My Amazighitude: On the Indigenous Identity of North Africa

6 June, 2022
Art by Hamid Kach­mar, a mul­ti­fac­eted, inter­na­tion­al­ly trained artist of indige­nous Moroc­can Amazigh ances­try. His mate­ri­als and tech­niques evoke metaphors, moods, and expres­sions from where he grew up and what he expe­ri­enced dur­ing his stud­ies and trav­els. His work is most­ly, not entire­ly inspired by his Amazigh cul­ture, his phi­los­o­phy of life and sur­vival and its embod­i­ment in “poet­ic objects” such as weav­ing, wood carv­ing, and body adorn­ment, and he strives to employ uni­ver­sal metaphor­ic con­tent to his work.
A native Moroccan’s quest for an intersectional indigeneity.


One can­not defend Amazigh rights to land, lan­guage, and cul­ture in their home­land and, in the mean­time, be blind to oth­er indige­nous peo­ples’ strug­gle for sim­i­lar rights, albeit in dis­sim­i­lar colo­nial­ist contexts.


Brahim El Guabli


I speak Tamazight. It is my moth­er tongue. A lan­guage that has been both with­in and out of reach. Both close and dis­tant. Both inti­mate and elu­sive. Tamazight has always been avail­able to me at home and in famil­ial set­tings, but it was nev­er part of my aca­d­e­m­ic or intel­lec­tu­al instruc­tion. In my child­hood, Tamazight, this moth­er tongue, was every­where and nowhere. It helped me make sense of my imme­di­ate world, but it was nev­er allowed to func­tion as an ordi­nary lan­guage through which I or my gen­er­a­tion under­stood the larg­er world.

This pres­ence-absence of the moth­er tongue haunts me every day and com­pli­cates my rela­tion­ship to oth­er lan­guages. It push­es me to won­der how the way I relate to the world would have been dif­fer­ent had I been giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn about it through my thwart­ed moth­er lan­guage. I recent­ly learned, while read­ing a book, that, unbe­knownst to me and to oth­er speak­ers of Tamazight, we speak  a “patched” lan­guage; a lan­guage made of left­overs of oth­er, stand-alone languages. 

Should we believe this alle­ga­tion, the lan­guage I have spo­ken and tak­en for grant­ed as a moth­er tongue my entire life is noth­ing but a bor­rowed tongue; an impure and inau­then­tic tongue in that. How­ev­er, unlike any oth­er lan­guage I speak, my moth­er tongue is mine. I am not its guest. I am rather its inhab­i­tant. It is my home, my roof, my shel­ter, and my go-to place when­ev­er my host lan­guages break down and become too nar­row to con­tain my thoughts. My moth­er tongue is not just the foun­da­tion on which my oth­er tongues rest; it is rather the flame whose incan­des­cence fuels the abil­i­ty of my host tongues to express themselves. 

Mahjoubi Aher­dan, founder of Moro­co’s Pop­u­lar Move­ment Par­ty (pho­to Leila Alaoui ).

Mahjoubi Aher­dan, the founder of the Pop­u­lar Move­ment Par­ty and a pio­neer cham­pi­on of Amazigh cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic rights in Moroc­co, reports a con­ver­sa­tion that hap­pened between him and Mohammed El Fas­si in the pres­ence of King Has­san II in the first years of his acces­sion to the throne. Accord­ing to Aher­dan, El Fas­si, who was a for­mer Min­is­ter of Cul­ture, was sit­ting next to him dur­ing a Ramadan iftar in the roy­al place in Fes and asked him in Tamazight to pass around the pot of hari­ra, a nation­al stew in Moroc­co. Aher­dan refused to serve El Fas­si, explain­ing to him that this was due to him “pro­claim­ing that Tamazight is not a lan­guage and that there was no need to fore­ground its con­tri­bu­tion to our civ­i­liza­tion.”[1] King Has­san II heard the two men’s argu­ment and inter­vened to put an end to it. He assured them that Tamazight was a nation­al issue that the state would take on in twen­ty years, once nation­al uni­ty was consolidated.

The say­ing “kam ḥajatan qaḍaynāhā bi-tark­i­ha” (inac­tion may reap great ben­e­fits), mean­ing that one may achieve great gain by doing noth­ing, applies here. For a long time, inac­tion was the way my moth­er tongue was forced out of pub­lic life, includ­ing in the media and school cur­ric­u­la. “Chronoc­ra­cy,” which I use here to mean the use of time as a mode of gov­ern­men­tal­i­ty to wear peo­ple and their caus­es out, worked effi­cient­ly as a way to defer the res­o­lu­tion of Amazigh demands for decades. How­ev­er, when al-jami‘iyya al-maghribiyya li-al-baḥt wa-al-tabā­dul al-thaqāfī (The Moroc­can Asso­ci­a­tion for Research and Cul­tur­al Exchange, AMREC) chart­ed the path for the advent of the Amazigh Cul­tur­al Move­ment (ACM) in 1967, Imazighen regained con­trol of their time. Time has been on Tamazight’s side since then, and Imazighen have since inscribed their demands in their own tem­po­ral­i­ty. Although Aherdan’s sto­ry belongs to a dif­fer­ent time, its lessons show that those who refuse to live in the present are con­demned to dwell in the past.

In his defense, El Fas­si told Aher­dan  a joke that he had sup­pos­ed­ly heard from an Amazigh learned per­son while in French jail in Errachidia in the 1950s. The joke said that when lan­guages were first cre­at­ed, Imazighen, the indige­nous peo­ple of Tamazgha, were not giv­en a lan­guage. Only after they protest­ed did the lan­guage dis­trib­u­tor pull bits and pieces from dif­fer­ent already-exist­ing lan­guages to make up Tamazight. As such, Tamazight is not an orig­i­nal lan­guage, but rather a patch­work of tongues. The joke is a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of the verb بَرْبَرَ (bar­bara), which means to  blub­ber or bur­ble. Sub­vert­ing the nega­tion­ist inten­tions under­ly­ing his interlocutor’s  joke, Aher­dan replied to El Fas­si that what he had just said “was proof of the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of Berber lan­guage.”[2]—a point that I will dis­cuss lat­er. How­ev­er, unlike Aher­dan, I would insist on the fact that this vio­lent joke inad­ver­tent­ly places agency of the right to a lan­guage with Imazighen. The intent of the joke was to strip Tamazight of its qual­i­ty as a lan­guage, but when we flip it over on its head, it reveals Imazighen’s ardent desire to have their lan­guage.  Hence, Tamazight was not a gift; it is an act of will. A lan­guage cre­at­ed for a peo­ple who demand­ed to have a lan­guage of their own.

Mus­ing with Aherdan’s curi­ous response to his inter­locu­tor, I ven­ture to say that he placed Tamazight in the pre-Babelian moment of uni­ver­sal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. To bor­row philoso­pher Abdeslam Ben­ab­de­lali’s words in the con­text of trans­la­tion, Aher­dan, prob­a­bly with­out know­ing, engaged in a pro­duc­tive “mutiny” by posi­tion­ing Tamazight as “an orig­i­nal lan­guage.”[3] This pre-Babelian time was the peri­od that pre­ced­ed the dis­in­te­gra­tion of Babel. It was a time of unbound­ed intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty. In accept­ing the mis­guid­ed patch­i­ness of our lan­guage, we are able to affirm its all-embrac­ing poten­tial and endeav­or to relive through it a time that pre­dat­ed the cre­ation of languages.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, there is no colo­nial­ism that did not attempt to erase local languages.

As an indige­nous Tamazghan, mean­ing from Tamazgha, the Amazigh home­land, I speak, read, and write, and exist in a lan­guage that pre­ced­ed Babel, allow­ing me to seek a bet­ter uni­ver­sal. Each time I open my mouth, I am aware that I pro­nounce the words of a resid­ual lan­guage, a rem­nant of the pre-Babelian entente.

While oth­er lan­guages were born for spe­cif­ic nations, Tamazight, this obdu­rate lan­guage that refus­es to van­ish or dis­solve despite myr­i­ad colo­nialisms and aggres­sive, exclu­sive lan­guage poli­cies, is, by the var­i­ous cir­cum­stances of its imag­ined birth, an inclu­sive, moth­er­ing lan­guage. A moth­er­ing lan­guage that has the capac­i­ty to open its reg­is­ters for oth­er words, struc­tures, turns of phrase, and modes of exis­tence that self-suf­fi­cient, Babelian lan­guages may not wel­come. The his­to­ry of colo­nial­ism in Tamazgha and the dif­fer­ent empires that dom­i­nat­ed the region with­out ever eras­ing Imazighen or their lan­guage is edi­fy­ing in this regard. Mil­lions of farm­ers through­out Moroc­co use igger (field) and asnus (don­key),[4] two impor­tant words relat­ed to farm­ing, with­out ever know­ing that their roots reach deeply into Latin. Like­wise, words, like rresto­ra (restau­rant) and scuela (school), have been Amazighized, and most recent­ly one can hear tran (train) with­out even pay­ing any atten­tion to their for­eign ori­gins. Luck­i­ly, Tamazight has not as of yet devel­oped a police of lan­guage puri­ty; we do not need one. A liv­ing lan­guage should remain a con­vivial, ecu­meni­cal home where oth­er tongues can inter­min­gle and cross-fer­til­ize each oth­er. This is also the way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate a moth­er­ing, indige­nous tongue from a col­o­niz­ing, phago­cyte language.

Art of the Tamazight lan­guage, by Hamid Kachmar.

All colo­nialisms tar­get indige­nous lan­guages. Unlike what we might assume, dis­pos­ses­sion does not start with the expro­pri­a­tion of land or prop­er­ty. It starts with lan­guage and toponymy. Lan­guage is a tool for both lib­er­a­tion and dom­i­na­tion, and colo­nialisms thrive on per­suad­ing indige­nous peo­ple that their lan­guages are worth­less. Toponymy is what inscribes peo­ple and their lan­guage in place, and its era­sure under­mines lan­guage. The ten­den­cy to deny the exis­tence of Tamazight as a lan­guage is now obso­lete, but old habits die hard and one still sees its rem­nants here and there in social media. Sev­er­al decades ago, Abdelkébir Khat­i­bi wrote sar­cas­ti­cal­ly about this sit­u­a­tion in say­ing that “We, Maghre­bis, have tak­en four­teen cen­turies to learn Ara­bic (more or less), more than a cen­tu­ry to learn French (more or less); but we have not, since time immemo­r­i­al, been able to write Berber.”[5]

There is much that can be cri­tiqued in Khatibi’s state­ment, but I par­tic­u­lar­ly want to high­light his forth­right assess­ment of the fact that Tamazight was mar­gin­al­ized in its home­land com­pared to French and Ara­bic. Sim­ply put, lan­guage pol­i­cy mak­ers were nev­er con­vinced that Tamazight was a lan­guage in the first place. But as we say in Tamazight “ⵓⵔ ⵉⵙⵙⵉⵏ ⵎⴰ ⵉⵍⵍⴰⵏ ⵖ ⵓⵡⵍⴽ ⴱⵍⴰ ⵡⴰⴷⴰ ⵉⵙ ⵉⵜⵜⵓⵜⵏ/ur issin mayl­lan gh uwlk bla wada iss ittutn,” mean­ing that only those who are affect­ed under­stand the hurt of afflic­tion. The pain of nega­tion of one’s lan­guage can­not be felt by deci­sion-mak­ers. Yet, our lan­guage is what allows us to make sense of the world and anchor our sub­jec­tiv­i­ty in the firm ground of our lived real­i­ty. More­over, with­out lan­guage we can nei­ther con­vey our will nor express our pain. Dis­in­her­i­tance and dis­pos­ses­sion are inher­ent­ly painful, and deny­ing indige­nous peo­ple access to their lan­guage robs them of their right to artic­u­lat­ing their pain. Amne­sia does not just threat­en indige­nous people’s lan­guages but also the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of them giv­ing a name to their traumas.

His­tor­i­cal­ly, there is no colo­nial­ism that did not attempt to erase local lan­guages. Dis­ap­peared Amazigh aca­d­e­m­ic and intel­lec­tu­al Bou­jemâa Hebaz, one of the pio­neers of AMREC in the 1960s, clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed this equa­tion in his dis­cus­sion of French colonialism’s search to sup­press the pos­si­bil­i­ty of resis­tance by under­min­ing both Tamazight and Ara­bic.[6] A Black schol­ar, who bridged the gap between Amazighi­tude and Négri­tude at a time when these ques­tions were not yet broached in Moroc­can soci­ety, Hebaz weed­ed race aware­ness with a pre­co­cious decolo­nial con­scious­ness to link soci­etal lib­er­a­tion to the reha­bil­i­ta­tion to Tamazight. We now know for sure that  moth­er tongues are the first bul­wark against dispossession. 

I remem­ber times when I was asked to speak Ara­bic or French because Berber was not classy enough, but I insist­ed on speak­ing my lan­guage any way.

Gain­ing aware­ness of these process­es is nei­ther intu­itive nor imme­di­ate­ly con­ceiv­able. It is rather the cul­mi­na­tion of Amazighi­tude (al-’amāzīghānīyya) by which I mean a process that allows us to gain con­scious­ness of our Amazigh indi­gene­ity and work to restore our crit­i­cal, decol­o­nized self. Amazighi­tude opens our eyes to our sit­u­a­tion as sub­al­tern sub­jects who, sim­i­lar­ly to oth­er indige­nous peo­ple in oth­er parts of the world, under­went myr­i­ad forms of lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al expro­pri­a­tion. Amazighi­tude puts us on par with oth­er indige­nous peo­ples whose lan­guages, lands, and cul­tures were sub­ject­ed to the vio­lence inher­ent to domination.

My own path toward Amazighi­tude has been made through resis­tance to decul­tur­a­tion. It was not dif­fi­cult to be aware of your dif­fer­ence when every­one around you imi­tat­ed the Amazigh accent or made fun of Imazighen. Iden­ti­ty lines are demar­cat­ed by the lan­guage one speaks, and bound­aries of dif­fer­ence are made even clear­er by one’s Amazighi­ty. I remem­ber times when I was asked to speak Ara­bic or French because Berber was not classy enough, but I insist­ed on speak­ing my lan­guage any way. At home in the Unit­ed States, where I live, I speak Tamazight with my chil­dren, mak­ing Amazighi­tude a dai­ly prac­tice to instill in them pride in their “father tongue”.

Amazighi­tude is not just the active rejec­tion of the nor­mal­iza­tion of bias. It is also a per­ma­nent  endeav­or to cor­rect incor­rect views, push back against prej­u­dice, and assert our iden­ti­ty even when we are reluc­tant to do so. Amazighi­tude is a proac­tive posi­tion in the world and a con­stant pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the wrongs done to indige­nous peo­ples; not just in Tamazgha but glob­al­ly. This leads nat­u­ral­ly to Amazighi­tude being a space for the coa­les­cence of Amazigh indi­gene­ity with oth­er indi­geneities against alien­ation and expropriation.

Art by Amazigh artist Hamid Kachmar.

My Amazighi­tude — this con­scious­ness of my root­ed­ness in the world as an Amazigh per­son whose sub­jec­tiv­i­ty is under­lain by lay­ers of rela­tion­ships to lan­guage, land, and peo­ple — has allowed to me to reori­ent my intel­lec­tu­al ener­gy toward think­ing in and through Tamazight.  As a result of this reori­en­ta­tion, I am now able to spend more time to com­pre­hend what it means to think and ratio­nal­ize the world in intel­lec­tu­al terms through my moth­er tongue.[7] For a long time I sought refuge in oth­er lan­guages, but achiev­ing Amazighi­tude is the cul­mi­na­tion of my jour­ney toward the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of the tongue that should have been the medi­um of my pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion in the first place. As I am engaged in this process, I recent­ly real­ized that the act of think­ing in Tamazight is expressed by the verb “swingm,” which means think­ing pen­sive­ly and anx­ious­ly. The philo­soph­i­cal notion of angoisse intel­lectuelle is already ingrained in the Amazigh verb. I won­der why Imazighen have asso­ci­at­ed think­ing with anx­i­ety. Is it relat­ed to the onto­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence of exclu­sion or is it mere­ly due to their abil­i­ty to cap­ture the men­tal effort involved in think­ing? I have no answer, but I con­tin­ue to explore this ques­tion in rela­tion to tilit (being/subjectivity) and tam­ag­it (iden­ti­ty). Every speak­er of Tamazight knows that bīyswingimn is the one who is con­sumed by think­ing. As I con­tin­ue my iswingimn (the plur­al of think­ing) in Tamazight, I am amazed by the link that the lan­guage estab­lish­es between the for­ma­tion of the Amazigh tilit and tam­ag­it and their ground­ing in an immemo­r­i­al anx­i­ety that inscribes an indige­nous real­i­ty and lived expe­ri­ence in the verb used to describe the act of thinking.

Like every indige­nous lib­er­a­tion ide­ol­o­gy, Amazighi­tude requires an eth­i­cal posi­tion vis-à-vis the just caus­es of oth­er peo­ple in the world. Indi­gene­ity, both as a par­a­digm and as a  prac­tice, is ground­ed in a decolo­nial mind­set. Dei and Jaimun­gal have per­sua­sive­ly argued that “the asser­tion of Indi­gene­ity is a politi­cized form of intel­lec­tu­al resis­tance,”[8] stak­ing out the path for an uncom­pro­mis­ing posi­tion toward colo­nialisms. One can­not defend Amazigh rights to land, lan­guage, and cul­ture in their home­land and, in the mean­time, be blind to oth­er indige­nous peo­ples’ strug­gle for sim­i­lar rights, albeit in dis­sim­i­lar colo­nial­ist con­texts. Amazighi­tude is, there­fore, a mul­ti­ply crit­i­cal atti­tude that looks both with­in and with­out. The cri­tique of the inter­nal mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Tamazight with­in its home­land should coa­lesce with a refined knowl­edge about and sup­port of oth­er indige­nous peo­ple who face injus­tice. Amazighi­tude requires a larg­er frame­work of analy­sis to con­nect local strug­gles to glob­al move­ments that seek to make the world a bet­ter place for those who are exclud­ed based on lan­guage, gen­der, indi­gene­ity, race, or class.

In inscrib­ing Amazighi­tude in larg­er human con­cerns, we are able to place Amazigh indi­gene­ity in its right­ful place with­in the  glob­al and inter­sec­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ties between indige­nous peo­ples across the globe. Hence, the one who achieves Amazighi­tude has the duty to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with those who are treat­ed inequitably in their ances­tral home­lands regard­less of who and where they are. Indi­gene­ity can­not be a vehi­cle for con­don­ing colo­nial­ism in any way. And so, Amazighi­tude is inscribed in pro­gres­sive politics.

In the eyes of the Amazigh Cul­tur­al Move­ment, a tru­ly glob­al and demo­c­ra­t­ic Moroc­can cul­ture ‘should take into account all its con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments, includ­ing Amazighi­ty, Arab­ness, and African­ness’ in their inter­ac­tion with human and Islam­ic civilization.

The seeds of this pro­gres­sive atti­tude can be found in the ear­li­est con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of the Amazigh Cul­tur­al Move­ment, and in its strug­gle for the recog­ni­tion of Imazighen’s cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic rights. While the joke I start­ed with was an exam­ple of what we can call al-waḥ­da fī al-iqṣā’ (uni­ty in exclu­sion), which can­not accom­mo­date dif­fer­ence, the pio­neers of the ACM devel­oped “al-waḥ­da fī al-tanawwu‘” (uni­ty in the diver­si­ty) as a mot­to for their move­ment. The dif­fer­ence between the two visions for uni­ty can­not be bridged. Uni­ty in exclu­sion required Imazighen to accept amne­sia and assim­i­la­tion as a foun­da­tion for  nation-build­ing in the post-colo­nial peri­od, where­as “uni­ty in diver­si­ty” embraced dif­fer­ence as the cor­ner stone of the nation­al iden­ti­ty to be forged after inde­pen­dence. Even at the worst moments when its con­fer­ences were banned and its meet­ings were can­celled, the ACM held firm­ly to this prin­ci­ple, which envi­sioned Amazighi­ty and Arab­ness as allies in the strug­gle for democ­ra­ti­za­tion. In the eyes of the ACM, a tru­ly glob­al and demo­c­ra­t­ic Moroc­can cul­ture “should take into account all its con­sti­tu­tive ele­ments, includ­ing Amazighi­ty, Arab­ness, and African­ness” in their inter­ac­tion with human and Islam­ic civ­i­liza­tion.[9] Any­one who knows the lit­er­a­ture of the ACM pio­neers would notice that they cham­pi­oned a com­pelling­ly inclu­sive vision of the nation. This inclu­sive approach saw Imazighen as hosts in their home­land where­as the exclu­sion­ists want­ed to treat them like guests. We all know the dif­fer­ence between hosts and guests in terms of author­i­ty and expectations.

Abdelfat­tah Kil­i­to’s Thou Shalt Not Speak My Lan­guage is pub­lished by Syra­cuse Press.

Abdelfat­tah Kil­i­to argues that we are all guests of lan­guage. Kil­i­to demon­strates how the lan­guages we learn take pos­ses­sion of us, haunt us, mak­ing us hosts of lan­guage.[10] Guests of any kind are expect­ed to adhere to strict codes of con­duct. The Ara­bic word adab, which means both man­ners and lit­er­a­ture,[11] enun­ci­ates the inhi­bi­tions that accom­pa­ny guest-hood. I, how­ev­er, would like to take issue with this guest-hood in lan­guage. Mohammed Khair-Eddine, the fore­most Amazigh nov­el­ist writ­ing in French, would not have bru­tal­ized and jolt­ed French from with­in in his oeu­vre had he abid­ed by the rules of hos­pi­tal­i­ty. How­ev­er, because he ran roughshod over the rules of hos­pi­tal­i­ty, Khair-Eddine man­aged to “explode” the Amazigh tilit and tam­ag­it from with­in the Fran­coph­o­ne text. I imag­ine Khair-Eddine repeat­ing to him­self that “ⴹⴹⵉⴼ ⵓⵔⴰ ⵉⵛⵕⴰⴹ/ḍḍif ura ishrāḍ” (guests can’t be choosers) does not apply to any­one, like him­self, who turns dis­obe­di­ence into cre­ativ­i­ty and inso­lence into a state­ment on a bro­ken world.  One has to be an  ill-man­nered guest in any giv­en lan­guage to tap into its unex­plored vis­tas. Hence, one has to strive to be  an unde­sir­able guest, a per­sona non gra­ta in the for­eign tongue, to free one­self of this sta­tus of being a per­ma­nent guest in lan­guage. This leads me to won­der about being a guest in one’s moth­er tongue.

In our moth­er tongues, we are hosts. Being a host means that you are the one who sets expec­ta­tions. The most obvi­ous advan­tage to being a host is that you do not have to live with the anx­i­ety of incor­rect gram­mar or mis­pro­nun­ci­a­tion. After all, one is with­in their own lan­guage and even if they err their error can­not be attrib­uted to igno­rance. How often do we catch our­selves mak­ing sil­ly mis­takes in for­eign lan­guages and hope that our lis­ten­ers would not judge us based on them? It is eas­i­er to be igno­rant in one’s moth­er tongue than even slight­ly under­per­form in a for­eign language.


Rais­sa Kel­ly sings a ver­sion of Busālm, a famous song from the Amazigh repertoire.

For indige­nous peo­ple who nev­er had a chance to be edu­cat­ed in their moth­er tongue, anx­i­ety in for­eign lan­guages is the result of an exil­ic con­di­tion from a lan­guage that they know had stopped at the moment they entered the school sys­tem. Fear and anx­i­ety hark back to that vio­lent wean­ing off from the moth­er tongue at school age. Also, because Tamazight remained most­ly oral, oppor­tu­ni­ties to be a host have been very rare. This is prob­a­bly the expla­na­tion of the gen­eros­i­ty Imazighen dis­play toward those who learn their lan­guage.[12] I remem­ber how a fran­coph­o­ne woman named Rais­sa Kel­ly became a sen­sa­tion­al fig­ure in Amazigh homes in 1990s.[13] Singing in Tash­lḥīt, Kel­ly reversed the usu­al tra­jec­to­ry of lan­guage learn­ing in post-colo­nial Moroc­co and became a star in every Amazigh home that had a VCD or a DVD play­er in the 1990s. By that time, it had already been forty years since direct colo­nial­ism had end­ed and most Imazighen had no idea that their lan­guage was once upon a time spo­ken by many colo­nial admin­is­tra­tors, but Rais­sa Kel­ly was a phe­nom­e­nal occur­rence, and her adven­ture into our lan­guage was met with a lot of hos­pi­tal­i­ty. Kel­ly dis­ap­peared from the scene since the pass­ing of Has­san Aglaou, her musi­cal part­ner, over two decades ago. Yet, now, more than twen­ty years lat­er, I still won­der if Kel­ly was a host or guest or pos­si­bly both.

Art by Hamid Kachmar.

States and soci­eties in Tamazgha are chang­ing fast, liv­ing more or less on Amazigh time. Schools, media out­lets, the pub­lic sphere, insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing, and the cul­tur­al scene have been re-Amazighized. One may not be hap­py with the pace of these trans­for­ma­tions, but the naked eye can­not deny the phe­nom­e­nal changes that Amazighi­tude brought to the erst­while exclu­sive con­cep­tion of nation­al iden­ti­ty in the region. Cul­ture has been the locus in which Amazighi­tude flour­ished the most.

Alas, these pro­found changes have not been accom­pa­nied by changes in aca­d­e­m­ic depart­ments that focus on the study of the Mid­dle East and North Africa. Acad­e­mia can man­i­fest its Amazighi­tude by engag­ing in proac­tive endeav­ors to reha­bil­i­tate Amazigh lan­guage, cul­ture, and lit­er­a­ture in cur­rent cur­ricu­lums. Amazighi­tude will become an aca­d­e­m­ic real­i­ty when depart­men­tal setups are revised to treat Tamazight and its cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion equi­tably with Ara­bic and French and invest in the nec­es­sary human resources for its full inclu­sion as a require­ment for majors. Tamazight will then cease to be an ephemer­al guest in aca­d­e­m­ic works and course offer­ings about Tamazgha, and Amazighi­tude will be a nor­mal­ized way to approach Amazigh indi­gene­ity in con­nec­tion to oth­er indigeneities.


[1] I read a ver­sion of this sto­ry in Ara­bic in an inter­view Aher­dan gave to the dai­ly al-Aḥdāth al-maghribīyya in 2001 . How­ev­er, I also dis­cov­ered that Driss Bas­ri, the for­mer pow­er­ful Min­is­ter of Inte­ri­or, report­ed it in his book Le Maroc des poten­tial­ités: Génie d’un roi et d’un peo­ple (Rabat: Roy­aume du Maroc, Min­istère de l’In­for­ma­tion, 1989), 276–280.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Abdeslam Ben­ab­de­lali. Fī al-tar­ja­ma (Rabat : Dār Tubqāl lil-al-Nashr, 2006), 74.
[4]See “Mots latins ou sup­posés latins en berbère,” [], does this work?] (accessed May 25, 2022).
[5] Abdelk­bir Khat­i­bi. Maghreb pluriel (Paris: Édi­tions Denoël, 1973), 179.
[6] Bou­jemâa Hebaz, “L’aspect en berbère tachel­hiyt (Maroc), par­ler de base, Imi­ni (Mar­rakech-Ouarza­zate),” PhD diss., (Uni­ver­sité Paris 5 René Descartes, 1979), 5.
[7] In his open­ing remarks dur­ing the “Fourth Ses­sion of the Agadir Sum­mer School” in 1991, Brahim Akhiyy­at, AMREC’s found­ing pres­i­dent, called on Amazigh schol­ars to “revis­it their treat­ment of [Amazigh] lit­er­ary texts both in  terms of the ter­mi­nol­o­gy and the cri­te­ria used to eval­u­ate the qual­i­ty of the [lit­er­ary] out­put in order to redress the path of the Amazigh lit­er­ary move­ment.” This pre­scient inter­pel­la­tion reveals the need for thought from with­in the lan­guage itself to gen­er­ate an Amazigh meta­lan­guage. See Brahim Akhiyy­at, “Kali­mat raīs al-laj­na al-munẓẓi­ma,” in Jam‘iyyat al-jāmi ‘a al-ạyfīyya bi-agādīr. Al-Taqā­fa al-’amāzīghīyya bay­na al-taqlīd wa-alḥadātha (Rabat : Imprimerie El Maarif Al Jadi­da, 1996),  21.
[8] George J. Sefa Dei and Cristi­na Sher­ry Jaimun­gal, “Indi­gene­ity and Decolo­nial Resis­tance: An Intro­duc­tion,” in Dei, George J. Sefa, and Jaimun­gal, Cristi­na, eds. Indi­gene­ity and Decolo­nial Resis­tance : Alter­na­tives to Colo­nial Think­ing and Prac­tice (Bloom­field: Myers Edu­ca­tion Press, 2018), 2. 
[9] Lah­cen Kah­mou, “al-kali­ma al-iftitāḥīyya,” in Jam‘iyyat al-jāmi ‘a al-ạyfīyya bi-agādīr. Al-Taqā­fa al-’amāzīghīyya bay­na al-taqlīd wa-alḥadātha (Rabat : Imprimerie El Maarif Al Jadi­da, 1996), 15.
[10] Abdelfat­tah Kil­i­to. Wail S. Hasan trans. Though Shalt Not Speak My Lan­guage (Syra­cuse: Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008), 86.
[12] Kil­i­to talks about a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence, but notices that defense mech­a­nism rise once the for­eign­er learn­ing the lan­guage shows the same lev­el of inti­ma­cy with the lan­guage as the native. 
[13] Amazigh schol­ar, Ahmed Assid asserts that peo­ple lined up to buy her cas­settes each time they were released. See “Rais­sa Kel­ly (2ème Par­tie ),” YouTube,




AmazighBerberindigenous cultureIndigenous rightsliving languageMoroccoTamazigh

Brahim El Guabli is an Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature at Williams College. His forthcoming book is entitled Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship after State Violence. He’s at work on a second book project entitled Saharan Imaginations: Between Saharanism and Ecocare. His journal articles have appeared in PMLA, Interventions, the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Arab Studies Journal, META, and the Journal of North African Studies, among others. He is co-editor of the two forthcoming volumes of Lamalif: A Critical Anthology of Societal Debates in Morocco During the “Years of Lead” (1966-1988) (Liverpool University Press) and Refiguring Loss: Jews in Maghrebi and Middle Eastern Cultural Production (Pennsylvania State University Press).


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments