An unlikely celebration of North Africa’s ethnic diversity | Opinions


On January 12, a group of cars and vans filled with rowdy, flag-waving Amazigh activists left Algiers and began a three-day tour of seven Algerian provinces, under the slogan of “Yennayer, feast of national solidarity”. Before departure, the “Yennayer caravan” received an Algerian flag and best wishes from Mounia Meslem, Algerian Minister of National Solidarity.

In neighboring Libya, the besieged western city of Zuwara declared a public holiday on January 13 in honor of Yennayer, the Amazigh New Year. In Morocco, civic associations celebrated this day and circulated a petition calling on the government to recognize Yennayer as a national holiday. The political magazine Zamané published an article on the front page, with the title “Are we all Amazigh?

In Paris, Barcelona, ​​Stockholm, Montreal and more than a dozen American cities – with sizable North African populations – Amazigh communities come together this week to celebrate the start of the year 2695 at a tense but full political moment. hope.

Large population

The Amazigh-speaking population of North Africa is estimated at around 20 million, scattered between Morocco (where an estimated 40 percent of the population is Amazigh-speaking), Algeria (around 20 percent). hundred amazighophone), Libya (10 percent amazighophone), and with smaller communities in Tunisia and the Siwa Oasis in western Egypt.

There are also around a million Tuareg Amazighs who live in Niger and northern Mali. Precise figures are difficult to come by, North African regimes do not include ethnicity in their national censuses.

Libyan Amazighs celebrate Spring Festival

Interestingly, however, in the United States, where North African migration has increased sharply since the introduction of the green card lottery in 1995, the Census Bureau – in response to requests from African advocacy groups North – plans to introduce a new ethnic group to the Middle East and North Africa. category, with “Berber” as the “sub-national” option.

The Amazighs are generally known in Western discourse as the Berbers (al-barbar in Arabic), but since the term derives from the Greek barbaric, activists prefer the terms Amazigh (which means “free man”) in the Tamazight language.

Yennayer – the first day of the Amazigh New Year, based on the Julian calendar – has long been celebrated in various parts of Morocco, Algeria and Libya with special dishes and performances.

A common dish is couscous with seven vegetables, or the rfissa (grated pancakes) with chicken. Children receive gifts and treats. Adults wear masks – of different animals and characters – to keep children entertained. But governments authorizing, even sponsoring, public Yennayer celebrations is a recent phenomenon.

Since independence, the Amazigh language and culture in North Africa have been marginalized, if not banned, by regimes that have adopted Arabic as an official language and Pan-Arabism as a strategy for national identity and state building. . This policy was the response of the newly independent states to French colonial policies which attempted to divide and rule over the Berbers and the Arabs.

Arabic or Amazigh

Not surprisingly, at independence, the North African states defined themselves as Arab, repressing Amazigh culture and Sufi practice. Yet, over the past three decades, a cross-border Amazigh movement has emerged that strongly challenges Arabization policies and official rhetoric.

In 1980, a wave of protests and riots swept through Algeria’s Kabylia region – which would become known as the “Berber Spring” (“Tafsut Imazighen ”) – follow-up of requests for recognition of the Amazigh language and rights.

And it was in 1980 that an Algerian academic based in Paris, Ammar Negadi, member of the Union of the Amazigh people, developed the Amazigh calendar, focusing on 943 BC as the first year of Amazigh history; it was the year that Amazigh warrior Shoshenq I – a member of the Meshwesh group from Libya – defeated Ramses II and made himself pharaoh of Egypt.

By the end of the 1990s, as the Algerian civil war drew to a close, Maghreb leaders had been wary of the rise of Islamist movements – and began to see Sufi brotherhoods and Amazigh nationalism as a cons. -political force.

When Mohammed VI took the throne in 1999, his (limited) cultural liberalization highlighted a multitude of politicized Amazigh and Pan-African music groups – Hoba Hoba Spirit, Darga, Amarg Fusion, Ribab Fusion – who insisted on singing in the local vernacular language. and Amazigh, explicitly challenging the pan-Arab discourse that denied the ethnic diversity of North Africa.

Not surprisingly, at independence, the North African states defined themselves as Arab, repressing Amazigh culture and Sufi practice. Yet, over the past three decades, a cross-border Amazigh movement has emerged that strongly challenges Arabization policies and official rhetoric.

The Moroccan authorities, in the early 2000s, also introduced the teaching of Tamazight in primary schools and launched programs in the Amazigh language on national television and radio.

Amazigh activists are also reportedly pushing for a rewrite of history textbooks that claim all Moroccans are from Arabia. Ahmed Assid, a prominent Moroccan intellectual, claims that the Amazighs have lived in North Africa for millennia, but Moroccan history textbooks implicitly claim that “the first inhabitants of Morocco were Berbers, came from Yemen and were therefore Arabs. “.

In Algeria, demonstrations and clashes between Amazigh militants and state authorities in 2001 led the Algerian government to recognize Tamazight as a “national” but not “official” language.

The upheavals of 2011 had a perceptible impact on Amazigh politics. In June 2011, at the height of the Libyan uprising, a radio station appeared in Jado, in the western Nafusa Mountains, broadcasting in Tazight, a language Gaddafi had banned for decades.

Across the Maghreb, Amazigh communities have started to demand rights. In July 2011, the Tunisian Association for Amazigh Culture was created with the full support of the new government – the first such organization in modern Tunisian history. In Morocco, a new constitution presented in June 2011 would recognize Amazigh as an integral part of Moroccan national identity and declare Tamazight the “official” state language.

Islamist against Berber

Tensions between Islamist and Berber activists erupted following the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

Religious conservatives were particularly opposed to expressions of pre-Islamic identity. In Morocco, fanatics are said to damage an 8,000-year-old Amazigh sculpture in the High Atlas called the Sun Plate. In Libya, where Amazigh leaders fear an all-out assault by takfiri the militias (as happened with the Yazidis in Iraq), are now pushing for an autonomous Amazigh region in western Libya. However, it was the Libyan civil war and the Tuareg mercenaries fleeing the south who founded the ephemeral Amazigh state of Azawad in northern Mali.

Which brings us to Yennayer’s 2015. The festivities are unfolding with unprecedented state sanction, but also in a busy political climate. This year’s Yennayer festivities coincided with the mourning of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Some Amazigh organizations have canceled celebrations in honor of the victims.

Others include in their programs tributes to Mustapha Ourrad, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, an Algerian Amazigh killed in the attacks. Amazigh leaders recognize the gains made, while realizing the path they still have to travel.

The goal this week is to use the public celebrations to raise awareness (globally) of Amazigh culture and to pressure North African regimes to recognize Yennayer in a respectful and “non-folkloric” way. “.

As Assid asks: “If the first day of Muharram – of the Islamic calendar – is a public holiday and the first day of January is a holiday in the Maghreb, why shouldn’t the first day of the Amazigh New Year be too?” ? “

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study on black internationalism and global youth culture.

About Wesley V. Finley

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