Azul: An Amazigh Indigenous Relationality

ⴰⵣⵓⵍ, Azul.

This is how we say “hello” in my native tongue, Tamazight. It is the language spoken by Amazigh people who live in Tamazgha, a name given by many Amazigh activists to the lands extending from the Canary Islands in the west, to Siwa in Egypt in the east, and Mali and Niger to the south. Amazigh means “the free person.” We do not employ the more commonly used word to describe Amazigh people, Berber. This is a derogatory term that was given to the Amazigh by settlers, meaning “that which has a foreign tongue,” and it is used to diminish the Amazigh. In light of this, it is crucial to center Amazigh Indigenous voices and cultures that historically have been marginalized. As for azul, it means “from the heart.” The Amazigh people, despite the colonial subjugation of their land and language, have remained resilient for centuries. That resilience was transferred to me by the Amazigh women in my family. My grandmother and my mother were my true heroes. These powerful women raised me to love my indigeneity, azul, or “from the heart.” They insisted on three aspects that are pivotal to the Amazigh people: akal (land), awal (language), and afgan (community).

I began this article with an Amazigh script called Tifinagh. It is an ancient script used to write Tamazight that was preserved by the Indigenous Tuareg communities. The centrality of the Tamazight language is what kept the Amazigh people resilient. Despite efforts to silence their native tongue as colonial languages took precedence, the Amazigh people have kept the Tamazight language alive; my grandmother passed it on to my mother, who then passed it on to me. I come from Ait Belkacem, an Indigenous community in the Khemisset province within the Rabat-Sale-Zemmour-Zaer region in Morocco. I grew up speaking the Amazigh dialect of the Zemmour region at home. My parents lived in Ait Belkacem until they finished junior high school and left the countryside to pursue their education in the cities of Rabat and Fes; I left Morocco for graduate school in the United States. Despite the distance from our land, we always return. Akal (“land”) is an organic connection that honors our ancestors. We embody this connection through organizing and participating in harvest celebrations and chants that preserve our Indigenous traditions and convey our attachment to and our duty to protect the soil of the land.

Afgan is the vehicle that has allowed the Amazigh people to stay connected to one another despite constant battles over land, language, and cultural freedom. Afgan is a relational endeavor that requires love and respect for the Amazigh community. This collaborative practice involves the engagement of Amazigh scholars, activists, and artists and includes the narratives of members of the Amazigh community in both Tamazgha and the diaspora. Amazigh indigeneity provides not only a reimagination of Amazigh realities and histories but also an ethical commitment that centers marginalized voices and histories that have been historically decentered.

As a faculty member at Princeton University, I recognize the value of exposing our students to Indigenous Amazigh narratives to raise awareness and amplify the voices of Indigenous communities. With that goal, I recently designed a new course centered on relationality, titled “Indigenous North Africa: Amazigh Communities,” and I am compiling a video archive of Amazigh oral histories in collaboration with Indigenous Amazigh communities in parts of Tamazgha, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and the Canary Islands. The archive will reside in the Princeton University Library. Princeton has organized efforts and initiatives to recognize international Indigenous ways of knowing, exemplified by the launch of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative at Princeton to support ethical engagement with Indigenous people. Nonetheless, an honest engagement with indigeneity requires more Indigenous visibility, and we need our non-Indigenous allies to have a deep commitment to this relationality—azul, from the heart.

Mounia Mnouer
Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies

To read about the artist Alia Bensliman’s works depicting Amazigh women, on view at Art@Bainbridge January 20–March 31, 2024, click here.