Amazigh New Year: A long-lasting battle of acceptance for Morocco's Amazigh community

Berbers begin Amazigh New Year celebrations [Getty]
5 min read
12 January, 2022

Every year, Morocco’s Amazigh community is on tenterhooks ahead of Idh Yennayer, the Amazigh New Year, as they hold out hopes for a last-minute official recognition of the indigenous celebration as a national paid holiday – a symbolic decision that the community has been advocating decades for.

“The recognition of Idh Yennayer is an essential step for Moroccans to reconcile with their history and cultural identity," Abellah Badou, former head of the Executive Office of the Amazigh Network for Citizenship in Morocco, tells The New Arab.

"It would help enhance their belonging to the homeland, and strengthen the values of pluralism, cultural diversity, and coexistence, especially as the Amazigh community has been marginalised and discriminated against over the past decades,” Badou added. 

"The recognition of Idh Yennayer is an essential step for Moroccans to reconcile with their history and cultural identity"

Ahead of the Gregorian calendar by 950 years, the Amazigh calendar first day falls on January 13 of each year. Other Amazigh communities in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, start Yennayer celebrations on January 12.

Historians are also divided about the origin of Idh Yennayer between those who believe that the choice of January 13 symbolises the celebration of land and agriculture, and those who say that the day is a commemoration of Berber king’s Chachnak over Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II.

A beautiful diverse celebration

Each year in Morocco, the different Amazigh tribes – counting for more than eight million people from the country’s 36.9 population – celebrate the indigenous year with traditional meals and folklore music.

“I remember helping my family make couscous and then head to my grandmother’s house to celebrate Yennayer at night while showing off our colourful traditional scarfs and dance moves,” said 50-year-old Fadma who left her Berber village near Agadir to live in the city o Kenitra, where she tries to preserve her identity through celebrating with her daughters.

"Idh JYnnayer", "Idh Skas" or "Hakouzah,” the names differ depending on the regions and the plates too, which can include the “Orkemen” dish, “Takla” porridge, “Imshikhen” or “couscous with seven vegetables” – every region has its preferences.

In the Souss region, for example, the indigenous people celebrate the day with Tagoulla, a sort of mash made from barley or corn, served with a mixture of honey and Argan oil or butter. The plate has become a “gustative identity” of the day.

Imazighen (Berbers) people wearing traditional cloths celebrate the New Year according to the Imazighen calendar in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria on January 12, 2021
Imazighen (Berbers) people wearing traditional clothes celebrate the New Year according to the Imazighen calendar in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria on January 12, 2021

“When I was young, we used to put agormi (date kernels) inside the takla porridge before serving it to family members, as it is believed that whoever finds the kernels while eating the hot dish will be the luckiest person during in the next year," said Fadma giggling, as she was mixing the couscous' broth.

The tastes, the rhythms and the dance moves vary between Rif, Sous and Ishelhien but the celebration concept is the same, commemorating earth and identity. 

"But we must remember, Idh Yennayer is more than Tagoulla and folklore – it is a celebration of earth, of citizens and of memory as essential components of multiple national identities and the different regions without any exclusion," said the Amazigh activist Badou.

More failed promises of recognition 

This Amazigh year 2972, the indigenous community in Morocco had higher hopes of finally winning the much-desired recognition after the appointment of the Amazigh politician Aziz Akhannouch, as head of the country’s government, following his party National Rally of Independents (RNI) massive victory in the September 8 elections.

Born in a small Moroccan Berber town near Agadir, the 61-year-old businessman built his political identity and his party’s electoral programme on representing the Amazigh community’s worries and issues, winning the indigenous people's endorsement in the country's last election.

Members from the Moroccan Amazigh Berber community sing as they celebrate on the eve of the 2964th Amazigh new year near the parliament in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, on January 12, 2014
Members from the Moroccan Amazigh Berber community sing as they celebrate on the eve of the Amazigh New Year near the parliament in the Moroccan capital, Rabat [Getty Images]

Once in power, the party repeatedly echoed the indigenous community’s demands of recognising the Amazigh heritage, language and celebrations, but has failed so far in delivering on its promises. 

The long-waited, real-time Amazigh translation during the parliamentary session was put on hold, while the government’s spokesperson Mustapha Baitass avoided journalists’ questions about the absence of Amazigh new year’s official recognition that the RNI had been promising for the past decade.

The country's past cabinet, led by the Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development, stated on several occasions that the recognition of Idh Ynnayer is up to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

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The biggest victory Moroccan indigenous people reached in their decades-long struggle was the recognition of Tamazight – the indigenous Amazigh language – as an official language in the country, following the 2011 constitution.

Released by the palace, the constitution doused the Arab spring manifestations that stormed the country, with young protesters holding the Moroccan flag next to the Amazigh one in massive demonstrations.  

“The weak policy of implementing Tamazight as an official language reveals to us that we are facing a great collective 'manoeuvre,' in which all political parties, without exception, participated in varying degrees, to absorb the anger of the Moroccan street during February 2011,” added Amazigh activist Badou.

Despite recognising the Amazigh language a decade ago, Tamazight is still limited to official public administrations and institutions signs, while administrative paperwork, media and schools programmes are still widely French-dominated since the colonisation’s years.

Nevertheless, with the new year comes new hope, and so as the Amazigh community celebrates Yennayer, their struggle for recognition in Morocco persists.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent from Morocco  

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma