Morocco Berbers mark New Year, call for public holiday
Amazighan women with thir children are pictured in Anfgou, High Atlas mountains, on January 11, 2013
Festivities are planned in several cities around the North African country, including the capital Rabat, said activist Mounir Kejji, with Monday marking the first day of year 2964 for the region's indigenous pre-Arab inhabitants.
The other gatherings will take place mainly in parts of the country with concentrated Berber populations, such as Agadir and Tiznit in the southwest.
But more than just a celebration and a way of reaffirming their cultural identity, it will also be a chance for the Amazigh community to demand that this day is given its proper place in the national calendar, said Kejji.
In 2011, in response to Arab Spring protests sweeping Morocco, King Mohamed VI introduced a new constitution which acknowledged Amazigh as an official language of the state alongside Arabic, a major achievement for a tongue that was once banned in schools.
But the Islamist-led government has yet to pass the required legislation to implement the initiative, which would see Amazigh integrated into teaching and other areas of public life.
A decade earlier, the king had signalled his support for Morocco's indigenous Berber culture in a historic speech in the northern town of Ajdir.
Morocco hosts the largest numbers of Berbers, who live in scattered communities across North Africa -- including in Algeria and Libya -- but there are no official estimates of the size of the population.
A census taken in 2004 showed that 8.4 million Moroccans spoke an Amazigh dialect daily, or around a quarter of the country's total population.
In Morocco "we want the Amazigh New Year to be considered a public holiday, following the example of other calendars," Meriem Demnati, another activist, told AFP.
"With the constitution's recognition of Amazigh, this is a legitimate demand," said Ahmed Boukous, director of IRCAM, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, which was founded in 2001 and spearheaded the campaign to have the language recognised.
Anthropologists say the possible historical roots of the Berber New Year, known as Yennayer, are difficult to establish with any precision.
"Some historians link it to the enthronement as pharaoh of the Amazigh king Chachnaq after defeating Ramses III," believed to have happened in 950 BC, said archaeologist Mostafa Ouachi.
"For others it corresponds to what is known in Morocco as the agricultural calendar, celebrated around January 13," said the Rabat University professor.
Boukous said that the New Year celebration is a "festival that marks the reaffirmation of some important aspects of agrarian society, a return to the land".
It's a way for the Amazigh to "refresh their collective memory," he added.
Ahmed Assid, an academic and activist who supports calls for a "national holiday," said the traditional Berber New Year celebration had developed into a political cause.
"If the 1st of (Islamic month of) Moharram is a holiday in Morocco, and the 1st day of the Christian calendar is a holiday, why shouldn't the 1st day of the Amazigh New Year be also?" he asked.
The head of IRCAM says that for the moment, in the absence of any proposal to "formalise" the event, "there is no official position on the subject," leaving the activists to push on with their campaign.
The youth wing of the Amazigh Network for Citizenship (Azetta) launched a petition earlier this month, according to Moroccan newspaper Liberation.
The daily said that around 100 groups are expected to celebrate Yennayer around the country.