A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happy New Year 2962 to Any Amazigh Readers!

We talk a lot about "Arab Spring" or the "Arab Awakening," but not all those who have awakened are Arab. In both Libya and Tunisia, Amazigh (so-called "Berber")  populations have made their feelings known, and have won support from their brethren in Morocco and Algeria, where they constitute a larger proportion of the population. Especially in Libya, where Qadhafi forced the Amazigh to take Arab names and famously claimed the Tamazight languages are just "dialects of Arabic," the Amazigh heartland in the Jebel Nefusa became a major center of resistance. A glance back at my earlier posts on Berbers, Imazighen, and the Tamazight languages tags, will trace many of the events of the past year, with links to Amazigh videos, websites, etc.

Amazigh Flag
Many Amazigh nationalists or those seeking to reclaim a distinct identity in their own nations have taken to marking the "Amazigh New Year." Because the Islamic calendar is purely lunar and dates move around the year, agricultural societies need a solar calendar as well, to determine times to plant and harvest; in the Levant the old Semitic month names are used; in Egypt, the names of the Coptic months, and in North Africa, the names are derived from the Roman names, and the older Julian calendar is still used. Tomorrow is the first of January (Yennayer) in the Amazigh and North African agricultural calendars.

Shoshenq I (Wikipedia)
As for the era, with tomorrow as the first day of 2962, this stems from what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the invention of tradition,, a modern innovation which purports to be, and ultimately comes to be  seen as, ancient. In the 1960s, the Academie Berbere in Paris introduced a "Berber era" dating from 950 BC, the approximate date when the Pharaoh Shoshenq I (or Sheshonq I) ascended the throne of Egypt. Shoshenq was of Libyan origin, so they identified him as the first identifiable Berber in history. (They also promoted the use of Tifinagh script, which has gained some traction with Berber activists.) While not an actual historical era in the usual sense, it's a symbol of awakening Amazigh idenity.

The Amazigh are major contributors to the history and culture of North Africa, though the Arab nationalist regimes that have been in charge have underplayed their role. Algerian blogger Lameen Souag has a recent post about his hometown of Dellys, and his first anecdote (but read the whole post) depends on a bilingual pun: whereas aman means "safety" in Arabic it means "water" in Berber, and the local custom was to sprinkle water on newlyweds. But it only works if one knows both languages. North Africa is inextricably a product of Arab and Amazigh both, and to any Imazighen who may be reading this, a happy 2962 or whatever date you want.

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