Literature and Indigeneity: Amazigh Activists’ Construction of an Emerging Literary Field

By Brahim El GuabliOctober 28, 2022

Literature and Indigeneity: Amazigh Activists’ Construction of an Emerging Literary Field
TAMAZIGHT IS THE Indigenous language of Imazighen (Amazigh people) who inhabit their homeland of Tamazgha. Covering the territory between the Canary Islands, southwest Egypt, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where dialects of Tamazight are spoken, Tamazgha is at the center of an effort to re-Indigenize North Africa through a multipronged revitalization of the land’s mother tongue. A millennial language that survived multiple invasions and colonizations, Tamazight has not only overcome its marginalization but has also witnessed a strong revival since the mid-1990s.

Literature, particularly poetry and fiction, is instrumental to the construction of Amazigh Indigeneity. The Amazigh Cultural Movement (ACM), which emerged in the 1960s in Algeria and Morocco, understood the foundational role literature could play in conveying Imazighen’s worldview and affirming their struggles for recognition under regimes that were ideologically opposed to any official manifestation of their linguistic and cultural Indigeneity. Instead of merely relying on political activism to pressure the pan-Arabist Tamazghan states to rehabilitate their language and culture, Amazigh activists wrote poetry, plays, and novels, and even translated world literature into Tamazight. In addition to understanding literature as a creative endeavor that requires linguistic creativity and narrative prowess, the ACM members approached it as a condition of possibility for their culture’s future existence. Hence, literature was conceptualized as a means to anchor Imazighen in an ancestral homeland, albeit through imagination. Almost all educated Imazighen experienced the shame of learning about other cultures’ Great Books while being told by their teachers that their mother tongue had no written lore. For the oppressed Imazighen, creating a written contemporary literature was synonymous with a declaration of existence, in addition to being a source of linguistic and cultural pride and a means of aesthetic independence. The production of literature in this context was not a choice but rather an obligation in the collective effort to anchor Indigeneity and claim cultural and linguistic rights that postcolonial polities denied Imazighen.

Amazigh literature is the entirety of literary works written in Tamazight, independent of the script of their transcription — since, until the recent standardization of the Tifinagh alphabet in the 2000s, Tamazight did not have a unified script. Hence, its writers have used Arabic, Latin, and Tifinagh letters to write in their mother tongue, producing a multi-alphabetic literary output. For the space of this essay, I use this restrictive definition of Amazigh literature, which excludes the many Amazigh authors who publish their works in Arabic, Catalan, Dutch, and French, and whose worldview is informed by their experiences as Amazigh speakers. My examination of this literature’s co-construction of the Amazigh sense of Indigeneity relies specifically on the fact that it is written in Tamazight, which belies colonial scholars’ denial of the language’s ability to produce literature and defies the postcolonial states’ de-Amazighizing policies.

In his 1953 book Apprenons le Berbère: Initiation aux dialectes Chleuhs, Robert Aspinion, a French officer and scholar of Tamazight, asserts that “Berber is not a written language,” adding that “there is no Berber writing.” His colleague Émile Laoust offered the same judgment in his 1921 essay “La littérature des Berbères,” where he paternalistically opines that Tamazight is “a childish language, poor in its ideas and imagery, inadequate for any scientific reflection.” Luckily, other critical scholars, such as Paulette Galand-Pernet, have shown that the prevalence of this opinion among scholars since the 19th century led them to approach Amazigh literature merely as folklore. These colonial ideas shaped the dismissive attitude of the postindependence states towards everything related to Amazigh culture despite the existence of hundreds of Tamazight manuscripts in Arabic script alongside oral literature throughout Tamazgha.

Amazigh literature is not a new phenomenon. Since the beginning of Amazigh oral history, Imazighen have used representation to create myths and oral tales that survived various colonialisms and continue to inform the way they think about their world even today. Taslit n unzar (“The Bride of the Rain”) and Hmmou Unamir (“Hammou Unamir”) are among the Amazigh myths of origins. The former is about appeasing the god of rain, and the second is the story of a young man who gives up celestial love to be with his mother in her old days on earth. Beyond their narrative power, these tales inscribe Imazighen into their environment and help them make sense of their world. Likewise, Imazighen produced a rich poetic output that has been transmitted from one generation to another. The drunken love poetry of Si Mohand-ou-Mhand, the 19th-century Algerian vagabond poet, is still sung today. The poetic compositions of his Moroccan counterpart, 18th-century poet Sidi Hammou, are treated with religious reverence almost everywhere in Morocco.

Not all Amazigh poetry is oral, however. The 16th-century Sufi erudite Ibrahim Aẓnag bequeathed us some exquisite poems about his travels from the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains to Mecca. Abiding by the conventions of his time, Aẓnag used meter, rhyme, rhetorical devices, and a refined idiom to inscribe his poetry within the lettered tradition of the Arabic qasida. Eighteenth-century scholar Muhammad bin Ali al-Hawzali’s eschatological book Ocean of Tears (1714), which is probably the most translated and commented literary text in Tamazight, has no cause to be envious of any contemporaneous literary work in other languages. Al-Hawzali invented a learned idiom within Tamazight, combining Amazigh words with new ones he coined from the scholarly register of the Qur’an, broadening Tamazight’s potential to express themes and topics for which it did not have specific terminology. Regardless of some complaints about the cannibalization of Tamazight by Arabic in this text, al-Hawzali’s literary imprint lies exactly in the interstitial space his language creates between Arabic and Tamazight. The fabulous worlds in which al-Hawzali’s characters interact suggest that Ocean of Tears is equally as much a work of fiction as it is a religious admonition. Interestingly, colonial scholars did not count this among Amazigh literary texts because of its Islamic nature. 

The French colonization of Algeria in 1830 and its subsequent protectorates in Tunisia (1881–1956) and Morocco (1912–1956) dramatically changed the status of Imazighen and their position in their homeland after independence in the second half of the 20th century. France unified diverse tribal communities and created centralized Jacobin states in its three colonies, incorporating formerly autonomous Amazigh areas under the control of a central state. Moreover, French colonialism based part of its policy in Tamazgha on creating a divide between Arabs and Imazighen. Their “Berber policy,” which was friendly towards Imazighen, resulted in two different outcomes that were detrimental to Imazighen in the final analysis. First, this policy strengthened the Salafists’ definition of North Africa as an Arab region, leading to what Amazigh intellectual Mohamed Boudhan called “French’s Arabizing function.” Counterintuitively, French language played an important role in strengthening the Arab-Islamic identity of North Africa. Indeed, Arab-Islamic nationalism in Morocco and Algeria particularly was born out of the struggle against French Berber policy. Second, as I demonstrate in a new article, interest in Amazigh affairs created a significant database of literary compilations and scholarly studies that are now foundational to any serious attempt to understand the trajectory of Amazigh literature and thought. However, France’s Berber policy set Imazighen up for retaliation by the first postindependence nationalist rulers who, in order to impose their vision of the future states as Arab-Muslim entities, instrumentalized this history to discredit pro-Tamazight advocates as residues of colonialism.

The conviction that Tamazight was regressive and a legacy of colonialism led to its suppression within the postcolonial states’ educational and administrative systems. Despite Imazighen’s prominent roles in the struggle for decolonization, their linguistic and cultural rights were denied after independence. Other Indigenous people worldwide experienced similar processes of disempowerment, institutional erasure, and forced acculturation. In Morocco, all contact with local administration, including the justice system, demanded the Arabic language, which many Imazighen did not and still do not know. The fundamental right to convey one’s grievances and defend one’s rights was simply denied to an Indigenous population that was pushed to replace its ancestral language with an adopted tongue. While the school system Arabized Amazigh children, the Administration of Public Works endeavored to Arabize Amazigh topography by replacing the Amazigh names of rivers, mountains, and historic sites with Arabized ones. The deracination of Imazighen through the suppression of their familiar geography is just one manifestation of this de-Amazighization policy. As this process was taking place, the nationalist elites opted to educate their children in French schools, a situation that led Ali Sidqi Azaykou, a Moroccan Amazigh historian, to reveal the implications of the Arabization policy in a 1982 article. Azaykou was the first scholar to reveal the fallacy of Arabization, which was in fact a masked de-Amazighization, and to undermine the argument that being Muslim required Imazighen to learn Arabic, arguing that Amazighity and Islam were not mutually exclusive. Azaykou was arrested and sentenced to over a year in jail.

A similar situation unfolded in Algeria. Tamazight, which is spoken in Kabylia, Shawiya, the Sahara, and Mzab regions, was targeted by the postindependence state. Even more so than in Morocco, Amazigh activists were seen as enemies of the nascent nation, and many of them were forced to move to France, where they established the Académie Berbère in 1966. Mohand Aarav Bessaoud, the co-founder of the Académie, has documented in his book Des petites gens pour une grande cause: L’histoire de l’Académie Berbère (2000) the persecution that he and his colleagues faced from the Algerian state even in France. The long French colonization and the bloody manner in which decolonization took place in Algeria may explain the country’s strong alignment with Nasserism in Egypt and its more aggressive Arabization policy. As linguist Salem Chaker and others have shown, de-Amazighization included banning the teaching of the language at the university level, canceling the Berber Studies Chair created by the French in Algiers, and shutting down publishing houses that undergirded the production of knowledge in Tamazight. After Algerian independence in 1962, the literary and publishing infrastructure that had been put in place under French colonialism was dismembered, and Imazighen were given no choice but to submit to their Arabization and subsumption under a state that self-defined as Arab and Islamic, in total disregard of Imazighen’s status as the original inhabitants of the land and speakers of its original language.

Within this context of the invasive acculturation of Amazigh children and the erasure of markers of the land’s Indigenous identity, the ACM emerged to both reclaim and revitalize Amazigh language and culture. From its humble beginnings in the Parisian headquarters of the Académie Berbère to its transformation of culture, society, and the public sphere in Morocco and Algeria starting in the early 2000s, the ACM grew to become a mover and shaker even beyond these two countries. This coincided with a global movement for the rights of the First Peoples to their identities, languages, cultures, lands, and natural resources, and the ACM’s contact with other Indigenous movements globally, particularly after the Vienna Conference in 1993, helped Amazigh activists see their demands through the lens of Indigeneity. The establishment of the World Amazigh Congress in 1995 and the adoption of the neologism Tamazgha to refer to the Amazigh homeland represent the culmination of this Indigenous consciousness, which enmeshed Imazighen into larger Indigenous discourses. Locally, the founding of the Haut Commissariat à l’Amazighité in Algeria in 1996 and the Institut Royal de la Culture Amazighe (IRCAM) in Morocco in 2001 were concrete signs of a much-needed reversal of the disconnect between akāl (land), afgān (people), and awāl (language) that was characteristic of the postcolonial period. The erstwhile exclusion of Tamazight from the public sphere and the folklorization of its cultural production have now become traumatic memory despite the persistence of bureaucratic obstacles that have slowed down the speed of its normalization in all institutionalized aspects of daily life in Tamazgha. The language is taught in schools, universities offer specialized degrees in Amazigh studies, and the Amazigh alphabet is now a visible part of urban and rural space throughout Tamazgha.

A growing constellation of writers and publishers, an offshoot of the broader ACM, is spearheading the publication of a booming and increasingly bold Amazigh literature. Algerian author Brahim Tazaghart created and dedicated the Béjaia-based Tira publishing house to Amazigh books. Morocco has its own Tirra Alliance for Writers in Tamazight, founded in 2009, which has been at the helm of the publication of Amazigh literature there. The recurrence of tirra/tira, which means “writing” in Tamazight, is the clearest indication that Amazigh publishers seek works that break new ground in the Amazigh aesthetics-in-becoming during this transitional period. Hundreds of novels, shorts stories, and poetry collections have been published in Algeria and Morocco in the last 10 years alone. The existence of Amazigh publishing outlets and official recognition of this literature through literary prizes have carved out a niche for literature written in Tamazight to be normalized both as a product and an object of study.

This normalization of Amazigh literature was not even conceivable four decades ago. The production of literary texts was part of the struggle to assert Amazigh Indigeneity throughout Tamazgha. In his 2012 book al-Naḥḍa al-amāzīghīyya (“The Amazigh Renaissance”), Ibrahim Akhiyat, one of the pioneers of Amazigh activism in Morocco, revisits the achievement of the ACM and advises Imazighen to continue writing in their language. In Akhiyat’s words, the strongest “fortress for the preservation and development of our language and culture is using it in creative writing, for it has no future if it is absent in creativity and creation in all fields, including literature, thought, and theater and cinema, areas of cultural and intellectual communication between creative writers and the audience.” When Akhiyat was writing, the waves of repression and erasure of Amazigh subjectivity had already abated. However, what Akhiyat underlines is the future-oriented need to always remember literature and creative writing as foundational pillars in the co-construction and sustenance of this Amazigh identity.

While the pioneers of Amazigh activism drew on old tales and oral literature to build confidence in their heritage and inscribe their activism in its longer historical, Indigenous memory, they also understood that Amazigh audiences had changed and that recruiting Amazigh youth to their cause required a modern aesthetic that responded to their literary and musical sensibilities. In speaking to the anxieties and interests of contemporary Imazighen, developing creative writing became consubstantial with the renewal of Amazigh culture. Not only did this understanding of literature seek to sustain an Indigenous cause, but it also instantiated a rupture with the predominantly oral literature of the past. Thus understood, contemporary Amazigh literature is a vector of Amazighitude, which is critical awareness of one’s subaltern position as an Indigenous Amazigh and action to redress the historical injustice done to Imazighen. Awareness of literature’s crucial role in the creation of a counterimagination to the prevalent artificial identities imposed on the Amazigh homeland pushed the ACM members to produce a “literature of emergency” to fill the void in writing in Tamazight. Critics continue to take issue with the quality of their works without heeding the sense of urgency that governed their writing when faced with the pending annihilation of Amazigh identity.

As a result of this creation of a contemporary Amazigh literature that is aware of its Indigeneity, Tamazight writing made major strides in both quality and quantity between the 1980s and 2022. The year 1980 was a turning point, for it witnessed two major events. First, the Berber Spring happened in Algeria when the authorities canceled a lecture on ancient Amazigh poetry by the renowned scholar and creative writer Mouloud Mammeri. Known as Tafsut Imaziɣen, the Amazigh Spring marked the first major demonstration of popular anger in Algeria since independence in 1962. Second, Morocco witnessed the inaugural session of the annual Agadir Summer School in the summer of 1980, just a few months after Tafsut Imaziɣen in Algeria. In his 2021 book al-Adab al-amāzīghī al-ḥadīth bi-al-maghrib: al-nash’a (1967–2000) (“Contemporary Amazigh Literature: The Birth [1967–2000]”), literary critic Lhacen Zaheur underlines the fact that the 1980s saw the beginning of the foundation of new literary genres such as “theater, literary criticism, [and the] short story as well as the literary essay” in Tamazight. In Morocco, poetry was in particularly high demand, and some of the free verse poems were sung by the famous band Usmān, led by a rising star named Ammoury Mbark, bringing this novel poetic sensibility to larger Amazigh audiences. Among the many poets from this period, one can mention Brahim Akhiyyat, Mohammed Mestaoui, and Ali Sidqi Azaykou. Safi Moumen Ali published his play Ussān ṣmmiḍnin (“Cold Days”) by the mid-1980s. Algerian novelist Rachid Alliche published his novel Asfel (“The Offering”) in 1981, and his compatriot Saïd Sadi authored Askuti (“The Boy Scout”) in 1983. It is very easy to observe that Amazigh literature in the 1980s and ’90s was dominated by male authors. The situation changed in the 2000s, however, and Amazigh women are equally present in this Indigenous literary field today. The novels and short stories of Chabha Ben Gana, Lynda Koudache, and Khadija Ikan, among others, are changing the literary face of Amazigh Indigeneity.

The Indigenous cultural movement did not just spur the production of literature in Tamazight, since it also endeavored to anchor this orientation by creating the metalanguage necessary for its study. Instead of inhibiting, the lack of specialized terminology offered Amazigh activists the opportunity to create neologisms and develop a learned idiom within spoken Tamazight. One can speak about Amazigh tamagit (identity) and can use newly coined terms to talk about the ungāl (novel), izlī/qaṣīd (poem), tullist (short story), and amzgūn (theater). Left to waste for 50 years by state institutions in the hope that it would just vanish, Tamazight did not develop the terms that would have organically been translated or created if the language had been taught and used in academic settings. The ACM’s work to anchor Amazigh Indigeneity set in motion the process that culminated in the production of dictionaries and specialized lexicons, which all contribute to creating the necessary accumulation for Tamazight to be treated as a normal, living language.

The same sense of invention that guided the production of literature informed the ACM’s attitudes towards history. Indigeneity cannot be reclaimed without reckoning with the histories that made the exclusion of Indigenous people possible. Achieving Amazighitude goes hand in hand with attainting a critical attitude vis-à-vis histories of domination and expropriation. Instead of the Arabic word tārīkh (history), Amazigh activists have been using amzruy, a term derived from izrī. Izrī means that something has passed, and using a derivative of the word “past” in Tamazight to talk about history centers Amazigh subjectivity and conceptualizes time from Imazighen’s perspective. Historian Jamaa Ghjaimi has underlined the role of history in the alienation of Imazighen, writing that school-aged Amazigh children were presented with a “culture that is not [their] culture, a history that is not [their] history, [and] a civilization that is not [their] civilization.” History and literature can be colonial tools, but retooled through a critical Indigenous framework, they became instrumental to liberation, as the ACM’s case demonstrates.

Anglophone readers know next to nothing about this Indigenous Amazigh literature. The language is taught nowhere in Anglo-American universities, and translations, which are the global lifeblood of any literature, are few and far between. As a result, Anglophone readers are deprived of the opportunity to engage with an aesthetics that is constructed through struggle against systematic annihilation and alienation. In his 2019 book La littérature rifaine: De la tradition orale à aujourd’hui, Hassan Banhakeia, a prominent literary critic, has argued that Amazigh literature is a minor literature that has not penetrated the circuits of “world literature.” Amazigh literature will gain the most supporters, readers, and scholars, not to mention an infrastructure to undergird its future prosperity, when it is finally available in translation. Amazigh literature in translation, more than anything else, will serve to connect Tamazgha to transnational Indigenous aesthetics and literary world-making.


Brahim El Guabli is an assistant professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature at Williams College. His book Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship After State Violence is forthcoming from Fordham University Press; he is completing a second book entitled Saharan Imaginations: Between Saharanism and Ecocare.


Featured image: Abstract Motif, mid-18th/early 19th century. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Helen Snyder., CC0. Accessed October 11, 2022.

LARB Contributor

Brahim El Guabli is an assistant professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature at Williams College. His book Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship After State Violence is forthcoming from Fordham University Press. He is completing a second book entitled Saharan Imaginations: Between Saharanism and Ecocare. El Guabli is co-editor of the two forthcoming volumes Lamalif: A Critical Anthology of Societal Debates in Morocco During the “Years of Lead” (1966–1988) (Liverpool University Press) and Refiguring Loss: Jews in Maghrebi and Middle Eastern Cultural Production (Pennsylvania State University Press).


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