After three days of conferencing, the Legation's fountains and birds are again audible in the relative calm of the medina. Not that we're complaining: a better group of participants couldn't be found. We have just hosted an illustrious group of experts on Berber Societies, the theme of this year's AIMS – American Institute for Maghrib Studies – conference.
Subtitled New Approaches to Space, Time, and Social Process, the conference organizers sought to provide a voice to
Recent scholarship on Amazigh populations [which] provides important correctives to the nationalist narratives that have long shaped understandings about both the region's populations and their relations to the nation-state.
Academic organizers Jane Goodman of Indiana University and Katherine Hoffman of Nortwestern University devised a lively format for discussion, where conference participants read each other's submissions in advance, and each session was presented in pairs. This allowed for maximum give and take, and avoided dry reading of papers or endless Powerpoint slides.
More than one participant noted the truly pan-Maghrib nature of the program. Though Morocco and Algeria, with their large concentrations of Berber-speaking populations and web of state institutions (Morocco's IRCAM; Algeria's HCA) devoted to Berber matters, provided the bulk of the participants, what particularly enriched the proceedings was the presence of scholars from Libya, Tunisia, and Mauritania, who are less frequently heard from in Berber studies fora.
One Tunisian Berber is constantly challenged by her fellow citizens' incredulity; for them, Berbers are in Algeria and Morocco, or if they acknowledge a Tunisian link, place it in a distant past. "You're Berber? Prove it!" – daring her to say something in her language, which in some southern Tunisian villages is all children under five can speak.
Berber identity in Algeria has had its political manifestations – parties like the FFS and RCD are largely populated by Kabyles – which has not necessarily been the case in Morocco, where Amazigh culture and language has been the focus of Berber associations. Even Morocco's important independence movement in the 1920s, the Rif War, led by Abdelkrim el Khatabi, was not necessarily for Berber freedom, but rather to rid northern Morocco of Spanish and French occupiers. But that hasn't kept some modern Berber activists from canonizing Abdelkrim as a Berber icon.
Pan-Maghrib Berberism is made difficult by the incredible multiplicity of language variants, where Algerian Berbers in the eastern Aures Mountains might have an easier time of understanding the language of the Moroccan Rif than that of their neighboring Kabylie.
In Libya, where under Gaddafi their language and culture were suppressed, Berbers joined the struggle early on, and their intervention was often decisive in the west of the country. In newly-liberated areas, Tamazight language media began to flourish, and people were finally free to give their children Berber names.
Language was central to our discussions. In the area around Agadir in south-central Morocco, communities might promote use of their Berber language Tashelhit, without necessarily feeling part of some wider Amazigh movement. Some experts are concerned with the effect of homogenization of Berber, with the centralizing tendency to create a sort of "modern Berber," a standardized hybrid that may be rootless and ignore the rich variety of Berber across this huge expanse of North Africa.
We included several cultural events as part of the program. By a stroke of good luck, this year's Tarab Tanger festival – dedicated to Moroccan and world traditional music – featured Moroccan Berber ensemble Inouraz from Agadir, led by singer Khalid El Berkaoui. This Amazigh spiritual music – El Berkaoui's lively vocals accompanied by a quartet playing traditional instruments – got the crowd going, with lots of young fans exhibiting their three finger salute. This was even a revelation to some of the experts: it's a Berber symbol of akal, awal, afgan – land, language, man.
We were also treated to a showing of short film "The Red Apple," whose "making of" and analysis by graduate student Tilila Baida led to a lively debate over Berber symbolism and the meaning of what it is to be Berber to the youthful filmmakers. Though the brief dialogue and voice-over, as well as the on screen text, were all in Berber, the filmmakers didn't hide the fact that they spoke to each other in Moroccan Arabic while shooting the film. But the film is still a Berber film.
It hasn't always been easy to be Berber, whose language has often been suppressed, and whose communities have been subdivided by administrative boundaries, under both colonial rule and after. But after years of Arabization and centralization, the recent flourishing of Berber languages, of cultural movements, of young people experimenting with new media, show a sort of "Amazigh Spring" that doesn't have to be political to make its impact. In many parts of the Maghrib, it's okay to be Berber again.