Netherlands: Awakening Berber awareness

Netherlands: Awakening Berber awareness

"Many Moroccan youth have a feeling of inferiority," says Rachid el Majjaoui (23), a student in The Hague. they're addressed as cunt-Moroccan or terrorist, or think they're seen that way. El Majjaoui also suffered from it. On the streets he felt the stares of contempt prick his skin. In Morocco it wasn't much better. There he was a "Dutch dope'" that just like other foreign tourists was cheated considerably in the market.

"I felt nowhere at home," El Majjaoui says, while he works in the Amazigh cultural center Le Papillon in the Hague. The lack of appreciation lay heavily on his heart. He had nothing to be proud of.

That changed three years ago when a friend told him about the history of the Berbers in the North-Moroccan Rif mountain range - of the 335,000 Moroccans in the Netherlands it is estimated that 75% are Berbers, from the Rif. El Majjaoui didn't know about it.

He'd never learned that the Berbers were the first residents of North Africa, before the Arabs had imposed their language, cutulre and religion on them. He didn't know that the Berbers - who call themselves Imazighen, 'free people' - had a high civilization. Nobody told him about Abdelkrim Al-Khattabi, the freedom Fighter from the Rif who in the 1920s fought the Spanish occupier.

El Majjaoui's interest was awakened. He searched on the internet for his roots. The more he learned about his forefathers, the more enthusiastic he became about his origins. "Did you know that Abdelkarim made the cover of the American journal Time in 1925?" he asks. He points to a painting of his hero. It has a central place in Le Papillon, which will open officially at the end of February.

El Majjaoui is an exponent of a budding Berber awareness. More and more Moroccan-Dutch youth wear chains with the Berber symbol, take part in discussion forum on one of the many Dutch Berber sites, discover Berber writing and read old Berber tales and myths. They're beginning to shake off the fear and embarrassment which held the first generation of guest workers in its grip.

The shame is rooted in Morocco, where the regime oppressed the Berbers for decades. Their language and culture were considered backwards (because they are pre-Islamist). All initiatives of Imazighen were roughly suppressed, because they were in conflict with the national Arab ideology of unity. Only those who mastered Arabic could really advance in life.

Under the current regime - King Mohammed VI succeeded his father Hassan II in 1999 - more is possible. Though Arabic is still the official language, the Berber language (Tamazight) can now be thought here and there in schools.

For many years the Moroccan were also thrown in the 'Arabic pile' also by the Dutch government. Immigrant children had a right to education in their own language and culture, but though most Moroccan children speak Berber at home, they got Arabic lessons in school. [ed: this might also be due to requests from the parents, who see Arabic as a 'more useful' language]

That created confusion, says Farid Aouled Lahcen of the association Voice of the Dutch Moroccan Democrats (Stem van Marokkaanse Democraten in Nederland , SMDN). And then they're still between two nations. Both Morocco and the Netherlands demand that show loyalty, but they don't feel accepted in either land. According to him Islamic fundamentalists skillfully play into that situation. They offer searching youth a superior ideology with ready-made identity: 'the pure Muslim'

Aouled Lahcen is convinced that strengthening the Berber identity can be a buffer against radicalization. "On basis of experiences in the history the Berbers known all too well what imposed ideologies can cuase: alienation and confusion,' he says. If the youth know their cultural background, they are more sure of themselves.

Theater maker Chaib Massaoudi (46) also hopes to start the thinking process about Berber identity with his shows. "You should reflect about where you come from. That's your basis. From that you depart and the world lies open." Often Massaoudi adapts old Berber stories about universal themes.

Soon he'll tour through the Netherlands with his theater group Amazigh with the show Tamettut ('woman' in Berbers) about the reforms in the Moroccan family law mudawana. What are the consequences of this new law for Berber women in their daily life? Before that he toured with 'The Magic Ring' - a theater show in which children learn to speak with animals - as the Rif people do - among schools.

These stories should be told down the line, thinks Massaoudi, who came to the Netherlands when he was 18. 'My grandparents and parents had to keep silent about it when I was young. It could cost you your head."

The fear still exists, even in the Netherlands, says Mohammed Aouled Lahcen (29), who like his brother is involved in Le Papillon. The carpenter who worked in the Amazigh center stayed away after he saw the portrait of freedom fighter Abdelkarim. Mohammed Aouled Lahcen: "He was afraid that we're striving for an independent Berber state. He didn't want to be associated with that. But that is not so, we strive for equal rights."

Rachid el Majjaoui wants to inform youth his age through Le Papillon about their background. He notes how positively his friends react when he tell them the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara traveled to North Africa to get a portrait of himself with Abdelkarim. Such stories touch the 'street rabble' as well as the 'hard-studying youth'.

Source: Volkskrant (Dutch)

See also:
* Netherlands: Moroccans don't want Moroccan gov't to intervene
* Morocco: Stressing the "Arab identity"
* Netherlands: Moroccan babies get only names approved by Morocco

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