Thursday, May 19, 2011

Berber Odes : Poetry from Morocco's High Atlas Mountains

Here is a piece about a recently published compilation of Moroccan Berber poetry in translation. The article is geared towards travelers (aka tourists), but good books are for everyone.

Book Review: Berber Odes

by Heather Carreiro.

Part of Eland’s Poetry of Place collection,Berber Odes is a compilation of poetry in translation edited by Michael Peyron, visiting professor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

From my year spent studying abroad at Al Akhwayn in 2003-2004, I still have vivid memories of professor Peyron’s 8:00 a.m. course, History and Culture of the Berbers. Since no textbooks were available, we used a heavy, photocopied reader that he’d compiled over the years. It was full of academic essays, poetry, proverbs, snippets on Berber dialects, black and white photos and historical accounts.

During class, Peyron would often deviate from the day’s lecture to give a quick pronunciation lesson, share the tale of a Berber saint or expound on a proverb. His excitement made clear that he loved learning about the Berber people and sharing their culture with others.

Berber Odes is the product of almost 20 years of Peyron’s work in Berber poetic genres. Morocco’s Berber population is spread throughout the country, with Tarifit-speaking Berbers in the northern Rif Mountains, Tamazight-speaking Berbers in the Middle Atlas and Tashelhit-speaking Berbers in the Souss region in southwest Morocco. While the book focuses on poetry from the Middle Atlas, Peyron’s primary area of research, it also includes a short selection of poetry from the Rif and a substantial selection of poetry from the Souss.

The original poems were either collected via audio recording by Peyron, accessed in the Berber archives stored in Aix-en-Province, collected and shared by Peyron’s colleagues and students or derived from other historical records.

The book is a thin, light, 4” by 6” volume that can easily fit into a purse, backpack or a coat pocket. Poems are organized by region, and the back of the book includes a bibliography for further reading and an index of the poems listed by both title and first line. Each poem is given in English translation, in verse form, and is followed by a paragraph of detailed contextual information from the editor.

The collection ranges from humorous ballads to didactic religious instructions and appeals to saints, although many of the poems focus on the themes of war and bravery. The breadth of these traditional odes and the context given for each one offers unique insight into Berber history and culture. As these poems have never been translated into English before, Berber Odes is an invaluable resource for scholars and travelers who wish to learn more about Morocco’s indigenous people.

The following excerpt demonstrates the tension felt among the Berbers, who traditionally have lived in Morocco’s highland areas, regarding urbanization, moral decline and trusting outsiders.

Excerpt from “Hospitality Betrayed” (pages 84-85)

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there’s much to say.
Our first night I spent passing as a guest in a friend’s house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their door to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at once good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil! [...]

In peace do I wish to live, trusting in fellow Berbers,
Whereas in big cities, with mixed population, crime is rife,
Women, newborn babies, all are victims of misfortune!
For a handful of coins a man will slay his neighbor!
In these times, e’en the highlands are dangerous [...]
No safety in sleeping near a nomads’ encampment!
With thy name do I comment, O Lord, thou and
Thy eternal dwelling-place!

I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in Moroccan culture pick up a copy of Berber Odes. The contextual explanations are written with a general audience in mind; you don’t need to be a poet or a scholar to appreciate the wealth of cultural knowledge that can be gleaned from reading these odes and ballads.

What I like most about the book is its small size and easy navigability. Most of the poems are shorter pieces, and you don’t need a solid half an hour to digest one of them. Instead, you can pull it out of your pocket or backpack while waiting for a grand taxi, sitting at a cafe or taking a short break while hiking in the Middle Atlas and read one or two poems.

The book is easily portable and could make for an excellent discussion starter with English-speaking Moroccans you meet during your travels. The verses and information packed into its 125 pages represents decades of the editor, Michael Peyron’s, work among the Berber people, and the book contains information and cultural insight that you won’t be able to find published anywhere else.

If you plan on visiting Morocco or know someone else who is, Berber Odes would make an ideal travel companion. Reading it made me anxious to get back to the mountains of Morocco myself.

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