MESA Banner
Collaborative Field Building in Amazigh/Berber Studies: Academia and Community in North Africa

RoundTable IV-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
This roundtable explores Amazigh (Berber) studies in past, present and future, especially the relationships between Amazigh communities and academia. What ownership do Amazigh peoples have in academia now and to what extent are their positions represented and prioritized? We consider current presences and absences, practical hands-on research experiences and challenges, and future possibilities. We discuss what questions have been asked in the study of the Amazigh/Berber world and what questions, methods, perspectives, and approaches remain absent. We also consider how Amazigh studies have been positioned in the larger fields of North Africa, in colonial and postcolonial histories, in gender studies, anthropology, linguistics, science and medicine, history and politics, literature, and transnationalism, for example. We have recent histories of the Berber movement in North Africa, new dictionaries of Amazigh languages, official recognition of Amazigh by North African governments, and the establishment of new Amazigh cultural institutions. But have these official gestures brought change to social reality and experience? This panel brings together scholars to discuss contemporary Amazigh issues, culture, and challenges. We also seek to expand the definition of what an academic field should be, to a method that is co-creation with communities and includes activists, community organizers, popular culture, and the Amazigh diaspora.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Dr. Paul Silverstein -- Presenter
  • Dr. Ellen Amster -- Organizer, Presenter, Discussant, Chair
  • Dr. Katherine E. Hoffman -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nabil Boudraa -- Presenter
  • Dr. Brahim El Guabli -- Presenter
  • Manaal Alsabagh -- Presenter
  • Dr. Ellen Amster
    My role in this roundtable is asker of questions, facilitator of discussion and non-Berberist expert in Moroccan studies. I am a historian of Morocco and French empire but an Arabist primarily, moving into health research. I entered Amazigh studies when I started fieldwork interviews in the High Atlas mountains with local NGOs and Berber (Amazigh) women around maternal and infant health in 2012. Immediately I realized how distorted, condescending, and problematic official and academic narratives about Amazigh populations can be. As a historian, I have noted the erasure of Amazigh peoples in a Moroccan history written from colonial and Arabic archives--how might oral traditions, material culture, and popular histories help recover Amazigh voices? The NGO leaders and local women I met were a fount of knowledge, not only about Amazigh culture, but on rural life and Morocco in general. How could academia be a conduit for their agency and voice? The Moroccan contemporary medical literature is also problematic. Mothers and babies in rural Berber environments have outcomes orders of magnitude worse than the cities, yet the researchers almost always correlate these issues to “women’s illiteracy.” Women PIs are beginning to ask new questions that get to the challenges of Amazigh women’s experience. I wanted to think about how academia can be reconceptualized--radically reconceptualized—to make the field of Amazigh studies a collaborative endeavor with Amazigh populations. Not knowing how to begin, I brought together a group of Amazigh experts who have battled similar challenges and know better than I the key problems, so we can think towards a method: how Amazigh studies can be a collaborative endeavor with Amazigh populations
  • Manaal Alsabagh
    My role in the roundtable is a developing academic in Amazigh studies. I will reflect on my research interests which include the gendered practices of Islamic occult sciences in connection to health and healing among the Amazigh communities in urban areas of Morocco. Additionally, my connection to Amazigh heritage through my grandmother provides me with a personal view regarding the more prominent theme of the roundtable. Having witnessed firsthand the marginalization that Amazigh women can experience in urban areas, I can speak to the importance of discussing Amazigh studies and exploring ways to make the area of study more inclusive. I am particularly interested in using ethnographic methods to focus on women’s esoteric roles and their lived religions. I wish to know how these traditions are passed on among Muslim women when the larger Muslim society has widely condemned such information. How do urban Amazigh women reconcile their indigenous identity and Islamic faith through esoteric knowledge and modernity? I aim to help address how the Amazigh’s relationship with Islamic esotericism coincides with the ongoing indigenous reconciliation and activism in Morocco. And how does this transform the image academics currently hold of Amazigh women?
  • Dr. Paul Silverstein
    Elevating Amazigh Studies in the academy requires reframing the scholarship on North Africa in the terms of Tamazgha. Understood as both a visceral spacetime and a political chronotope, Tamazgha calls our attention to both the deep and deeply felt history of Amazigh-speaking peoples as well as the present diversity of the Amazigh experience. In the absence of official written or concrete monumental archives, Tamazgha comes to be recognized and revitalized through the arduous labor of artists and activists who have defied the politics of erasure to translate oral genres and material traces into tangible cultural patrimony and engaged in a decades’ long struggle on its behalf. As academics and allies, our job is not only to center their efforts and achievements, but to translate their translations for wider audiences and larger platforms. Such a project is necessarily collaborative; it requires working across disciplines, epistemologies, and geographies. In my roundtable contribution, I will reflect on my own efforts at collaboration and translation across several decades of historical anthropological field research with Amazigh militants and fellow-travelers in the pre-Saharan oases of southeastern Morocco, as well as with diasporic activists in France. I will discuss the pitfalls of ethnographic projects which seek to avoid both the Scylla of ethnological cataloguing and the Charybdis of romantic primitivism, which seek to move beyond monological scholarly interpretation and instead represent a polyphony of Amazigh voices, not all of which agree. How might we best promote and sustain the project of Tamazgha without bracketing its internal divides, exclusions, and biases along terrains of gender, ethnicity, and race? How might we avoid a destructive deconstruction of Amazigh politics and instead contribute to a productive dialogue among Tamazgha’s differing—and sometimes conflicting—stakeholders? By what criteria do we choose our collaborative partners and decide on which translations to translate? The questions we face in elevating Amazigh Studies are as ethical as academi
  • Dr. Brahim El Guabli
    Despite its vibrancy and vitality, Amazigh Studies is the absent dimension of the field currently called Maghrebi/North Africa Studies. Amazigh Studies is an interdisciplinary branch of knowledge that focuses on the study of Amazigh- and Tamazgha-related questions. Tamazgha here is understood as the larger North Africa, which encompasses the Canary Islands, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the entire Maghreb or North Africa, where Tamazight, the Indigenous language of Imazighen (Amazigh people), was or is still spoken. Extending from archeology and historical linguistics to film and literary studies, Amazigh Studies is a full-fledged discipline that examines all manners of knowledge produced in or about Tamazight and its speakers. Nevertheless, the richness and ever-expanding nature of Amazigh Studies in Tamazgha has not been matched by curricular and programmatic initiatives in Anglophone academia that would give this field its rightful place within North-Africa-focused programs and departments. My paper will discuss how the absence of Amazigh Studies in Anglophone academia mirrors the post-independence states’ erstwhile marginalization of Amazigh language and culture. While Tamazight has been mostly rehabilitated in Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and other countries where it is spoken, Anglophone academia pains to create space for Tamazight and its cultural production. However, there was a time when Tamazight was taught at the University of Michigan and the University of California Los Angles as well as at the School of Oriental and African Studies, which had professorships in “Berber” studies until the 1990s. Retirements and shifting academic trends lead to phasing out Tamazight in these institutions and ending an established tradition of “Berber Studies” in Anglophone academia. Critiquing the repeated argument that Tamazight is not given space because of lack of student interest in Amazigh Studies, my intervention will elucidate why the discipline of Amazigh Studies matters for training the next generation of Tamazgha scholars and how academia can be an ally in the effort to revitalize this Indigenous language and culture, beyond its national borders. Scholarship and cultural production in the Maghreb/North African have entered the phase of Amazigh Studies, and Anglophone academia’s lagging behind has a cost in terms of preparing students an future scholars to stay abreast of these developments.
  • Dr. Katherine E. Hoffman
    As a longtime fieldworker (since 1996) among Amazigh populations. I am participating in this roundtable out of an interest in the development of more collaborative field research approaches than what has commonly animated the field. In recent years, there has been increasing attention to scholarship produced by individuals with origins or roots in the region and its languages. While there is a richness in the greater range of positionalities relative to the field, there are also abiding biases and blind spots. Central to these are women’s perspectives and experiences, as well as those of rural, unschooled populations, including the elderly. In my roundtable participation, I wish to animate discussion about the forms and repercussions of a bias towards male, educated culture brokers at the expense of more marginalized segments of Amazigh groups. I see the semiotic processes of erasure, fractal recursively, and iconization (Irvine and Gal 2000) operating in the field of Amazigh studies in regards to who should research and represent, what should be written about, how it can be represented, and to what purpose. What would a more gender equitable and decolonized Amazigh studies look like? Short of asking these questions, Amazigh studies risks reproducing longstanding shortcomings in Maghrebi / North African studies with its male centricity and heightened focus on literate, urban populations.
  • Dr. Nabil Boudraa
    I am participating in this panel as an Amazigh academic, living in the United States. My field is in Francophone studies with a focus on the Magreb, and most of my research revolves around Amazigh culture and history. For this panel I will present an approach to Amazigh history through what Edouard Glissant calls "the poetics of trace" as an alternative to the classical colonial methods, most of which proved to be biased, exclusive, and limited. I will rely on both theoretical frameworks (borrowed mostly from anthropology and history) and practical examples drawn from diverse areas, such as literature, film, arts, pop culture and food culture.