The Rifains dare to remember their history

The importance of Moulay Mohand, a revolutionary figure in the history of the Rif, goes beyond the borders of Morocco, explains Bianca Carrera. Amid such massive state repression, his story must live on.

Indeed, more than 100 years later, the Rif is probably in a worse state for many, certainly unrecognizable for those who keep the memory of its past close to them, writes Bianca Carrera. [GETTY]

101 years ago, Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi – commonly known as Moulay Mohand, which means Prince Mohand in Tamazight – defeated the Spanish protectorate in the Moroccan Rif in what has been dubbed the annual disaster (1921). If this date was to become the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of the Rif, the first independent state in North Africa, it also became a symbol in the fight against colonization and the oppression of indigenous peoples in the world.

Today is not a national holiday, but a day of remembrance that only the Rifains celebrate behind closed doors. The consequences of not doing so have already been paid by figures like Nasser Zefzafi, who was imprisoned and tortured for leading the Hirak In the region. His image is now as vividly imprinted in people‘s minds as that of Moulay Mohand.

Indeed, more than 100 years later, the Rif is probably in a worse state for many, certainly unrecognizable for those who keep close to them the memory of its past.

“Expressing pride in one’s history, especially one that has benefited oppressed people across the world, is no longer allowed in the Rif. Even mere remembrance is forbidden.”

Cancer rates are the highest in the country, education remains a luxury for many, basic infrastructure and roads are lacking, as are sustainable jobs. Indeed, several young people explained how “with the Spaniards we lived better, at least we had jobs”. This, coupled with state repression of Riffian Amazigh culture and historical heritage; practically pushed the region into exodus.

Lalla Fadila Al-Khattabi, granddaughter of Moulay Mohand’s brother, the Emir Mhamed Al-Khattabi, confessed that every time she was able to return, she gets angry about “what has become of this region “.

It is difficult to understand how the Rif is in such a state following a history of struggle for liberation and prosperity led by Moulay Mohand.

Menacing Empire

It is important to understand that there is a long history of repression of the Rif tribes. Rif activist Massinissa Akandouch, who is also the great-great-grandson of Amghar Sidi Mohand Ameziane – one of the first anti-colonial Riffian leaders, explained: “Oppression existed long before. Throughout history, we have always been very self-sufficient, allowing each tribe to have a designated territory and a designated leader chosen by popular assemblies. I have the impression that this has been perceived as a threat to many of these empires whose power is based on the homogenization of the organization, religion, culture and language of a territory.

He added: “Sometimes the only solution they [empires] for the population to obey is to erase everything we have known. Because the independence we have does not come from nowhere. We learned it through our poetry, through our songs, through our clothes, through our pottery… it all tells a story. Therefore, these empires find that the only way to control us psychologically, politically, and territorially is to erase everything we’ve ever known and create a new narrative.

Indeed, the creation of a new narrative that distorted the real aspirations of the Rifian people is precisely what the famous Rifian historian Omar Lemallam talks about. The Lemallam association for the preservation of Riffian memory was prevented from creating a Rif museum, because “building a museum will be something dangerous, because to do so, you have to discover the true history. ‘They’ don’t want that,” he explained.

“After independence, those who ruled the state were not the ones who made an effort to liberate the country,” he added, “so they wrote history in such a way that ‘they show themselves as leaders and heroes, but that’s not the real story.

A universal struggle against colonialism

The question is, what is the true narrative and was there a legitimate fear that the Rif were ruling their own empire?

Akandouch summarized the reality: “The fact that the Rif has always had this independence, not necessarily politically in what we imagine as a nation, but simply by maintaining all these tribes to live independently in their own territories, with their own traditions , with their own language… which was already a threat. The fear was not that the Rifains were going to build an empire. The fear was ‘how can we control these people in a way that will benefit us?’ »

Mohamed Ben Abdelkrim’s fight was therefore a fight for the liberation of oppressed peoples from colonial powers, not a battle for the Rif alone – which many historians see, Professor Lemallam said. In his declaration of 101 years ago, the professor points out, he never specified the borders of the new free territory. Even when he was forced into exile and separated from his land, he continued to fight against colonialism around the world, hosting leaders from Che Guevara to Ho Chi Min who wanted to learn guerrilla tactics used in the Ref.

“These tactics you may have read about in the history books about the guerrillas in Vietnam or Cuba; they were all used for the first time in the Rif during the battles of Abdelkrim”, Akandouch proudly recounts.

Forbidden Memory

Expressing pride in one’s history, especially one that has benefited oppressed people around the world, is no longer allowed in the Rif. Even mere remembrance is forbidden.

The headquarters of Professor Lemallam’s association was closed by the state as dozens of historians and experts gathered to organize cultural and educational activities on the Rif.

“During the six months of the Hirak, we felt that the activists and leaders of the movement were inspired by history. In the chants, you could see the presence of Abdelkrim,” explained Lemallam.

The state perceived them as the source of the political education of Hirak, that they provided the movement with tools to criticize and oppose the Moroccan government; which would explain the violence and criminalization that followed.

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specializing in Middle East and North Africa politics, as well as environmental issues, at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, Oxfam, and others.

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The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.

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