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The Beat of a Different Drum: An Interview With an Amazigh (Berber) Poet — A MAP’S EDGE FEATURED STORY

Posted on

07/03/18

Author

Mohamed Arguine

WORDS by MOHAMED ARGUINE

IMAGES by SHINO YOSHEN

Years ago, when I was approached to lead Dragons first summer course in Morocco, I found myself considering who should join us on our trek in the High Atlas mountains. I contacted five local guides, all of whom were very fit and had years of experience. Among them was a man named Ben M’barek, and from all I had heard, I was hoping he would accept the invitation. I was looking for one of the guides to provide more than just loading his mule from one campsite to another, setting up tents, and serving food. I was hoping to find someone who would reflect the cultural traditions, ethnic diversity, and character of Morocco—someone who would embody the spirit of our mission and our values.

THE EARLY LIFE OF BEN M’BAREK

Ben M’barek was born in the village of Boutaghrar, a tiny hamlet at the northern edge of the Valley of Roses, on October 1948. His father was one of the first men in the village to immigrate to France in the late 1940s, and he ultimately married 15 women and fathered 33 children, leaving Ben to live with his mother.

Long days of solitude on the mountain slopes appealed to his restless nature. He would come back home tired and reflective, but brimming with his love for poetry and local music.

M’barek’s mother, Touda Hmad Ait El Qaseh, was as committed to her children as she was connected to nature. As a single mother, she would leave home early in the morning to help wealthy families from the village and neighbors in their fields—anyone who needed help collecting grass for their animals and irrigating their crops—for a few vegetables in return. On the best days, she would return home with a cone of sugar for the family. Ben M’barek never forgot the sacrifices his mother made and, as she grew older, he insisted that she live with him and his family. She lived with her son until 2008 when she passed, having lost her sight three years earlier.

Ben M’barek never went to school, nor did any of his eight kids. He considered school a luxury reserved for fortunate families, so when he was young he worked in the fields like his mother and found side jobs on construction crews. Later on, he worked on and off as a sheep herder for fourteen years and found it to be more to his liking. Long days of solitude on the mountain slopes appealed to his restless nature. He would come back home tired and reflective, but brimming with his love for poetry and local music.

BEN M’BAREK AS AN ARTIST

Ben M’barek first discovered his passion for poetry and music at the age of seven. He found no greater joy than attending weddings in the village, particularly because he was allowed to perform ahidous, a traditional Berber folk dance from Morocco’s Middle and High Atlas Mountains. Ahidous is, in fact, the only dance or musical style performed at village weddings across the region. People sit in a large square—women on one side and men on another—leaving the center of the square open like a dance floor for anyone who wants to perform. Male drummers sit in rows singing while women repeat the lyrics, and there is a master of ceremony to manage the floor and organize the groups who wish to perform.

word of his talent had spread across the region and it was said that any wedding Ben M’barek attended was likely to be a great success and attract hundreds of people

It was during celebrations like these that Ben M’barek’s skills in poetry, dancing and drumming found a stage. Even at a young age, his remarkable range made him a complete artist in the eyes of many and he started to attract the attention of people in the village. He had a very lively imagination that enabled him to excel in a number of genres—from romance, religion and humor to history and social criticism. Before long, word of his talent had spread across the region and it was said that any wedding Ben M’barek attended was likely to be a great success and attract hundreds of people.

In time, Ben M’barek became one of the most famous ahidous performers in the region of Imgoun. He and his band started to receive special invitations to weddings and local gatherings, where they became known by local authorities, who then invited them to perform at national concerts and religious celebrations. These would mark the first time M’barek accepted compensation for his music; until then he had typically refused money because he considered adihous a performance emanating from the pureness of his heart. Music and poetry were what kept him alive and young.

In 1986, Hassan II, King of Morocco, made a trip to the remote southeast of the country and passed through Kelaat M’Gouna, the Valley of Roses, and Ben M’barek’s home. His visit was a major event in the region. Local authorities went from village to village searching for the best folk dancers to perform for King Hassan II. Ben M’barek was chosen as a member of a group of eight men and women and told to prepare them for the event. He entertained the king and his retinue throughout the week and the performances were very well received. Afterwards, M’Barek became even more respected among local authorities and they began requesting him for more events.

Ben M’barek’s life changed dramatically, and he soon found himself performing at large gatherings and weddings across Ouarzazate province. Invitations started flowing in from other places, much further away, some even from non-Berber speaking regions like Casablanca, Marrakesh and Tangier. Although audiences could not have understood his lyrics or comprehended more than a few words of his language, they were nevertheless drawn to the authenticity and traditional movements of his dances. During these concerts, he would instruct his band to play handmade drums and ask that performers respect a traditional dress code that reflected their Berber identity.

In 2009, after the death of his best friend and companion of over three decades, Ben M’barek decided to retire from ahidous. His friend’s name was Ahmed ou Daoud and, next to Ben M’barek, he was considered the second best drummer in the region. Some even considered him more talented in the genres of love and romance. Neither Ben nor Ahmed ever showed any inclination toward competition; on the contrary, they performed together in a harmonious way that was noted and respected by everyone. Whenever they performed together, the event would attract masses of people. Ahmed ou Daoud’s death left Ben M’barek in such despair that he did not perform for over a year. And it took considerable persuasion from supporters before he agreed to perform again. When he returned, he made changes to the group and brought in new performers, incorporating several young male and female dancers. He also decided to be more organized, and Ben began acting as their manager.

BEN M’BAREK AS A MOUNTAIN GUIDE

Boutaghrar, Ben M’barek’s village, is a picturesque canyon-oasis situated at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains, where a maze of herders’ paths lead up toward the higher peaks. Working as a trekking guide was a source of income for some in the community, but at the time Ben M’barek had never considered doing such a job. He was blessed with knowledge of the mountain trails and a pleasant personality, but he never attended school nor did he speak any language other than Tamazight, the ancient language of the Berber. Until then, he had spent his days working in the fields, herding and performing poetry and ahidous in the evenings. He wasn’t a mountain guide.

he enjoyed the curiosity of the hikers and their interest to learn more about him

Ben M’barek was approached by a friend who was preparing to take a group of French hikers on a week-long trek through the High Atlas Mountains. Ben M’barek did not know all the little hamlets nor had he memorized the winding paths or best places to camp, but he knew the way and the trip was a life-changing experience. He felt appreciated by the tourists, physically challenged, at peace out in nature and, on a deeper level, he enjoyed the curiosity of the hikers and their interest to learn more about him.

Every day after hours of trekking, Ben M’barek would take out his drum, sit on a rock and start playing whatever came to mind. He never thought his songs would attract the attention of tourists who didn’t understand a word of the Tamazight language. But they asked him what the lyrics meant and to teach them how to dance. With the help of one of the main guides, Ben M’barek explained the themes of his poetry. The guide explained that M’Barek was singing about his love for the High Atlas Mountains and that he hoped not to see what might be hiding behind them. The oxygen of his life, its meaning, flows down from the peak of the highest mountain to his soul through the drops of rain and flakes of snow—pure and white as his heart, and imbued with love for this region, which to him is heaven on earth. He also sang about his mother and how he missed her on the days when he was away from the mountains. He wondered how some people who leave Morocco for Europe or the United States deal with homesickness and being absent from their loved ones.

BEN M’BAREK AND HIS DRAGONS LOVE STORY

Dragons first Morocco course in 2007 included a five-day trek starting in Tabant in the Azilal region and to Boutaghrar, my small village at the very northern opening of the Valley of Roses winding around 4,071 meter M’goun, the third tallest mountain in Morocco. Upon the finalizing the itinerary, I called Ben M’barek hoping he would be available to accompany us on Dragons’ first trek in the High Atlas.

He knows the paths and water springs and nomadic herders.

“You’re the first person from Boutaghrar to bring a group of tourists and they aren’t even French!” he said. “I have other offers but since you reached out to me personally, and we are from the same village, I will be happy to go with you. I danced at your mother’s wedding and I know your family very well, so we’ll not talk about compensation. My team and I will help the first international guide from Boutaghrar!”

Over the years, Ben M’Barek has become one of the most experienced guides in the region. He knows the paths and water springs and nomadic herders. He is also a committed educator. He has taught Dragons students Berber folk dances. He has taught them poetry. He has shared the essence of his imagination with great love, energy and ambition and became an integral part of the Dragons experience in Morocco. From 2007 through 2010, he led trips with unfailing energy, ingenuity and affection. And when Dragons reopened the Morocco summer course in 2017, Ben M’barek was ready to come back and join us again.

After discussing the idea of interviewing him for an article in Dragons newsletter, Ben M’barek opened his heart and house to me, and introduced me to his family with same generosity he has always offered. It was a great honor to be welcomed into his modest home and meet his wonderful family. As lunch was being prepared, Ben M’barek introduced me to his wife, Zahra Alili, who is around 65 years old. He told me that leading Dragons trips has helped him build a better house, buy new furniture and feed his children and grandchildren. His family feels indebted to Dragons for their better life. But I assured him that it is Dragons, and myself, who are indebted to M’Barek for wisdom and hospitality he has provided us.

MOHAMED ARGUINE is a longtime Dragons instructor having worked the first Morocco summer course in 2007. After moving to the US where he received his Master’s from Brandeis in Sustainable International Development, he worked for the Peace Corps and then the United Nations Development Program both in New York City and globally. Mohamed recently led Dragons inaugural Madagascar semester program.

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