Sunday, August 31, 2008

Amazigh Pride/Arabisation

Amazigh Pride/Arabisation
This next topic is something you could write a book on (in fact, some people have). It’s something that I’ve written about before (Nations Without States, one of my first entries) and something that I’ll certainly write about again. FYI, Amazigh is the word for the people that we call Berber. Tamazight is the word for the language that they (and I) speak.
The Amazigh people have been in Morocco and North Africa for hundreds and hundreds of years. They have survived invasions my many groups, most recently the French and Spaniards. The Moroccan state is an Arab state – I believe the Arabs moved into Morocco in the 800s. Like many other stateless peoples, Amazigh people worry about losing their culture. The Arab language and culture is becoming more and more ubiquitous in Morocco. The rural areas are the last strongholds of Amazigh culture. Among the people that I’ve met and talked to about the issue, there are many different attitudes. Generally speaking, the people that have opinions, one way or the other, about the future of the Amazigh people tend to be educated.
On the transit back from souq one day, another volunteer and I met these two young men. They were wearing colorful Amazigh flags on their backs. The other volunteer asked for a picture of the flags, which sparked a conversation about their attitudes. One guy was particularly anti-Arab. He said he refused to speak Arabic to people because it was the language of the oppressor. He said he was not a Muslim because it was an Arab religion. When he found out that we were apart of a development organization, he asked us to help his association – getting involved in political activities is something Peace Corps volunteers are explicitly prohibited from doing. The sad and ironic part of his Amazigh pride was that whenever he spoke to us about his anti-Arab/pro-Amazigh feelings, he spoke in French to as avoid angering other people on the transit – he couldn’t speak in the language that he was so interested in saving. I’ve noticed that, for some reason, prideful Amazigh people don’t mind speaking in French – it’s Arabic that they hate. The thing is, the French are just as guilty of colonizing Morocco as the Arabs.
At souq, we met another guy who I’d also describe as apart of the Amazigh pride movement. He was older than the two on the transit, perhaps 45 years old. Like those on the transit, he was also educated. He was an English teacher who also did some research. He asked to interview us in Tamazight (despite the fact that he spoke English) because he was interested in doing a linguistic analysis of our language ability. His research was basically centered on analyzing and preserving Amazigh culture. He was at the souq to interview people about the myths and stories of the Amazigh tradition and consolidate them in a book. I haven’t had a chance to go to his website yet, but if you want to check it out it’s The biggest difference between him and the two younger men on the transit is that he was less aggressively anti-Arab. We spoke about the Arabisation of Morocco and the loss of the Amazigh culture and language, but it wasn’t angry.
I’ve also met people who are interested in teaching me Tifinat, which is the Tamazight alphabet. Tamazight is a spoken language; the alphabet was adopted from other Amazigh people in Algeria. The hope of people pushing Tifinat is to preserve the Tamazight language. There is also a desire to standardize the Tamazight language so as to make it easier to teach and record. There are a few problems with Tifinat. The first is that Tamazight has not been a written language for hundreds of years; it may be too late to try and create an alphabet for the language. Another problem is that many people who speak Tamazight are illiterate. If Tamazight speaking people are literate, they’re most likely to have learned to read Arabic script.
Another part of the language preservation is the attempt to discontinue the worse of Arabic words in Tamazight. Arabic words are prevalent in Tamazight as they fill the holes for things that there are no words for in Tamazight. For example, there is no pure Tamazight word for book. You say ktab or kunash, which are both Arabic. The same people who are pushing the Tifinat alphabet are also trying to find Tamazight words for words like ktab. They import a word from a different part of the Tamazight speaking world and try to establish its usage so as to replace the Arabic word. For example, there is another word for book used in Algeria, which is aslid. The problem is, only a small minority of people know these words. They can’t use them in conversation because no one else knows them. I honestly doubt whether they even use them amongst each other because the word is not apart of their natural recall.
Generally speaking, the attempt to preserve Tamazight by separating it from Arabic is one that I have great respect for. Obviously, language is a huge part of culture and Tamazight is slowly disappearing from Morocco. When I go to nearby small cities like Midelt, people only use Arabic. You can find people who speak Tamazight, but plenty of people don’t. Even in the souq (market) in Tounfite, a town of 20,000 people that is in the mountains, I hear plenty of Arabic as I walk around. So while I hope that the efforts to preserve Tamazight are successful, they face an uphill battle. And in their attempt to preserve the language, they often resort to strategies that are not really preserving the language, but trying to create a new one. The Tifinat alphabet is not the alphabet of the Amazigh people in Morocco. Very few people that I’ve met know how to read it. You’ll see it on some signs announcing Amazigh cultural events, but it’s always accompanied by Arabic because no one can read it. It’s sort of just a novelty sideshow. And words like aslid may be Tamazight in origin, but they are not a part of the vocabulary of the Amazigh of Morocco.
So far, I’ve only talked about people I’ve met who are actively pro-Amazigh. There are some people who don’t believe Tamazight has a future. I’ve met Amazigh people who tell me I shouldn’t bother to learn Tamazight because any one worth talking to speaks Arabic. They think that everyone should learn Arabic and Tamazight should be forgotten. By learning Arabic, they say, Amazigh people can participate in the greater Arab/Middle Eastern culture and advance themselves. It’s depressing to talk to these people because they look down upon their own culture and people as backwards (they tend to be more educated). Although these people are right about the utility of learning Tamazight, the one thing they don’t realize is that the Arabic they use (Darija, Moroccan Arabic), is so different from the Arabic spoken in Egypt and most of the Middle East as to be nearly a different language.
I’m going to end this post now. There is so much more to say about this topic and it’s so interesting to me. There are many different aspects to the Amazigh cultural movement, so they cannot all be adequately addressed in one blog entry. I’m going to keep writing about this topic over the next 21 months. If I’m really ambitious I’ll look back on all the things I’ve written about it and consolidate it all.

Wedding Festival

This past week I’ve been in Imilchil, in the Errachidia province. They hold a yearly wedding festival every August. In addition to the weddings, there is a gigantic souq (market) and lots of live music. The souq is absolutely huge. Everyone says you can find anything you want in the souq, but it seemed to me that it was just a greater volume of the normal stuff you find in market. The volunteers of the region gather there to do education at the souq. There were about 10 of us volunteers there, half from the environment sector and half from health. We had a tent alongside other tents that we worked out of.
The first day of souq the health volunteers did education on hygiene and diarrhea medicine. For a number of reasons it was the hardest day. There are fewer people at souq the first day. I think hygiene is a difficult topic to do education on because it’s not very flashy and people don’t see how it can impact their lives. Also, it’s a difficult environment to do education in and we were probably still figuring out how to tune our message to the audience.
The second day we did mostly dental hygiene, which I thought went a lot better. The best moment for me was when I was talking to a number of people about brushing their teeth and the benefits of doing so and a toothless guy spoke up, saying that people would be like him if they didn’t listen to me.
On the final day, we did HIV/AIDS education. We had two Moroccans from a local association helping us do the education. Actually, they did the majority of the talking. But we would do education with the overflow from their groups. I think it went really well. When I was talking to people, there would often be someone listening who understood what we were trying to do and would help us. The level of knowledge about AIDS and STD’s in general is really variable. It’s obviously a sensitive subject, but I found that if you talk about the sensitive topics in an unembarrassed, straightforward manner people don’t seem offended. The statistics suggest that HIV/AIDS isn’t a big problem in rural Morocco at the moment, but that it’s a bigger problem in the cities. I think the education is really important so as to hopefully keep the rural areas relatively safe, although it may be a losing battle.
All in all, I think the week went really well. I ended up speaking to large groups of people about some key educational points. For the most part, people are engaged and interested in what you have to say. It was fairly interactive, so I think people were engaging.

As I wrote above, I spent the last week in Imilchil, so I haven’t been in my site. It was the first time I’ve been out of my site for more than one night. Coming back to my site felt a little like coming home and it was a good feeling. I missed people here and I think they missed me too, so that’s pretty cool. It’s come to my attention that more people are reading my blog, which is really exciting to me. Feel free to pass on the address to people you think may be interested. If there is some topic that you are interested in me writing about, please let me know. And I welcome comments and feedback.
My house is finished. Finally. I’ll be moving in Sunday or Monday. Ramadan starts Monday or Tuesday. I hope all is well in the States; I miss you all.


Franny said...

congrats on having the house finished. keep up the good work! see you soon!

maryellen said...

checking for your posts is like an addiction: it's so great when there is one! language is to culture what oxygen is to fire...i'd love to see the pictures of the amazigh flag, mom

ps our school is the center of obama activism in barnesville!!! Go-bama!

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