Sahara, Part II: A Nomadic Amazigh Family on the Return Home

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The final leg of my Sahara trip consists mostly of lengthy driving. We stop briefly, however, to speak with a nomadic Amazigh family.

Morocco is about two-thirds Arab and a third Amazigh. The world sometimes forgets the minorities that exist everywhere—for example, supposing that the Middle East is all Arab—but Amazigh people are very much essential to Moroccan culture. Words in the Darija dialect, location names and languages spoken at home all are influenced by Morocco’s Amazigh people.

The family lives down the hill from our road. A traffic sign hangs next to their home like a house decoration.

“Amazigh” is the word that Amazigh people use to describe themselves—although, after Arabs renamed them centuries ago, the term “Berber” has become much more mainstream in popular usage today.

Of course, not all Amazigh people are nomads. Many, like my own Arabic teacher, live modern lives in cities. Others live agriculturally in rural settlements, also as in tradition. It would be wrong to assume even that most Amazigh people migrate. However, those who are nomads continue a lifestyle thousands of years old.

The migration occurs twice a year. Based on where there is grass for livestock, the family moves together. They must take care to leave the land as they found it; although they have no “next-door neighbors”, they have a reputation, a last name connected to how well they, their parents and their grandparents took care of nature in past years.

Only the father in the family speaks Arabic. It is Darija, the Moroccan dialect, so our teacher translates to MSA Arabic for us. And, although I do not understand everything, I am surprised by how much I do. I am also surprised by how foreign the family’s lifestyle feels to me.

This is one building of the several that form this family’s settlement. Their livestock grazes the surrounding grass.

When the inner workings of “modern life” are so fixed, it’s difficult to place myself in the footsteps of a lifestyle so divergent. Regardless of religion, ethnicity or the shade of skin, individuals in the metropolitan U.S. have the same meticulously structured routines.

Daily, we brush our teeth over epoxy-finished sinks, trudge onto buses for school and work and collapse onto sofas with any variety of electronic monitors. Yearly, we scrap our savings into the best family vacation we can afford—or we wait another year, or another five, until we can have one. Over our lifetimes, we audaciously venture to other metropolitan areas, then settle, and continue to incorporate preplanned routines into our lives.

And, whether we live in New York City, any collection of congested Chinese cities or here in Rabat, “modern life” incorporates local custom and the same monotony.

Nomadic migration is certainly no different. I have no doubt there is a pattern and there is monotony. Nevertheless, for me, it is difficult to wrap around the idea of life without institutions so embedded into life that they have become forgotten.

The family invites us into one of their straw tents. It is much less sophisticated than our tourist accommodations in the Sahara. The floor is covered in colorful rugs, and there is an unfinished rug on a loom. This traditional housing contrasts Nike symbols on a jacket and shoes that might have come out of any Macy’s.

This is what is really foreign to me—not appearance, beliefs or rituals. At the core, we all value happiness, peace and comfort. Instead, that so many individuals can carry a pattern in life so different than the one I am used to is staggering.

Life pirouettes in many forms. Though we all are fundamentally same, we flourish in so many diverse manifestations. That is beautiful.

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