Moshe Benarroche, an Israeli-Amazigh poet, born in Tetuan, Morocco, in 1959, is one of the first Jews of North Africa who has publically acknowledged the Amazigh connection to Sephardic Jews (Jews of former Sefardia, i.e., Spain). In an interview, conducted by Karen Alkalay-Gut, Benarroche explains:
Before the Arab conquest of Morocco, there was complete tolerance of any cult in the country. Many Amazigh tribes converted to Judaism and Christianity (St. Augustine was an Amazigh), and probably all the Jews from Morocco and Spain are of Amazigh descent.
Kahena was the legendary Amazigh queen. She was a Jew, and she stood off the Arabs for years. They had to bring all their soldiers from Byzantium to defeat her.
While researching Moroccan names, Benarroche discovered that :
...more than 2/3 of them are Amazigh names — including my name, which originally was Benarous or Benaros; the meaning is “sour.” So when I found about the Amazigh..., I felt I found the missing link of Sephardic Jewish history. I don’t count myself as a specialist of Amazigh culture, although I can see where the Spain of the three religions comes from: it’s from the Amazigh people. They had this tradition in them already!
...I find that many Jews in Morocco have family names in a language they have forgotten. This is amazing.
But more than that, it is that some Jews from the Atlas and other remote areas in Morocco spoke the Amazigh language; and maybe some old Moroccans in Israel still do. They were called Schleuchs, but Scleuch (Tachlehit) is a version of Amazigh, the closest one to Hebrew.
Benarroche raised the issue of arabization, which has not only affected North Africa, but Egypt, as well, a country that did not define itself as Arab until Abdul Nasser's regime:
Are the Amazigh a remote people? Is their tradition foreign to me? How could that be? I met them everyday in Morocco; they are everywhere. It is said that, some years ago, it was an offense to call an Amazigh an Arab. But after 1956 and Moroccan independence, there began a complete Arab oppression (at the same time it began in Egypt under Nasser. This is told in a book by Leila Ahmet, A Border Passage, in which she speaks about the making of an Arab, or how the Egyptians were convinced to think as Arabs), and people stopped speaking about being Amazigh.
The Internet is bringing all these injustices to the ground. The Amazighs are the natives of the Maghreb. All the Jews in Morocco are descendants of Amazigh tribes, and since these were the same Jews that emigrated into Spain since the 8th century, all the Jews from Spain are Amazigh, too.
Benarroche, who usually publishes his poetry in Hebrew, wrote the following in English:
|Tamazgha, my lost country
|Tamazgha, land of the free people,
Tihya, my queen mother
jew and woman
who fought the arab invasion
in the eighth century
My Amazigh name, Arous, Benarrous, Benarroch
lost in centuries of wars
in my country
where christians, jews and pagans
lived and believed by each other
Rise my Amazigh people
from the ruins of Rome
the intolerance of Islam
the decay of Europe
Rise my Amazigh people
and teach tolerance to this world
where the forgotten are the right
where the lost stone
leads the light
Rise Tihya, Queen of Jews and Amazighs
Raise for your memory
this new world in this new millennium
demands justice for all that is called past.
The poet explained his reason for his choice of language for this particular poem:
I couldn’t think of writing this poem in any other language than English. Why? I need a few years to really understand that. But, socially speaking, I don’t think anyone in Israel would understand what I am talking about. This comes after many years of trying to understand the Maghreb, and the relation between Jews and Muslims in this country. Here in Israel I have this feeling that I still have to explain that Jews from Arab countries are real Jews, and that they have a history, a culture, and not only exotic food, to offer.
Being both Jewish and Amazigh creates a double non-existence in arabized and islamized North Africa. Not only is North Africa not recognized as legitimate Amazigh land, but if a person identifies as anything other than Muslim, that individual is not perceived as being a "real" North African by the official constitutions of the respective countries or by many of his/her compatriots. Nevertheless, Benarroch considers himself to belong to more than one group of people, and yet, not quite fitting in any.
When I say that all the Moroccan Jews are Amazigh, and when I say that I am Sephardi, or a Moroccan, or a Jew, and Israeli, etc., I am not talking about identity. I don’t say: this is my identity. I don’t like the word “identity”; in the languages I know, it comes from the root “identical.” An erroneous concept of history begins, because no one person is like any other person. We should be talking about something else. In Hebrew I would say “Shayakhut,” or “pertenencia” in Spanish; I should find a more precise word in English than “belonging,” “being part of a group.” You can be part of many groups, just as you can have more than one nationality. Multiculturalism should mean people who have more than one culture. I feel that — having been born in the northernmost city of Africa, the last before Europe starts, being a Jew, speaking four languages, and having my history — I belong to one hundred cultures. I fit into all of them; and at the same time, I don’t fit in any of them, because, too often, people try to pigeonhole me, or define me. This happens in Israel, surely; but less often in big cities, in cities with people from many countries — New York, Paris, London, or Barcelona, where I am just one more of those rare people coming from everywhere and from nowhere.