[Forthcoming in Review of Middle East Studies]

The Cultivation of "Culture" in the Moroccan Amazigh Movement

Paul Silverstein

Reed College

In the opening sequence of a 2008 documentary, Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare (Neither Savage Nor Barbaric), co-produced by Québecois and Moroccan television, the director Roger Cantin introduces his subjects over images of art, ritual, and nature that alternate between northern Canada and northern Africa:

Fouad Lahbib is a painter from Morocco.  He is Berber, he is Amazigh, he is an autochthon from North Africa.  Florent Vallant is a singer from Quebec.  He is Inuit, he is Amerindian, he is an autochthon from North America.  At first glance, they come from completely different cultures.  Their ancestral lands are far apart, separated by an ocean; they don't look at all alike.  One people travels by rivers and through immense forests.  The other lives with heat and drought.  What do these two men, Fouad Lahbib and Florent Vallant, have in common?  They belong to marginalized cultures whose extinction was precipitated, whose assimilation was desired, and whose language and customs were silenced.  Were they really savages and barbarians?  Or simply people who approach the world with a spirit of harmony, sharing, and solidarity.  Meeting each other for the first time, Fouad Lahbib and Florent Vallant, will learn with us how much all men are alike, wherever they may live.

The 90-minute film proceeds in its use of a rhetorical technique of juxtaposition and a premise of similarity-in-difference as it traces the encounter between Fouad and Florent across the continents.  Scenes from the Québecois forest are interspersed with those from the Moroccan Sahara.  River canoe trips are followed by an excursion on camels.  Nearly identical breads are baked in earthen ovens in both locales.  Painter encounters painter and musician encounters musician, and in one of the final scenes Florent plays an improvised duet with a Berber folk guitarist.  The film ends with Florent and Fouad ritually becoming brothers by building and taking a sweat lodge (matashan) on the river's edge in Quebec, an experience Fouad later recounts in Berber to his fascinated family in Rabat.  Throughout, Inuit and Amazigh community activists testify to the history of oppression their communities have suffered under French and Arab "imperialisms," to the ways generations were cut off from their language and traditions, and to their ongoing inability to control their territorial resources.

The film clearly draws from the standard discourse of transnational Fourth World or indigenous people's movements, as encapsulated in UNESCO's "Convention on the Promotion and Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Expression" (2005), with culture presented as a fundamental human right and a global good that must be protected at all costs.  Since the mid-1990s, Amazigh activists have been in dialogue with UNESCO and have actively solicited the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples for political and material support for their "endangered" language and way of life.  They have actively sought ties and signed joint petitions with other minoritized peoples, including Bretons, Basques, Nubians, Kurds, and the various Christian and Jewish populations living in the Islamic world.

Even Native Americans have been good to think for Amazigh activists over the years, repeatedly cited as a similarly proud people who valiantly resisted against foreign invaders, but who have since been relegated to the periphery and threatened with extinction. They represent for Berbers the dystopian obverse of Jews, whose standardization of Hebrew and achievement of political autonomy (Israel) stands in for a desired future.  Several of the Kabyle Amazigh activists I interviewed in Paris in the mid-1990s cited their identification with the "Indians" in the westerns they watched as children in Algeria as crucial to their own political coming of age.  Native American characters likewise show up disproportionately in the novels, plays, and poetry written by Berber authors. It is thus little wonder that the film was applauded by Moroccan Amazigh activists, who unfailingly cited it to me as speaking cultural truth to political power, underlining the fact that the Moroccan television company that had co-financed the film later refused to broadcast it.

In this essay, I unpack the ambivalence that inheres in the Amazigh embrace of autochthony and the objectification of their culture as an endangered natural resource: an ambivalence between forms of self-primitivism and claims to modernity.  I discuss the ways that nature and culture are linked in Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare and how such linking brackets issues of racial stratification in which Berbers are as often exploiters as the exploited, as well as religious practices that cut against Amazigh efforts to isolate Berber habitus from Arabo-Islamic social norms. In the end, I argue that cultural productions like Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare and the various artistic representations portrayed therein point to a multiplicity of (sometimes incommensurable) objectified "cultures" which activists can mobilize in different social situations for different political ends.

Nature and Culture

The underlying narrative of Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare -- shared in large part by the Amazigh activists it portrays – participates in what has been termed "the myth of the ecologically noble savage" (Ellingson 2001:  342-358).  Inuits and Berbers, we are told, were originally nomads who were progressively sedentarized and urbanized.  In the process, they devolved from an original state of harmony with their natural environment to one of progressive alienation from it and, hence, from their culture.  Contemporary urban life is thus characterized by uprooting, by déracinement, but simultaneously by an inability to feel fully at home in the American or European or Arab modernities from which they feel excluded.  They remain contemporary equivalents of the paysans dépaysanisés that Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad described in their study of resettlement camps during the Algerian war of national liberation (1964: 79) -- still of the land, but cut off from it.  The film's occasional shots of crowded, dirty city streets merely function to contrast negatively with the pristine open spaces of the forests, rivers, deserts, and oases where the vast majority of the documentary takes place.  Forest and oasis products are equated with the Inuit and Berber "heritage" (patrimoine) and preserving the natural bounty is presented as a heroic feat of cultural preservation.  Zaid Abbou, a collector of Berber art and implements in southeastern Morocco, sees his museum as answering: "the big question which everyone is asking about: How to save our environment, how to save our water, how to save nature... how to save our patrimony."

Such a presentation of Berbers as the ethical stewards of the environment in which they live is hardly new.  Colonial ethnologists positively compared the carefully cultivated fields of Berber villages to the seemingly desultory landscapes of Arab cities and Bedouin encampments, seeing in the latter a justification for their civilizing mission to re-make North Africa into the breadbasket of a new Roman Empire (Guilhaume 1992).  Today's Amazigh activists continue to engage in a form of self-primitivism: pointing to the few remaining nomads as representing true Berber culture, and seeing mountains villages as spaces of ultimate repose, in spite of their evident material impoverishment.  In this respect, the natural, cultural, and temporal landscapes are conjoined in Amazigh modes of structural nostalgia (Herzfeld 1997; Silverstein 2004), where distance in space is mapped onto distance in time, where true Amazighité, in touch with its ancestral roots, is always found ailleurs, well beyond the hustle and bustle of urban life.  As one Moroccan activist friend half-joked to me, the film should have been more appropriately titled not Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare (Neither Savage Nor Barbaric), but Mi-Sauvage, Mi-Barbare (Half-Savage, Half-Barbaric).

Such a self-primitivizing visions of Berber nature and culture informs explicit enactments of Berber politics. From the 1960s until quite recently, Amazigh cultural politics principally amounted to a salvage anthropological operation in which "culture" (idles) – as a politically neutral category synonymous with material artifacts, ritual performance, and oral poetry -- served to inoculate Amazigh activists against accusations of sectarianism and separatism from an Arab nationalist regime hyper-vigilant to all challenges to national unity.  If Amazigh activists were subject to state surveillance, censorship, and occasional arrest, this occurred primarily when they associated their activities with these other challenger movements, and such a suppression of public forms of Amazigh expression was relatively benign compared to the imprisonment, torture, and assassinations suffered by Marxist and Islamist political militants during the "years of lead" under former King Hassan II (see Slyomovics 2005). After the mid-1990s, the liberalizing monarchy began to embrace "Amazighité" as part of the national personality, and in 2001 King Mohammed VI established a well-funded Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), employing Berber activists to standardize Berber language (Tamazight) and introduce it into the media and primary school classrooms.

However, a number of Amazigh activists have refused such cooptation and decry the state's efforts as a "folklorization" of Berber culture.  They contest the IRCAM's decision to write Tamazight in the ancient Libyan script of Tifinagh, and to teach it according to regional dialect, both of which they claim cuts off Moroccan Berbers from other Berber speakers around the world who use the "universal" Latin script.  More generally, they resist the IRCAM's exclusive focus on language and its refusal to address issues of material inequality faced by rural Berbers.  In response, they have re-configured their movement as an explicitly political one.  "Cultural associations" have re-tooled themselves as associations for education and development; the "Amazigh Cultural Movement" has dropped the "cultural" from its title; and organizations calling for regional autonomy have sprung up across peripheral Berber-speaking regions.   These movements have coordinated the activities of local Amazigh activists who have increasingly devoted their energies to securing electricity, potable water, and infrastructural improvements for rural villages, as well as protecting collective lands from the predations of state officials and private investors.

In Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare, the activists interviewed emphasize questions of material sustainability as issues of cultural survival.  The struggles of Inuit against sport fishers for the right to exploit the rivers that crisscross their territory is juxtaposed to the fate of the remaining Berber pastoralists whose lands are being progressively closed off by eco-tourism reserves and game parks for wealthy Saudi hunters.  In one particularly charged conversation, the Amazigh lawyer and activist, Hassan Id Belkassem, avers that "Autochthonous peoples throughout the world are denied their lands, their resources, their identity."  Fouad immediately concurs: "The ultimate stake for autochthonous peoples is to gain the right to make use of their own lands."


But Amazigh self-primitivizing claims to a unity of Berber nature and culture gloss over a number of inconvenient truths.  In the first place, there is a direct tension between the claim to having a culture linked to a prior nomadic existence and the assertion of being the natural stewards of the cultivated land.  The Berber occupation of the lands of the southern Moroccan oases was the result of centuries of successive conquests in which rival transhumant groups competed for dominance over the fertile valleys, with the areas pictured in the film last changing hands barely a century ago.  Throughout, the oases were cultivated by groups of darker-skinned inhabitants referenced as the now pejorative Harratin (though addressed Ikablin, Assoukin, and Drawi), but often glossed as "blacks."  This demographic majority worked as sharecroppers to the various conquering Berber tribes who linked their honor to a pastoral genealogy ('asl) and their identity as warriors, not workers.  Only after Moroccan independence, when Harratin were granted full political rights, did this situation of social stratification begin to shift, with Harratin using migration remittances to purchase land and political influence in the region.

The Amazigh movement has largely marginalized Harratin from its membership and activities, in spite of the latter's relative autochthony in southern Morocco and the overlap of language and ritual practices.  Activists often accuse Harratin of having been "Arabized," and Harratin regard the Amazigh movement as little more than an attempt to re-assert tribal dominance in the region.  Indeed, many land rights cases in the southeast have been spurred by Amazigh fears that lands collectively owned by the previously dominant tribes might be privatized and pass into Harratin hands.  One could thus read the Amazigh assertion of a Berber nature/culture unity as a mode of racial exclusion.

Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare unsurprisingly glosses over these racialized politics, given its premise of Berbers as the autochthonous victims of successive imperialisms.  No mention is made of the fact that the film's guide in the palm forest is "black," or of the fact that Harratin are universally regarded – even by Amazigh activists – as the expert cultivators throughout the oases.  In another scene, Florent and Fouad watch a Gnawa performance, after which the lead musician discusses how his ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa on the caravan trade – making no mention of the fact that they were actually brought as captured slaves for the Berber tribes.  In the discourse of indigenous rights, victims cannot also be victimizers.


The film similarly glosses over the centrality of religion to  the social life of Berbers.  Amazigh activists continue the work of colonial ethnologists in uncovering and highlighting the pre-Islamic character of Berber cultural life, emphasizing surviving pagan, Jewish, and Christian practices, and have even -- as Jane Goodman (2005) has discussed – edited out Islamic references from Berber poems and songs.  The documentary engages in an equivalent editing, including no scenes of the religious life of rural Berbers, somehow diverting the cameras away from the innumerable mosques that dot the southern Moroccan landscape, and only showing women wearing hijab in urban street scenes -- thus reproducing the myth of Berber women's freedom and equality (Crawford 2008; Kasriel 1989). Rather, the film presents Islam (as well as Catholicism, in the case of Inuit) as a primary agent of deculturation.  As the author Mohammed Chafik  starkly declares in the documentary, "We are still the victims of a certain cultural imperialism, an Arab cultural imperialism in everyday life and, above all, via religion – a veritable dictatorship."

Inversely, Judaism functions for Amazigh activists to reconnect them with true Berber culture and, potentially, the modern world.  The film's museum director highlights the Jewish crafts in his collection and foresees the creation of  Jewish museum.  Indeed, Amazigh activists generally rue the lost Jewish presence, with one artist from the southeastern town of Goulmima even opening his home in the old Jewish quarter (milleh) to display the accoutrements of Jewish life and incorporating Hebrew writing and Jewish historical motifs into his paintings. Such nostalgic claims, of course, ignore the general marginalization of Jewish residents under Berber tribal rule.  Yet, Amazigh philo-Semitism remains symbolically potent and functionally auspicious; it signals Berber religiosity as tolerant and serves to distinguish Berbers from other North African Muslim populations for whom anti-Zionism goes generally unquestioned.  It constitutes a claim to modernity, to being genealogically and culturally part of the West from which, according to the rhetoric of the "clash of civilizations," the Islamic world is excluded, in large part because of its supposedly inherent patriarchy and anti-Semitism.  The bracketing of Islamic practices and emphasis on positive Berber-Jewish relations in Ni Sauvage, Ni Barbare serves to humanize its subjects, to emphasize the harmonious universals rather than the clashing particulars, to underline how, as the opening narrative concludes, "all men are alike, wherever they may live."


In this way, Amazigh activists' self-primitivism runs up against their very modernist assumptions about the liberal, improvable subject and the ultimate universality of the human experience.  Amazigh activists, in spite of their structural nostalgic projections of an authentic and bounded Berber culture, do not envision a return to some sort of prelapsarian or pre-Islamic Berber tribal past, and they reject state projects which they fear would "folklorize" Berbers into a perpetual ethnographic present.  Rather, they understand their autochthony as inherently adaptable to the conditions of modern life.   They have standardized their language according to Chomskyian optimalization theories, re-configured their sung poetry along Arab and European pop styles, and re-painted Berber motifs, as Cynthia Becker (2006: 177-194) has discussed, in very modernist forms.  Fouad's own paintings draw as much on abstract impressionism than they do on Berber primitivism.


If anything, Amazigh activists' temporal orientation is very much one of futurity -- if by detour through a Berber natural past.  As Florent's brother concludes: "The challenge of being an autochthon is to find the right balance between tradition… and modernity."  Indigenous culture needs to be continually re-made anew in response to changing times.  As one of the interviewed artists announces: we are witnessing "the beginning of the birth of Amazigh culture."  Berber and Amazigh culture, whatever their overlap, prove to be distinct socio-political realities with their own modalities and temporalities of cultivation.  While it would most certainly be specious to reduce culture to politics, one must nonetheless remain attuned to the multiple culturally and politically varied ways that the two intersect and inform each other.

Works Cited

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_____.  2004.  On Rooting and Uprooting:  Kabyle Habitus, Domesticity, and Structural Nostalgia.  Ethnography 5 (4): 553-578.  

_____.  In Press. The Local Dimensions of Transnational Berberism: Racial Politics, Land Rights, and Cultural Activism in Southeastern Morocco. In Berbers and Others. Katherine Hoffman and Susan Gilson Miller, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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