Amazigh: The Berbers of Morocco


    For more than a thousand years, Moroccan history has been cast as a struggle between the Blad al-Makhzan, the civilized, Arabized territory ruled by a central government, which collected taxes, and the Blad al-Siba, the land of disorder/dissidence, inhabited by unruly tribes who violently resisted any effort by anyone to control them or collect taxes. Berbers are usually associated with the Blad al-Siba, but there have been important historical exceptions. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Almoravid and Almohad Berber dynasties ruled the Blad al-Makhzan and extended its reach. The Blad al-Siba did not come to an end in northern Morocco until 1926. In that year, it took a combined Spanish-French military campaign with half a million soldiers, dropping mustard gas from airplanes, to crush the Rif rebellion which had driven out the Spaniards in 1921 and established an independent Berber republic. In 1934, the Ait Atta warriors of the Atlas Mountains were defeated by the French. This was the end of the last stronghold of tribal autonomy. Even though there have been minor rebellions and riots in Berber areas since then, the ability of the Blad al-Siba to resist outside rule was destroyed. The Berber tribes never recovered. Today, the term Blad al-Siba is rarely heard, but makhzan continues to be used frequently as a synonym for national government.


    In his 1990's field work among the Berbers of the Sous, Crawford discovered that the khams khmas segmentary lineage system still functioned and was the basis for organizing collective labor to maintain the village irrigation ditches. Our discussion up to now has been how the khams khmas functioned in the past to organize men for war. Crawford’s excellent study shows how it functions today in peacetime, fielding men for the critical work of maintaining the irrigation ditches upon which village agriculture depends. “This paper focuses on the organization of collective labor by which this canal network is maintained, an organization known locally as the khams, from the Arabic for ‘five’. In the simplest terms, this involves dividing the adult men of the village into five work groups. These five khams work groups are isomorphic with - but not the same as - the three ighsan of the village, Berber for “bones” or lineages. The social operation that animates the khams is thus the “arranging of the bones,” the transmutation of three lineages (comprised of 27 independent households) into five working khmas, or fifths.” (Crawford, p.464) Crawford notes that the various national and international agencies undertaking development projects in the region all recognize the utility of the traditional khams khmas system and are embracing it. These include the Peace Corps, the World Bank and Moroccan government agencies. “We thus have national and international uses for the khams - and national and international inflections to its transaction of labor. The arranging of the bones has found new purposes, and curious new forms of significance, in the global village.” (Crawford, p.481)