Monday, April 24, 2006

Being Berber - a question of cultural identity in Morocco

Now here is an interesting woman. Michelle Medina is in Morocco on a Fulbright Fellowship studying identity in Moroccan cinema, as well as directing a documentary on the topics of Morrocan subjectivity, her father and love. On top of that she has written a fascinating article on Berber identity. Here is an extract, followed by a link to the original.

Walking through the streets of Rabat, Morocco, I clearly stood out as a foreigner. Although my features might allow me to “pass” as Moroccan, my blue jeans and running shoes clearly distinguished me from the old men in long robes and young women in sunglasses and high heels. Thus, it confused me when a hannut (storefront) vendor, planted in front of red, orange and yellow mountains of spices, asked me in Darija (the Moroccan language), “Ante Shilha?” (“Are you Berber?”)

Berbers, or Imazighen, are Morocco’s indigenous people, who populated the country long before the Arab conquest in the late 600s. I wondered if the storekeeper’s question was posed in jest, sincerity, scorn or praise. My initial reaction was defensive. “La,” I replied. (“No.”) “Do I look Berber to you?” At my apparent aversion to being called Berber, the shopkeeper lowered his head. Embarrassed, I asked him if he was Berber, and he smiled and nodded.

Upon returning to my host family, who self- identify as “Arab,” I asked them what connotations the label, “Berber,” had in the city. My mother, who stood over the kitchen stove sautéing olive-oiled sardines, explained that “Berber” can be something of a disparaging label, as it is aligned with terms like “cheap” or “hard.” She said that Berbers are a people who still have a very rich culture; however, as she spoke, she scrunched up her face and shook her head disapprovingly. My 16-year-old sister explained, “She doesn’t like the Berbers.” Surprised, I asked, “Leematha?” (“Why?)

“Ohhhhh,” my host sister said. “She says she doesn’t dislike them. She just doesn’t understand them.”

Puzzled, again I asked, “Leematha?” My sister replied, “Language. She doesn’t understand them.”

In subsequent conversations with my host mother, I sifted through translation dictionaries as she utilized her French, Spanish, Darija and snippets of Arabic to try and speak to me; I would try out my Arabic and modest knowledge of Spanish. Using our five languages and collective sign language, we spoke about the Berber language, people, culture and identity, which seemed to be integral components of Morocco and yet were acknowledged only quietly. My mother described Berbers as a rural people, known for being hard bargainers, diligent workers and skillful dancers—dancing and music being an important aspect of Moroccan and Berber culture. However, dancing in many of Morocco’s urban centers is believed to be akin to prostitution. Thus, as my mother hinted, Berber women are described both as strong and hard working as well as sexual and loose. I asked her one day, “Oohmi, ante Shilha?” (“Mom, are you Berber?”), to which she responded by opening her eyes wide and shaking her head. Clearly, this was not a label with which my mother wanted to align herself.

Many people in Rabat seemed reluctant to admit to any Berber origins or family, including professors at the university where I took classes. One teacher with whom I spoke alluded to his origins outside of the city. In time, I gathered enough bits and pieces of his story to discover that he grew up in a rural Berber village speaking Shilha, the Berber language (also referred to as Tamazight). Despite his background, he chose to label himself as “Arab.” He did not admit to being Berber and went so far as to disparage other scholars at the center who supported Berber politics, calling them militants.

Full article: BEING BERBER

Another interesting article is by James Pickett - Again, here is an extract and a link.

What has been termed the “Berber Awakening” was and remains a central issue in Morocco. Demands for cultural and lingual recognition began in the 1960s, and intensified in the 1990s, raising controversial questions. What rights should the Imazighen have? Should they be allowed to teach their languages in the schools? How compatible is Imazighen culture with Islamic culture? Which identities are to take precedence—Moroccan, Islamic or Imazighen?

Something New. Cultural Consciousness in Morocco


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