The Ayt Yahya of Tounfit, central Morocco

Posté par Michael Peyron le 17 avril 2010

The Ayt Yahya of Tounfit, central Morocco 

by Michael PEYRON


Ardouz village at foot of Jbel Ma’asker (photo: M. Peyron)


As the traveller heads down through the cedars from the Zad Pass (Tizi Tebruri = ‘hailstone pass’), the wide-sky expanses of the Upper Moulouya unfold before him, backed by the lofty, snow-capped ‘Ayyachi-Ma’asker range, over 3700 metres high. As with many others who have gone before, there dawns on him the notion of imminent transition. Behind lie forested, well-watered, Mediterranean style highlands, while the gaunt, rugged ranges on the horizon represent the “last stop before the Sahara”, beyond which live none but tribesmen like the Ayt Hadiddou “who fear naught but God”.


‘Ayyachi dominates the upper Melwiya (photo: M. Peyron)

Our traveller is, in fact, contemplating one of the most important regions of inner Morocco, its dramatic scenery somehow equal to the epoch-shaping events it has witnessed throughout history. Not so much a highland sanctuary as a cultural cross-roads, a haven of “intellectual rurality”, famous for its wandering minstrels and local poets (imdyazn and ineššadn) who reflect the conscience, both religious and worldly, of the mountain Imazighen who inhabit the area. 


Tounfit and Jbal Ma’asker with dusting of snow (photo: M. Peyron) 

Among these the Ayt Yahya, a Tamazight-speaking tribal group, occupies the area between Midelt and Imilchil in the High Atlas. They may be conveniently classified as highland semi- transhumants, some living in village clusters (qşur or iġerman), some in dispersed villages. The Ayt Yahya brought to the shady (amalu) north slopes of the Atlas a social organisation and general pattern of existence evolved in the dry, pre-Saharan steppe, and which they eventually adapted to a colder, wetter environment featuring extensive winter snow-fall.


Izza ‘Athman village, Asif Wirin, March 1976 (photo: M. Peyron)


Qsar of Tagoudit, Ayt Yahya (photo: M. Peyron)

Hence the classic, mud-built qşar, or fortified hamlet survives chiefly in the arid, upland valleys south of ‘Ayyachi or Jbel Ma’asker, whereas in the well-wooded areas to the north, stronger-built houses cedar-planks and stone predominate in dispersed villages. Likewise, pastoralism remaining the chief activity, among the southern clans, transhumance is the name of the game. To the north, however, village-based grazing prevails. 


Ploughing scene, Lmerri, Bou Ijellaben in background, January 1973 (photo: M. Peyron) 

There is also a generalised use of irrigated patches, producing barley, buckwheat, maize, and wheat,  while on nearby fruit-trees, cherries, apricots and a few walnuts are to be found. As to habits inherited from the Saharan region, use of the baggage-camel (alġum) and baggage-ox (ayugu), together with the institution of the communal bull, were reported in the Ayt Yahya area as late as the mid-1970s. 


Muleteers returning from Sunday ssuq at Tounfit, May 1967 (photo: M. Peyron)

The Ayt Yahya tribal grouping was in the forefront of the SW-NE push by Senhaja Berber pastoralists that lasted from the 10th to the 19th century. In fact, one of their clans has remained to this day at Aghbalou n-Kerdous, on the south side of the High Atlas. The Ayt Yahya and their kindred groups, the Ayt Merghad, Ayt Hadiddou and Ayt Izdeg, with some Ayt ‘Ayyach, became fellow members of the Ayt Yafelman (lit. ‘the peaceful ones’), a confederation set up some time around 1650 to counter-balance expansion by an aggressive rival entity, the Ayt ‘Atta of Jbel Saghro. 


Heading home from the fields, Ayt Sliman, Ta’ara’art valley (photo: M. Peyron)

Before listiεmar, as with many other Imazighen tribes, activities for which the Ayt Yahya were famous included raiding, sheep-rustling, plundering and/or “protecting” caravans along the triq aqdim between the Ziz valley and Tounfit. There existed a pattern of alliances (the leff system) by which each clan could call on the support of one, possibly two, friendly clans, if attacked by a rival group. The fighting that resulted would be limited in time, usually between fairly well-balanced groups, and was frequently interrupted by truces engineered by the saints (igurramn) of Sidi Yahya ou Youssef.


Tribesmen playing takkurt, Lmerri, Oct. 1982 (photo: M. Peyron)

Contrary to modern behavioural standards, intermittent raiding and clan warfare were perceived as making life more exciting and giving young men (iεerrimn) a healthy opportunity to prove their bravery. Without the use of bayonet, dagger or musket (“the voice of steel” as it was called), points of honour could not be properly settled. This was a very strong notion throughout tribal society. Not that warfare was by any means permanent or total; eradicating a rival clan made no sense; it was much wiser to allow it to survive so as not to cut off the source of supply that sensible raiding and plundering so easily guaranteed. This was a typical Heroic Age situation. 


Prowess with weapons being second nature to these mountaineers, no wonder the Ayt Yahya fought hard against French forces which invaded their region between 1922 and 1932. Desperately tragic battles such as Ayt Yâqoub and Tazizaout saw highly manoeuvrable, lightly-equipped Berber fighters more than hold their own against well-armed French regular troops. In fact, man to man, the Berbers were usually superior to their opponents; against aeroplanes, machine-guns and mountain artillery, however, bravery was of no avail. Yet, they fought on to the last, distinguishing themselves in daring, single-handed operations, a lone rifleman occasionally succeeding in pinning down crack Foreign Legion troops with accurate fire from some hill-top. 

The Ayt Yahya themselves consist of several clans. The southern Ayt Yahya clans, living on the sunny (assamer) slope of the main range, include the Ayt Sliman, Ayt Moussa ou ‘Atman, Ayt Fedouli, Ayt Hattab, Ichichaoun and Ayt ‘Ammar, the last-named clan being of ou-Hadiddou origin, but now incorporated into the Tounfit region. Chief among the northern Ayt Yahya are the Ayt ‘Ali ou-Brahim of Tounfit proper, the Imtchimen at the foot of ‘Ayyachi, the Ayt Hnini at the Moulouya source, the Ayt Bou ‘Arbi of the upper Anzegmir, and the Ayt Sidi Yahya ou Youssef. These clans all claim a Saharan origin, except for the Ayt Sidi Yahya ou Youssef, who are marabouts, or igurrramn, allegedly hailing from Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, one of their sub-clans retaining a dialect strongly reminiscent of that spoken in the Zerhoun.


Zawiya Sidi Yahya ou Youssef, Jan. 1974 (photo: M. Peyron) 

While on the topic of maraboutism it should be mentioned that the Tounfit area was also under the influence of the neighbouring Imhiwach saints of Aghbala. As to the other clans, they include some elements from the Ayt Yoummour and Ayt Ihand that the Ayt Yahya absorbed when they arrived in the area in the late-18th century. 


Typical taddart, Assaka village, January 1974 (photo: M. Peyron)

The 1970s proved the heyday of the “segmentary society”, a theory (challenged before the century was out) to describe tribal organisation, as devised by Evans-Pritchard after his study of the Sudanese Nuer, and described by Anglo-Saxon anthropologists as corresponding to the Berbers’ socio-political organisation. Basically, it was a case of “me against my brother; my brother and I against the rest of the world.” This made sense in a society where customary law izerf, vendetta, retribution and/or payment of blood money were the order of the day. The Ayt Yahya, arranged in sub-clans, clans, and inter-clan alliances carefully calculated to curb the excesses of intra-tribal warfare, could be seen as fitting fairly neatly into the segmentary pattern. Early reports by colonial observers, before the actual conquest of the area (1931-1932), described Yahya clans as regularly at each others’ throats. Faced with the threat of a common outside foe, as with the French, however, they tended to oppose a united front. 


Hard-working Lmerri housewife, March 1983, (photo: M. Peyron)

To-day, however, tribal disunity prevails. Since independence, while overall group awareness remains outside the tribe in terms of recognizing Ayt Yahya, say, from Ayt Sokhman, tribal solidarity within has become eroded among the Ayt Yahya. An ou-Yahya will introduce himself as an ou-Sliman, or an ou-Fedouli, rather than as the member of an overall Yahya tribe. The more so as, technically and administratively, such an entity no longer exists. Thus have allegiances become strictly local, a tendency reinforced by the introduction, in the 1960s, of the local commune (žamaε qarawiya), an administrative unit that usually duplicates the ancient clans. Initially a rubber-stamp institution, it has been acquiring a certain measure of autonomy and power in recent years, as local assemblies have worked out a new, realistic relationship vis-à-vis the makhzan. All of which has tended to make nonsense of the segmentary theory, which is no longer valid stricto sensu, in the modern context. This being said, on the judiciary plane, I was told in Tounfit, in 1974, that while decisions were made according to Koranic Law (ššraε), they still contained a dash of izerf just for good measure. 


Woman washing wool in Asif Tasfalalyt, Ayt Sliman (photo: M. Peyron)

Great were the changes experienced by tribesmen in the aftermath of foreign military conquest and subsequent independence. Now that peace prevails among the Ayt Yahya, life has, in a way, lost its salt, its bravado. The element of panache is gone. No longer may a man proudly sing one of those famous short poems (timawayin) such as:- 

            sassbu l-lkissan t-tadawt iyyis d-uhezz, uxribn bu šuk, 

            t-tadda yżill, unna tent-ismun ay-as-iwten i-ddunit ġr ixf! 

            Full happy is he who rides with his lady-friend on horse-back, 

            While rifle, tea-pot, tent pegs in the saddle-bag go clank-clank!


Ult-Sliman woman, Louggagh, Taaraart valley (photo: M. Peyron)

Nowadays, the sound of gun-shots no longer echoes back from the heights; except when musket-wielding horseman stage mock charges on days of powder-play, called tafrawt in Tamazight. If sheep-stealing is now officially frowned upon, it has been replaced by timber-rustling, the Ayt Hadiddou frequently leaving their treeless plateaux at night to come and cut down cedars in Ayt Yahya forests, despite opposition from armed Forest Guards. Poaching Barbary Sheep in the Jbel Fazaz game reserve near Tirghist is also a tempting proposition. But the fine (bruşşi) involved, if caught red-handed, will no doubt deter all but the lion-hearted. The element of risk, then, is till there, but remains a poor substitute for the real thing! 


Ou-Yahya shepherd, Ighil ou Ahbari forest, Nov. 1967 (photo: M. Peyron)

Thus must Yahya tribesmen now learn to become law-abiding Moroccan citizens. This involves channelling their energies into peaceful pursuits such as farming, harvesting, animal husbandry, or else working with road-repair gangs or woodcutters’ co-operatives.


At the threshing-post, Massou, summer 1989 (photo: M. Peyron)

Though such solutions may mean exiling oneself to the cities, or even going abroad, the ou-Yahya remains strongly attached to his native turf. One of my best friends in the area, aged 58, has, in his lifetime, only been to Casablanca once; twice to Meknes, and about half a dozen times to Midelt. Being without a TV set does not make him feel in any way deprived. If he goes to Tounfit for ssuq al-h’ad (‘Sunday market’), he can always enter a café and watch “Crocodile Dundee” or “The Halls of Montezuma” dubbed into German. So what? 


Brother and sister from Assaka, spring 1982 (photo: M. Peyron)

Like other Imazighen, and despite changing times, the Ayt Yahya endeavour to retain the qualities which they upheld in the Heroic Age: approachability, adaptability, honour, hospitality, industry, solidarity and belief in God. While some remain at home to eke out a living, a minority have emigrated, either to Midelt or some other Moroccan city, or even abroad. As old habits die hard, others join the Army, as did their forbears under the French, and many have fought in the Western Sahara. Poetry alone, together with the ah’idus dance, ever a powerful sign of “Berberdom” (timuzġa), still provides some measure of release. 

   Michael PEYRON

                                  GENERAL BIBLIOGRAPHY 

BRYANS R., 1965, Morocco: land of the farthest West,
London: Faber & Faber. 

GELLNER E., 1969, Saints of the Atlas,
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 

GUENNOUN  S., 1934, La Voix des Monts: mœurs de guerre berbères, Rabat : Omnia.

GUILLAUME A., 1946, Les Berbères marocains et la Pacification de l’Atlas central, Paris: René Julliard.

HART D.M., 1984, The Ait ‘Atta of Southern Morocco: daily life and recent history, Wisbech: MENAS Press. 

HART D.M., 1993, “Four centuries of history on the hoof: the North-west passage of the Berber sheep transhumants across the Moroccan Atlas1550-1912”, Journal of the Society for Moroccan Studies, n°3: 21-55. 

PEYRON M., 1976, “Habitat rural et vie montagnarde dans le Haut Atlas de Midelt (Maroc) », Revue de Géographie Alpine, n°2 : 327-363.

RAYNAL R., 1960-1961, « La terre et l’homme en Haute-Moulouya », Bulletin Économique et Social du Maroc, n°86 & 87 : 281-346.

ROUX  A. & PEYRON M., 2002, Poésies berbères de l’époque héroïque, Maroc central (1908-1932), Aix-en-Provence: Édisud.


Publishing history

Unpublished paper based on a presentation given at AUI on February 2, 2000.

N.B. Unless otherwise stated, all texts copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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