Memory and (de)colonization in the Maghreb

Political and military needs were answered with claims that Berbers inhabited mountainous areas and Arabs the plains. Berbers were seen as sedentary peoples, Arabs as nomads. Religion was regarded an Arab prerogative, and the Berbers were pictured as only superficially islamicized but islamicized nevertheless. French missionaries were out to convert the Berbers to Christianity, much to the discontent of the colonial administration out of fear it would encourage Islamic sentiments overall. Islam remained an obstacle and problem the French never came to solve (Lorcin, 1995). As the colonial project progressed, the idea that ethnicity, culture and religiosity were tied to geographical areas within Algeria developed gradually. Within Maghrebi historiography, these ideas are known as the Kabyle (Algeria) or Berber ‘myth’ (for the Maghreb as a whole).

Notwithstanding the specificity of the Algerian case, Algeria henceforth became a point of reference for both Morocco and Tunisia. In the latter, the stereotypes existed but were never converted into policy (Lorcin, 1995). In Algeria, policies and legislation would never come to be based on the myth and upon a separation between Arabs and Berbers, discrediting the former and favoring the latter. However, in Morocco, it did. There, the ethnic divide between Berbers and Arabs existed not only as a discourse but also as a practice. As France’s military control over le Maroc utile grew, geographical maps took stock of the diverse tribal groups. The latter were, in turn, well documented by so-called cartes and fiches de tribus that were researched and written by members of an academic committee (Burke, 2007). Such commissions and ethnographers’ reports were particularly constitutive of the colonies’ epistemic productions and power structures (Stoler, 2009).

This new politics was meant to prevent a repeat of the mistakes made in Algeria where the favoring of Arabic language and Islamic law had resulted in unexpected anti-French nationalist sentiments. The French feared similar developments in Morocco. A rising Moroccan nationalist opposition, unifying ‘Arabs’ and ‘Berbers’, would obstruct France’s attempts to gain control over Morocco by divide-and-rule tactics. Islam and Arab culture were limited to the makhzen, where the central state power was located. Berbers were viewed as the original inhabitants of North Africa, with ‘probable’ European origins and preserved customs, rituals and superstitions of previous faiths, most notably paganism and Christianity. Their natural distrust of personified power reflected their democratic spirit. In addition, they were said to be monogamous and to treat their women in a more ‘European’ way than Arabs.

Moreover, the Berbers were thought to be particularly attached to their own customary laws and use of tribal councils, set on preserving their own language, customs and ‘traditions’. Arabs and Berbers were thus seen as bounded groups, as incompatible units with clear and strict, even ‘natural’ boundaries. The French had become ignorant of the diversity of cultures and languages that had marked North African history. As such, ethnography and historiography came to evolve around dichotomous axes, around which there was only room for Berber and Arab culture. This lasted well into the following decades after independence in 1956. One might argue that French colonial history continues to underscore Moroccan and Algerian national historical culture and their respective conceptions of ethnic, cultural and religious identities in particular.

In the long run, the dichotomy created by the French impacted the Berber speaking populations more than the Arab speaking populations (Gross & McMurray, 1993). In the independent Moroccan state, support for the Berber case was seen as support for policies having originated during the French colonial regime. Any sign of so-called Berberism was viewed as a ‘relic of the colonial past’ (Maddy-Weitzman, 2007: 30). The ruling nationalist Istiqlal party sought to incorporate the Berbers into one larger Moroccan national identity solely based on Arabism and Islam. Moroccans involved in the urban nationalist movement operated in secret societies. They had been acquainted and familiarized with both European and Arab ideas of nationalism, particularly those that had taken shape in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and other Maghrebi countries through several kinds of media, theater and travels. Sometimes, these elite had even been educated in Egypt. Their ideology was predominantly rooted in anti-colonial struggles and nationalist currents (Burke, 1972; Segalla, 2009; Wyrtzen, 2011). The concept of ‘Moroccanism’ solved the Berber-Arab issue. Immediately after independence, fundamental decisions were made and education especially proved a site where national identity was to be reimagined (Maddy-Weitzman, 2011; Segalla, 2009).

The Berbers henceforth obtained an ambiguous position in the Moroccan national narrative inspired by Arabism and Islam, both temporally and spatially. During the process of decolonization, the ‘Berber’ remained a signifier of ‘otherness’. Regarded neither fully as insiders nor as outsiders, the Berbers were represented as the Arabs’ distant cousins, thus equally of Arab origin, albeit in a more primitive and indigenous state. The Berbers were to remain ‘other’ but were also assimilated into the historical destiny of the Arab and Islamic nation (McDougall, 2003, 2006). In 1961, Morocco was officially defined as an Arab and Islamic nation-state and constitutional monarchy. Three years prior, Morocco had become a member of the Arab League. The League co-financed a Rabat-based institution that set out to promote Arabization in the educational system in Morocco (Grandguillaume, 1983; Maddy-Weitzman, 2011).

The dichotomy between Arabs and Berbers was henceforth not erased but rather re-thought and re-worked. In what follows, I will thus look at the Berber myth as a form of cultural memory (Erll, 2008) and more particularly, as a schematic narrative template (Wertsch, 2008a) that reflects a specific, cultural type of producing identities in the contemporary Maghreb that draws on a binary category that was invented during colonial times and continues to underscore identity-making. Wertsch (2008a: 123) views schematic narrative templates as productions of ‘(...) replicas that vary in their details but reflect a single general story line. In contrast to specific narratives, these templates do not deal with just one concrete episode from the past I In such contexts where ideology is dominantly felt, identities are fragile and memories are easily manipulated. In Moroccan history education, the ideology of the state prevails. It is a form of political memory that serves a political order, that is, that of the Arab and Islamic nation-state.

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