The Amazigh people of Morocco are on a roll: their language has just been recognised as an official language of the country and their cultural scene is alive with optimism.
Agadir's Timitar Festival highlights Berber comeback
As Hassan moves gracefully across the stage dressed in doublet and hose, he emerges from the shadows and is reflected against the dark background of the former kasbah of Tiznit. The dim lights and sound effects used in Tinu, a choreographed play based on the collection of short stories by the Amazigh writer Mohamed Ouagrar, add to a sense of history.
After the play ends, the audience at this year's Timitar festival in Agadir, Morocco, bursts in to spontaneous applause, standing up to express approval of the way this production promotes the cultural significance of the Berber people.
Tinu, which means "My Beloved" in the Amazigh (or Berber) language, is about a fictitious ruler of the Amazigh who outlaws love. It is a highly romantic tale and the young actor speaks his words with confidence both on stage as well as in everyday life. He is a symbol of the renewed determination to bring this once marginalised group within Moroccan society to the fore. "I am not now and will never be satisfied until we Berbers take our rightful position in society," he tells me in Tashelheit, the local Berber language in the Souss Massa Draa region. "We are proud because we are the original inhabitants of north Africa and now we have our language officially recognised."
Thanks to the constitutional reforms that were voted in via a referendum at the beginning of July, Berber is now recognised alongside Arabic as an official language in Morocco. Although not generally recognised as a significant force within Morocco until recently, the culture of the Amazigh (Imazighen is the singular and means freeman) has been the vehicle allowing artistic expression and the language itself to thrive. As a language, Amazigh is one of the earliest known, yet it has survived unwritten until recently. Even today, at weddings and other family gatherings poets and minstrels keep Berber history, heroic figures and traditional tales alive and relevant.
According to Abdullah Aourik, an artist and the publisher of the monthly magazine Agadir O'flla, the Amazigh translation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot most successfuly expresses the endless struggle of the Amazigh for equality. "I was born in Agadir and survived the earthquake that destroyed the city in 1960," he says. "I'm delighted to see that my language is no longer considered an anachronism. But in the new constitution it is mentioned as the second official language and that seems to mean we are still second-class citizens. We are the majority and our culture was the original way of living throughout north Africa."
In fact, Amazigh is constantly heard in Morocco. It is included in almost every sentence uttered on the streets and its prevalence is what makes the Moroccan dialect so difficult to understand by speakers of classical Arabic - even though Arabic has been the only official language since the Arabs swept across north Africa bringing the language with them. But Amazigh is no longer viewed as backward-looking.
To understand the reach of the Berbers and their language, he tells me that the language is spoken from the oasis of Siwa in Egypt, near the border with Libya, as far as the Canary Islands. And from the Mediterranean to the Niger River in the south. "Ibn Battuta [the fourteenth-century Islamic scholar and traveller] was Berber. Not to mention the footballer Zinedine Zidane. We reckon there are more than 50 million of us," he says. "But we still have to get a special court order here in Morocco if we want to give our children an Amazigh first name."
Across north Africa the same music, art and way of life is shared by countless others who may not consider themselves Berber but who have roots in this ancient civilisation. This common culture is celebrated each year at the festival Timitar, held in the Berber heartland of Agadir. This year's festival took place from June 22 to 25, just before the referendum.
The festival puts the most outstanding performers in the Amazigh constellation centre stage, allowing them to be seen singing and playing alongside international artists such as Youssou N'Dour, Selif Keita and Alpha Blondy. Timitar means sign, and the festival is one of the most important gatherings of Amazigh. It is a symbol that new young artists are coming up and the culture is far from forgotten, even if it is changing.
Brahim Mazned, who has been Timitar's artistic director since its inception eight years ago, is adamant that the cultural aspect of the festival boosted the determination that the language should be on the school curriculum as well as taught at university level. "We sponsor local artists so that they can record good-quality CDs," he explains. "We have a strong cultural message that is communicated through song lyrics and we have to ensure that Amazigh is part of the globalised world."
Timitar is a series of huge, free, open-air concerts that showcase such Amazigh militants as the singer Fatima Tabaamrant, who is in her fifties. Born in the mountainous region of Ait Bamram, she learnt to read and write only recently. But she has composed all her songs and is known as a rayissa - or poetess. "Of course we are pleased with the news that finally we are officially accepted, but this is just the start," she confirms.
At this year's Timitar festival it is clear that she has lost none of her power to move a massive audience. The crowd, which numbers more than 150,000 squeezed in to Agadir's main square, goes wild when she comes on stage. They sing along to anthems waving the Amazigh flag.
Tabaamrant and well-known bands such as Oudaden have been a source of inspiration to the new generation of Amazigh singers. But while she and those of her generation involved in the early Amazigh movement stick to more traditional instruments and use the symbols of nature to put their message across, young bands have transformed the way Berber is listened to and the way it is expressed. Downloads and iPods are common and singers have turned to rap and hip-hop to demand equality.
Rap2Bled is a rap band from just outside Agadir and they sing in Tamazight, the generic name for Amazigh languages. They sing only to promote the Berber identity.
One of their videos features a graffiti artist writing on a wall using the characters and symbols that have been adopted as an alphabet so as to write down the previously oral language. The signs are said to have been taken from magic spells found in Touareg tombs and caves.
Mazned is all in favour of modernising the movement. "My new plan is to have an initiative to compose reggae in Amazigh," he explains. "We are part of this modern world, not some irrelevant villagers who are stuck back in the dark ages."