[This article is part of a dossier on Tankra Tamazight, Amazigh Revival, and Indigeneity in North Africa, edited by Brahim El Guabli. To read other articles in this dossier, read the introduction here.]
This article discusses the role of civil society in the emergence and evolution of literary production written in Amazigh. When we say civil society, we mean the associative body that constitutes the backbone of the Amazigh cultural movement. The term "Berber Cultural Movement" came about in Algeria just after the bloody events of the April 1980 "Berber Spring" in Kabylie, and was used ten years later (with "Berber" replaced by "Amazigh") in Morocco. To this day, the "Berber Cultural Movement" is used in Algeria and the "Amazigh Cultural Movement" in Morocco. The movement fights for the linguistic and cultural rights of a predominantly oral language, with "Writing in Amazigh" being one of its principal objectives. Amazigh's relationship to written language evolved even before the emergence of a contemporary consciousness that seeks to create the neo-literature, which englobes all modern Amazigh literary genres. Neo-literature, a term coined by Salem Chaker, encompasses the novel and the short story to translation a well as prose and the new "free" poetry. Other terms, like "new literature" or "emerging literature" are also common.
The Colonial Era: From an Oral-Dominated Society to a Recorded Culture
Amazigh culture is known to be predominantly oral, despite having had an alphabet, tifinagh, for centuries (Skounti, 2004). Like all oral cultures, Amazigh culture is rich in its cultural expression: dances, songs, poetry, proverbs, myths, legends, idioms, etc. These all spring from the cumulative experience of a thousand-year-old people (Chafik, 1988) and are transmitted orally from generation to generation throughout North Africa. Aside from the writings of the Tuaregs, who use the Tifinagh alphabet, there is little written record of the culture (Aghali-Zakara, 1993, 141-157). Since the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, some Amazigh-speaking groups, including the Chleuhs in Morocco, Kabyles, Mozabites in Algeria, and the Amazigh-speaking group of the Adrar of Nafousa in southern Libya, have developed a written manuscript tradition written in Arabic characters, with the Shlūḥ people of southern Morocco leading the charge. This tradition was certainly very limited, but it did guarantee that Amazigh writing in some form continued until the arrival of European colonizers in 1830. Then began another stage.
French colonizers were known for attaining power through knowledge, and thus the collection of the region's oral heritage was of paramount importance to them. The scientific exploration of Algeria, which began in 1840, was a large undertaking in relatively unknown territory. It was the era of colonial ethnology: individuals, institutions, and even amateurs all contributed to the corpus of knowledge produced about the Amazigh. The most important contribution was the collection of an oral heritage that allowed Europeans to supposedly become better acquainted with the mentality, the history, and the memory of these resistant "populations" and especially their "soul." As Paul Hector says, "Since every people has a soul, every people has a language that expresses that soul" (Hector, 1929, 581). In a way, by studying the oral tradition, the Europeans probed the unconscious of the Amazighs that was manifest in the spontaneity of their language. René Basset (1855-1924), with his Berber folk tales (1878) and Folk tales from Africa (1903), established himself as a specialist in his field to such an extent that he has made it the centerpiece of his research (Basset, 2008, 7). Emile Laoust (1876-1952), who recognizes Basset as head of the field, also specializes in it, and wrote Berber tales from Morocco (1949), which constitutes an important source for any study of oral Amazigh literature.
Unlike René Basset, who was content to translate Amazigh stories into French, Laoust went to the trouble of transcribing them in the Latin alphabet. The in-depth analysis of 1920's ’Essay on Berber Literature by Henri Basset, wove together countless other studies of Berber literature and stands today as a major reference on the subject. Other researchers in the same area, like Léopold Justinard, missionary of the Tashlḥyt, for the Souss, and Biarny with his Notes on popular songs of the Rif have contributed significantly to the great undertaking of transcribing part of Amazigh literature in Morocco during the protectorate (1912-1956). The preservation of Amazigh songs also benefited from the introduction of cassette recordings, the latest technological revolution of the time. The first recordings of ṛwāys (troubadour singers of Souss) date back to the 1920s and have helped to preserve many of these songs. This continues today in the form of video recordings.
The Era of Independence: The Birth of a Written Amazigh Neo-Literature
Though the Amazigh language has had a relationship to the written word since ancient times, especially since the mainly Muslim scriptural practice of the Middle Ages, it has not been able to produce a written corpus of texts in the so-called modern literary genres. It wasn't until the late 1960s, with the awakening of a language-centered identity and the creation of AMREC (Moroccan Association for Research and Cultural Exchange) in 1967 that a modern literature began to emerge. In addition to collecting and transcribing their oral heritage, Moroccans have expressed the Amazigh consciousness by attempting to make Amazigh a written language, and to produce new works of literature. In this context the name of Mohamed Moustaoui is often mentioned by virtue of his sizeable bibliography, as well as slightly later plays and essays like: Ussān Smmiḍnīn (Frosty Days) by Essafi Moumen Ali (1983) or Imarayen (In Love) by Hassan Id Belkacem (1988). An Amazigh novel did not appear until the late 1990s: Rez ttabu ad tffegh tfucht (1997) by Mohamed Chacha was followed by about thirty other novels throughout the next three decades. Amazigh newspapers sprang up around this time and gave Amazigh authors a forum for publication, thus strongly encouraging writing in Amazigh. In the early twenty-first-century, once Amazigh writing had established a foundation, it gained considerable momentum after the creation of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in 2001 and the constitutional recognition of Amazigh as the official language of the Moroccan state in 2011.
AMREC: At the Heart of Reflection on Writing in Amazigh
AMREC (Moroccan Association for Research and Cultural Exchange) was founded in 1967, in a fraught political and ideological climate. By virtue of its longevity and the work it has done, the organization is often considered to have given birth to the Amazigh Cultural Movement. AMREC has made use of newsletters between 1973 and 1974 like Arratn (Manuscripts), "imuzzar" (Waterfalls), " attabadul attaqafi "(Cultural exchange), or Amud (Grains) to publish Amazigh writing. This project was also unique in that it standardized Arabic script to make it compatible with the phonetic features of the Amazigh language. The historian and poet Ali Sadki Azayku (d. 2004), one of the project's founding members, has proposed the term Arratn to describe the movement. Azayku, who was one of its founding members, has written two poetry collections, Timitār (Signs/1989) and Izmulen (Scars/1995) that qualify him as an innovator of Amazigh poetry, in aesthetic, metrical, and metaphorical terms. With these collections, Azayku founded a new poetic current within Amazigh culture, which a whole generation of young people like Mohamed Ousouss, Mohamed Ouagrar, or Abdellah Elmennani have identified with. To encourage this literary dynamic, the members of AMREC (who were very active within another association, the Summer University of Agadir, created in 1979) devoted part of the proceeds of their two publications (1988-1991) to Amazigh neo-literature. The writings, in Amazigh, Arabic, and French, were published in a book titled " Asnflul "(Creativity/1974). Technical issues prevented the tifinagh alphabet from being used, and the Latin and Arabic alphabets were used instead. In the early 1990s, with the expansion of the Amazigh cultural fabric, AMREC published a journal called Tamunt (Unity), which offered a platform for unknown Amazigh writers.
TAMAYNUT: A Helping Hand for Amazigh Authors
The Tamaynut Association was created in Rabat in 1978 under the name Association nouvelle de la culture et des arts populaires. It approached the Amazigh Cultural Movement in Morocco with a legal approach and a populist strategy, hence the goal to establish chapters all across Morocco. The first chapter was founded in Agadir in 1992. Composed mainly of young students from the University of Agadir, it focused on writing in Amazigh and organized weekly training workshops at the Hay Hassani Youth House in Elbatwar to teach Amazigh writing. It encouraged young people to write and present their work publicly for discussion. The chapter leaders aimed to have 100 people writing in Amazigh, and put in place an internal newsletter, Anaruz (Hope) which served as a medium for publication. This strategy was replicated by other chapters, and a variety of other internal newsletters, like AnaZar (Challenge) in Inezgane, Tagherma (Civilization) in Dcheira, Libika (Library of Juba II) in Casablanca sprang up. The titles of these newsletters were chosen purposefully. They draw from a lexicon of challenge, struggle, self-esteem, history, and pride in being Amazigh and, in doing so, speak to the awakening of Amazigh identity that was just beginning to take hold.
The decision of Tamaynut's national office to publish a newspaper, Tasafut (Torch) in 1991 gave another boost to writing in Amazigh. Young people found another avenue to publication. They took it upon themselves to translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into Amazigh, a unique challenge given Amazigh's orality and the document's specialized legal lexicon. A few years later, the same group translated the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Moroccan Family Code.
In the mid-1990s, the first class of Amazigh university student activists obtained their degrees. Some of them decided to go to France to continue their studies. In Paris, they enrolled at Inalco, EHESS, Paris 8, and the Sorbonne, and decided to create the association Azamazigh. They preserved the custom of their sister organizations back home by publishing an internal magazine entitled Parimazigh.
TIRRA: An Association Specializing in Amazigh Neo-Literature
The Tirra Alliance of Writers in Amazigh was founded in 2009. It is the culmination of its members’ many years of experience, and at the same time operates in a new climate where, ever since the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture was created in 2001, Amazighity has been officially recognized. The founders of Tirra are both Amazigh writers and activists, and the creation of this specialized network has gone a long way in furthering the written production of Amazigh texts. They publish novels, award the Tirra prize to exemplary authors, organize workshops to enrich young writers. It should be noted that, apart from Tirra's annual participation in the Book and Publishing Fair in Casablanca, it is active exclusively in Agadir. It organizes a national meeting of authors writing in Amazigh, an annual opportunity to debate the state of the movement and the different issues related to writing in Amazigh. After 12 years (2009-2021), it has published more than 200 books in Amazigh, establishing itself as a major player in Amazigh publishing and in particular Amazigh neo-literature.
Contemporary texts written in Amazigh are completely different from older works, in terms of the vocabulary used, the spelling, the content, and the goals of the texts. Often these texts use an Amazigh language that is "incomprehensible" to its speakers and therefore is not intended for native Amazigh speakers who speak one dialect of the language, but for an imagined reader, one who is learning the language and has (or will) benefit from a school course or self-taught instruction in Amazigh that incorporates Amazigh neo-literature. This raises questions related to the dissemination, reception, and consumption of this new literature as well as all the critical work that necessarily accompanies it. Tirra's work also demonstrates the power of the individual in encouraging a group to rally around a common interest: here, writing in Amazigh.
Ijjign n tidi : An Amazigh Novel by Mohamed Akounad
The writer Mohammed Akounad, who has headed the Tirra Alliance since 2009, published his second novel in Amazigh, "Ijjigen n tidi", (Blossoms of Sweat), in 2007. In a style at once refined and almost quotidian (in the age of Tashlḥyt), the author evinces a creativity and an overflowing imagination as he tells the story of an Amazigh Moroccan émigré.
The novel very obviously evokes several themes of rural life in Morocco. But the central element of the novel, around which other more complex subjects orbit, is famine, (lāz in amazigh). The word, along with its synonyms and variations (lāz, aghwnī, imlluzza, adās, adān ...) is used at least one hundred times in the book. This lāz does not refer only to poverty and a lack of food but also to a broader kind of lack. In this sense, it constitutes a prism that produces a vision of the world in which the justification of certain behavior leads to a loss of human dignity.
"He who is hungry cannot feel like a human being" (Igh ur ta tjjawnt, ur ad tsyafat is tgit afgan), the novelist concedes. Thus, post-colonial situation life in rural Morocco is well-documented. After years of resistance to French occupation, rural regions (by and large, the places where Amazigh was spoken) found themselves laid by the wayside, marginalized, and boxed out of all economic development programs.
If sergeant-recruiter Mora's arrival to recruit workers for labor emigration ensured the survival of a population that had been left for dead, it also provoked some shock. The reactions elicited by this arrival among rural populations reflect a certain paradox. Asil, a village elder and one of the men who refused to emigrate to France, asked himself how it is that his people were armed to chase away the colonizer only to ultimately end up working at the mercy of their sons:
“Iga-yagh assergm ad agh-staln tarwa n irumiyn zud tarwa n waghad gh tmizar-ngh, ssufghn-tn id baba-ngh s ucnyar zg tmazirt, urrin-d tarwa-nsn, skrn gingh aylli ran. Gan-agh d ismgan d twiwin, ar asn-nssudum ibaciln.”
“It is such a shame that we bow to the sons of those whom we chased away with weapons. Today, they've returned to spit on us and make us their slaves.”
But this sentiment cannot outweigh the precarious nature of poverty. What is more, the drive to eradicate lāz overlays a different logic and a different worldview. Some years after the French left, the slogans and promises of a better life that accompanied the struggle for independence were revealed to be nothing but a vanished dream. This hard reality has forced Moroccans to find other ways to satisfy their most elementary needs. Hence, emigrating to France looms as the inevitable solution. If some are opposed out of loyalty to the memory of their ancestors, others are in favor out of a deep desire to eradicate lāz, which has robbed many of their humanity. Askwti himself is a prisoner of this Catch-22. Asil did not block his initial bid to leave; it was Moura who convinced him to stay:
“Iga mougha d umjjenjem-inw, iga-t-id g waga ur inqqelen aman, nekk da yas-ttinigh (dadda Mougha!) Agwrram [...] Agwrram a yga, mqqar iga Arumi !, makh wanna izdarn ad k-id-yall zg ddu tmsilin n imzlad ar nnig ibrgazn, ur igi Agwrram?”
"God sent Moura to save me. I think of him like a grandfather, or even more than that, a saint. Anyone who can help you go from a poor, distrusted shepherd to a rich man in the village ought to be canonized."
The name Moura is quite familiar in the Souss region. Félix Mora is a former French recruiter who enlisted upwards of 100,000 migrants (mostly from southwest and southeast Morocco) to work in the mines of north Pas-de-Calais. This massive migration in the '60s and '70s was a contributing factor in the loss of youth and vitality from these areas. As a result, the region underwent seismic socio-economic shifts thanks to immigrant earnings. Oral literature, especially women's songs, bore witness to this era of change. The literature of the time reflects the grief of women whose husbands are hundreds of miles away—all thanks to Moura. Akounad's choice to thematize immigration is part of a trend in Amazigh neo-literature, but is also part of his personal goal to write new Amazigh literature that reflects the lived experience of Amazighs, especially in recent years. This is also the case in his first novel, Tawargit d imik (A Dream and More), where he marshals all his creativity to depict Amazigh's place in the marketplace of Moroccan languages, especially with regard to Arabic. Akounad does this through the lens of an imam in a rural mosque who decides to deliver his Friday sermon in the local dialect of Amazigh. The author uses this decision to raise a brouhaha of linguistic, religious, and political questions. The same goes for his novel Tamurt n walfiwen (The Country of the Boars), where Akounad writes about the damage done by boars let loose in a village in Souss. This is a real problem that some villages in Souss have faced for many years.
Written production in Amazigh develops at a different pace in different regions. In southwest Morocco, Tashlḥyt has made clear progress thanks to the work of civil society, notably the Tirra Alliance. The existence of IRCAM as a scientific and institutional authority has allowed for the creation of so-called orthographic and linguistic norms. The dissemination, reception, transmission, and criticism of this neo-literature merits further research.
[This article was translated from the French version by Ben Connor.]
 Ahmed Skounti, Abdelkhaleq. Lemjidi et Mustapha. Nami, Tirra. Aux origines de l’écriture au Maroc. Corpus des inscriptions amazighes des sites d’art rupestre, Rabat : Publications de l’Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe, 2004.