ABDELLAH CHEBALLAH –
Algerian Berbers marked their New Year as a public holiday on Friday with feasts, dancing and horse parades, a first for the North Africa region where indigenous peoples have long suffered marginalisation.
Members of the Berber community — descendants of North Africa’s pre-Arab inhabitants — enjoyed traditional meals of couscous and chicken and played traditional games as they do each year.
But for the first time official events marking the “Yennayer” celebration were also being held across the entire country of some 40 million people, roughly a quarter of whom are Berber.
Children and teenagers in traditional clothes paraded in the streets of the village of Ath Mendes in the Berber region of Kabylie alongside a folk band to the sounds of drums and the local “zurna” oboe.
Horsemen led the procession, their shoulders draped in the Berber blue-green-yellow flag.
“This celebration is mostly aimed at raising the awareness of the young generation about the importance of their identity, culture and Amazigh traditions,” said Rachid Belkheir who helped organise the event.
The mountainous Kabylie region east of Algiers is home to the largest Berber community in Algeria, which is home to around 10 million people who speak Berber.
Around 3,000 people were expected to flock to a stadium in the northern town of Tizi-Ouzou to enjoy a communal meal later in the day.
“Traditionally we celebrate Yennayer with our families around a copious meal of poultry and dried meat,” explained Samia Moumni, as she cooked couscous under a small tent in the town.
The Berbers — who refer to their community as Amazigh — have long fought for greater recognition for their ancient language and customs, over-shadowed by a dominant culture in Algeria and across the broader region.
A long struggle
The Yennayer New Year has been celebrated annually for a long time in Algeria.
But on December 27 veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decreed that it would become an official holiday for the first time “to strengthen national unity.”
The Berber calendar is an agrarian system, based around the seasons and agricultural work, that was inspired by the Julian calendar.
It was brought back to life in the second half of the 20th century by activists who set year zero as the estimated ascension of Berber ruler Shoshenq I to the throne of Egypt in 950 BC.
On the eve of year 2968, Berbers in the village of Ath El Kacem braved the freezing cold to tuck into the communal meal prepared by dozens of women who chanted Kabylie songs.
Wearing long traditional dresses, the women sifted the couscous with hands drenched in olive oil and also recited poems paying homage to “Yennayer” which means abundance.
“This year, Yennayer has a special flavour,” said Na Ouerdia Mohamedi, one of the village elders.
Nearby Kahina Belaidi, 20, insisted that “the decision of President Bouteflika will help strengthen the Amazigh identity of Algeria”.
The Berbers’ Tamazight language was first given official status in Algeria in 2002, a year after bloody riots that left 126 people dead in Kabylie.
In 2016, it became enshrined in the constitution as a state language alongside Arabic.
On Wednesday the country’s interior ministry released its first ever official communique in Tamazight.
“The official recognition of Yennayer is one of the outcomes of a long struggle for the Amazigh culture, identity and language,” said anthropologist Azzedine Kinzi.
“It will no longer be a second rate feast,” Kinzi wrote in an article published on Friday by El Watan newspaper. — AFP