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Amazigh Arts in Morocco

Women Shaping Berber Identity

By Cynthia Becker

Publication Year: 2006

In southeastern Morocco, around the oasis of Tafilalet, the Ait Khabbash people weave brightly colored carpets, embroider indigo head coverings, paint their faces with saffron, and wear ornate jewelry. Their extraordinarily detailed arts are rich in cultural symbolism; they are always breathtakingly beautiful—and they are typically made by women. Like other Amazigh (Berber) groups (but in contrast to the Arab societies of North Africa), the Ait Khabbash have entrusted their artistic responsibilities to women. Cynthia Becker spent years in Morocco living among these women and, through family connections and female fellowship, achieved unprecedented access to the artistic rituals of the Ait Khabbash. The result is more than a stunning examination of the arts themselves, it is also an illumination of women's roles in Islamic North Africa and the many ways in which women negotiate complex social and religious issues. One of the reasons Amazigh women are artists is that the arts are expressions of ethnic identity, and it follows that the guardians of Amazigh identity ought to be those who literally ensure its continuation from generation to generation, the Amazigh women. Not surprisingly, the arts are visual expressions of womanhood, and fertility symbols are prevalent. Controlling the visual symbols of Amazigh identity has given these women power and prestige. Their clothing, tattoos, and jewelry are public identity statements; such public artistic expressions contrast with the stereotype that women in the Islamic world are secluded and veiled. But their role as public identity symbols can also be restrictive, and history (French colonialism, the subsequent rise of an Arab-dominated government in Morocco, and the recent emergence of a transnational Berber movement) has forced Ait Khabbash women to adapt their arts as their people adapt to the contemporary world. By framing Amazigh arts with historical and cultural context, Cynthia Becker allows the reader to see the full measure of these fascinating artworks.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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p. vii

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A Note on Transcription and Transliteration

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pp. ix-x

The Ait Atta, the focus of this book, speak an Amazigh language called Tama-zight, found in the Middle Atlas Mountains and the southeastern region of Morocco. The term ‘‘Tamazight’’ is also used more generally by scholars to refer to a group of closely related Afro-Asiatic languages spoken throughout northwestern Africa. In this book the term ‘‘Tamazight’’ refers both to the...

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pp. xi-xiii

This book was a communal endeavor that involved numerous people, including my family in Morocco: Mama Lhacen and her children Zohra, Brahim, Fatima, Erqia, Ali, and Khira Ouadderrou. Brahim’s wife, Khadija, and their children Najat, Nora, Seham, Muhammad, and Hamza further enriched my life in Morocco. Ali’s wife, Fatima, and their children Hamid and Hassan as...

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pp. 1-14

When I first arrived in Morocco in 1993 with the intention of learning about Berber art, I soon discovered that women rather than men were the artists in Berber societies. Berber women wove brightly colored carpets. They decorated their faces with tattoos, dyed their hands and feet with henna, and painted their faces with saffron.They also embroidered brightly colored motifs on their...

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ONE: Ait Khabbash Textiles: Weaving Metaphors of Identity

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pp. 15-46

A commonality among Amazigh art across Morocco is the predominant place of textiles. Amazigh women are renowned for the brightly colored carpets, blankets, and clothing that they weave from goat, sheep, and camel wool, and Ait Khabbash women are no exception. In addition to the functionality of these...

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TWO: The Art of Dressing the Body

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pp. 47-75

Ait Khabbash gender roles are conveyed by more than just the color and design of their woven textiles. Women also use dress, which includes body painting, tattooing, jewelry, hairdos, and headgear (both in the way it is worn and in its design), to convey their gender identity.1 It is through...

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THREE: Dance Performances: Negotiating Gender and Social Change

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pp. 76-94

Another important art form of the Ait Khabbash is aḥidous, a collective performance at weddings and other celebrations that incorporates oral poetry. Although aḥidous performances are common to many Amazigh groups in central and southern Morocco, each group has its particular...

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FOUR: Women as Public Symbols of Identity: The Adornment of the Bride and Groom

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pp. 95-133

Ait Khabbash women celebrate weddings with a fervor that matches the scorching heat of the summer wedding season. They spend hours sitting with the bride in a tent constructed specifically for the occasion and for three days chant songs, beat drums, and dance, re-creating the marriage ceremony passed down from...

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FIVE: Performing Amazigh Gender Roles: Wedding Ceremonies

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pp. 134-161

As a complement to the discussion of the wedding preparations in the previous chapter, this chapter concentrates on the events that occur during the actual three-day wedding ceremony. Ait Khabbash weddings are not religious ceremonies. In order to marry officially, the bride and groom sign marriage papers at the local...

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SIX: Oh, My Sudanese Mother: The Legacy of Slavery in Ait Khabbash Art

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pp. 162-176

As earlier chapters have shown, Ait Khabbash arts have been shaped by historical changes and contact with other cultures. One such influence not yet discussed has been their participation in the trans- Saharan slave trade. From as early as the ninth century, human beings from Sudanic Africa were forcefully enslaved and brought into North Africa by the...

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SEVEN: Contemporary Amazigh Arts: Giving Material Form to Amazigh Consciousness

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pp. 177-194

Amazigh arts in many areas of Morocco have drastically changed since Moroccan independence from French colonization in 1956. As discussed earlier, by the 1960s the majority of Ait Khabbash had abandoned their nomadic lifestyles, settling in towns where Arabic is widely spoken. The result was a dramatic change in Amazigh women’s lives and the...

APPENDIX: Selected Songs from Ait Khabbash Weddings

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pp. 195-199


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pp. 201-210


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pp. 211-217


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pp. 219-225

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795914
E-ISBN-10: 0292795912
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292712959
Print-ISBN-10: 0292712952

Page Count: 239
Illustrations: 82 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 568018126
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Amazigh Arts in Morocco

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Arts, Berber -- Morocco.
  • Women artists -- Morocco.
  • Ethnicity in art.
  • Identity (Psychology) in art.
  • Berbers -- Morocco -- Social life and customs.
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