Berbers welcome Amazigh New Year

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    Berbers in North Africa are heralding in the Amazigh New Year, with festivities showcasing traditional food, music and dance planned throughout the region.

    Friday marks the first day of the year 2968 for North Africa’s indigenous inhabitants, who are also known as Amazigh.

    The Amazigh New Year – or Yennayer, as it is locally called – is the first day of the agricultural calendar used by Berbers for millenia. 

    WATCH: Libya’s Amazigh celebrate spring festival

    Ahmed Assid, an Amazigh activist, told Al Jazeera the event has a “significant historical connotation” for Berbers: “It dates back to ancient times when the Amazigh king Shoshenq I was enthroned in Egypt, after defeating Ramses III.”

    In Morocco, where Yennayer is celebrated by both Arab and Berber communities, some Arabs refer to the event as “Aam Alfilahi” or “Haguza”, which mean the “agrarian year”.

    Berbers, on the other hand, refer to the event as “Id Suggas”, meaning the “night of the year”.

    North Africans mark the occasion with activities such as Amazigh dance performances called “Ahwach” and “Ahidous”.

    Celebrations also feature performances by Berber artists, along with educational activities.

    To mark the occasion, Berbers prepare traditional dishes, such as tagola – a meal comprising corn kernels mixed with butter, accompanied by ghee, and with the seed of a date hidden inside.

    “The person who finds the seed of date inside the tagola plate is believed to be blessed throughout the whole year,” said Hafida Id Abbou, a Moroccan Amazigh who celebrates every year.

    Another dish, known as orkimen, is made using wheat and dry fava beans. It is served as a soup.

    As with most North African meals, couscous is also served.

    National holiday

    Many Moroccans believe that given the country’s deep Berber roots, Yennayer should be a declared a national holiday.

    Neighbouring Algeria, which also has a large Berber population, has already declared January 12 a national holiday, and Amazigh activists in Morocco want their government to do the same.

    In late December, several Amazigh groups signed a memorandum addressed to Moroccan Prime Minister Saad Eddine el-Othmani, urging him to declare the day a national holiday in Morocco.

    Government officials said the content of the memorandum was being studied. 

    Moroccan Amazigh residents celebrate the Amazigh New Year [Reuters]

    Hamidi Lihi, spokesman for the National Federation of Amazigh Associations in Morocco, told Al Jazeera the event was an important part of Moroccan culture.

    “All Moroccans have the right to know and celebrate this special day that marks the history of Amazigh from one generation to another,” he said.

    “We want this day to be a national holiday because it is a very significant historical event that should be nationally recognised.”

    Origins of North Africa’s Berbers

    Berbers inhabit an area spanning most of North Africa, with large populations in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and western Egypt.

    Berber tribes and ethnic groups can also be found as far south as Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.

    While forming substantial populations in these countries, the Tamazight languages have only recently started to gain formal recognition.

    The word Tamazight refers to the spectrum of related dialects spoken by the Berber people. 

    WATCH: Amazigh look to regain language in Libya

    In 2011, Morocco became the only country in the world to officially recognise Tamazight, though Berber dialects have “national” language status in Algeria, Mali and Niger.

    In the early 2000s, the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture was launched in Rabat, and Tamazight lessons were introduced in primary schools.

    An Amazigh TV channel was also launched in 2006.

    Amazigh activist Ahmed Assid said that such recognition was a welcome development.

    “In recent years, we have received sponsorship from the government,” he said.

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    “Many political parties participate in these annual ceremonies, and that is very important for us because we are striving for government’s recognition.”

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