Amazigh Activists: Denying Validity of Yennayer is Cultural Exclusion


Rabat – On the occasion of the Amazigh (Berber) new year, called Yennayer, Amazigh people from across Morocco gathered in front of Moroccan Parliament on Sunday, January 12, to celebrate New Year 2970 amid campaigns to make Yennayer a national holiday.

The gathered Amazigh people celebrated with traditional dishes, music, and dancing.

In addition to Moroccan chicken Rfissa, the seven-vegetable couscous remains a staple dish for the Yennayer.

Imazighen women preparing Rfissa for Yennayer

Imazighen (Berbers), including children, attended Sunday’s festivities wearing traditional Amazigh clothes and displaying Amazigh flags, reflecting their strong bonds with their origins and culture.

Abdelwahed Driouch, an Amazigh activist and member of the House of Councillors told Morocco World News “he does not expect the government to recognize Yennayer as a national holiday.”

“Imazighen (Amazigh people) celebrate it anyway. The government does not respond positively to people’s demands. We will solicit the highest authority in the country for recognition,” added Driouch.

The Amazigh activist believes that Yennayer should be recognized as it is part of Moroccans’ identity and Morocco’s history.

Amazing families gather to eat traditional food as part of the celebrations.Amazing families gather to eat traditional food as part of the celebrations.

“Morocco does not have a history that goes back to 12 centuries but 2970 years. Moroccans should know their history, and Amazigh [history] is part of it,” he said. 

The Amazigh campaign has already achieved the recognition of Tamazight (Berber) as an official language in Morocco. Activists continue to fight to include the Yennayer in the calendar of national holidays.

Mounir Kejji, an Amazigh activist told MWN that Sunday was not the first time Amazigh people have gathered at the Parliament to celebrate Yennayer. 

“Celebrating Yennayer in front of the Parliament, as political symbolism, is to make the voice of Amazigh people heard and it is also a call for the government to do justice. The festivities have a civilized dimension embodied in the ancient history of North Africa,” said Kejji.

Moroccan Chicken Rfissa

Uncertain historical roots

Though Amazigh activists argue that Yennayer dates back nearly 3000 years, and that it is an intrinsic part of North African culture and history, many researchers refute this, suggesting, instead, that it is a modern invention and is not part of Morocco’s heritage.

In response to this argument and the theory that the Amazigh heritage belongs to the era of ignorance, Kejji said Amazigh culture was actually more advanced than the Arab heritage. “Amazigh people at that time had an agricultural reform and also had many Amazigh authors who mastered Latin,” Kejji explained.

The activist used traditional Amazigh attitudes towards women to illustrate his point saying the Imazighen historically had a queen, while the Arabs used to prefer men over women and would not accept a woman ruling over them.

Kejji went on to argue that throughout Morocco’s history the Imazighen were subjected to deliberate cultural exclusion. This was true, he said, from the era of the Phoenicians, the Byzantine, and the Romans to when Arabs arrived in Morocco, bringing Islam with them.

The activist considers denying recognition of Yennayer as a form of exclusion.

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Moroccan researcher Abdel Rahmad Farkish, meanwhile, says Yennayer was, in fact, an invention of France, intended to provoke a war between Arabs and Amazigh in Morocco.

“It is an invention by some Kabyle Amazigh in Algeria, belonging to the Berber Academy in Paris,” said Farkish, illustrating how the festival emerged in the 1980s. 

Another Moroccan critic, sheikh Hassan Ali El Kettani has shared his stance on the Yennayer from a religious point of view.

In a Facebook post, El Kettani said,” it has been decided by Muslim scholars that it is forbidden to celebrate the pre-Islamic festivals.”

Amazigh activists and historians believe that the origin of Yennayer goes back to 950 BC. They claim it marks the history of the Amazigh army led by Sheshonq defeating the Pharaoh’s army to conquer Egypt.

“There is no evidence to prove that. In which documented source did these events happen,” pointed out El Kettnani, underlining that such events were invented to create division and to disperse Muslims.”

Narrating his own experience, Kejji said that when he was in Siwa oasis in Egypt he was fortunate enough to attend Yennayer festivities. 

According to Kejji, Yennayer has long existed and is celebrated in other countries where Amazigh people have lived, namely in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The only difference, he continued, was the type of dishes prepared for the holy day as the region is geographically immense.

The Rabat-based activist believes many regions have lost their identity through the exclusion of Tamazight (Amazigh language) and Amazigh customs and culture. This, he said, is a result of factors of Arab nationalism and ideology.

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Kejji gave examples of certain Moroccan regions that lost their identity. Until1895, he asserted, people living in Chefchaouen, Ouazzane, Taounate and neighboring areas used to speak Tamazight. But now, they only speak Moroccan dialect and assert that they are Arabs, not Amazigh.

As the debate over the validity of Yennayer rages on and Amazigh activists continue to call for recognition from the government, the majority of Morocco’s Imazighen continue to celebrate and respect both their ancient Amazigh culture and their Moroccaness.