De- and re-construction of an Atlas Berber epic: battle of Tazizaout

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 juillet 2010

De- and re-construction of an Atlas Berber epic: battle of Tazizaout (central Morocco, summer 1932).(1)


Tazizaout battle site, general view from Taoujjaâout hill, May 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)


By way of a preamble, suffice it to say that, today, in the Moroccan Middle Atlas cultural ensemble (2), among Amazigh militants and Berber peasantry, both of them fully aware of a recent heroic past, Tazizaout lives on as an exceedingly strong symbol. As a symbol of defiance, desperate courage and hopeless sacrifice in defence of one’s home turf. 

Tazizaout is a remote, rugged, cedar-clad ridge some 9,000 feet high, snowbound in winter, situated in the Imilchil region, east of Kasba Tadla.(3) It is irrevocably linked to the last stand made there by local marabout Sidi Lmekki in the summer of 1932, when, at the head of a thousand fighting men from Ayt Sokhman, Ayt Hadiddou and other tribes, he fought off two converging French army columns, until after a month-long siege, he was compelled to surrender. Last of a line of charismatic holy men (igurramn) who had dominated power politics in the area for upwards of a century, Sidi Lmekki has been since discredited in the local collective psyche for, not only capitulating, but eventually hobnobbing with the invader, to the point of being appointed qayd of the Ayt Sokhman in 1935. 

The legend grows 

Interestingly, the Tazizaout Berber epic went through a process exemplifying a reversal of the normal “orality to literacy” process. The first version, a colonial episode known prosaically in French as l’affaire du Tazigzaout, or, to strike a more heroic note, l’épopée du Tazigzaout, emerged in two stages:

1/ in the form of somewhat fragmented, sometimes personal, late-1930s accounts by junior French army cadres,(4) written for an esoteric audience; 2/ late-1940s/early 1950s semi-official descriptions featuring in senior French officers’ memoirs;(5) also a novel aimed at a broader reader-ship, La Légende du Goumier Saïd, a chapter of which is devoted to Le Jour du Tazigzaout (6). More than anything else this effectively set the seal of romanticism on the epic. 

The sum total of these written accounts thus constitutes the epic in its initial form, as seen through French eyes. An epic destined to be de- and eventually, re-constructed as and when oral accounts by Atlas Berbers (Imazighen) became available as a result of field-work by foreign and Moroccan researchers in the 1975-2005 period. 

In the meantime, knowledge about the Tazizaout epic remained sketchy. From 1932 to 1939 it was perceived as an heroic episode in the annals of the Armée d’Afrique, as the French colonial army was called. It was a text-book example of how firm persuasion, coupled with vigorous use of recently-recruited Berber levies, captained by high-minded young Frenchmen, with aircraft and artillery to support them, could subdue unruly mountain tribes for their own benefit. The fact that they were thus introduced at one fell swoop to the rule of law and so-called modern society came as a convincing contribution to the empire-building mystique. 

Although the siege of Tazizaout eventually receded from most French minds, being totally eclipsed by the all-encompassing horrors of the Second World War, together with events linked to decolonisation, it survived in the guise of popular, or regimental sub-culture, whenever be-meddalled veterans from the Goums, Tirailleurs and Foreign legion got together “for old times’ sake”. Thus enshrined in writing, Tazizaout continued for many a year to occupy pride of place in the battle records of various French units.(7) But that was not really where it belonged. It was time for the epic to come home, as it were. 

In Morocco, response to the epic was far more complex. It remained muted as long as the Protectorate lasted; even though ballads (timdyazin) were devoted to the event, they tended to be recited in a confidential manner, such material being perceived as subversive by the colonial authorities.(8) Even with the coming of home rule in 1956, an oddity such as Tazizaout, highlighting as it did desperate resistance by die-hard, marabout-led tribesmen from the back of beyond, was an unpleasant reminder that al-fitna al babariyya (‘Berber anarchy’; the bane of Islamic Spain(9) and an old Makhzan nightmare) might still be lurking up in those hills. Significantly, it also failed to fit in with the post-independence Moroccan vulgate and its emphasis on nation-building, the Arabic language, orthodox Islam, strong spiritual links to Saudi Arabia, and active sympathy with the Palestinian cause. For ideological reasons, the heroic contribution to national resistance by Imazighen from the mountains and deserts was wilfully ignored, down-played, or declared irrelevant, official-speak studiously maintaining that the urban-inspired Istiqlal movement alone had played a meaningful role in achieving independence. A version that endured until well into the 1980s. Early in that decade, however, Moroccan press magnate Moulay Ahmed Alaoui finally reversed the trend through a series of newspaper articles devoted to the great resistance period battles in which Imazighen had distinguished themselves: Lehri, Tarda (wi n-iwaliwn) and Bou Gafr (Jbel Saghro).(10) Yet, to the best of the present writer’s knowledge, the siege of Tazizaout was kept under wraps, linked as it was to the politically incorrect geste of the Imhiouach marabouts, long-time Makhzan adversaries and killers of two princes.(11)

Meanwhile, among Atlas villagers still recovering from the double trauma of French military conquest and imposition of full Makhzan rule, at the time of independence (1956), the hallowed memory of Tazizaout, and of all the heroes(12) who had fought and perished there, was carefully preserved and cherished. This would take the form of an annual three-day August pilgrimage (ziyart), when, summoned by one of Sidi Lmekki’s descendants, former fighters and/or their next of kin would congregate at the foot of a sacred cedar for commemoration, prayer, and sacrifice.(13) In fact, on a par with a visit to Mecca, a ziyart to Tazizaout is seen today as a poor man’s h’ajj. So much for the bare bones of the legend. 


Wooden tomb of Tazizaout martyr, Aug. 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

Reconstruction of the epic 

Tazizaout, in its reconstructed Moroccan Berber form, naturally draws heavily on the region’s living memory. Unsurprisingly, the recollections of surviving veterans tend to include quotes from period poets Taougrat n-Oult-‘Isa and Taoukhettalt, women both, who emerge as undisputed oral archival sources. Oft-quoted Taougrat, the subject of a book by Native Affairs officer Reyniers,(14) and a cult figure in her own right, actually died near Tounfit around 1930, but her repertoire remains relevant as it covers the decade of events leading up to Tazizaout. Taoukhettalt, an influential and by local standards wealthy woman, had, shortly before 1932, seen all of her seven sons happily married on the same day in a collective wedding ceremony, or tameġra. Before the net was drawn round Tazizaout at the end of July, 1932, she saw to it that her sons joined other resistance fighters in Sidi Lmekki’s mountain stronghold, also supplying much of her livestock, including all her camels, to feed the imžuhad. In the subsequent fighting, she lost all seven sons and her herds were decimated. To add insult to injury, Sidi Lmekki, whom she had backed to the hilt, treacherously surrendered, rendering vain not only her sacrifice, but that of countless other imžuhad and their entire families. The mindless slaughter, followed by the marabout’s final betrayal, became the favourite themes of the very engagé verse which is attributed to her in the aftermath of Tazizaout. 

Much of this oral production was diligently, almost confidentially, collected in the 1930s and 1940s by a French priest and life-long friend of the Imazighen – Lqbab-based Father Peyriguère.(15) Little of this material filtered through to the world of academia, however, until the 1970s, when Jeanine Drouin’s thesis on Middle Atlas hagiography, published by the Sorbonne in book form,(16) was seen to contain fragments of the Peyriguère corpus. 

After the early 1980s, thanks to the welcome, albeit snail-slow process of the Berber cultural renaissance in Morocco, there occurred a revival of local interest in Tazizaout. Subsequent to the setting up of the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) in Rabat (2001), officially sanctioned field-work was conducted in February 2004 by IRCAM researchers Mustapha el-Qadery and Houssa Yakobi.


Amazigh fox-hole sited between roots of giant cedar, Tazizaout, Feb 2004 (photo: H. Yakobi)

During this field-trip, the latter, who had lost a relative at Tazizaout, interviewed several local tribesmen and, aiming at further in-depth research, set up a useful network of informants.(17) 


Lhajj Nacer Buqebbou, a Tazizaout veteran, Feb 2004 (photo: H. Yakobi)

In August 2005, Houssa Yakobi accompanied the present writer to Tazizaout. Together, they conducted video interviews of five veterans from surrounding villages, investigated a large cemetery at the eastern end of the mountain and carefully combed the rocky, bushy terrain. Some evidence of previous fighting was still visible: caved-in fox-holes and rifle-pits, bones and even a skull protruding from the dry, eroded, stream-banks of Aqqa n-Ouchlou. Sufficient information was gleaned, both from oral sources and on-the-spot observations, to whet their appetite for a further visit in the spring of 2006 (of which more in a separate paper). 

De- and re-construction of the Tazizaout epic 

By that time, enough data had been gathered to confront the classic French account of l’affaire du Tazigzaout, as contained in Guillaume’s landmark work describing pacification operations in the central Atlas,(18) with the Amazigh version of the battle obtained from local oral sources. A task rendered arduous by the bombast and inconsistencies of the former and a propensity for hyperbole in the latter. After a description running to well over twenty pages, general Guillaume has the reader wondering whether he actually set foot in the area; there are discrepancies between text and photographs, while the validity of numerous place-names that senior officer employs is questioned by local observers.(19) In fact ignorance of this kind accounts for a blatant example of toponymic confusion concerning two key features: Tawjjaâout hill, which is simplistically itemised as crête n°1, while Amalou n-Tezra becomes crête n°2. Even then, Guillaume’s text and pictures continue blithely to contradict each other. Be that as it may, for comparative purposes, thirteen items common to or contrasting with either account are enumerated below to enable the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. 


Comparison between L’affaire du Tazigzaout (French version,

or F.V.) and ti n dzizawt (Moroccan Berber version, or M.B.V.)

(20 & 21)

1/  F.V. Enemy described as rebelles, insoumis, or dissidents

M.B.V. Imazighen refr to own fighters as imžuhad (mujahideen) or izmawn (lions). 

2/  F.V. Psychological effect: “une cartouche miraculeuse léguée par Sidi Ali Amhaouch à Sidi El Mekki, donnerait le signal de la délivrance”.        

M.B.V. Psychological effect: Sidi Lmekki’s pronouncement: “A magic cartridge my father did bequeath to me!” ( tella ġuri tadwatt iusa-yi baba ). Once fired, it will achieve victory. 


Bou Genfou hill, where French artillery was sited, seen from cedars at head of Achlou ravine, Tazra hamlet L of centre, Aug 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

3/ F.V. Elaborate French preparations: from rear base at Tassent supplies and pack howitzers sent to forward positions by mule-train; big guns manhandled to top of Bou Genfou hill. 

M.B.V. To counter devastating effects of artillery fire, Amazigh fighters dig in; “Hollow out holes and caves!” ( ġzat ixba, ġzat ifran ) their leaders tell them.(22)


  Map of Tazizaout battle-field, adapted from Google Earth, 2009 (photos: G. Brill)

4/ F.V. Another battery of French mule-guns set up on Tamderkal hill. 

M.B.V. French mule-guns actually on Agerd n-Oulghoum (disagreement over place-names).(23)

5/ F.V. As they dine in state in mess-tent on Lakes Plateau on August 18, 1932, wine-drinking French generals De Loustal and Dubuisson discuss tactical deployment of front-line troops.(24)

M.B.V. While Sidi Lmekki samples a pomegranate,(25) his firebrand brothers Lmortada and Mhand Lemhdi exhort imžuhad “to defend every inch of territory between Tafza and Tazra.” 

6/ F.V. Systematic three-week-long artillery and aerial bombardment. 

M.B.V. The imžuhad keep their heads down; onomatopoetic comments on noise made by different calibre guns; myth of corpse (decapitated by artillery shell) chasing its own head.(26)   

7/  F.V. Pre-sited machine-guns on crête n° 2 trained on water-holes. 

M.B.V. Women often killed or wounded by machine-gun fire from Amalou n-Tezra while fetching water at night from springs along Asif n-Ougheddou: “their blood was mingled with water” (šarr idammen nsent d waman)! 

8/ F.V. Heroic pro-French, tribal auxiliaries (Zaïan) suffer such heavy losses as they capture strategic hill (crête n° 1), that they have to be replaced and sent to the rear. 


Taoujjaâout hill: scene of fierce fighting during Tazizaout battle, May 2006 (photo: M. Peyron)

M.B.V. According to poetess Taoukhettalt, strategic hill of Taoujjaâout thus replies: “Were it not for the Zaïan, never would the dogs in hob-nailed boots (the French) have trampled my summit!” 

9/  F.V. Decision taken to pursue operations with toute la rigueur nécessaire; French-led auxiliaries storm Sidi Lmekki’s encampments on left-bank of Aqqa n-Zebzbat. 


Aqqa n-Widammen (formerly Aqqa n-Zobzbat), Aug 2005 (photo: M. Peyron)

M.B.V. Mass charge by Zaïan cavalry along Aqqa n-Widammen literally “blots out the sun”.(27)

10/ F.V. On night of 6-7 September, dissidents counter-attack on “Cedar Pinnacle” and capture two light machine-guns; weapons recovered a week later (episode minimised). 

M.B.V. Heroic exploits by machine-gun-wielding Ahaqqar in sector adjacent to “Cedar Pinnacle”; Bakkour and Achaoui mount successful nocturnal cattle-rustling raids into surrounding areas. 

11/ F.V. Use of laconic euphemism –  nettoyage des campements des insoumis – to describe final phase. 

M.B.V. “The Roumi forced their way into our foxholes and dragged us out by force”. 

12/  F.V. Heroic Berber dissidents surrender to chivalrous French officers, who, impressed by courage of their adversaries, treat them decently. 

M.B.V. French-led native auxiliaries beat up and rob surrendering Amazigh tribesmen, who are chided for cowardice by women of Tazra as they perform ‘dance of disaster’ (ah’idus n wiha) at foot of Achlou ravine. 

13/ F.V. Sidi Lmekki capitulates on September 13, 1932; in 1935, appointed qayd over Ayt Sokhman. 


Achlou ravine, where Sidi Lemkki held out till Sep 13, 1932 (photo: M. Peyron)

M.B.V. Break-out operations by determined fighters in direction of Ayt Hadiddou country (“where true Muslims are still to be found!”); also towards Hamdoun/Baddou citadel to continue the fight till summer 1933; their former leader (Sidi Lmekki) is satirised in verse.(28)


Typically, as in any situation of this kind, the two accounts are poles apart. Everything hinges on whether the protagonists/observers are on the Moroccan Berber or French colonial side, each obviously representing totally different thought patterns. Apart from disagreement over place-names, differences in attitudes to warfare, and variations in terminology used to describe a specific event, any re-construction will entail radical change, making it even harder to see the wood for the trees. Strengthened by the knowledge that they are defending their home-land, Imazighen tend to demonise the French. Contrastingly, the latter seek solace in the certitudes of the age and the noble, mission civilisatrice with which they feel invested, not to mention the lingering threat of German re-armament that requires swift redeployment of troops to Europe. Consequently, in an attempt to obtain a quick fix, they find themselves trapped into bombarding éléments dissidents, whereas they should be leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to talk the tribesmen into surrendering. A disappointing result at variance with their politique de la main tendue, la conquête des cœurs, and other period clichés in keeping with the above-stated mission civilisatrice


(1) The transliteration of Amazigh words that figure in this paper is a simplified version of the one normally used by Berber scholars. Thus Tazigzaout or Tazizaout in French/English becomes tazizawt in Berber (henceforth Ber.).

(2) The Middle Atlas proper, considered jointly with the eastern High Atlas, constitutes a tamaziġt-speaking cultural ensemble

(3)The toponym Tazizawt refers to the green colour (azizaw, azegzaw, in Ber.) of this forest-draped mountain when seen from a distance. Another suggestion is that the name derives from the green-coloured turbans worn by adepts of the Derkaoui sect (tariqa darqawiyya), to which the Imhiouach marabouts belonged, and with whom the mountain is inevitably associated (Conversation with Houssa Yakobi, May 21, 2006).

(4) Lieut. Joubert des Ouches, L’Adieu au Bled, (1936); R. Marcireau, Souvenirs d’un Goumier : Grand Atlas 1932-1933, (Poitiers : L’action intellectuelle 1938). 

(5) Gen. A. Guillaume, Les Berbères marocains et la Pacification de l’Atlas central (1912-1933), (Paris : René Julliard 1946) pp.359-387; Gen. A. Huré, La Pacification du Maroc (Dernière étape : 1931-34), (Paris-Berger-Levrault 1952) pp.83-92; Col. L. Voinot, Sur les traces glorieuses des Pacificateurs du Maroc, (Paris : Charles-Lavauzelle 1939) pp.423-425; Col. J. Saulay, Histoire des Goums marocains, Tome 1, (Paris: La Koumia 1985) pp.332-339. 

(6) J. Peyré, La Légende du Goumier Saïd, (Paris: Flammarion 1950) pp.103-108. Considered inspiring stuff for future decision-makers in a France that failed to realise it was in full colonial decline, this was a book any boarding-school pupil might expect to receive as an end-of-term prize

(7) These veterans’ associations carried on for a surprisingly long time – well after the French withdrawal from North Africa at the end of the Algerian war (1962), in fact.

(8) Cf. tamdyazt xef tzizawt; one of Roux’s informants collected this ballad in 1932-1933. After lying dormant for 70 years in Roux’s personal files, it eventually appeared in A. Roux & M. Peyron, Poésies berbères de l’époque héroïque, Maroc central (1908-1932), (Aix-en-Provence: Edisud 2002) pp.194-199.

(9) For example, a revolt by Berber soldiery in Cordoba contributed to the XIth century downfall of the Umayyad dynasty; cf. R. Pennell, Morocco: from Empire to Independence (Oxford 2003) p.37.

(10) These appeared in serial form in Alaoui’s evening paper, Maroc-Soir.

(11) The first one was Moulay Sliman’s son Moulay Brahim, who lost his life during a disastrous confrontation with a coalition of Amazigh tribesmen under Boubker Amhaouch at Lenda (1819); the second, was Moulay Srou, a son of Moulay Sliman, killed near Aghbala in the mid-1880s in an ambush allegedly mounted at the instigation of Sidi ‘Ali Amhaouch (Sidi Lmekki’s father).

(12) Generally described as imžuhad, (< mužahidin, Ar.), ‘fighters of the faith’, or izmawn, ‘lions’.


Iconic Tazizaout cedar, focal point of annual poor man’s hajj on Aug 24 (photo: M. Peyron)

(13) Known as idgel n tzizawt, the cedar in question is claimed by locals to have almost withered away during the colonial period, only to regain vitality with the coming of independence. It is now a truly impressive tree, and a conspicuous landmark visible for miles around, which accounts for its other name: idgel amažžyal (‘tall cedar’).

(14) F. Reyniers, Taougrat, ou les Berbères racontés par eux-mêmes, (Paris : Paul Geuthner 1930). 

(15) Some of his notes on Middle Atlas Berbers were actually published locally ; cf. P. Peyriguère, “Psychologie linguistique et psychologie ethnique des Berbères”, Amazigh, n°7/1981: 55-64. 

(16) J. Drouin, Un cycle oral hagiographique dans le Moyen-Atlas marocain, (Paris : Sorbonne 1975). 

(17) Yakobi published some of his findings in an article : “Trous de mémoire lors de l’enregistrement de témoins oculaires de la bataille de Tazizaout” in the April 2005 Sites de Mémoire et Tradion orale amazighe conference proceedings, (M. Peyron ed.), Ifrane: AUI Press, 2007.

(18) Gen. A. Guillaume, op. cit

(19) For example, confusion between Tazra and Tafza (A. Guillaume, op. cit., p.363) – an easily committed pronunciation error as noticed in the field by this writer during his August 2005 visit; also, a cliff described as Tazra n-Ismekh is labelled Tanra n-Ismekh on a photograph (A. Guillaume, op. cit., p.377). On the same document, crête n°1 is depicted in a somewhat haphazard manner. And yet, Guillaume, at the time a Commandant on De Loustal’s staff, was seen by a French journalist at Tassent, a mere ten miles west of Tazizaout; cf. H. Clérisse, Du Grand Nord à l’Atlas (Paris: Tallandier 1933) p.202. So he must have had some knowledge of the area.

(20) Account chiefly based on A. Guillaume, op. cit., generally considered to be the most exhaustive from the French angle, together with some input from J. Saulay, op. cit.

(21) Based on both eye-witness accounts by veterans of the Tounfit-Aghbala region; backed up by second-hand information gleaned from less elderly relatives and neighbours.

(22) Moroccan deserters from French units (Tirailleurs, Spahis, etc.) with experience of trench warfare (1914-18) had shown their imžuhad brethren how to minimise the effects of artillery bombardment by burrowing into the ground, even digging fox-holes between the roots of giant cedars.

(23) The present 100M ordnance survey map (IGN 1971-72) of the area is literally riddled with errors of this kind.

(24) This is no exaggeration. British news reporter Ward Price writes: “…on the Moroccan front (…) the heure de l’apéritif never failed to produce an appropriate bottle which was offered with unfailing hospitality to the visiting stranger.” He goes on to enthuse about “the amenities of the Headquarters’ Mess, where apéritifs, two kinds of wine and liqueurs were the regular accompaniment of the evening meal.” Cf. G. Ward Price, In Morocco with the Legion (London: Jarrolds 1934) pp.152-153.

(25) In the beleaguered citadel of Tazizawt with imžuhad down to survival rations, only someone with access to the outside world could possibly afford a luxury such as this, the implication being that Sidi Lmekki (denounced subsequently by poets as the arch-traitor) was already in touch with the enemy.

(26) That the informant should have described this event in such a manner may be interpreted as a case of long delayed post-traumatic shock (conversation with H. Yakobi, May 21, 2006).

(27) This event occurred on September 7-8, 1932 (A. Guillaume, op. cit. p.385). A further, interesting case of toponymic confusion; stream-bed between Tazra and Tafza, referred to as Aqqa n-Zebzbat by Guillaume, is now called Aqqa n-Ouidammen (‘ravine of blood’) by the locals, in memory of the massacre that took place there in 1932.

(28) For different versions of a well-known tamdyazt criticising Sidi Lmekki, probably attributable to the poetess Taoukhettalt, cf. J. Drouin, (op. cit. p.129); B. Hamri, La poésie amazighe dans l’Atlas central marocain: approche culturelle et analytique, PhD thesis, (Beni Mellal: Faculty of Letters 2005) pp.150-154; M. Peyron, “Emprunts, manipulations et confusion des genres izli, tamawayt, tayffart, et tamdyazt dans la poésie amazighe épique: le cas de Tazizaout”, Colloque sur la Poésie Amazighe, (Rabat: IRCAM, October 1, 2005, in the press). 

     Michael PEYRON 

Publishing HistoryPaper read at the Oxford University/AUI organized “Popular Cultures” conference, April 6, 2006.

N.B. Text copyright by Michael Peyron, from which material may be quoted in compliance with current academic norms.

Laisser un commentaire


Notre mariage - Il nostro m... |
célia dojan | | Annuaire | Signaler un abus | love and feelings
| Blog du niveau intermédiaire
| Gregmontres