Thursday, April 21, 2016


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This Rihla is about identity and language in Marrakech, Morocco.

Say whatso thou wantest of me? Here am I, they Slave and Slave to whoso holdeth the Lamp; and I am not alone, but all the Slaves of the Wonderful Lamp which thou hendest in hand.
Alaeddin (534th Night)
Vol III Supplemental Nights
Sir Richard Burton
One Thousand Nights and a Night.

Although not fashionable because of his sociological, anthropological and very personal peccadillos I have a 17 Volume Burton Club (Bassorah) edition of Sir Richard Burton’s annotated Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night and do greatly envy his demonstrated facility with Arabic, as well as language in general. It has been calculated that Burton spoke up to 25 European, Asian and African languages and this linguistic ability was both the mark and the making of a great traveller. Were I to find a Jinni in a lamp, and my family, Bless them, has indulged my time travelling the roads and browsing the bazars of the middle and near east in search of this allegorical fantasy, I would ask for that facility alone. In setting the Jinni free I would set myself free!   

My poor personal facility for languages is something I regret enormously. Not just in the spoken form but also an inability to fully grasp the technical aspects of linguistics, thus missing out somewhat on a vital aspect of a critical understanding of our evolution as human beings. This inability to understand, if extended to many individuals at a base level, has consequences for society because when one cannot decipher what someone is saying to us (be it asking for the time-of-day or explaining the meaning of time) we consider that person rather than ourselves, which would be an admission of ignorance, because they are "unintelligible" to be somehow uncivilised and barbarian and use that perception as a barrier, as an exclusion, and often-as-not as a basis for confrontation.

In a reflection of the society they exist within, particularly where language and understanding are concerned, some cities are social rather than sociable; offering a cautious rather than curious welcome to the merchant, to the wayfarer, to the migrant, or to the barbarian.

The "Babs" of Marrakech

Not so Marrakech, either in language or attitude. I travelled there recently for ten days to stay within its city walls. Despite conflicting sensations to the contrary – the main square Jemaa el-Fna is translated as the Assembly Place of the Dead and yet was the inspiration in 2001 for the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity project – Marrakech is a genuine city of welcomes, of tolerance to human vicissitudes, of tolerance of misunderstandings and of multiple apertures of light, and language and of right-of-passage that perforate its once necessary inner and outer defensive walls.

Jemaa el-Fna looking towards Koutiba Minaret

Snail Sellers Jemaa el-Fna

In Ibn Khaldun’s 14th century book, Kitab al-‘Ibar (Book of Exemplary Information or History of the World), Volumes 6 and 7 of which cover the history of the Berber people, he talks about language and what it means. He states, when writing about the standard Arabic spoken at that time, “The language of the Mashriq (Islamic East) is somewhat different from that of the Maghreb (Islamic West), and likewise that of Andalus (Southern Spain: Land of the Vandals) from both. Yet each succeeds, with his own language, in realising his purpose and expressing what is within him. That is what is meant by “tongue” and “language”.

Marrakech as a city is fully capable of realising its “purpose” and expressing what is “within” it. It was and is the first true city of the Berber, the so-called “tongue-tied”.

To explain! The Latin Romans first encountered the native tribes of the North African coastline – most famously in the form of skirmishing and harassing javelin-throwing light cavalry, but also as light infantry – as mercenaries fighting for Carthage in the Battle for Agrigentum in Sicily in 262 BCE during the first Punic War. Most of these mercenaries would have been from the Massylii kingdom of Gala, who were then allies of Carthage and Garamantes from the south and south-east of Carthage. Further west along the present-day coastline of Algeria was the Masaesyli Kingdom of Syphax and in 202 BCE the two confederations were amalgamated into what became known in the Greco-Roman World as the Kingdom of Numidia, and a client Kingdom of Rome following the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BCE.

Polybius the Greek historian whose Histories covered the era 264-146 BCE in detail, referred to the natives of the Kabyle as Nŏmădes, from the Greek Noμας meaning “pasturing stocks”, and in Latin translations this became “Numidae”. The appellation was subsequently applied to the Kingdom of Numidia as a whole, the Kingdom of the Nomads or Numidians.

Although grudgingly admiring the horsemanship of the “Numidian cavalry” in the wars against them the Romans nevertheless considered the Massylii and Masaesyli and other Imazighen North African tribal peoples to be “barbarians”, and this was because of their language. Sallust wrote in 40 BCE, when describing the Mauri (from which the name Moor derives) peoples to the west of Numidia, as them having a “barbarous tongue”. The Imazighen peoples spoke an Afro-Asiatic language in contrast to the Indo-European Latin. 

Numidian Cavalry depicted on Trajan's Column in Rome

The descriptive word “Barbarian” derives from the Latin “barbarus”, and is itself derived from the Greek “barbaros” meaning foreign, or strange or ignorant, and was usually applied by ancient Greeks to the Persians and Medes. The Greek word (c.3000 BCE) “barbaros” itself derives from a Proto-Indo European (c.5000 BCE) word “bar-bar” meaning the “unintelligible speech of foreigners”, a “r” variant of the even earlier “ba-ba” (c.6000 BCE), an onomatopoeic imitation of a child’s babbling, which meant when applied to an individual as them being “tongue-tied”. Sanskrit, another very early derivative language (c.2000 BCE) of old Indo-Aryan and Proto-Indo-European, also had “bar-bara” which meant “stammering”.

The Romans found the Afro-Asiatic Kabyle (Taqbaylit) language of the “Numidians” unintelligible, strange and foreign and as a consequence applied the word “Barbaricae” to them as a collective. The Byzantines on the other hand, who had control of North Africa for a time, referred to the North African nomadic and settled natives as Mazikes. This may have been a derivative perhaps from the Meshwash Berber peoples of Cyrenica where the Byzantines first established, and a very established (c.1100 BCE) Libyo-Berber confederation with perhaps even earlier origins in the neolithic Capsian culture of North Africa (c.7000 BCE). Equally the word may have derived from MSSKWI, a tribal title found in the few bilingual Punic - Libyan texts extant. Whatever the origin it is thought that Mazikes as a word later informed the modern word Amazigh, the word the Berbers now use to describe themselves as a people. 

When the Arab Muslim armies invaded North Africa to rout out the Byzantines between 647 and 670 CE and establish the Islamic province of Ifriqiya they met fierce resistance by the local tribes and adopting the Roman name for the Kabyle natives referred to them as al-Barbar. The Arabs stereotypically distrusted the al-Barbar and perpetuating the original Greek and Roman understanding of “barbarous” often referred to al-Barbar as the most “contemptible” (akass al-umam) and treacherous (al-nās) of peoples, primarily because they would not keep to the terms of any pacts or treaties they agreed to.

Ibn Khaldun an Arab in his complimentary 14th century history of the Berber people tried to explain, “Their language is a foreign idiom which is different from all others. This is the very reason they were called al-Barbar.”

The collective Arabic al-Barbar name subsequently became Berber in 16th and 17th Century European literature and the name Barbary Coast was applied in general to the Moroccan-Algerian-Tunisian Rif and Kabyle coastline.

The Berber people, whose present day agricultural domiciles and nomadic ranges stretch from Libya to North West Morocco, to Senegal, to Mali and Niger, to the Hoggar mountains and Western Sahara refer to themselves in the singular as Amazigh, meaning “free man” – a similar Toureg word Amajegh also means “noble”  – and the language they speak is called Imazighen of which there are about 15 main dialects and over 300 sub-dialects. One of the largest, and most used, variants is that of Tamazight found in the Middle Atlas. In its written form it has three vowels and 38 consonants. It has been estimated that the total number of Imazighen speakers in North Africa to be about 30 million.

This notion of language and belonging is also important. Fard is a Berber word which means that the “individual is nothing without the tribe” and yet the modern Berber is often more defined by the State by the dialect he or she speaks – and thus placing his or her origins in a particular ethnographic locality – than by the “tribe” he belongs to. In Morocco Imazighen is an official language but in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya there is a reluctance (or deliberate intent) to grant official recognition and speaking an Imazighen dialect has become a core mark of identity and a touchstone of self-determination and Berber rights in these countries.

The Arabs and Berbers were always uneasy bedfellows despite having Islam in common. There was (and still is) the conflict of the rural Berber with the urban Arab and most of these conflicts over time involved a religious confrontation as well where a rigid, rural, nomadic application of faith would conflict with an urban laxity. Renewal of that faith always appeared out of the desert, from the south.

Modern Berber (Imazighen) speaking areas of North Africa
and 12th Century Trading Routes

In 1053 CE a Berber army under a Maliki Sunni law religious zealot Abdallah ibn Yasin and a Lamtuna tribal chieftain Yahya ibn Umar took control of the western and southern Sahara and the desert trade routes. They became known as the Almoravids from al-Murabitin (Men of the Ribat frontier missionary fortresses) or Mulaththamun (People of the Litham or Veil in deference to the distinctive Touareg-style head dress worn by the Lamtuna). Following the death of Yahya ibn Umar in battle in 1057 CE control of the Almorahad armies passed to his brother Abu Bakr ibn Umar. In 1062 CE ibn Umar’s handed control of his favourite wife Zaynab and the lands north of the Atlas to his successor and cousin, the charismatic and capable Yusuf ibn Tashfin and returned southwards to continue his fighting in the desert. It was ibn Tashfin who established the misr or garrison city of Marrakech, and whose early gates were barred to ibn Umar when he returned briefly from the desert warfare in 1070 CE. In 1085 ibn Tashfin's name replaces ibn Umar's on Almoravid coinage. 

Marrakech is thought to mean “Country of the Kush” or peoples from South of the Sahara and reflects the fact that it perhaps was built to garrison the large number of black South Saharans in the Almoravid armies close to the established garrison city of Aghmat. By 1080 CE ibn Yashin had conquered all of what is now present-day Mauretania, Morocco and western Algeria and in 1086 turned his attention to Spain. In the battle of Sagrajas in October 1086 the third division of ibn Yashin's army contained about 2000 black Sub-Saharan armed with curved swords and long javelins. These troops may have been part of the contingent that was first garrisoned in the new city of Marrakech.

Almoravid leader Abu Bakr in 14th Century Catalan Atlas

In 1120 CE, another Berber army, initially of Masmuda tribesmen, was gathered in Tin Mel at the foot of the Tizi N’Test pass in the High Atlas mountains south of Marrakech by the Zahiri Sunni, and self-declared Mahdi, ibn Tumart. Decrying the consensus approach (ijima) of the Maliki school of Sunni Law ibn Tumart’s followers, the al-Muwahhidun or Unitarians, became known as the Almohads. Descending out of the mountains in 1130 CE by 1173 CE the Almohads had wrested control of Morocco, most of the North African coastline, Spain and the Balearic Islands from the Almoravids.

TinMel Mosque

TinMel Mosque Mihrab

Almohad Arches in TinMel Mosque

The Almohads took control of Marrakech in 1147 CE and after destroying much of the preceding Almoravid architecture (they claimed the qibla was orientated wrongly and therefore whole buildings) it is their architectural mark (the Koutoubia, Ben Yussuf and Kashba mosques and minarets as well as the castellated city walls) that still defines the city. Around this time ‘Abd al Mu’min (1130-1163 CE), the second Caliph of the Almohads took the title Amir al-Mu’minin, Commander of the Faithful, a title the current King of Morocco Mohammed VI still retains.

Market Outside Bab el-Khemis. High Atlas
Mountains Behind.

The Almohad architecture of Marrakech however brings with it an interesting "full circle" to this story. Although the Berbers have been defined since Roman times as “Barbarians” by the inability of the Romans to understand their language, the Berbers too in a similar fashion have perpetuated a name for those they cannot understand, particularly those speaking any of the Mande languages from Mali and Guinea. The name is preserved in one of the 19 major external portal gates or babs that perforate the city walls. The gate in question is the Bab Agnaou.

Bab Agnaou Main Gate

Bab Agnaou Inner Gate

Agnaou derives from the Berber Tamazight word “agnaw” which literally means a “deaf man”, implying a man who cannot understand or speak the Berber languages. The name was applied by the Berbers, as they moved southwards towards the Senegal and Niger Rivers, to the Black Sub-Saharan Africans they came in contact with but could not understand. Unlike the Romans before them however the name was not perpetuated as derogatory towards these Black African subjects and given the fact that Marrakech, or Place of the People of Kush, was probably first built or conceived as a garrison city for Black Sub-Saharan infantry units of the Berber Almoravid army and also as a home to the later Almohad armies, the ceremonial Bab Agnaou, which lead directly to the heart of the Kashba or citadel, was constructed as one of the most elaborate and therefore most honorific entrances to the city.

Marrakech was built for people from beyond the pale of language and understanding. It embraced rather than excluded the “Barbarians” and does so today.

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