The Amazigh, or “Free Men”

Nearly every day in my town someone asks me “wes arfti shlHa?” Do you know Tashelheet? I usually smile and whip out a few phrases “iyeh, imix imix.” Yeah, a little bit. Upon hearing that, the person lights up every time and tells me Tbark3la 3lik, may God give you grace, and might even invite me to their house for lunch.

You see, even though I’ve been studying and speaking Moroccan Arabic for the past nine months… it’s not the native tongue of the majority of my community.

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Alright let’s take it back a little bit.

The Amazigh people, which means “free men,” have inhabited North Africa and The Maghreb for thousands of years. In more recent millennia, the Amazigh experienced oppression and conquest at the hands of the Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. It was the Arabs who gave them the name Berber, derived from the word “barbarian,” and began the process of Islamization.

Despite centuries of repression, the Amazigh of Morocco continue to thrive and make up nearly 45% of the population. In recent years they have successfully fought for official recognition of their language within Morocco, but vast inequality still exists.

Here in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco, where I live, the Amazigh presence is strong. Nearly every person I know in town speaks Tashelheet, the Amazigh dialect of my region, alongside Moroccan Arabic (and sometimes French too). Many of the older women and young children I’ve met only speak Tashelheet, especially as I venture out into the smaller villages surrounding my town, which can often make my attempts to integrate with my community and get to know people difficult.

After spending just a few weeks in my town, I knew that I wanted to begin studying Tashelheet. It’s important to me for my community to know that I am here to learn and be a part of their culture, not just to work. At the beginning of September I attended an Amazigh language bootcamp hosted by Peace Corps, where I studied Tashelheet for more than 60 hours over the course of nine days. The days were long and difficult, filled with more consonants in words than I ever thought possible. Despite the headaches and feeling as if my head was going to explode — learning two entirely new languages in nine months is no easy feat — it was completely worth it.

Now when people ask me if I speak Tashelheet, I can confidently say yes and begin a conversation. Or better yet — I might just begin speaking in Tashelheet first.

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