Berber Women’s Oral Knowledge – Fatima Sadiki


Berber women, generally rural and illiterate, express religion and other aspects of their life experiences by using means that are very close to their daily activities and that make sense for them: orality, rituality and art. These ancestral means of expression have always been used by Berber women to record individual, communal, and universal dreams and concerns. Although these expressions fall outside the realm of conventional knowledge, they challenge received ways of thinking about women’s orality and cast doubt on our faith in the inherent superiority of writing over orality and urban over rural.

Berber women’s use of their native language in their various expressions throughout the history of Morocco have rendered orality a characterizing trait of Moroccan culture even with the advent of literacy. Women and their language are thus the backbone of orality. Women’s oral knowledge has been instrumental in the making of the history and present of Moroccans.

Wikipedia defines orality (as opposed to writing):

“thought and verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population.”

This definition implies that orality goes beyond oral tradition to encompass every aspect of life. Indeed, in spite of the fact that writing has been used in Morocco since time immemorial, orality is still so vivid and dynamic that it has become a fundamental component of Moroccan culture which differentiates it from the mainstream cultures of the global north. For example, oral blessings, curses, insults, and profanity are more consequential in Moroccan culture than in Western cultures, and conversation is perceived as a means of bonding between people at both the affective and transactional levels. 3 Indeed, the power of lkelma/awal (the oral word in Moroccan Arabic and Berber, respectively) is attested in many deep aspects of Moroccan culture, such as marriage and business contracts, and legacies after death. Up to the 1950s, such contracts and legacies 3 were concluded orally. Orality is also associated with spirituality: the Qur’an is still learned by rote and the call for prayer is still publicly announced orally five times a day.

Since Morocco’s independence in 1956, a growing number of Moroccan writers and thinkers have started to re-claim orality as a nourishing component of written literature. Examples are Driss Charibi’s novel La Civilisation, ma Mère!… (1972) and Mohamed Khair Eddine’s novel Légende et Vie d’Agoun’chich (1984). Both novels highlight orality as a substratum that characterizes Moroccan postcolonial Arabophone and Francophone literature.

Orality is also a medium of expressing the self and its reactions to its immediate and larger contexts. As such, orality becomes “oral literature”, a genre that is strong and alive in Morocco. For example, oral storytellers are often seen in the market places, cafes, but also in homes, and centuries-old poetry is still recited among literate and illiterate people.

Oral literature falls outside the “official” literature in Morocco and is both more complex and less accessible than it. This literature is in most cases produced by poor illiterate men and women who do not have an official voice. It is marginalized because it does not meet the “modern” needs of Moroccan society, among which using the written medium. From this perspective, attitude to orality in Morocco is ambivalent: orality is perceived as both a “degenerate”, “vulgar” and “lower class” medium of expression, and a powerful symbol of identity and “authenticity”. The negative attitude to orality originates in the fact that it is transmitted by non-prestigious mother tongues (Berber and Moroccan Arabic), and the positive attitude originates in the fact that orality is what distinguishes Moroccan culture from Western literate cultures in cross-cultural encounters.

Orality is more associated with women than men in Morocco. Women keep households together, raise children, transmit and recreate the traditions and values that characterize Moroccan culture. Moroccan women are conscious of the significance of this role and, thus, use oral literature to both carry out their social duties and express their inner selves (Sadiqi 2003). As orality is also related to illiteracy and given that the majority of illiterates in Morocco are women, the latter express their inner self, transmit various types of knowledge to their children, and communicate with the world outside home through the oral medium. The written medium is generally perceived by these women as alien; and even when the written languages (Standard Arabic and French4 ) are used orally in the audio-visual media, non-literate women do not readily identify with these languages.

Zakia Elyoubi – Café Clock story teller

Freedom, Boldness, and Political Leadership

Berber women have been historically associated with the broad female attributes of freedom, boldness, and political leadership. Although it is hard for many people today to conceive of such female attributes, Kahina, whose name means “priestess”, “prophetess” or both, was an outstanding Berber queen, notorious army leader and warrior who was born 600s CE in the Aures Mountains of what is now Algeria. According to Ibn Khaldun, Kahina succeeded in temporally holding conquering Arab armies who sought to introduce Islam to the local Berber tribes in Ifriqya (the Berber name of North Africa). According to Marçais (2003), the Berbers of the seventh century were not religiously homogenous, and Christian, Jewish and pagan Berbers co-existed in what is now Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, and Kahina emerged as a war-leader and strategist who could unite, albeit for only five years, the Berber tribes during a particularly difficult period. Pursuant to her defeat by the Arabs, Kahina asked her three sons to join the Arabs and took her own life. Ultimately, Kahina’s sons participated in invading Europe and the subjugation of Spain and Portugal.

ccording tp Marçais (2003), Berber women’s boldness constituted a natural mix with their orality. Kahina’s speeches and poems were all destroyed after her death, only a short poem titled “My Berber Horse” survived :

Run, Run my Berber Horse!

Never defeated by Arabs

Will you forever be!

Dihya memorial in Khenchela, Algeria

Language Loyalty

Berber women have used orality to express their loyalty to their mother tongue. A song called “With the Shepherds” by the Tunisian pop singer Saliha and which achieved immense fame in the 1950s, retraces the pains of exile by the Berbers of Djebel Wislat, who fiercely resisted the Turkish Beylical army in the middle of the eighteenth century9 . The women especially suffered humiliation and marginalization. In the following excerpt (Sadiqi et al, 2009), Selma, a woman’s name symbolizing the Berbers of Djebel Wislat were forced into exile, poverty, and marginalization:

With the Sherpherds

My child, my beloved

 At daybreak fell lost

O, Selma, my dear!

Fate has decided

That people can become black

After being white

Patience, Djebel Wislat

Patience, mount of death

Misfortune will assail you

Exile is our fate

Destiny, malediction

Or desire for escape

Shall I have peace one day?

Or of suffering shall I die!

Language loyalty developed into militancy for language and cultural rights in Morocco from the mid-1980s onward during what has come to be known as “Berber revival”. Fatima Tabamraant (Sadiqi et al 2009) is one of the icons of this revival. A staunch supporter of the writing and teaching of Berber, she never misses an occasion to exhort women to seek literacy in Berber as the excerpt below (Sadiqi et al 2009) illustrates:

Wake up, sisters!

Let us unite, sisters!

Life is no longer as it used to be.

Now we all need knowledge,

Even if we’ve never been to school.

Wake up and grab your chance,

For it’s never too late for learning.

We all need learning, from cradle to grave.

Wake up, sisters and enjoy learning.

On May 2, 2012, Fatima Tabamraant, now a member of the parliament, posed a question to the president of the parliament in Berber. That was the first ever time Berber was officially used in the Moroccan parliament .

Fatima Tabaamrant

Expressing spirituality

Berber women also used to invest the powerful field of spirituality and religious authority (Mernissi 1977). Rausch (2006) recorded and translated a considerable number of Berber women’s spiritual chanted poetry; here is an example:

O Muhammad, we want to find you on the Day of Judgment.

If only we could be your guests in the graveyard.

The houries of paradise, they are standing at the entrance.

The houries of paradise, they are standing at the entrance.

The women of this world, they are standing at the gate.

We are better than those who always have what they need.

We are in this world, so our troubles and faults are many.

When we grind our grain, we hold our children in our arms.

We take water from the well for others.

We bring it to them day and night.

Satan, the devil, he tempts us.

Satan, the devil, he tempts us.

Satan, the devil, he tempts us,

Satan. the devil, he tempts us.

When we speak of the Messenger, our hearts are cleansed of sin.

Peace be upon you O Master of Lights, O Flower of everyone who is born.

In the above poem, the worship of God is inextricable from women’s everyday chores. This type of oral poetry escaped the hegemony of written Arabic and French in schools without loosing touch with the expression of religion in a unique way. It also highlights the historical link between the south of Morocco and Sub-Saharan countries where this type of poetry was immortalized by women like Asma’u (Beverly Mack 2004).

Indeed, even those Muslim women who acquire knowledge through the written word often tend to favor oral means of imparting and (re)constructing knowledge. This is certainly true in the case of some Berber women who managed to impose their authority in zawiyas (religious brotherhoods) and mosques (Elboudrari 1993, Rausch 2006). A residue of a rich repertoire of women’s Sufi didactic poetry is a type of oral texts that women still sing in the south of Morocco. Other women in the region achieved social power through the ability to heal physical and mental illness.

See original article: Berber Women’s Oral Knowledge.

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