What it’s like to feel new again, or What’s all this Berber Stuff?

I spend a lot of time on my blog talking about the so-called Arab World, which really just describes countries where Arabic is the chief language.  That makes sense, because I live in a community where Arabic is spoken almost exclusively outside of the home, and I rarely encounter anything else.  But Morocco isn’t exactly Arab, or at least, it’s not just Arab.  There’s an entire other language and culture with sets of tribal dialects, together known as Shilha (Tamazight or Tashelheit).

The best way I know to describe this language or this culture is to make an unfair comparison: try thinking of it as though Berbers are to Morocco what Native Americans are to the United States.  The one exception is that the Berber community permeates and is extremely important to Moroccan life and culture.  A large portion of the population has Berber roots.

You actually know the word “berber” already, because it comes into the English as the word “barbaric.”  That obviously has negative connotations, but the term didn’t always carry such negativity.  It comes originally from Latin or Greek and means “foreigner,” which is a bit ironic since the Berbers, at least the ones in Morocco (Berbers are spread across Northern Africa), probably existed here before Arab culture conquered.

Not to go into a huge history lesson, but I think that’s all worth mentioning, because it’s a huge part of Morocco that I’m just unaware of solely because I’m constrained to Arabic.  But many Peace Corps volunteers are trained currently to speak the Berber languages, and even just an hour away, there are volunteers speaking this language, and since many Moroccans can speak three or four languages, many of them know one of the Berber dialects and will use it chiefly in the home.

This past weekend, I was thrown into a few Berber communities where, while many people may know Arabic, Shilha seems to be the chief language.  It was a lot like stepping into a new situation where I knew nothing again, and it was fitting to have that experience at the year-mark.  It brought everything full circle.

I traveled with several volunteers to the Imilchil Wedding Festival in the High Atlas Mountains, a festival that dates back at least more than a hundred years in Morocco.  It’s called the Wedding Festival because fathers bring their daughters veiled and dressed in shiny, white kaftans.  Men interested in the girl might ask to see her face or flirt a little before offering the father a dowry if he was interested in making the wedding arrangement.  Then, if the dowry was good enough, the two would marry right there at the festival.

Today, the festival has changed.  There are still wedding arrangements happening, though a lot of it may be staged.  There are no longer weddings.  Instead, the festival is a giant souq, or market.   It’s like Goodwill but Moroccan and cheaper.  The entire festival becomes a makeshift city of sorts with restaurants and cafe’s and everything you can ever imagine to purchase from donkeys and camels to clothes and rugs.  I made two purchases to  buy rugs I thought were beautiful, one of which I haggled down until I got it for half the asking price, taking it from $45 to about $20.

But what made the festival especially nice was the other volunteers, most of whom were friends of Caity and Avery and in their staging group.  I’ve sort of been adopted into their group of friends, and it’s just a solid group of really wholesome people.  In fact, our first night on the way to the Festival, we stayed in Rich with our friend Galen who had painted his house sea blue and managed to wrangle together multiple couches and bookcases for an incredibly comfortable volunteer house.  We cooked lentils and made salad and just sat around talking about Moroccan and American culture.  Having spent the past few weeks working hard in preparation for our HIV Education workshop, sitting in a sea blue room eating lentils with friends was the perfect way to relax after a hard but successful project.

The next few days were chock-full of riding in transits through beautiful, mountainous landscapes, closing our eyes and covering our faces to avoid the dusty wind, sifting through piles and piles of .12 cent clothes, and laughter, lots and lots of laughter.

As I spent time sitting back and thinking about how I’d been here in this beautiful country for one year, what struck me most was how happy I am to be in this place, to live in this moment appreciating everything from a distant mountain to sitting around with old and new friends cracking jokes and loving a more simple life than we’d ever lived before.

…but of course, to answer your most important question: no, I didn’t offer a dowry or marry a Moroccan girl; I’m perfectly happy with Liz.

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2 Comments

  1. Salaam~ I just happened to come across your blog. I was a PCV in Rich in 1994-1996, staying at Lahcen Azougal’s parents home in Tahmident neighborhood. I have so many fond memories of my neighbors and the whole wonderful experience, including the moussem in Imilchil. If you are around Rich and Lahcen’s home, please send a big HELLO from Suzanne. I have to think someone will still remember me! Cheers and enjoy your time there.

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