When Culture Clashes with Politics: Celebrating Amazigh New Year in Morocco and Beyond

As Amazigh people celebrate the beginning of their new year today, the Amazigh movement in Morocco is seeking to preserve the Amazigh cultural and historical heritage. Among a range of socio-economic demands, the movement seeks the recognition of Yennayer, the Amazigh new year, as an official public holiday.
Hajar Hamdaoui
Hajar Hamdaoui is a Moroccan journalist. She received her BA in Journalism and Communication from l’Institut Supérieur de l’Information et de la Communication (Journalism Institute in Rabat). She received her MA in Media and Cultural Studies from Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. She is currently a Ph.D. researcher in Mohammed V University of Rabat, in the field of Media and Communication.
When Culture Clashes with Politics Celebrating Amazigh New Year in Morocco and Beyond
Celebrations of the Amazigh New Year 2969

Moroccan Imazighen (plural of Amazigh, meaning “free man” or “noble man”), as well as Imazighen in the neighboring North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, and even around the world, celebrate the first day of Amazigh year 2969 today on January 12. Unlike the commonly used Gregorian calendar (based on the sun) or the Islamic Hijri calendar (based on the moon), the Amazigh calendar is based upon an agrarian calendar year used since ancient times by Imazighen throughout North Africa.

Amazigh activists throughout Morocco have been demanding that Yennayer, the Amazigh new year’s day, be officially recognized as a national holiday.

Amazigh activists throughout Morocco have been demanding that Yennayer, the Amazigh new year’s day, be officially recognized as a national holiday. This demand has arisen as part of an international Amazigh movement for recognition of the Amazigh language and civilization and for the preservation of the Amazigh cultural heritage across North Africa.

The Amazigh people, more widely, but somewhat pejoratively, known by their Roman-originated name, Berber, are the original inhabitants of North Africa, particularly in the Maghreb. Today, most Amazigh live in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, although there are active immigrant populations living in France, Spain, Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere in the World.

Ever since the Arab Muslim Umayyad Caliphate invaded and colonized North Africa in the late 600s, the region has been widely regarded as part of the Arab world. Arabic language and culture have dominated. However, the Amazigh people remain numbering in the tens of millions, mostly in rural areas, and their culture and languages remain integral to the region.

Amazigh figures have been central to Moroccan history and the creation of modern Morocco.

Amazigh figures have been central to Moroccan history and the creation of modern Morocco. Yusuf ibn Tashifin led the Moroccan Amazigh Almoravid empire and founded the city of Marrakech. Abd al-Krim al-Khattabi led a fierce and consequential revolt against French and Spanish colonizers in the northern Rif mountains in the 1920s.

Since Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, there has been a growing movement of Amazigh activists who have sought to raise awareness of Amazigh culture and concerns in an Arab-dominated society and government.

In response to France’s long period of colonization and the desire to reclaim the country’s identity, Morocco adopted Arabization policies in the 1970s, seeking to reduce the Francophone cultural hegemony. Unfortunately, an opportunity to preserve Morocco’s original cultural heritage was lost as the process largely sidelined Amazigh culture and language, with Arabic as its mainstream focus.

As a result, the relationship between Amazigh activists and defenders of the dominant Arabic system has been complicated and sometimes tense. Some Amazigh activists, such as Ibrahim Boughden, President of the Agadir-based association Souss Al Alema, argue that the Arabic language and culture were imposed on Imazighen as a consequence of colonization and domination, beginning in the sixth century.

In a press statement issued in 2015, Boughden noted that the relationship between Amazigh activists and Arabic defenders had changed from being relatively peaceful in the 1970s and 1980s to being tense and rife with conflict since the 1990s.

Tensions boiled over in 2016 when the Hirak al-Rif movement, sparked by the death of a fishmonger crushed in a garbage compactor truck as he attempted to retrieve his confiscated fish, staged mass protests in the northern Amazigh-speaking Rif mountains in 2016.  The movement leaders demanded not only cultural respect and recognition for Imazighen, but also demilitarization and increased investment in the Rif region. They argued that the region had long been marginalized by the state resulting in broken down infrastructure, a lack of hospitals and schools, and high unemployment. The protests resulted in arrests of many prominent Amazigh activists and prison sentences for several, including Nasser Zefzafi.

The movement for official recognition of Yennayer as a public holiday emerged out of these efforts and gained traction across Morocco last year after the Algerian government officially declared Yennayer a national holiday in Algeria on January 12, 2018.

Adel Khalidi, an Algerian journalist, told Inside Arabia that Algeria’s decision to recognize the Amazigh new year was the result of a “gradual reconciliation of national identity and history, especially in light of similar decisions” granting the Amazigh language status as an official language along with Arabic and taught in the Algerian educational system.  

Morocco has already made gains in standardizing the Amazigh language, Tamazight, and promoting Amazigh culture in the educational system and other fields.

Morocco has already made gains in standardizing the Amazigh language, Tamazight, and promoting Amazigh culture in the educational system and other fields. Significantly, Morocco’s new 2011 Constitution already recognizes Tamazight as an official language along with Arabic. Well before that, in 2003, the government had introduced Tamazight into Moroccan elementary schools.

There are at least three distinct dialects of Amazigh language in Morocco, that vary by location. Despite this linguistic richness, the plurality of Tamazight has been a major obstacle to its standardization as an official language. However, Morocco’s Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) has promoted the use of the Amazigh language by standardizing an Amazigh alphabet, known as Tifinagh.

Abdul Aziz Aftati, a former parliamentarian with the Justice and Development Party, the current majority party of the government, told Inside Arabia that he supports demands to make Yennayer a national public holiday.

An Amazigh youth organization in the city of Tamesna has for the last six years celebrated the Amazigh new year by staging demonstrations and activities in front of the Parliament in Rabat. The celebrations include traditional Ahwach music and dance and Amazigh cuisine.

The organization’s coordinator, Adel Adasco, told Inside Arabia that these activities are intended to commemorate the popular holiday and also remind Morocco of the Amazigh people’s legitimate claims to cultural recognition.

Indeed, Yennayer celebrations are happening today not only in Morocco, but in Washington, D.C., Boston, Houston, and elsewhere in the U.S.

While political differences remain to be resolved, Imazighen around the world celebrate Yennayer today with music, dance, special food, and traditional costume in much the same way other cultures celebrate their new year’s day, expressing their unique cultural identity as the original indigenous people of North Africa.