Six thousand years of fortitude
Gazing out over a space as elemental as this, with its stark rocky peaks and pink quartz valleys that seem to go on forever, you would be forgiven for thinking this desolate world of outcrops and lunar landscapes in Morocco’s Souss-Massa region, a central part of the Anti-Atlas mountains, is deserted.
It is only after winding one’s way through precarious passes, surmounting one rocky zenith after another, that the landscape finally relents and the stone terraces come into view — mountain peaks like Jbel Sirwa reaching 3 304m, traced with stone walls from top to bottom — that you realise you are looking at a landscape that has been inhabited for more than 60 centuries.
The area is bordered by the Sahara in the south, the High Atlas mountains in the north, and Tafraoute — also called Morocco’s Berber heartland — with a population of just less than 5 000 people and its neolithic cave paintings, is the biggest town in these parts.
Traditionally, the Amazigh people of this region were seasonal nomads, living in tents and gorges and vulnerable to flash floods after snow melt, when they would seek refuge and pasture on high ground meadows.
After summer, they would retreat to igherman or village clusters where, following the harvest season, collective marriages (tingrhiwen) took place before hunkering down to see winter through.
This seasonal rhythm, coupled with a history of centuries of invasion, has driven North Africa’s Amazigh to remote and isolated zones where their language and cultural traditions have continued to survive for more than 6 000 years. This ability to bear up under adversity and resilience to outside invasion remains an important part of the Berber character today, and it has been their attachment to their roots — and poetry in particular — that has helped ensure their survival.
Every occasion, a birth, marriage or death, is ritually celebrated with poetry and frequent impromptu song and dance sessions are held. Poems are traditionally made up of izlan (unrhymed couplets) and performed around a fire, good for warming a drum, accompanied by a fiddle or lute.
El Habib Louai is a native speaker of Tamazight and is originally from a village called Tinouainane. He is a poet who writes in Arabic, French and English. He translates all these languages and plays experimental jazz and the blues on his saxophone to weave together spoken word and folklore.
He recently completed a translation of An Anthology of Beat Poetry into Arabic, which will soon be published in Egypt. He has also published an anthology of contemporary Moroccan poetry (in translation in the United States) and three volumes of his own work in English.
He translated Amazigh poets such as Ali Sidki Azaykou and Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine into English for an anthology of poetry that focuses on the seven countries that are part of US President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. And he also translates English poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s witheringly self-critical America into Arabic, for publication in the morning daily newspapers. He says he does so because he wants the readers of Arabic in his country “to broaden their consciousness, to understand that it is up to them to fight for their rights and change their conditions”.
His first collection of poems, titled Mrs Jones Will Now Know, was published in the US and contains early poems written in reaction to actual events that took place in Morocco.
“In a way, poetry for me is a refuge in times of distress and it gradually became a medium that could be used to vindicate people’s rights and retrieve their silences at times when the government does its best to crush them,” he says.
[In 1984, Belgian Jean Verame painted the rocks near Tafraoute purple, blue, red and black.(Getty Images)]
“I think the Beat lifestyle should be the norm, not the exception. Humans have been nomadic for eternity and some of the indigenous population of my country still favour this lifestyle. So the Beat lifestyle, especially its nomadic character, was not something new to me, and in Tinouainane, where I grew up, I was attached to simplicity, the natural landscape and a peaceful symbiosis between humans and their environment, issues that the Beats are also deeply concerned with.”
The subversive character of the free-wheeling Beat style does not elude him. Tamazight, the Amazigh language, was systematically marginalised in Morocco during the golden age of pan-Arabist fervour that began in the 1950s. It was unbanned in 1994 and recognised as an official language alongside Arabic in 2011.
“Revolutionary poetry of the Fifties and Sixties written in English opened up new horizons for the oppressed to think about other possible worlds, and triggered movements calling for equal rights, no matter what race, ethnicity or religion they belonged to,” he says.
“I fell in love with Ginsberg’s Howl in the first place, as I felt this poem reflected the feelings of angst and indignation that I had towards the cultural oppression of my people.
“Other poets supporting the Civil Rights Movement were also essential for me — Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan and others from the Black Mountain School and San Francisco Renaissance who called for a society based on equality, freedom and social justice.”
Lahoucine Dassagi is an artist and a teacher of fine art at a public high school in Agadir on Morocco’s coast. After graduating from the National Institute of Fine Art, he decided to become a teacher. He has been the recipient of several prizes for his artworks. In 2016 he graduated with a bachelor degree in Tamazight studies from Ibn Zohr University and now translates Amazigh literature and folklore.
“Before 2003, when Mohammed VI gave an historical speech about the promotion of the Amazigh culture, schoolchildren felt uncomfortable at school because their language was marginalised. Now I discover my students really love their culture. So, for example, when we celebrated the Amazigh New Year (Innayer 2968 on January 12 2018), or when they use the Tifinagh letters in a painting, they get very motivated.”
In 2002, Mohammed VI founded The Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture (known by its French acronym Ircam), as a Royal advisory council to promote and study Amazigh culture, but whose resolutions are not binding on the government. In 2003, researchers at Ircam approved neo-Tifinagh, a standardised form of the ancient script, and introduced it into school textbooks. Although the teaching of Tamazight was recommended in all primary schools at that time, this has not yet been generalised.
“At the legislative level, the situation is progressing, but [the law] is very late in its application because the Islamic government is only interested in Arabic culture,” Dassagi says.
The ruling Islamic Party for Justice and Development initially opposed amendments but these were finally added to make Tamazight an official language in the 2011 Constitution. Members of Ircam are now campaigning for six hours a week of Tamazight instruction across primary and secondary schools.
Despite the controversy surrounding Ircam’s work, there have been some successes. Regular workshops are held to train teachers of Tamazight the Unicode script for use on computer keyboards. It has also overseen the publication of Asinag, the first scientific and cultural journal to be produced in the language. Dassagi himself benefited from an artist residency at Ircam and describes his experience as “unique and fruitful”.
For Louai though, his cultural activism remains outside of official institutions, much like the Beats he reveres. He shuns violence and believes performance art can mobilise a community and encourage people to embrace universal values of peace, co-existence, and solidarity.
In the past month alone, he has performed his poems and translations, accompanied by jazz, blues and Amazigh folk music, at three public schools. He celebrated the Amazigh New Year reading alongside a group of poets in Tiout, Taroudant province, and played his saxophone for a group of children taking part in cultural events in Ait Baha, a village not far from Agadir. And the prolific poet is not stopping.
“I believe there is a lot to learn from other experimental schools of poetry and poetics in America and other parts of the world,” he says.
He plans to publish subversive poetry in Tamazight to enrich the poetic repertory available to Amazigh artists. “The first project, translating the Beat anthology I did in Arabic into Tamazight, will be in collaboration with Lahoucine Dassagi and will be published by Tirra.”
He also co-organises an international symposium on prose poetry, an annual event in Marrakech that last year welcomed poets from Morocco, the US, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Italy and Qatar, and which led to some of these poets giving workshops and readings at the high school where he teaches.
Louai, in collaboration with American poet Jaki Shelton Green, will host writing workshops for women in Tinouainane in June to create space for intercultural dialogue and catharsis between artists.
“I would call it a life-long experiment with the vicissitudes of life as they unfold on the open road,” he says.