Berbers in North Africa are celebrating their New Year, with festivities planned in several cities, including the Moroccan capital of Rabat.

Monday marked the first day of year 2964 for the region's indigenous pre-Arab inhabitants, although anthropologists say it is difficult to establish with any precision the possible historical roots of the Berber New Year, known as Yennayer.

"Some historians link it to the enthronement as pharaoh of the Amazigh king Chachnaq after defeating Ramses III [believed to have happened in 950 BC]," said archaeologist Mostafa Ouachi, referencing the Berbers' ancient Amazigh language.

"For others, it corresponds to what is known in Morocco as the agricultural calendar, celebrated around January 13," said Ouachi, a professor at Rabat University.

The New Year celebration "marks the reaffirmation of some important aspects of agrarian society, a return to the land," he said, calling the festivities a way for Berbers to "refresh their collective memory."

In addition to the festivities in Rabat, celebrations were planned in a number of other parts of Morocco with concentrated Berber populations, such as Agadir and Tiznit in the southwest.

In the mountains of northern Algeria, meanwhile, over 4,500 Berber villages celebrated the New Year. The local community spent the past six months preparing the traditional "Timechret", a ritual that involves sharing out pieces of meat to the village's 2000 families.

"Rich and poor have the same meal. The purpose is to gather all the inhabitants and those who are far away," villager Kadi Larbi said.

National holiday

Morocco's Berbers, who several years ago won official recognition for their ancient Amazigh language in a new constitution, are also pushing for January 13 to be made a public holiday.

"We want the Amazigh New Year to be considered a public holiday, following the example of other calendars," activist Meriem Demnati said.

Ahmed Assid, an academic and activist, said the traditional Berber New Year celebration had developed into a political cause.

"If the first of [the Islamic month of] Moharram is a holiday in Morocco, and the first day of the Christian calendar is a holiday, why shouldn't the first day of the Amazigh New Year be also?" he asked.

Berbers, who are now spread across Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, were the original inhabitants of North Africa before the 7th century Arab invasion, and they make up a fifth of Algeria's 33 million people. The largest numbers of Berbers are believed to be in Morocco.

Berbers call themselves "imazighen," or free men, and their resentment of the Arab-dominated central government means they have long agitated, sometimes violently, for autonomy.

Source: Agencies