Monday, April 15, 2013

A Berber artist's journey back to her Jewish roots

 Fascinating article in This is Africa about Chama Mechtaly, an Amazigh (Berber) artist in Morocco whose discovery that her grandfather was Jewish sets her off on a journey of internal 'decolonisation'. Her story illustrates how Arabisation and Islamisation have conspired to create an identity crisis for people like Chama by cutting off her indigenous roots.  (With thanks: Ari)

 Raised in Casablanca, Chama went to a public school in Morocco and was taught the Arab nationalist ideology that permeates the school system under state Arabization policies.  In high school, she began to consider questions of identity, which in turn led her to research her family’s genealogy.  After finding family documents in Tamazight – the indigenous language of North Africa – and Hebrew, Chama realized that she might not be Arab after all, that her very ethnicity and religious heritage were radically different from what she had been taught to believe.

 The loss of this history from her family’s memory had happened gradually, like when her grandfather moved to the “Arab” urban center of Casablanca, married a Muslim woman, and became disconnected from his land and heritage. He repressed his Amazigh Jewish identity under state and societal pressures of Arabization and Islamization, which were imposed after Morocco gained “independence” from France and Spain.  Arabization policies discriminated heavily against Imazighen, and in particular against the Amazigh Jews who once were a substantial community in Morocco.

Jewish Woman from Ait Hdidou, oil on canvas, 2013, by Chama Mechtaly.

Coming to accept that she was Amazigh rather than Arab, African rather than Middle Eastern, represented a crisis of identity for Chama, just as the same frictions and conflicting identities lead to crises in North Africa in general. In Morocco, Chama new self-discovery provoked strong reactions and drew fierce criticism, such as the one high school teacher who berated her for being “brainwashed by the West” and blamed French colonizers for “creating” Amazigh identity and “dividing” the population.

This reaction illustrates one of the ways in which religious and ethnic diversity are seen to threaten the hegemonic “unity” of the Moroccan state, and are thus silenced. In actuality, by discovering her Amazigh identity, Chama was undergoing an internal process of decolonization and discovering her own Africanit√©. In response, Chama started to paint portraits of Amazigh Jewish women from French colonial era photographs.  The paintings often prominently display distinctive symbols, such as characters from the Hebrew and Tifinagh scripts.


Jewish Girl from Debdou, 2012. Oil painting by Chama Mechtaly. Behind the girl are gold Hebrew and Tifinagh letters against a dark background.

Chama describes the portraits as a ‘repetition,’ an artistic expression of her own process of coming to terms with her new identity and working through the shock of finding a denied and repressed ethnic and religious background. How would it feel to realize that the ethnicity and identity you were raised with are essentially a lie, an erasure of your own self? By addressing these issues through art, Chama seeks to promote a religious pluralism, restore stolen histories, and fight against the homogenous Arab-Islamic identity that has been imposed on North Africa.

The struggle to define North Africa continues, with opposing forces and identities of African/Arab, colonizer/colonized, and Muslim/Jewish.  In the last half-century, dominant Arab-Islamic impositions have worked to define the region according to their ideology, although now Amazigh activists are countering that and seeking to revive the indigenous African culture.

Although you won’t find this history formally taught in North Africa, Jewish and Christian communities were long established in the region before the Arab-Islamic invasions of the 7th century C.E. In addition, many Imazighen held polytheistic beliefs that were derided by the Arab conquerors, just as countless other traditional African religions and spiritualities were abused and repressed under European colonial rule.  Colonial religions that are foreign to most of the continent – Islam and Christianity – now dominate religious belief across Africa, while in many cases our own traditional beliefs are cast aside or have a social stigma attached to them as an ongoing consequence of colonialism and globalization.

Religion, like issues of ethnicity and language, has been affected by colonial legacies across Africa, and the North is no exception. Although the traditional polytheistic beliefs of Imazighen have largely been destroyed, there is a continual process of rejecting the religious pluralism and diversity which once characterized North Africa. Some form of this identity crisis is common in African and diasporic communities, where issues of hybridity and post-colonial identity abound. The dominant societal rejection of Jewish legacies in North Africa contributes to the erasure of diversity, although some Amazigh activists are now also working to restore their religious histories in a process of decolonization, as they are the cultural histories mentioned above. For example, in the Libyan Amazigh village of Yefren, Imazighen protect and maintain the old Jewish synagogue, now a relic of the former Jewish population. The Jewish Amazigh past and present are honored and fully accepted as a part of our history.

Read article in full

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