Berbers proud, resentful over ancient way of life

OLGAGH, Morocco — The glare of an arc lamp reveals a stretch of dirt track where, to the beat of a drum, villagers huddled in a circle sing in honour of the bride.

In a house nearby, veiled and bejewelled, 17-year old Rabhah sits in silence in a sparse room waiting for her future husband.

“Don’t be afraid, it’s your family that’s coming to meet you,” the villagers sing. “Clear the stones from the groom’s path so he is steady on the road.” Like a growing number of Berber mountain women, Rabhah is about to swap life in a close-knit community for a husband from the lowlands with a steady income and a house with running water.

Signs of modernity are creeping into remote corners of the High Atlas, where life has changed little in 2,000 years for the Imazighen or Amazighs — “Free Men” in Tamazight — as Romans, Vandals, Arabs and French occupied and fought over the plains below.

In Rabhah’s village of Olgagh, power lines and satellite dishes are appearing, bringing electric light and images of modern wealth and comfort into sparse mud and straw houses.

Sons of shepherds, who were packed off to boarding school to learn Arabic and French, have stayed the course and obtained university educations and ambitions for jobs in town.

In the village of Tarart in the shadow of the mighty Jebel Ayachi, 21-year-old Moha Ouhniche is impatient for the summer holidays to end so he can return to university in Meknes and a placement at the national water company ONEP.

“Two more days of this. What am I going to do with myself?” he says in French as his Berber-speaking relatives, gathered for mint tea in between chores, look on in bemused silence.

Though keen to leave, Ouhniche is proud that his family can scrape a living by raising sheep and cattle and growing enough maize and corn to see them through the winter.

Tarart still lacks most of the trappings of modern life such as telephones, a post office and a police station. In the sparse schoolroom, the walls are peeling and some desks are broken.

Years of isolation and limited contact with the Arab-speaking lowlanders have nurtured a rugged, independent spirit and bred suspicion of outsiders and modern ways.

“You’re not a real woman if you give birth in a hospital,” says Moha’s aunt Rekia, a newborn baby on her knees.


Unfulfilled promises


But pride in this self-reliance is mixed with resentment at what are seen as unfulfilled promises by the Rabat government for better roads, health services and education.

Local campaigners say the government has neglected Morocco’s mountainous, predominantly Berber regions under a deliberate policy to sideline Amazigh identity.

They say that, for the Arabic-speaking middle class that led Morocco to independence in 1956 under the banner of Arab nationalism, attempts to assert Berber culture raise bitter memories of the colonial era when France tried to divide Morocco between areas governed by Berber customs and the rest, subject to Islamic Sharia Law.

At independence, they say, the dominant Istiqlal Party opted for a centralised system of government in which attempts to promote regional languages and cultures were seen as a threat.

Suspicion of the mountain tribes grew with an unsuccessful rebellion in the northern Rif shortly after independence and widespread hostility to the monarchy in the southern Souss region.


Berber manifesto


Morocco has more citizens with Berber origins than any other country and nearly 40 per cent of the population speaks one of three Amazigh languages, but many Berbers accuse their compatriots of discrimination.

In March 2000, the “Berber Manifesto” was published by Berber intellectuals and activists, complaining of repression and demanding development for Berber areas.

They called for state recognition of their language, support for cultural institutions and revisions to schoolbooks so they fully reflected the role Berbers played in Moroccan history.

The government under the reform-minded King Mohammed has yielded to many of their demands. Teaching in Berber has been extended to 1,200 schools and plans have been announced for a Berber television channel.

But the battle for Berber identity waged in city universities means little in the farming communities of the High Atlas, where few people have heard of the Amazigh movement.

Isolation has guaranteed their singularity and remains perhaps the best hope for preserving their way of life.

As long as Tarart residents are unable to understand the Arabic voices on their radios, the town crier, who peers over the Kasbah wall near sunset to address the village, remains a more useful source of information.

“People of Tarart, do not mix drinking and washing water at the public fountain,” he cries, his voice echoing back across the darkening, rock-strewn valley.

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