Monday, December 12, 2011

Name Post: Amazigh Names, Policies in Practice

Street in Azrou

Although my last week in Fez and Rabat was mainly spent catching up with my relatives and exploring some new parts of Morocco, I did meet with Professor Mohamed Ouakrime, who works in the Department of English at the Universitie Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah in Fez. Professor Ouakrime was one of the only research contacts I had before coming to Morocco because a friend sent me his article, “Amazigh Toponyms: A Historical Perpsective” that focuses on Amazigh (Berber) place names. He’s from Azrou, a town in the Middle Atlas region that’s largely populated by Amazigh people and because of this, he’s interested in questions of naming and Amazigh identity on a personal level. He kindly agreed to let me share pieces of our conversation with you.


I was curious to find out when he believed discrimination against Amazigh names began, and what the government’s justification for it is. What I learned was that just within the last year there have been many fewer cases where the government has rejected Amazigh names (or at least where families haven’t been able to appeal an initial rejection). In part this could be because the current King is known for his reforms that have promoted Amazigh culture and language, or perhaps because the recent protests of human rights groups after the ban of these names in 2009 have been effective.

Professor Ouakrime believes that a lot of the anti-Amazigh discrimination arose right after the Moroccan independence movement (1956), when there was a fear of sectionalism and regionalism. It was around independence when names began to be monitored and there was a move to get births (and names) registered in more formal documentation even in rural areas. Naturally, it was also around independence when there was a move to determine just what a Moroccan identity looks like (or, in this case, sounds like). The justification against Amazigh names was that these names do not represent a “Moroccan identity” (as I’ve pointed out previously, this means that a “Moroccan identity” is defined as excluding anything that was pre-Islamic), and also justified by the belief that if Amazigh names are allowed, it would mean any name could be allowed.

This justification is easily punctured. As an article I recently read pointed out, what is the difference, really, between naming your child Shams (sun in Arabic) and Tafoukt (sun in Amazigh)?* One possible rationale (though not officially given by the government), could be the meaning of Arabic names and Amazigh names. Many of the Arabic names that are used today reference Muslim heros and Professor Ouakrime told me that in the 1950s every family had a Mohammed and a Fatima in it. He thinks that today almost every family still does. Because Amazigh names pre-date Islam and come from a separate system of beliefs, many of these names focus on nature and the stars instead. I found a list of names that were recently initially rejected by the government and then accepted. They include:

  • Ayyur – “moon” in Tamazight
  • Massine – the diminutive form of Massinissa, the name of an ancient Berber king
  • Sifaw – “enlightened” in Tamazight
  • Tara – the name of an aromatic plant in Tamazight
  • Tiziri – “moonlight” in Tamazight

(List from:

Professor Ouakrime believes that most frequently, the people who have the most trouble giving their children the names they want to are Amazighs living in rural areas of Morocco. He believes that these are often people who aren’t sure of the law, or who don’t know the policies about contesting the decision of a civil servant to reject a name. Interesting to me was that he also believes families are more likely to contest a name’s rejection if it is an Amazigh name for a son. He says there are fewer Amazigh names used for daughters because, since they are not the ones passing on the family’s name, it isn’t worth the effort trying to get the name accepted.

We also talked about Amazigh surnames, and how most people didn’t have formal documentation of their names (at least in rural areas in Morocco) until the 1950s. Growing up in Azrou, Professor Ouakrime witnessed first hand people going through the process of registration. He explained to me that most surnames in Morocco refer to membership in a particular family, region, or tribe. He showed me how Amazigh surnames are often transliterated into Arabic surnames when people register their names.

He explained that the prefixes “Ait” or “Ou” are often at the front of an Amazigh surname to indicate “from” or “of”. The name of the tribe would then be filled in. For example, a common surname of those belonging to a tribe in the Middle Atlas is “Ait Sadden.” He explained to me that this name is often changed to be an Arabic one on official documentation. “Ait Sadden” (“belonging to the Sadden tribe”) is often changed to “Ousadden” (“from Sadden”) and then simply to “Sidni” in Arabic.

I think that this process of translation is not dissimilar to what happened to many European immigrants at Ellis Island when, upon arrival, they announced their names and American civil servants wrote them down and guessed at the spelling. What happened in several rural areas in Morocco when this registration process began was that a lot of people ended up being given names by the civil servants they were registering with. The civil servants would ask where the family was from, and if they weren’t sure or didn't know what name they should officially hold, the civil servant would give them an arbitrary surname on paper.

This arbitrary surname didn’t have much power in their daily lives. These people were still known to their neighbors by whatever name they had been called before registering. But problems arose when their children went to school and it was there they learned, often for the first time, what name had been chosen for their family. Professor Ouakrime told me about several instances where these civil servants, abusing their power, had given these families laughable surnames on their formal documents. It became a question of class and a question of power and these families were often looked down on by government officials for not having obtained formal documentation earlier. When the kids of these families got to school, they were made fun of for their names, which were not, in fact, their own, nor were they names that these kids used in their lives at home. Without knowing how to go to court or appeal to authorities to change it, these names often stuck in families for generations (at least on paper).

In medinas across Morocco, you can find these painted blocks on the wall. A friend explained to me that each box is for the symbol of different political parties; this way the public can see which parties are competing in any upcoming election.

I’m often surprised by how something as random as which civil servant a person interacted with could shape something as colossal as a name. It’s amazing to me to think that the formal names of many Amazigh people living in the Middle Atlas right now was determined by something as arbitrary as who was working when they received their formal documentation in the 1950s. It’s also interesting to me, however, how little these formal names seemed to matter.

I say how little they "seemed" to matter, because I would argue these legal names are becoming increasingly important. It’s my guess that it’s because of this that in 2009 the official ban was made. As it becomes more possible (and necessary) for people across the world to hold passports, have formal documentation that will possibly make them eligible for health insurance or food stamps or registering at school, what people are called begins to matter in written form more than ever. I think this is also why the question of Amazigh names has received more publicity recently, despite the fact that Amazighs have been facing discrimination for years. It’s the reason why suddenly the difference between Shams (sun in Arabic) and Tafoukt (sun in Amazigh) matters. As people's identities in their daily lives become increasingly dependent on their legal identities, the ability to have an accurate, written representation of who they are becomes not only a question of cultural respect and tradition, but of personal rights and access to services. As the government excludes Amazigh names in their definition of what a Moroccan identity looks like on paper, they are also excluding some people from the rights that a Moroccan citizen should be entitled to.


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