The Berbers of North Africa are heralding the Amazigh New Year, with festivities featuring traditional food, music and dancing planned throughout the region.
Friday marks the first day of the year 2968 for the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, also known as the Amazigh.
The Amazigh New Year – or Yennayer, as it is known locally – is the first day of the agricultural calendar used by the Berbers for millennia.
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Ahmed Assid, an Amazigh activist, told Al Jazeera that the event had an “important historical connotation” for Berbers: “It dates back to antiquity when Amazigh King Shoshenq I was enthroned in Egypt, after defeating Ramses III “.
In Morocco, where Yennayer is celebrated by both Arab and Berber communities, some Arabs call the event “Aam Alfilahi” or “Haguza”, which means “the agrarian year”.
The Berbers, on the other hand, call the event “Id Suggas”, which means “the night of the year”.
Maghreb people mark the occasion with activities such as Amazigh dance performances called “Ahwach” and “Ahidous”.
The celebrations also feature performances by Berber artists, as well as educational activities.
To mark the occasion, Berbers prepare traditional dishes, such as tagola – a meal made from corn kernels mixed with butter, accompanied by ghee, and with the seed of a date hidden inside.
“The person who finds the date seed inside the tagola plate is supposed to be blessed all year round,” said Hafida Id Abbou, a Moroccan Amazigh who celebrates annually.
Another dish, known as orkimen, is made with wheat and dry beans. It is served as a soup.
As with most North African dishes, couscous is also served.
Many Moroccans believe that given the country’s deep Berber roots, Yennayer should be declared a national holiday.
Neighboring Algeria, which also has a large Berber population, has already declared January 12 a national holiday, and Amazigh activists in Morocco want their government to do the same.
At the end of December, several Amazigh groups signed a memorandum addressed to Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani, urging him to declare this day a national holiday in Morocco.
Government officials said the content of the memorandum was under review.
Hamidi Lihi, spokesperson for the National Federation of Amazigh Associations of Morocco, told Al Jazeera that the event was an important part of Moroccan culture.
“All Moroccans have the right to know and celebrate this special day which marks the history of the Amazighs from one generation to the next,” he said.
“We want this day to be a national holiday because it is a very important historical event that should be recognized nationally.”
Origins of the Berbers of North Africa
The Berbers inhabit an area covering most of North Africa, with large populations in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and western Egypt.
Berber tribes and ethnic groups can also be found as far south as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
While forming large populations in these countries, the Tamazight languages have only recently started to be formally recognized.
The word Tamazight refers to the spectrum of related dialects spoken by the Berber people.
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In 2011, Morocco became the only country in the world to officially recognize Tamazight, although Berber dialects have “national” language status in Algeria, Mali and Niger.
In the early 2000s, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture was launched in Rabat and Tamazight lessons were introduced in primary schools.
An Amazigh TV channel was also launched in 2006.
Amazigh activist Ahmed Assid said such recognition was a welcome development.
“In recent years, we have received government sponsorship,” he said.
“Many political parties participate in these annual ceremonies, and it is very important to us because we aspire to the recognition of the government.