“Sometimes, I listen to this song. And I cry.”
I sat in the backseat as we drove through the Atlas Mountains, which loomed massively on either side of the small jeep. Youssef, the driver, turned the music up just a little. An exotic melody of chanting-like vocals and rhythmic beats filled the jeep. It had a melancholic ambiance, almost wailing, but at the same time it was beautiful. The song was in Berber, and it was about the heavy history of the Berber peoples.
“The Berbers enjoy their freedom. They fought for their culture against the Arabs. It is like the Indians you have in North America,” Youssef said. I looked down at the space between our seats and touched the scarf there. I realized it wasn’t a scarf at all. It was a flag. The Berber flag.
To be fair, I didn’t know much about Berber history or culture when I arrived in Morocco. In fact, I didn’t know much about the Maghreb in general. But when I stepped off the plane, I felt like I had stepped onto a different planet. Of all the places I’d been, North Africa was the most different. The earth was a pinkish flat desert, the sun a giant orb in the sky. Women were covered and men wore loose robe-like clothing. Everything was different and I felt as though I had walked into a National Geographic documentary.
Being surrounded by such a different landscape and culture, I was immediately excited to explore. I found the locals to be extremely welcoming and friendly. Many Moroccans even told me I looked like a Berber woman, but I didn’t really understand what “Berber” meant. During my weekend in North Africa, that quickly changed. And it saddened and enlightened me simultaneously.
Youssef Bani was the first person to really show me how little I knew about the Maghreb and the people within it. Youssef was my tour guide, and he was a Berber. He was also one of the sweetest and most interesting people I will probably ever meet.
“In the tribe I come from, in the Sahara, babies are born on a patch of warm desert sand. So the first thing I touched when I came into this world was the desert. I belong to the desert,” he explained. “I like that thought.”
Berbers, or as they prefer, Imazighrts, meaning free people (amazighrt for a male and tamazighrt for a female), are usually nomadic pre-Arab desert peoples, although many groups have been Arabicized. They have their own languages, religions, ways of life. Many groups became arabicized and took up Islam. But unfortunately, like most stories concerning indigenous peoples, arabicization was not always a peaceful process.
Many Berbers willingly took up Islam. Some groups waged war. In the end, most were subdued as Arabs took over the area. Tension between the two groups caused a lot of violence.
“Before 2010, having a Berber flag on you was dangerous. Now it is better,” Youssef told me.
The Imazighen are very diverse but there are unifying characteristics. They believed in freedom, movement, and the use of their shared language. The word Imazighen means “free people” and the red symbol on the flag is supposed to represent a free person with arms toward the sky.
Youssef took me to visit a nomadic Berber family that lived in a cave near the Taghia Gorge. At first, I felt as though it was somehow offensive to visit this family. I felt like I was one of those terrible people that visit American Indian reservations and observe the “indigenous people” like zoo animals. But it was completely different.
“I don’t bring everyone to see this family. Only people that can appreciate it,” Youssef told me. And I soon understood why.
It was a steep hike to the cave and there was goat poop everywhere. Inside the cave, flies were rampant. Dirty clothes and blankets scattered the floor. Three children, one of them female with her face entirely veiled, sat amongst the fetid rubbish. The mother with a tattoo on her face sat smiling in the middle of the cave.
But what surprised me the most was the way Youssef interacted with the family: they were friends. The children leapt into his arms and he revealed a bag of candy to them. He let the children play with his phone, and they commenced to take a thousand photos. To Youssef, this was not just a business. He genuinely cared about these people and wanted to show others a glimpse into the nomadic lifestyle.
“I keep trying to talk his mother into letting him go to school but she doesn’t want to lose him,” Youssef told me as he played with the youngest boy. I noticed the way Youssef cradled the boy and talked to him, teaching him new words.
And as I sat there, working hard to communicate with the family that lived in the cave, I realized I was a lucky guest. Youssef had taken me to visit his friends, and I was honored to witness a culture that was diminishing at a rapid rate. In the little Berber boy, I saw the conflict between modernization and maintaining true to a culture and lifestyle that has been carried on for so long, it was almost unfathomable.
As we drove back to Marrakesh with Youssef, the song playing tugged at my heartstrings. But when Youssef said it made him cry, I felt like crying myself. I can never understand why people feel they must impose their lifestyles and beliefs on others.Freedom is always a tricky and elusive thing. Especially regarding culture and religion.I was touched by the perseverance of Berber culture, saddened by its history, but also happy in knowing it still existed. Because in the end I guess that’s all we can do: try to maintain our own freedom and individuality in the face of those who wish to quell it. I thought long and hard about my own life and realized that I wanted to be a free person. I wanted to move when and where I wanted. I wanted to persevere. I wanted to be tamazighrt.