Meeting Amina Amharech, Amazigh people

On October 14th, 2022, as part of its cycle of intergenerational meetings, the Normandy Chair for Peace had the honour and pleasure of speaking with Ms. Amina Amharech about the Amazigh people.

Amina Amharech

Amina Amharech is an Amazigh woman from Morocco. She is a teacher, painter and poet. Her publications include two collections of poetry, Tarwa n wassif; the children of the river in 2016 and The Song of the Warrior / Irir n Tmannaght in 2019. Amina Amharech is very committed to the Amazigh community and indigenous peoples in general from local to international. She works in particular for the promotion and protection of Amazigh land, cultural, identity and linguistic rights as well as for women’s rights on the national and international scenes. She is also the founder of the Association Action Culturelle Amazighe Laïque (Acal) and the Amazigh community network AZUL, among others. 

In this interview, Amina Amharech testifies to the richness of the Tamazigh language and traditional Amazigh knowledge for the preservation of ecosystems, biodiversity and future generations, while sharing the struggle led by her people against the attacks on their identity and their territories.

The Amazigh people: a cross-border people

Amina Amharech explains that the Amazigh people constitute a single people, whose territory extends from the east of Egypt, from the oasis of Siwa to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic. Its territory passes through Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, northern Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. It stresses that archaeological excavations have confirmed the presence of Homo-sapiens more than 300,000 years ago at the site of Irhoud, located about 55 km southeast of Safi

Tamazigh: a language, a territory and the Amazigh woman

In the language of the Amazighs, Tamazight is a term that designates both the language itself but also the region, the territory and also the woman: “the same word means both, woman and Tamazigh. An Amazigh is a man, a Tamazigh is a woman. Tamazigh also means language because transmission is essentially done by the mother and by women, whether they are mothers or not; the transmission of the language which is a vector of values, identity, knowledge and know-how and of knowing how to be.  And Tamazigh also means the region, the territory, the country, the land. 

The weight of Arabization and forced assimilation suffered by the Amazigh

Invited to return to the process of Arabization and forced assimilation suffered by the Amazigh people, Amina Amharech explains, first of all, how the French protectorate reformed the laws and systems of governance while ignoring the Amazigh laws, the traditional mechanisms of distribution of wealth, the traditional governance of the territories, with the adoption, for example, of laws on water, forests, mining resources, collective lands, etc. The toponymy of places, then expressed in the Tamazigh language, was replaced by new Arabic names that no longer reflected the Amazighs’ identity link with their territory, which is at the heart of Amazigh social and cultural groupings.

Secondly, she points out that the school was also an instrument for the Arabization of the population. In this context, the Amazighs were stigmatized as soon as they expressed themselves in their own language. The attacks on the Tamazigh language thus caused the uprooting of the Amazighs’ territory and identity. Amina Amharech recalls how her family and the members of her community, who come from a region located at the gateway to the Atlas Mountains, were stigmatized, being qualified as foreigners on their own land by the non-Amazighs: “I grew up at the gateway to the Middle Atlas, 30 km from Meknes, at the crossroads (…) In 1908, France acquired a piece of land that was to become the largest barracks in North Africa. In 1911, there was the march of my tribe on Fez. They marched on Fez because they knew something was up. This made us be considered as the cursed, the damned of the region

A historic struggle for the preservation and promotion of the Amazigh identity

Amina Amharech also recalls the historical struggles led by Amazighs to preserve their language and cites in particular the case of the lawyer Hassan Idbelkacem, who was very committed to the Amazigh cause and who had been imprisoned in 1982 because the nameplate of his office was written in Tamazigh language. She recalled that many Amazighs had been imprisoned and lost their lives in their fight for their rights. Thanks to their struggle, she explains that today Amazighs no longer feel “guilty” about their identity, a term that often comes up in conversation. The valorization of the Amazigh has also been promoted by researchers who have participated in the rewriting of the true history of the Amazigh, such as the prehistorian Gabriel Camps (1927-2002) who dedicated his research to the prehistory and protohistory of Amazigh North Africa.

She points out that social networks have played an essential role in keeping Amazighs informed about the situation of their communities. As a state surveillance tool, the internet has also allowed them to communicate about their history, about what was happening in more distant Amazigh territories. The publications on the Amazigh flag for the Amazigh flag day or the greeting cards that circulate on the occasion of the Amazigh new year warm their hearts. The networks also allow the dissemination of actions carried out in defence of the Amazigh cause from the local to the international level.

Traditional knowledge for the protection of ecosystems and future generations 

Amina Amharech testifies to the traditional Amazigh knowledge linked to the territory in order to preserve ecosystems and future generations. She refers in particular to the pastoral agdal. In this respect, she recalled that the tribes, originally nomads, had territories in the plains and mountains. Even when they had settled down, the communities had kept their tradition of animal husbandry. The mountain territory, which served as a granary where the Amazighs went in the summer, provided them with resources that were absent from the plains. The agdal was managed by the Amghar, a wise man of the community, who indicated when to go to the agdal in order to preserve the cycles of the ecosystem: “When we go to the agdal we go at a time when the birds’ eggs have already hatched; when the flowers have already dried and the seeds are ready to be spread. The herds that went to the agdal served as seed disseminators and with their droppings they fertilized the land. Through this practice, endemic species were preserved and the rhythms of the seasons and of nature were respected. Amina Amharech deplores the fact that today, this concern for the preservation of species is no longer respected due to the Moroccan state governance of the territories.  She also refers to the Amghar of water who is in charge of regulating the distribution of water according to the seasons and the needs and recalls the teachings she received during her childhood to protect insects and migratory birds: “We cannot live without thinking about the other inhabitants of this land. It’s not just humans, but also the fauna and flora, which must be respected. This very strong relationship is not taken into consideration by these foreign laws

Amina Amharech also underlines the knowledge implemented by the Amazighs to fight against the effects of climate change and in particular droughts by presenting the system of irrigation canals known as the Khatarra system, knowledge that is essential at a time when many studies are warning of the risks of water shortages in Morocco by 2025. A situation in contradiction with the implementation of policies around a “green Morocco” while the country is in a state of water stress.

Usurpation of Amazigh lands and attacks on traditional Amazigh pastoralism

The damage done to the ecosystems of the Amazigh territories by the commercial use of the land is rooted in the various laws adopted under the French protectorate and since Morocco’s independence, which undermine the traditional Amazigh system based on the use of resources. It cites in particular the damage caused by the 2019 laws that revoke the inalienable nature of Amazigh lands and allow their sale to third parties and even to foreign investors. It also denounces the harmful effects of Law 113-13 of 2018 on the development and management of pastoral and sylvopastoral areas, which promotes industrial-scale pastoralism that destroys territories, the ecosystem, biodiversity and the facilities of Amazigh communities.

To complete this interview : 

To better understand the history of the dispossession of Amazigh rights to lands, territories and natural resources, and to obtain more details on the scope and impact of the laws cited in the interview, we refer to the report submitted in 2020 by Ms. Amina Amharech to the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, in the context of a call for contributions. 

 To complete this dialogue, you can also consult the various interventions of Ms. Amina Amharech within the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and within the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In anticipation of the Universal Periodic Review of Morocco on 8 November 2022, the compilation of information prepared by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the report of the summaries of the parties’ submissions are also available online.

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