Where is Amazigh studies?

It is burgeoning field that intersects with Arabic, Francophone, Middle Eastern and African studies. But why is Amazigh Studies absent in Anglophone academia?

Amazigh wedding. Image via BEFORGET BE.FOR.GET on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Today, Amazigh Studies spans the countries of Tamazgha as well as Amazigh Diasporas in Europe and the Americas. This spurs trenchant questions about methodologies and the boundaries of the Amazigh space itself. Despite its depth and the breadth, Amazigh Studies is still at pains to find its place in Anglophone academia.

Anglophone academia continues to approach Tamazgha through the lens of Middle Eastern and Francophone Studies. This leaves the Indigenous language untaught and the multi-secular Amazigh heritage untapped for any scholarly and pedagogical purposes.

In addition to depriving Amazigh Studies of the opportunity to flourish, this situation has equally deprived students and future scholars of the linguistic tools they need. They need these to engage with Amazigh indigeneity and its multilayered transformation of North African studies from an entirely fresh perspective.

The absence of Tamazight in Anglophone academia is a reflection of its erstwhile situation in its homeland in the post-colonial period. The Arab-nationalist and Islamo-centric regimes that took power in North Africa after independence aligned themselves with the Arab League. They invented all sorts of subterfuges to deny Tamazight, and the culture it vehicled, its right to exist in the public sphere.

From schools to audiovisual media and from storefronts to street signs, Tamazight either had a strictly limited presence in the public sphere or was nowhere to be seen. It was nowhere seen except in very folklorized ways in the form of dance or other arts.

This erasure was compounded with the deliberate association of Imazighen with residues of French colonialism. This de facto ban of Tamazight was accompanied by Arabization policies. These policies further confined Imazighen to the margins of thought, culture, and education.

It was a time when prominent intellectuals, like Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, called for “imātat al-lahajāt” (killing the dialects) to speed up the achievement of Arab unity. As a result of the symbolic violence they underwent, generations of educated Imazighen were alienated from their language and culture. They were fed to “the wolf’s mouth” to reverse Kateb Yacine’s now famous phrase. Arabic replaced Tamazight, and, as time passed, the latter receded to home, where it survived as a mother tongue.

This state of erasure and resulting alienation could not continue unaddressed. A new generation of Amazigh intellectuals contested the marginalization of their language and culture.  Whether it took the form of the Académie Berbère or Agraw Imazighen in Paris or the al-Jam‘iyya al-maghribiyya li-al-baḥt wa-al-tabādul al-taqāfī (The Moroccan Association for research and Cultural Exchange) in Morocco, these associations protested the status quo and set out to seek ways to recenter their cause as a societal and democratic issue.

Although their methods and outcomes were different, these associations’ efforts, which started in the 1960s, have yielded ample results in the 1990s in Morocco and Algeria. State-sponsored initiatives to include Tamazight in the media in Morocco and the creation of the Haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité in Algeria, were the highlights of this period.

However, Amazigh intellectuals, who hailed from various ideological backgrounds, pushed the boundaries of the possible even further. They pushed to encompass human rights, indigeneity, federalism, and political participation. By the end of the 1990s, Tamazight was no longer just an internal question of cultural and linguistic erasure. It also acquired a transnational significance as an issue of one of Africa’s Indigenous people’s human rights.

Increasingly, Imazighen in both Morocco and Algeria worked to create political parties and participate in politics based on their Amazigh identity. The advent of this political discourse pushed the states to make more concessions. This culminated with constitutional reforms that led to the recognition of Tamazight as a national or official language in both Morocco and Algeria.

Imazighen’s insurgency against marginalization and erasure meant an unrelenting endeavor to give visibility to their language and culture. Amazigh actors—activists or simply those who reached Amazighitude, consciousness of Amazigh indigeneity—used their limited resources to resuscitate their doomed language. They resuscitated their language from its looming extinction in the postcolonial period.

A period of arguments and counter-arguments, the 1980s, witnessed a strong cultural advocacy on behalf of Tamazight by Amazigh intellectuals. The drafters of the Yakouren Seminar in Algeria in 1980 wrote that “[i]n order to foster the Algerian people’s cultural development, it is necessary to preserve an important element of their identity, namely their mother tongue, by adapting it to the socio-economic context in which it will evolve.”

The same drafters insisted on the importance of language for development. Language development could not happen, they argued, without adopting the Algerian people’s mother tongue. Similarly, Moroccan activists placed language and culture at the heart of the country’s postcolonial democratization.

By advocating “unity in diversity” and articulating their demands as part of the democratic process within the country, Moroccan Amazigh leaders helped their cause gain more traction among traditional parties. This slowly modified their erstwhile inimical positions vis-à-vis Tamazight.

This multipronged political and advocacy action went hand in hand with the infusion of a new life in Amazigh culture. Instead of the traditional cultural production, the rehabilitation of Tamazight required a new literature and new forms of expression.

Hence, Amazigh activists unearthed little known histories. They recovered anecdotal knowledge about Amazigh figures during the pre-Islamic era. They published pamphlets, reenergized the Amazigh song, wrote poetry, engaged in translation, published conference proceedings, and spurred the writing of the Amazigh novel.

The result is the emergence of a lively and ever-expanding Amazigh cultural scene. A scene that lives and grows parallel to the Arabic and Francophone scenes. The scene is revising established histories, contesting prevalent narratives, and providing a different vision of states and societies in Tamazgha.

This parallel cultural scene has rehabilitated Tamazight and normalized the sight of the language in the public space. Moreover, events that center Amazigh literature and thought have become not just normal but ubiquitous.

The establishment of the Amazigh World Congress in 1994 and the design of an Amazigh flag, gave Amazighity a transnational, Indigenous dimension. It provided it with an easily-recognizable iconicity that linked Imazighen across borders of different nation-states.

These developments, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, have established an Amazigh cultural sphere that harkens back to Imazighen’s forbidden history. They have allowed Amazigh actors to help their language and culture stay abreast of the needs of a changing world.

Thanks to these efforts, Tamazight has ceased to be the language of a folklorized village culture. Tamazight has become the symbol of Amazighitude, which is a testament to Tamazight’s revival and aesthetics.

This revival was also a testament to Imazighen’s capacity to create and innovate in their own language. Imazighen innovated while not being oblivious to learning and creating in other languages. After all, Tamazight has always been in conversation with other languages and cultures in the areas coterminous to Tamazgha.

The question then is how many students in Anglophone academia have access to this knowledge? If they do, how many could access it in its original language without it being mediated through Arabic or French? The logical answer is that, beyond those who acquire it as a mother tongue, only a very limited number of people speak Tamazight.

Among those who speak the language, only a small number can read and write it. This is due to the fact that the language is not offered in any academic institution in the English-speaking world. While the language is taught in France, Holland, and Spain, which have both geographic proximity to Tamazgha and host sizable Amazigh populations, Anglophone institutions have yet to offer the language to their students.

Because of this, thousands of students do not have the opportunity to try studying the language. They have no opportunity to decide whether they want to pursue it as a course of study. In the absence of Tamazight’s teaching, it is very difficult to gauge how students would react to it, which makes offering the language all the more important.

The current absence of Tamazight in Anglophone academia has not always been the case. British and American institutions used to offer the language up until the 1990s. Although the teaching was focused on linguistics, the language was taught and scholars produced the necessary pedagogical materials. These materials stand today as a testament to the capacity of Anglophone academia to create space for Amazigh Studies.

Up until the 1990s, the Universities of Michigan, the University of California Los Angeles, and the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London offered courses in both Tamazight and Amazigh linguistics within their Near Eastern Languages and Cultures departments.

Joseph Appelgate taught Tamazight at MIT between 1956 and 1960 whereas Ernest Abdel-Massih and Thomas G. Penchoen taught respectively at the University of Michigan and the University of California Los Angeles. In 1962, James Byron joined SOAS, where he worked as professor of Arabic and Tamazight until his retirement in 1990.

It is very important to note here that both Penchoen and Byron were Lionel Galand’s students at the Institut National des Langues Orientales in Paris. This fact reveals how the center of Amazigh Studies or what is called in French Etudes Berbères moved to France after the independence of Algeria 1962. The foundational work of these professors has yielded an important “Amazigh library” in English.

Several factors have contributed to the current disappearance of Amazigh Studies from Anglophone academia. In addition to retirement and changing of academic foci, the emergence of the Middle East and North Africa under the widely-used acronym MENA has blended Tamazgha into the Middle East.

The desire to see the entire region grouped under the mantle of Islam and Arabic has created multiple erasures that are reflected in the current departmental setups, which always favor the Middle East at the expense of Tamazgha.

The hegemonic force of this MENA appellation has had a detrimental effect on Amazigh Studies. It has not even been invited to occupy any place in a fully-booked space. As a result, Amazigh Studies can only emerge and occupy its rightful place in an academic setting in which the discipline escapes the current geographic and linguistic hegemonies. These hegemonies have subjugated Tamazight to the domination of powerful languages.

Aware of the importance of geography as a decolonial space, Amazigh activists have furnished Tamazgha as a crucial reimagination of the entire northern part of Africa. Referring to the territories extending from the Canary Islands to northwest Egypt and the entirety of the Sahel region, Tamazgha is defined as the Amazigh homeland. It is the homeland where dialects of Tamazight have been spoken historically.

Beyond its Amazigh focus, Tamazgha has the capacity to help resolve several questions in an innovative manner. Several questions have haunted the postcolonial scholarship of the region, including how to bridge the divide between what is currently referred to as North and sub-Saharan Africa.

The use of Tamazgha will not only broaden the study of the myriad connections between different parts of Africa, it will also challenge colonial nomenclatures that have become physical realities through borders and nation-states.

As a supra-national, imaginary entity that is based on a shared history and language, Tamazgha opens up the possibility of affirming inter- and intra-African connections. It opens it in ways that transcend the current divisions that take the Sahara as a natural border between the different parts of Africa.

Moreover, Tamazgha challenges the colonial race-based separation between the “Afrique blanche” and the “Afrique noire.” When discussing his vision for Amazigh international relations in his book al-Badīl al-amāzīghī  (The Amazigh Alternative), longtime Amazigh activist, Ahmed Dgharni wrote that “our vertical dealing extends to the countries of Tamazgha in Africa, which form part of our geographical, historical and humane subjectivity, as it is attested by our economic, political, and cultural history.”

Dgharni pushes it a notch further in stating that “we refuse to consider Africans—specifically the Africans of Tamazgha—foreigners in Morocco.” This attention to the human, cultural, and historical continuities between the different parts of Tamazgha challenges the status quo. It provides an opportunity to broaden the scope of our understanding of issues of race and belonging in this extended geography. Dgharni’s statement about immigration constitutes a novel way of thinking about and teaching mobility within the larger territory of Tamazgha.

This reimagination of geography happened in tandem with a cutting-edge discourse on Indigeneity in conversation with the global indigeneity movement. Imazighen have evolved from seeing themselves merely as carriers of a repressed language and culture, to asserting their status as the Indigenous inhabitants of Tamazgha.

Like other Indigenous peoples, Imazighen have conceptualized how they face issues related to equitable access to resources, land use, and preservation and enforcement of customary laws. Different Amazigh groups have disagreed over the applicability of the Indigenous framework to Imazighen. Lawyer Hassan Idbelkassam explained to me the process that has led him to adopt indigeneity as a course of action ever since he encountered the concept at the  Human Rights Convention in Vienna in 1993.

For Idbelkassam, the discovery of other Indigenous people from around the world helped him to perceive the potential of working within the Indigenous People’s working group as being better than the minority working group. As a result of Amazigh associations’ active participation, The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee was created in 1997.

The Amazigh Indigeneity discourse is full-fledged now. All the ways in which it could be brought into conversation with Indigenous Studies in Anglophone academia remain to be seen. Indeed, the current drive to establish Indigenous Studies programs in the United States is a major opportunity for the incorporation of Amazigh Studies into Indigenous Studies. This step will not only enrich  methodologies, it also has the potential to broaden these programs’ scope to look beyond the North American contexts.

In light of the transformative changes the emergence of the Amazigh movement has made to thought, politics, and geography in Tamazgha, it is no longer possible to maintain the current disciplinary approaches to the study of Tamazgha. The Maghreb or North Africa as a bilingual Franco-Arabic space has ceased to exist (if it ever existed). That space is only found in books and journal articles.

Tamazgha as a multilingual and multicultural socio-cultural sphere, where four important languages are constantly used to produce thought and literature, has been the de facto reality since the early 2000s, if not before.

Only the teaching of Tamazight and Amazigh Studies could redress this issue and foreground the absent dimension. In fact, Amazigh literature, cinema, and thought have nothing to envy about the Arabic and Francophone content that is taught in English today.

Amazigh Studies can become a reality in Anglophone academia. It can if universities allocate the necessary resources to rehabilitate a language and a culture whose Indigenous people have brilliantly and self-reliantly revived. Through Amazigh Studies, students will learn first and foremost about how a language and culture survive extinction and outlive erasure through resilience.

Moreover, everyone will gain significantly from welcoming Amazigh Studies into their departments and programs in Anglophone academia. The curricula will be richer and more diverse. The students’ understanding of the region will be more nuanced. The possibilities of original and multilingual research by graduate students will increase. All in all, the inclusion of Amazigh Studies will be a boon for the universities that first adopt it because they can set the tone for the future of this field in English.

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