The Berber vs. Berber debate


When Asis and Ahmed Aynan’s mother took a flight to Morocco the other day, all the announcements were in Arabic and French. She went over to the pilot and asked him whether next time, he could do it in Berber, too. This incident, insignificant as it may seem to the average reader, in fact symbolises the frustration of many Berber Moroccans–both at home and abroad–about the neglect their culture has been experiencing for centuries.
Berbers are an ancient people who lived in Morocco long before it was Arabised. They refer to themselves as Imazighen – ‘free people’ – use the collective term Tamazight for the languages spoken by around forty per cent of the population and talk about their culture as a whole as Amazigh.

But we’re not there yet. Within Morocco there are three Berber languages spoken. In
the mountainous Rif region in the north, people speak Tarifit or Riffian. And now
we’re finally getting somewhere, because eighty per cent of Dutch Berbers, and
therefore the biggest part of Dutch Moroccans, are Riffians.
Take the Aynan brothers, for example. Second generation Riffians living in
Amsterdam, Asis (26) and Ahmed (36) – who prefers to be known by his nom de plume
Shishunk – are what you might call Berber activists. Asis is a freelance journalist
who publishes in magazines like Contrast and Passionate, while Shishunk is a
multi-talented artist who earned himself a reputation as ‘the Moroccan Wim T
Schippers’ with his play Het zijn allemaal flikkers bij de tv [‘There’s only faggots
working on TV’].
They explain how their parents came to live in the Netherlands: ‘My father left the
Rif at a very early age, looking for work elsewhere,’ says Asis. ‘The Rif had been
occupied by the Spanish and French respectively, and its population was known for
its endeavours to achieve independence. When Morocco became independent, the
authorities feared these tendencies; closed down factories and, in fact, wanted to
clear the whole area. There was simply hardly anything to eat.
‘That made my father migrate, first within Morocco, later to Algeria and finally to
Europe. In the Netherlands he worked until his retirement in several factories. My
mother and the children stayed back in the village where my parents both came from
until 1980, when the whole family was reunited in the Netherlands.’
‘I was ten years old when I came here,’ adds Shishunk. ‘Before, I would see my
father only once every one to three years.’
The brothers say that their parents had no political awareness to speak of, although
their father was a musician who played Berber (but also Arab) music and the parents
spoke Riffian with their children. They had to, because they hardly spoke anything
else themselves, apart from Darija, Moroccan Arabic, which leans heavily on Berber

Berbers battle on the internet
In recent years Amazighity has become a hot issue among young Dutch Berbers.
Websites like give way to sometimes heated discussions about Berber
issues, in which Asis Aynan is a prominent participant. At the moment, he is
involved in a battle with Dutch-Moroccan author Faoud Laroui. For the Berber special
of his literary magazine Passionate, Aynan sent Laroui some questions for an
overview of the Dutch-Moroccan literary scene. The questions included things like
‘To what tribe do you belong?’ and ‘What sort of associations come to mind if you
hear the words ‘Berbers’ and ‘Arabs”? Laroui didn’t answer, but instead published
the questions in the French magazine and website Jeune Afrique, complete with his
own, very sarcastic, answers, like this one: ‘When I hear “Berbers and Arabs”, all I
hear is “artificial problem that is, unfortunately, preserved by questionnaires like
yours, my dear Aziz [sic].”
This really gets the Aynan brothers going. ‘Fouad says, in so many words, that there
are no differences between Berbers and Arabs,’ says Asis. ‘It’s the typical
mentality of an Arabised Moroccan. To me, it’s not so much about pointing out the
differences between the two peoples. I just want to show that there are people
looking for their identity.’ Shishunk adds: ‘Laroui’s reaction is painful. He
prevents people from developing themselves. He’s got this 1970s mentality. My mother
or my grandmother can’t go to a hospital or a post office because they don’t speak
Arabic or French. But Laroui says there’s no problem. He’s an idiot!’ Asis is more
diplomatic: ‘Laroui has problem about himself, but I couldn’t tell what it is.’
Faoud Laroui emailed his reaction to the brothers’ statements from Morocco, where
he’s currently lecturing: ‘I don’t feel like participating in this debate. I hope
you will respect my point of view.’ (Naturally we do, though Laroui’s opt-out seems
a bit odd, since he was the one who started the whole debate in the first place with
the column in Jeune Afrique.)
In the mean time, published both Laroui’s column and Asis’ answer in
Dutch and, judging from the furious reactions of readers, Laroui has touched a
nerve. In the latest development, the French website added fuel to
the flames by posting a petition under the title ‘Fouad Laroui: the hate, the racism
and much ignorance’.

The religious approach
Mohamed Azahaf takes a similar stance as Laroui, and his motivation is almost purely
religious. Azahaf (23), of Riffian descent, is staff member and spokesperson of
Argan, a youth centre on Overtoom, which offers predominantly Moroccan youngsters a
space to spend their leisure time. Also, Azahaf regularly appears in the discussion
program Zwart Wit on AT5 television. ‘I haven t been raised in an atmosphere of
Berber awareness, he says. ‘When I was two years old, my father started building a
house in Tanger, far outside the Rif, and he moved to the Netherlands at the same
time. When we go on summer holidays to Morocco, we still live in Tanger, and
occasionally we go back to our native city Nador in the Rif. My mother and I speak
Berber with each other, while she speaks Moroccan Arabic with my brothers and
Azahaf doesn t deny he s a Berber. ‘And I do understand these activists. If you look
at the situation in the Rif today, with its disastrous infrastructure and bad
economy, it is quite understandable, even legitimate, that people come into
resistance. But here, in this country, nobody suppresses you, and although I think
it s important that you are aware of your Berberness, there are more important
issues to attend to.
As an example, Azahaf stresses the importance of such issues as poverty and social
isolation. But his real agenda is a religious one, as he declares whole-heartedly:
‘I am a Muslim, and as such a very religious person. I find that much more important
than my Berber identity. If you would ask me who I am, I d say I m a Muslim
cosmopolite. God will judge me on my deeds as a Muslim, not as a Berber. As a matter
of fact, I am really tired of the whole Arab versus Berber discussion.
He states that religion has the power to unite people, whereas stressing one s
Berber identity will only lead to separation. ‘We re all Moroccans. We re all
Muslims. First, we should be united. Then, we can focus on bridging the cultural
gap. If we continue taking the course the Aynan brothers have taken, we will drift
apart even more.

Schizophrenic intellectuals
The classical labour migration story of Mohamed Saadouni’s parents is almost
identical to that of the Aynans. Via France, Saadouni’s father came to the
Netherlands; fourteen years later his mother and most of the children followed her
husband. Not Saadouni himself though. He stayed back in the southern Moroccan town
of Ouarzazate to finish school. Movie aficionados may know Ouarzazate from the
picturesque surroundings that have lured many film-directors from David Lean to
Oliver Stone.
After finishing his university studies, Saadouni came to Amsterdam to study Arabic
and Berberology at university in Amsterdam and Leiden. He knew the Netherlands well
from visiting his parents during holidays. Today, he is a freelancer working in the
museum world; last year he was guest-curator of the exhibition on Moroccan-Jewish
heritage in the Bijbels Museum. In his spare time, Saadouni is working on his
dissertation about cultural expression in his home region.
‘In the Moroccan situation, it’s really hard to tell the difference between Berbers
and Arabs,’ he says. ‘Arabs, as such, don’t really exist. As soon as a rural Berber
settles in a town, he will be Arabised. On the other hand, no one in Morocco
actually speaks the standard Arabic you are forced to learn at school and that you
hear in the mosque. I had to learn it too, along with French. Outside, I spoke the
local Berber language Tachelhit.’
Under the Moroccan constitution Arabic is the only official language. ‘That has to
change’, says Saadouni. ‘The Berber language needs official protection.’ Still, the
question remains of which Berber language. The further apart speakers of the
different Berber regions are, the more difficult it is to understand one another.
Saadouni confirms this: ‘When I lived in Morocco I didn’t have that much contact
with Riffians; that only changed when I came to live here.’

Winds of change
There is a wind of change blowing through Morocco, though. Ever since the Mohammed
VI came to power in 1999, he has endorsed Berber initiatives such as pilot projects
around education in the Berber language in elementary schools. Things were very
different under the king’s father, recalls Saadouni. ‘In the 1980s, the historian
Ali Azayko called for a revision of official Moroccan history, which is totally
Arab-focused, with no room whatsoever for the role of Berbers. That one sentence
cost him one year of imprisonment.’
Saadouni says he often attends Berber events, although he’s not involved anymore in
Berber organisations, for personal reasons. He applauds Berber activism, however:
‘It’s essential for the promotion of Berber culture. In the Netherlands, next to
cultural events, there’s a lot of activity on the internet, although I don’t always
agree with what’s being said there. I have my reservations about the level of the
discussions, which has to do with a lack of knowledge and experience of the
‘I would like to see more mature behaviour. Another point of criticism from my side
is that the Berber movement focuses too much on the cultural side of things, and not
enough on the development of social and political awareness,’ he says.
He regrets that some Berbers don’t want have anything to do with Berber identity.
‘Morocco is a schizophrenic country that has Berbers in its government who deny
their own culture. Over here, Laroui is a typical example of a schizophrenic
intellectual. He wants to present an image of himself as a full-blooded Arab while
his parents do have Berber blood running through their veins. He has developed an
inferiority complex; as an Arab he can feel superior, because Arabic is the language
of the Koran and the powers that be.’

Culture, no politics
‘The relation between Berber and Arabic has always been complex,’ confirms Daniela
Merolla, a specialist in Berber literatures and societies at Leiden. ‘As the
language of the Koran, Arabic has a lot of prestige, whereas Berber is looked upon
as the language of the mountain people. Even in Berber areas parents wanted their
children to learn Arabic.’
This year, she will publish a book about the art of Berber narration both in North
Africa and among the diaspora in Europe. In her book, she discusses the relation
between new Berber productions in Morocco and the Netherlands, in the fields of
theatre, film and literature.
‘Artists want to show that Berber is alive in all artistic fields. The cultural
engagement is there, certainly, more than political engagement.’
‘The French colonial politics of divide et impera (divide and rule)’, Merolla says,
‘succeeded in pitting Berber and Arabic speaking people against each other. As a
result, after the independence, the Moroccan authorities considered the Berbers as a
risk for the national unity. An active policy of Arabisation did a lot of damage to
the integration of Moroccan society.’
She does see positive developments, however: ‘In the 1980s, little groups of
intellectuals started to discuss the position of Berber culture within Morocco and
started publishing in Berber. For centuries, it hadn’t been a written language – a
written language was very important for the prestige of that language,’ she
explains. ‘In the same period, labour migration to the Netherlands and other
European countries got into its stride. In Europe there was more freedom of
expression than under the authoritarian Moroccan governments. From the beginning of
the 1990s things picked up speed and Dutch-Moroccan writers like Hafid Bouazza and
Abdelkader Benali became household names, and young Berbers became aware of their
situation, showing interest in their language and culture.’
Merolla stresses that it’s important to realise the situation in Morocco could have
led to violent conflict. ‘But it didn’t,’ she says. ‘The Berber movement may seem
nationalist, but it’s not. It is focused on the cultural side of things. All
Moroccans fought against the Spanish and French colonisers; they all feel Moroccan.’
She acknowledges that relations between Arabic and Berber, here and in Morocco,
remain sensitive. ‘But once Berber language in Morocco has been integrated at all
levels of society, it surely will have its effects in Europe as well.’

Published by Amsterdam Weekly

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