esplanades called the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture in Morocco (IRCAM, French acronym) illuminates, as if it were a lighthouse, an identity with its own language and culture.

The light that emerges from the place contrasts with the dark memories of a flood of victims at the hands of the Hassan II regime after years of struggle of the Amazigh movement. His son, Mohamed VI, since his enthronement, tries to right some of the wrongs of its predecessor through innovative proposals that have given back the visibility to the Amazigh movement.

However, the activists from the Moroccan Amazigh movement fear that the integration of the Amazigh demands, starting with the creation of the IRCAM, will only serve as an instrument to monopolize the identity to better control Amazigh activism, depoliticize it, and delay the institutionalization of the language. Even though it is included and recognized in the new constitution, just like Arabic, its implementation has been slowed down.

Amazigh awakening

The Amazigh gilding in Morocco shone after the speech given by the monarch Mohamed VI in October 2001, in Ajdir, Kenifra region. His words deflated the outburst of the Amazigh activists and intellectuals who, a year ago, had knocked on the gates of the Palace with a document: the Amazigh Manifesto, which demanded the national and legal recognition of the Amazigh identity.

“The royal speech meant a fundamental turning point after 45 years of discussing the Amazigh question,” 28-year-old Amazigh journalist Fatima M. states. She is from a generation that did not know the dark and tense years that the Amazigh movement suffered. It must be for this reason that today she lives her identity with the normality of any other young person from her culture, who feels Moroccan Amazigh first, and then, if anything, African.

“The king placed the Amazigh culture at the same level as the Arab culture. That is how we perceived it, —the intellectuals that held onto the Amazigh struggle for years,” Ahmed Assid, a known writer and activist of the movement, tells Nationalia. “Amazigh identity is a major element of the national culture; it is a part of the cultural heritage, the presence of which manifests itself in all of the expressions of Moroccan civilization and history,” the monarch said to the entire country. His publicly-expressed will to listen to the requests of the Amazigh movement, always in mutation between political action and cultural activism, encouraged an identity that has been buried for decades. Diversity was considered a threat to social cohesion in the eyes of the centralizing French-Jacobin current that its former colony, Morocco, imitates.

“The Moroccan state, in the days of Hassan II, opted for the official version of the history based on the French-Jacobin model, which was invoking the uniformity of a country through a single language, culture and identity. That is, a model that cancelled other identity forms and existences,” Ahmed Assid continues. The shelves and walls of his office, on the second floor of the IRCAM headquarters, are covered with numerous posters, slogans and books on the Amazigh identity. They constitute the calls of all the national and Western researchers who seek to dig up a part of this Maghreb country’s history.

The Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture, for ten years, has not given any break to the ideas, nor to the printing houses that have made dictionaries about Morocco’s Amazigh history, school manuals and grammar books of the language. However, this huge arsenal of written material was not making any sense without the direction of guiding individuals: with this literature under their belts, more than 14,000 teachers have been trained in the Amazigh language, who in turn have also made an essential contribution to the scientific production on their identity in the fields of poetry, pedagogy or anthropology.

Arabic as a centralizing vision

It was unthinkable, years ago, to seat at a table that carried the weight of Amazigh documents, which writer Ahmed Assid shows with pride. Each one of them constitutes the diversity of a country inhabited by Muslim Arabs, Jewish Arabs, and Muslim and secular Amazighs. Morocco is all of these and more: currently other sub-Saharan African identities from Christian and Muslim denominations of faith are added up to a purely cosmopolitan landscape.

“Our African origin was discarded from the historical Amazigh narrative,” Assid continues, and adds: “They imposed specially Oriental (Middle East) ties on us, inventing that our roots were in Yemen.” For centuries, the historical construction of Morocco remembered the Arabic language, and made it hegemonic due to its religious dimension. Islam was born after a revelation in Arabic, from God to the prophet Muhammad, the propellant of a new identity which created a new configuration of the historical scenery. At that time, the Amazighs already existed. And that was also the time of their debacle.

“In 1966, the Amazigh elite as such started to get organized: they were a group of university students from the branches of political sciences, anthropology, sociology and archaeology that did not dare to pronounce the word ‘Amazigh’,” Assid continues. At that time, the expression “Amazigh culture” was provoking hostile feelings among the Arab-speaking masses, for which a euphemism was used: “popular culture”. This way, it would be palatable for the central power. The imposition of Arabization had a purely political connotation, “despite the fact that Amazigh was the language of 95% of the Moroccan population before the independence, and only 5% was speaking classical Arabic: the religious elite and the children of bureaucrat and aristocrat families,” he explains.

These statistics were quickly reversed after years of struggle by the State to make the Arabic language reign in national education —the foundation of every society. It was such a kick on the Amazigh language that it ended up being spoken only within the family, and sometimes not even that. There was a fear of being heard speaking in one’s own language, though not so much like the fear that shook the homes of the Amazighs in the Rif (the region of northern Morocco) in the years 1957 and 1958, when the army of Hassan II acted out of disproportionate anger to quell, violently, the Riffian revolts. Those who oppressed were the Arabs, and the victims were the Imazighen (the plural of Amazigh) who demanded social and economic changes, as well as recognition of their identity. The best way to describe what happened then and was imprinted on the eyes of all the following generations is that it was a “crackdown”.

The story of the brutality is a part of the oral memory that has been inherited from grandparents to parents and children. “Who can forget what they did to our grandmothers? They were raped! That is what divided our people!” the Amazigh manager of a prestigious hotel in Al Hoceima states, who continues to defend, though anonymously, the social demands of the Rif, a despised land by mean of unemployment or precarious work. And this, despite the fact that the cultivation of cannabis, hidden between the valleys and mountains of the Rif, pleases the vaults of the State. Morocco is the second largest exporter of hashish in the world, after Afghanistan.

Half a century after those mobilizations, the wounds of the past were reopened when the security forces intervened to repress the demonstrations that erupted at the end of 2016. Protests arose out of the death of a young fishmonger, Mohcine Fikri. The victim was carrying tons of swordfish —fishing was not allowed during that time of the year—, the authorities confiscated the fish, and then ordered it to be destroyed. The merchandise was thrown away to a rubbish truck, and, to protest, the young Riffian launched himself onto the vehicle while its crusher was still working. His death was the first spark that triggered a subsequent popular fire that lasted more than one year, during which young people demanded installation of new infrastructures, a hospital and a university.

The security apparatus put that popular fire out and did not leave any stronghold of popular anger. The leaders of the movement were taken to the prison, serving sentences up to 20 years in prison for attacking the security of the State, and dozens of Riffian activists received warnings from the security forces not to end up in a similar fate.

The people’s mines

Rif is not the only uprising centre of the Amazigh movement. To the south, on a mount of the Moroccan High Atlas, a city was born. It is called Alebban, the name coined by more than 8,000 Amazighs who are established there. A set of white stones can be made out towards the inner part of the reddish sand mountain —converted into a bastion of the resistance of a particular movement led by young people since 2011. They form a slogan-sculpture in Amazigh language that reads “amaniman” (“There is no life without water”). Because the water is used for the richest silver mine in the whole Africa that is operated by a private company together with its main shareholder: the State.

And in whose hands the income from the silver end up? This is the question that the inhabitants of the Imider commune pose again and again. Silence to this question mobilized them in an unprecedented protest where the youngest put a backpack on their shoulder, climbed to the mountain, and little by little raised a parallel state. It was a huge yet revolutionary project in the field of social mobilization. From the mountain peak, the young people denounce the unequal distribution and the harmful environmental effects that the exploitation of the mine produces in the surroundings.

“The reaction of the inhabitants is logical because the benefits have no impact on the villagers. Also, in terms of pollution, the effects of the mine are catastrophic. Animals die and fresh water is contaminated. Even the inhabitants have stopped consuming dates,” says writer Ahmed Assid, who has met with these young people in several occasions, to be able to find out of their demands first-hand.

An Imider movement protestcalling for the release of the detainees and a trial for the SMI, the company that exploits the mine. /Image: MSV96 Imider

Profits from the exploitation of the resources fall short of arriving to the homes of the Amazigh families: a highway, a school, a medical centre or any other development proposal would have justified the exploitation of a natural resource, which is found in an Amazigh enclave yet it is not accessible to its people. “The reason why thousands of citizens continue to shout out that our land is not for sale,” Moha M. tells Nationalia. Moha M. is the activist responsible for communication of the Imider movement. According to him, the State thinks that “all the underground wealth belongs to it, which is why they do business with private companies regardless of our opinion”. According to the activist, the Imider movement “has undergone arrests and oppression”. However, unlike the Rif region, the authorities have not engaged in any scuffle with the camp-mobilization. It seems that they do not bother since it is an Amazigh hole that barely makes an international noise.

The dream of a “people's mine” strongly rings in the ears of the militants who continue to roar themselves hoarse with press releases and meetings with journalists, in case some political actor or an influential person in civil society speaks in the name of a social right and demands a change from the elite for the inhabitants of Imider. A similar demand exists among the local farmers located in the region of Agadir, in southern Morocco. Their land contains what is known to Europe as liquid gold (argan oil), an inexhaustible source of natural wealth that the Amazighs do not always exploit. Numerous families have been forced to abandon their lands, which have been sold to the capitalist giant. The history repeats itself.

“A Franco-Swedish company forces the inhabitants to emigrate to other areas, to abandon their lands that the State puts up for sale to be despoiled,” criticizes Amina Zioual, the president of the Association of Amazigh Women (AMA). Their place, located in the centre of Rabat, hosts the first community radio that calls up the rights —or rather the non-existing-rights— of the Amazigh women, who face the same challenges as the Arab women: access to work and physical integrity. Patriarchy goes through the borders and, on the same axis, goes through the identities without any exception.

The majority of popular social movements has ended up reinforcing the defence of identity. “That's what happened during the social protests in the Rif, which were social and economic at the beginning, then later they brought the vulnerable identity forth, which is living its own apartheid,” Rachid Raha, the president of the Amazigh World Assembly, explains. Raha is always recognized for his looks, a blue turban accompanies him in every meeting of the movement. And his office, which is turned into a neighbourhood museum-library, is already a part of the Amazigh historical index. A room reserved for the elaboration of the only newspaper in Morocco that contemplates four pages in Amazigh language; another room assigned for holding press conferences with the lively and colourful Amazigh flag on an untainted white wall as background, and a last room where the books that evoke any aspect of the Amazigh movement are registered.

Raha lives a life brandishing the cause of the fight against racial discrimination that revealed in a report made in 2012 and in which it was asked whether or not the Kingdom of Morocco acted in a racist way regarding native Amazigh populations. He assertively replied “yes”, despite the attempts of the country. United Nations experts included, in a report prepared in 2015 on economic, social and cultural rights of the Amazigh people, that Morocco “practices de facto discrimination” in the fields of labour and education. “The fact that this denounce was collected by the UN in Geneva was a victory for us,” Raha insists.

Not only Arab Springs

In 2011 the new Constitution recognized the Amazigh language for the first time, the zenith of the popular mobilization. A new paradigm was opened among the Amazigh people. The constitutional text came in a regional context in which the peoples of North Africa mobilized to demand more rights and freedom. The effects did not take long to land in Morocco through the February 20 Movement, to which the Amazighs from the north and the south also joined, in order to claim social and economic reforms.

In these mobilizations the flags, symbols or ethnic groups did not speak. The only image drummed by the national collective went by the name “democracy”. And what this implies for the Amazigh people is: the recognition of their culture and language. This is reflected in the 5th article of the Constitution in two paragraphs, which Rachid Raha emphasizes with a yellow marker. It is already written, now it needs to be applied. After eight years, the Moroccan parliament continues to delay the approval of the statute law that obligates all levels of the State to institutionalize the Amazigh language. “Until the statute law is approved, there is no transition for the Amazigh movement,” Riffian activist Saloua El Omari adds. Afflicted by the backtracking on the process of the Amazigh movement, she is sorry about “the absence of an exhaust valve for northern Amazighs after the deactivation of the mobilization in the region. The young people are looking for an escape in the Alboran Sea and risk their lives to avoid the arrests and tortures perpetrated by the hard core of the regime,” she states.

The pain of the Riffian activist finds rest in a dream-aspiration: a future, sooner rather than later, of a “real democratic transition for Morocco,” and that the Amazighs, within the national sovereignty, would feel that they are “full citizens in their own right to a particular cultural and economic model.”

(Translated from Catalan language by CollectivaT.)