*An excerpt of an essay recently published in The Hummingbird Review.
By Said Leghlid, WorldStreams host, also a poet and writer.
The Hummingbird Review presents fine writing by publishing both new writers and fully established literary figures and promotes cross-cultural writing in all forms.
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The Hummingbird Review, Volume 1, Number 2
Amazigh Poetry: Oral Tradition and Survival of a Culture -Said Leghlid
Imazighen, also known as “Berbers,” were the first inhabitants of North Africa before countless civilizations came and went. Imazighen underwent a revolving door of power struggles throughout history. Barbary, as the region was known, was too harsh an environment to conquer. All civilizations that moved through Morocco had one common denominator: They were not able to change the cultural resolve of the Amazigh heritage with its unique oral tradition. This tradition existed as a culture with artistically defined distinctions. It deserves to be protected as a potentially full-fledged language in due time in history.
Berbers fell from the sky, an array of etymological controversial interpretations that account for anecdotal fibs. All colonial interpretations of a subordinate culture were subject to skewed political perceptions, blatantly in cases where resistance to a colonizing power was fierce. Efforts to dilute, assimilate, and eradicate Imazighen failed in many cases. Imazighen were not aliens from another planet, and their cultures were not just blips in history.
The origin of the word "Berber" is unknown. The closest historical approximation comes from differing uses of the word at varying times in history. Terms like Barbar, Beriberi, and the oldest word, Berberis or Barbarus – Greek for "foreigner" – were used to refer to the tribes that were the first inhabitants of North Africa. Regardless of terminology, Imazighen did not like it, yet were permanently associated with the word Berber. Today, the term "Berber" is used by those less familiar with the history of North Africa. It is becoming more of an insulting word to Imazighen, the speakers of the Tamazight language. Many would like to see it go with the colonial powers that failed in understanding its culture.
Let it be known that the word for Berber is "Amazigh," and the word Berber should cease to exist like those colonial powers that had long left Morocco. Amazigh, the singular form, and Imazighen, the plural form, refer to the original inhabitants of Morocco. Tamazgha is the movement that wants to ensure that Imazighen of North Africa get their cultural identity recognized. The geographical existence of Imazighen stretches from the Siwa region of western Egypt to the Canary Islands, sixty miles off the coast of Morocco.
Morocco has the largest concentration of Imazighen in North Africa. Morocco was a choice for a succession of multiple invaders: Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantine, Arabs, and French. Amazigh stands for two of humanity’s most cherished words: Freedom and nobility.
On the surface, Amazigh people have been resilient sprouters and growers of a cultural identity. If given a chance, they would like to rewrite their own authentic history.
At the heart of a forgotten Amazigh Kasbah in the desert of southern Morocco where I was visiting my uncle years ago, I stumbled into a treasure trove. I had no idea of the value of the treasure, and I would have never taken the time to understand and discover its cultural value and its vast intellectual capital. I came to learn accidentally that my Amazigh oral heritage was going through one of the darkest hours of its struggles in history. The nights that camouflaged its bloom for hundreds of years, and the days that extended its heroic survival for several millennia, might come to a disastrous end.
I heard many female voices singing at wee hours of the summer nights I spent at Ighrem Ne Mejrane, my mother’s birthplace. The name of this small Kasbah was tucked away in the diaries of forgotten cultural heritages, as was the case in countless Amazigh towns and villages in Morocco. The history of Imazighen of Morocco was written with the fangs of countless powers that passed through the North African country, preventing Imazighen from claiming their legitimate status as the original inhabitants of Morocco and preventing their intellectual and cultural identity from flourishing. People who took over Morocco preserved their cultural status quo at the expense of other cultures that existed in pseudo anonymity. This was the fateful hand history dealt a brilliant culture: That of the Imazighen of North Africa.
Hauntingly beautiful minds expressed their hearts away to an obliviously silent world where echoes of darkness were the only feedback that bounced off their voices. I thought that was the case with unheard voices in the middle of the night until I learned further that those voices were part of an oral landscape that made the culture vulnerable to the imposing interpretations of religious wisdom and how it treated sobering voices of women reciting poetic inspirations in the wee hours of the night. Those voices were the fabric that wove existence of Imazighen with fresh memories of their culture.
The inspired voices of the women drove darkness out of shelters and projected loud vocal lights on an otherwise sleepy eventless Kasbah known as Ighrem in the Amazigh language. Years later, their voices compelled me to relive those times again and again, and make sense of some extremely important aspects of my culture. With this essay, I hope to convey a perspective on the rhetorical meanings of an amazing strong oral tradition gone unnoticed and burgeoning on extinction.