An unlikely celebration of North Africa’s ethnic diversity

Berber New Year festivities are taking place in a fraught political climate but with unprecedented state sanction.

Over the last three decades, a cross-border Amazigh movement has emerged, writes Aidi [AP]

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 provinces of Algeria, under the slogan of “Yennayer, Feast of National Solidarity”. Before departing, the “Yennayer caravan” was handed an Algerian flag and wished the best by Mounia Meslem, Algerian Minister of National Solidarity.

In neighbouring Libya, the besieged western town of Zuwara declared a public holiday on January 13 in honour of Yennayer, the Amazigh new year. In Morocco, civic associations celebrated the day and circulated a petition calling on the government to recognise Yennayer as a national holiday. The political magazine Zamane ran a frontpage story, with the headline “Are we all Amazigh?”

In Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm, Montreal and more than a dozen American cities – with significant North African populations – Amazigh communities are gathering this week to celebrate the start of the year 2695 at a tense, yet hopeful, political moment.

Strong population

The Amazigh-speaking population of North Africa is estimated to be about 20 million-strong, scattered between Morocco (where an estimated 40 percent of the population is Amazigh-speaking), Algeria (roughly 20 percent Amazigh-speaking), Libya (10 percent Amazigh-speaking), and with smaller communities in Tunisia and the Siwa oasis in western Egypt.

There are also approximately one million Touareg Amazighs who live in Niger and northern Mali. Accurate figures are hard to come by, North African regimes do not include ethnicity in their national censuses.

Libya’s Amazigh celebrate spring festival

Interestingly, however, in the US, where North African migration has risen sharply since the Green Card Lottery was introduced in 1995, the Census Bureau – in response to demands by North African advocacy groups – is considering introducing a new Middle East and North Africa ethnic category, with “Berber” as a “sub-national” option.

The Amazigh are generally known in western discourse as Berber (al-barbar in Arabic), but given that the term derives from the Greek barbarian, activists prefer the terms Amazigh (which means “free man”) in 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 foods and performances.

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

Since independence Amazigh language and culture in North Africa have been marginalised, if not outlawed, by regimes that have embraced Arabic as an official language, and pan-Arabism as a national identity and state-building strategy. This policy was the response of newly-independent states to French colonial policies that tried to divide and rule Berber and Arab.

Arab or Amazigh

Not surprisingly, at independence, North African states defined themselves as Arab, repressing Amazigh culture and Sufi pratice. Yet over the last three decades, a cross-border Amazigh movement has emerged, that is forcefully challenging Arabisation policies and official narratives.

In 1980, a wave of protests and riots swept the region of Kabylia in Algeria – that would become known as the “Berber spring” (“Tafsut Imazighen”) – followed by demands for recognition of Amazigh language and rights.

And it was in 1980 that a Paris-based Algerian scholar, Ammar Negadi, a member of the Union of Amazigh People, developed the Amazigh calendar, honing in on 943 BC as the first year of Amazigh history; this was the year that the Amazigh warrior Shoshenq I – a member of the Meshwesh trive of Libya – defeated Ramses II, and made himself pharoah of Egypt.

By the late 1990s, as the Algerian civil war was winding down, leaders in the Maghreb had grown wary of the rising power of Islamist movements – and began to see Sufi brotherhoods and Amazigh nationalism as a political counterforce.

When Mohammed VI assumed the thone in 1999, his (limited) cultural liberalisation brought to the fore a host of politicised Amazigh and pan-African music groups – Hoba Hoba Spirit, Darga, Amarg Fusion, Ribab Fusion – that insisted on singing in local vernacular and Amazigh, explicitly challenging the pan-Arab discourse that denied North Africa’s ethnic diversity.

Not surprisingly, at independence, North African states defined themselves as Arab, repressing Amazigh culture and Sufi pratice. Yet over the last three decades, a cross-border Amazigh movement has emerged, that is forcefully challenging Arabization policies and official narratives.

Moroccan authorities, in the early 2000s, also introduced Tamazight instruction in primary schools, and began Amazigh-language programming on national television and radio.

Amazigh activists would also press for a rewriting of history textbooks that claim all Moroccans came from Arabia. Ahmed Assid, a prominent Moroccan intellectual says that Amazigh have lived in North Africa for millennia, yet Moroccan history textbooks claim implausibly that that “the first inhabitants of Morocco were Berbers, came from Yemen and were therefore Arab”.

In Algeria, the protests and clashes between Amazigh activists and state authorities in 2001 would lead the Algerian government to recognise Tamazight as a “national” but not “official” language. 

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

Across the Maghreb, Amazigh communities began demanding rights. In July 2011, the Tunisian Association for Amazigh Culture was established with full support from the new government – the first such organisation in modern Tunisan history. In Morocco, a new constitution presented in June 2011, would recognise Amazighite as an integral component of Moroccan national identity, and declare Tamazight an “official” state language.

Islamist versus Berber

Tensions between Islamist and Berber activists have boiled over following the Arab Spring uprisings.

Religious conservatives took particular exception to expressions of pre-Islamic identity. In Morocco, zealots would damage an 8,000-year-old Amazigh carving in the High Atlas called the Plaque of the Sun. In Libya, where Amazigh leaders are fearing an all-out assault from takfiri militias (as occurred to Yazidis in Iraq), are now pushing for an autonomous Amazigh region in western Libya. Yet it was the Libyan civil war and the Touareg mercenaries fleeing south who would found the short-lived Amazigh state of Azawad in northern Mali. 

Which brings us to this year’s Yennayer’s 2015. The festivities are taking place with unprecedented state sanction, but also in a fraught political climate. This years’s Yennayer festivities have coincided with the mourning for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Some Amazigh organisations have canceled celebrations in honour of the victims.

Others are including in their programmes tributes to Mustapha Ourrad, the Charlie Hebdo editor, an Amazigh Algerian who was killed in the attacks. Amazigh leaders are acknowledging the gains achieved, while realising how far they still have to go.

The focus this week is to use the public celebrations to raise (global) awareness of Amazigh culture, and to lobby North African regimes to recognise Yennayer in a respectful, “non-folkloric” way.

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

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 of black internationalism and global youth culture.