Amazigh (Berber) people in North Africa and around the world celebrate their own new year, “Yennayer,” on January 12th as activists advocate for the holiday’s national recognition.
Rabat – On Sunday, January 12, while the rest of the world recovers from Gregorian Calendar New Year festivities, the Imazighen (Berber) of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Western Egypt will celebrate their 2970th Yennayer or “Amazigh New Year.”
Amazigh people celebrate Yennayer with traditional food, music, and dance on January 12th, the eve of the first day of their agrarian, or agricultural calendar. Amazigh activist, Ibrahim El Hiyani, told Morocco World News that Yennayer “is associated with the god of fertility and agriculture.”
As with most Moroccan celebrations, couscous remains a staple for Yennayer festivities—but with a caveat. Amazigh activist Lahcen Amokrane says that the Amazigh people in southeast Morocco traditionally hide a date stone or an almond in the plate couscous.
The lucky person who finds the date stone or almond in their mouthful is ‘blessed’ throughout the whole year. The lucky individual is also entrusted with the keys of ‘lakhzin,’ a room reserved for storing the family’s food.
Other dishes include “tagola,” a corn kernel, butter, ghee, Argan oil, and honey combination or a thick soup of simmered fava beans and wheat, known as “irkmen.”
Between meals, Amazigh villages host parades including children and adults, accompanied by traditional music and dress, and the green, yellow, and blue of the Amazigh flag. While each community has a unique way of celebrating Yennayer, a common history unites Amazigh people across North Africa.
Activists approximate that Yennayer originated in the Amazigh victory over Egypt in 950 B.C. According to El Hiyani, “Under the leadership of ‘Chachanq’ known also as ‘Cheshung,’ the Amazigh people established a new monarchy that ruled from Libya to Egypt. This glorious victory marked the beginning of the Amazigh date.”
While Amazigh people have celebrated Yennayer as a tribute to their history for millennia, activists have enjoyed varied success in their campaign for the holiday to be nationally recognized in Algeria and Morocco.
Moroccan-born ex-president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, recognized the holiday in 2017, but the holiday’s status in Morocco remains unofficial.
The pursuit of recognition
Amazigh activist and president of the Amazigh World Assembly, Rachid Al Rahka, echoed calls for national recognition earlier this month in a letter to King Mohammed VI and Morocco’s Head of Government, Saad Eddine El Othmani.
“Since we are on the verge of the ninth year of the Moroccan constitution’s recognition of Tamazight [Berber language] as an official language (…) we ask you to recognize the Amazigh New Year as an official national paid holiday,” Mr. Rahka wrote.
Other promoters of the Amazigh cause include Moroccan news outlet “Alalam Al Amazighi” president Amina Ben Sheik, who paralleled Mr. Rahka’s request in a letter addressed to King Mohammed IV in 2018.
While there has been significant support for national recognition of Yennayer, researchers such as Abdel Rahman Farkish have argued for Amazigh requests to be ignored by the government and have even questioned the holiday’s historical validity.
The Moroccan researcher claimed that Yennayer is an “invention by some Kabyle Amazigh in Algeria, belonging to the Berber Academy in Paris.”
When asked his opinion about Farkish’s comments, Abdelwahed Dirouche, an Amazigh activist and member of the House of Parliament, told Moroccan World News “you cannot just say it’s a French invention.” Driouche said activists are now, and will always be, calling for an official holiday.
Driouche then described the cultural significance of Yennayer. He explained that it is important not only to Amazigh people in Morocco but also to Moroccan society in general.
“Yennayer promotes religious and cultural pluralism in a world today plagued by terrorism and extremism,” Dirouche underlined.
He stressed that “Yennayer is not a holiday with religious rituals, but one that celebrates the natural wonders of children and the environment.”
Driouche, who comes from Tinghir, a city in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, cited Amazigh activism as the reason he entered politics. After working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and contributing to international conferences about Amazigh identity, he began representing the Amazigh movement in parliament.
The activist told Morocco World News that a positive response from King Muhammed to Mr. Rakha’s letter sent earlier this month would provide the constitutional support needed to officially recognize Yennayer and would help unite the Moroccan people.
As the debate about Yennayer’s fate continues, activists may look to history to engineer a plan for promoting the holiday’s national recognition.
A successful campaign
King Mohammed IV’s pivotal decision to grant Tamazight, the Amazigh tongue, official language status in Morocco in 2011 was the fruit of years of activism for the revival of Tifinagh, the Tamazight alphabet. The campaign began in 1966 with the creation of the Berber Academy in Paris (renamed the Berber Assembly in 1967).
The academy, composed of Amazigh intellectuals, artists, and journalists, published the first magazine written in Tamazight and proposed the design of the Berber flag that became a symbol of Amazigh movements all over North Africa.
Since the creation of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture in 2001, Moroccan leaders have met increased demands for the inclusion of Tamazight on road signs and in school curricula, with unprecedented national recognition of Amazigh’s culture and traditions, but have yet to include Yennayer in that group–writing off the holiday as “unhistorical.”
As Amazigh prepare hearty dishes, dance to traditional music, and celebrate their new year this week, activists’ efforts to elevate Yennayer to the status of a national holiday in Morocco will continue.