The Free People: Hope and Repression among Morocco’s Native Amazigh

Featured Image: The house abandoned by the river.


By Henry Reichard


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]bout forty-five kilometers south of Marrakech, near the end of a thin highway that runs straight and level between sunbaked fields and rocky pastures, an abandoned house overlooks a river that cuts through a valley that lies in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The hills of the valley are ochre-red and nearly bare, speckled with ragged pines and rocks and the small houses of a village. The house by the river is old. Its stones are red like the hills—paint peeled under sun and rain, tiles pulled up or loosened, neglected centuries carved in the cracks. It lies like a forgotten carcass on the riverbank, overlooking a village that also decays, and the valley has a windswept quietness like the silence of a cemetery. On the terrace a thin child named Elias stands, smiling, and offers bracelets of clover to sightseers from the city.

Those who built the house and live in the village are called Berbers by the rest of Morocco—a variation on the Greek barbaros, or barbarian. But they call themselves the Amazigh, a name that in Tamazight, their own language, means men who are free. The Amazigh have lived in Morocco for thousands of years: long before the Arabs invaded their country in the seventh century or the French began colonizing it in 1912. It has been many centuries since they have been free.

On a late night in the first week of Ramadan, I spoke with a group of men who had grown up in villages like the one in the valley. We were gathered in a small apartment in Marrakech, a city where Tamazight is scrawled like an afterthought on a tenth of the billboards and signposts: always the third language listed, behind Arabic and French. The men were the executive board of a national federation that coordinates other Amazigh groups throughout Morocco. Massin, the owner of the house and one of the only two English-speakers, was a travel agent; Mohammed, the other English-speaker, was an engineer; Hamid, the speaker of the Federation, was a university professor; Rashid was a PhD student; Ahmed was a lawyer. But inside Massin’s house they were all unpaid volunteers who had been drawn, one way or another, into activism.

“With all of us it’s the same story,” Massin told me, sighing, when I asked him how he had become involved with the federation. He was a short man, round-cheeked and portly, with dark eyes and a soft but urgent voice. “We grew in Amazigh families. We only speak Amazigh language until the age of seven. When we get to school—you know the first day you get to school? They tell you, you should forget your language, your mother tongue. We teach you a language that will allow you to get knowledge, because your language doesn’t allow you…”

Massin paused. He seemed to be searching for a way to say something that was too large for words, or at least too large for the English words that he knew. “…to get any knowledge,” he said finally. “This creates a shock. You are little and they tell you that your language doesn’t…matter for anybody. It’s just something that you should forget.”

* * *


The village in Ourika Valley.


Massin has not forgotten. He asked me to sit, insisted that I stay for dinner. Over the next few hours, he and Mohammed told me about the history of their people.

One might expect that the history of Morocco’s arabization begins in the seventh century, with the arrival of the Arabs. In some ways it does. The Arabs brought Islam to Morocco, along with a firm conviction that Islam could be practiced only in Arabic. “Arabs try to convince us that the Quran is untranslatable,” Massin told me, shaking his head. “You are obliged to learn Arabic to understand the Quran.”

Despite this, Tamazight and Amazigh culture flourished long after the Arabs came to Morocco. “If you put one thousand Arabs in millions of Amazigh, they will become Amazigh,” is how Mohammed put it to me. Against Arab protestations, the Quran was translated into Tamazight. Amazigh dynasties ruled most of Morocco from 1050-1550. Mohammed and Massin both told me that arabization did not really begin until the twentieth century. “We were arabized after 1912,” Mohammed said. “This is very important. France was the first country to arabize us.”

France? How could France have arabized Morocco? In short, unintentionally. When the French began expanding their sphere of influence in Algeria into Morocco, it was desirable for Moroccan citizens—and for French citizens—to believe that France was not “invading” Morocco, but rather civilizing and uplifting it. Colonization had to be framed in a way that made it clear that Morocco needed France. But how did the French accomplish this?

By demonizing the Amazigh.

“You know the history of the occupation of Morocco?” Massin asked. “Officially it’s not an occupation. It’s a protectorate. But protecting whom from whom?” According to the French, protecting the rightful Arab rulers from the revolutionary Berbers. During the French occupation of Morocco, there were a series of Amazigh revolts: the siege of Fez by a group of Amazigh tribesmen in 1912; the Amazigh uprising in the Rif mountains, which gave rise to the short-lived Rif republic. The French capitalized on these uprisings, using them to portray the Amazigh as dangerous anarchists. The Amazigh became third-class citizens, behind French and Arabs. “From 1912 to 1936 it’s war war war,” Massin said. “Against who? Against the Amazigh.”

Morocco regained independence in the 1950s and began creating a postcolonial identity. This new identity was Arabic. Across North Africa, newly independent nations were beginning to pursue an explicit policy of arabization, intended to purge the former colonies of the European legacy. Amazigh culture was seen as a threat to national unity by Morocco’s new rulers, and Tamazight was suppressed, sometimes violently.

I learned from Hamid (with Massin acting as translator) that on May 1st, 1994, seven members of an Amazigh organization named Tilelli participated in a small march near the city of Errachidia. Hamid was a director of Tilelli. He was studying at Casablanca on the day of the protests, but he knew the Amazigh who marched, all of whom were from his village.

Marching in a May Day parade was a dangerous thing to do no matter how you went about it. “At the time,” Hamid said, “it was forbidden for Amazigh people to go on a strike.” But when the seven members of Tilelli were arrested and incarcerated, it was not merely because they had participated in the parade. It was because the signs they carried, which read “There is no democracy without recognition,” had been written in Tifinigh, the traditional script of Tamazight. The government considered these seven signs—amid hundreds of others written in Arabic—to be a discriminatory gesture on the part of Tilelli. “The government arrested these people,” Hamid told me, “and the official reason was that they were charged with being anti-Arab. They were racist against Arabs because they were trying to promote their own culture.”


What about the rest of the world? Did any other nations intervene on behalf of the Amazigh?

The rest of the world, for the most part, did not seem to care.

“We believe that the only country that is interested in Amazigh culture, to study this, is France,” Mohammed told me as we finished dinner. “All of the politics of France have been  targeted against Amazigh population since 1900,” Mohammed continued. “Others, like Americans, they are not interested in Amazigh question.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“Because Americans are not interested in North Africa,” Mohammed replied matter-of-factly. “Second, because France is the lawyer of Europe. And this lawyer is involved in this question.”

“I don’t agree with Americans on one point,” Mohammed told me after the dessert was taken away. “Americans are more sympathetic with Jews in Israel. But if you call back the history, Jews, Kurds, and Amazigh are the same. All of them are victims of Islamization and Arabization.”

The table quieted for a moment at that, and Mohammed’s expression, always serious, turned grim. He was a deliberate man, compactly built, and he spoke with the measured consideration one expects from a scientist or engineer. When he spoke of Islam his features hardened, as if they had frozen into place. Many years before, while studying at university, Mohammed had been a member of Al Adl wal Ihsane—a Muslim organization that calls for the transformation of Morocco into an Islamist state ruled by Sharia law. One day, he had asked why the organization’s sacred texts could not be translated into Tamazight, and he had received the familiar answer: Allah can be worshipped only in Arabic. He had reflected on the fact that Moroccan law made it illegal for his parents to give him an Amazigh name: compelled them to christen him with an Arab one. Now, as a father, he had sent his daughter to a school in the United States to receive a secular education. Now, as an Amazigh activist, Mohammed resented his own name.

“A lot of Amazigh activists are not Muslims,” Mohammed told me late in the evening, the cigarette smoke clouding the air between us. “But they do not say it.”

“It’s not safe to say it?” I asked.

“If you are Muslim and you turn back,” he replied, drily and simply, “then you will be killed.”


The next morning, in an hour when the shadows were long and there were few people in the streets, I was walking past a red mosque in Marrakech, toward Massin’s house, when I heard a familiar sound. In the red city, during Ramadan, the call to prayer sounds across the marketplace five times every day: a ringing, lilting call in Arabic echoing from loudspeakers, as if a quire of countless voices were singing across the entire city. Most people in the streets do not stop or turn to the muezzin who calls them. Only a few kneel and pray in the mosques. But everyone listens.

Islam, like all religions, is many things at once. To the Amazigh, it is a religion carried in the saddlebags of an invader; a postcolonial identity that, by state decree, has supplanted their culture for the past sixty years; an insistence on Arabic and a corresponding suppression of Tamazight. To the old rug vendor I found prostrate that morning in Marrakech, it was a spiritual commitment so pressing that it prevented him from speaking to me—the only customer in sight—until he had finished his prayer. There is a bright and a dark side of every moon. The Amazigh have known the dark.


Breakfast at Massin’s house.


I returned to Massin’s house with the mid-morning light. Massin greeted me, smiling warmly. For a few minutes we discussed last night’s meeting. He had told me before that the old Berber translation of the Quran was “less of a translation, more of an adaptation.” I asked him what he had meant.

“When you hear that old translation,” Massin replied, “it’s poetic. There is a kind of fluidity in the language. And it seems natural. And when you try to understand the meanings of the surahs, you find that it’s adapted to our culture. It’s mixed. You will not find ‘Allah’ in it. We have our own name for God. And the word Allah, the conception of Allah, doesn’t exist in our Quran. You know what it means, the conception of Allah? Because you know, you have God, and you have Allah. Henry, you know that there is a difference between God and Allah?”

“I’m not sure I know,” I said.

“The Muslims try to convince people that Allah is the name of God,” Massin replied, speaking with bitterness. “But it’s not. Allah is a vengeant God.”

“A what?” I asked.

“Vengeant,” Massin repeated. “This is…this is…this shouldn’t be a name, or description, for our real God. God shouldn’t be vengeant. He should be someone with big heart, forgiving, loving. But Allah is not.”

Massin spoke quietly, though he was in his own house, nestled in a quiet alley. I knew that he would not say such things in public.

Much of Massin’s enmity towards Islam stems from its direct link with Arabic. But there were other things as well. He told me that traditional Amazigh culture was matriarchal; if I had come a day earlier, I could have spoken with two representatives of The Voice of the Amazigh Woman—an organization dedicated to reversing the historic oppression of Amazigh women in Morocco. And throughout the morning, he described the role that religious extremism has played in Morocco’s sometimes bloody history.

After that we spoke of other things. I asked Massin about the Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) —a state organization established by royal decree in 2001. “For us, IRCAM is not a part of the Amazigh movement,” Massin replied wearily. It was simply an attempt to bring the Amazigh cause under the control of the state. There have been some improvements over the past few decades: the recognition of Tamazight as an official Moroccan language in 2011; a relaxation of the naming laws that prevented Mohammed’s parents from giving him an Amazigh name; a few small museums dedicated to Amazigh culture scattered through cities and villages. The changes are something, but they are not enough.

The cigarette smoke was thick in the small room. Outside it was a bright and sunny day. I looked at Massin. What he and Mohammed and the other members of the board were imagining—an Amazigh Morocco, a Morocco in which Tamazight came before Arabic, maybe even a secular Morocco—seemed an impossible dream to me. I had spoken before with other journalists and with Moroccan officials who told me confidently that Tamazight would never replace Arabic in Morocco. Yet here they were, dreaming, and maybe something would come of it.

“All of North Africa wants independence,” Mohammed had said to me the night before. “We hope one day—we have a dream—to make a united state of Amazigh of North Africa. Because all this country is ours. We don’t want independence from someone. We want to govern our own land. And we don’t want to divide Morocco, Algeria, because all of North Africa is our country.”


Henry is a senior in Silliman College. You can contact him at