Will Smith's daughter under fire for portraying Amazighs as 'thieves' in her book

Will Smith's daughter under fire for portraying Amazighs as 'thieves' in her book
3 min read
23 February, 2022
Amazighs have criticised Willow Smith’s novel for portraying the community in the same colonialist undertone that has stigmatised them with savagery for decades.
Willow Smith accused of spreading 'hate' against Amazighs in her latest novel. [Getty]

The daughter of Hollywood actor Will Smith is under-fire for portraying Amazighs, the indigenous people of North Africa, as "dangerous thieves" in her upcoming novel Black Shield Maiden.

Willow Smith, a 21-year-old singer, songwriter and activist, is set to launch on October 4 a fantasy novel about two women navigating their fate in a strange world of "savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods".

The book’s publishing house, Penguin UK, published earlier this month an exclusive excerpt from Smith’s story, which includes a paragraph titled 'Amazigh'.

"The Amazigh are dangerous on their best day. They have little regard for anyone who doesn’t worship the Muslim god — and even their own tribes are always at war with one another. ... The desert is lawless, and those who don’t travel under the protection of the Ghāna can fall prey to Amazigh thieves and slavers," read the excerpt.

Smith’s story, which apparently does not distinguish between Muslims and Amazighs, has sparked outrage on social media, with users denouncing these "offensive and horrific" statements about the Amazigh community.

“How could a privileged person like Willow Smith not find a person to educate her, or at least inform her, about the Amazigh community and Muslims before publishing such nonsense?” tweeted an account that purportedly belongs to a North African woman.

Thousands of years before the advent of Islam and Christianity, the Amazigh community ruled over territories that stretched from the Canary Islands off the West African coast to western Egypt. They believed in animism - the belief that all living things, including plants and animals, have souls and spirits.

Islam spread in Amazigh societies following Arab invasions and power shifts through Arab and Amazigh dynasties. While some Amazighs embraced Christianity and Judaism, others chose to keep their ancient faith.

Pakistan-based Muslim book blogger Sudra, who shed light on the controversy surrounding Smith's book in a thread on Twitter, told The New Arab that Penguin UK had contacted Muslim book bloggers to promote the soon-to-be-released novel. 

“I am not Amazigh, so I cannot speak for the community. But many book-blogger friends contacted me after receiving the Penguin email about the book. That was how we became aware of this concerning content,” Sudra told The New Arab

Penguin promoted the book as "an epic medieval fantasy series that will make visible the histories and mythologies of medieval African people and women," which have long been erased by dominant Western narratives.

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On the contrary, the Amazigh community argues that Smith’s fantasy novel is written in the same colonialist undertone that has stigmatised them with savagery for decades.

In Western history books, Amazighs used to be called 'Berbers' (barbarians), a derogatory term that was first adopted by ancient Greeks in a reference to indigenous communities, meaning non-Greek gibberish speakers. Centuries later, the French colonisation used the same term to belittle and vilify local communities as uncivilised others.

“Why does Willow Smith hate my people? This is bizarre and not acceptable, and I hate that this bigoted fictional character will be the first introduction to Amazigh culture for the American audience,” Amber, a Moroccan Amazigh who lives in the US, told The New Arab.

In the wake of the growing backlash, the book's co-writer Jess Hendel said on Instagram that the novel "tackles directly prejudices about the Amazigh and other Islamic peoples", adding that "they did a ton of research on early Islamic caliphates and their many overlooked complexities and contributions."

Despite Hendel's defence of her research efforts, the published excerpt has already offended members of the Amazigh community, which includes more than 25 million people scattered between Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia.

Willow Smith and Penguin UK have yet to respond to the ongoing controversy.