BENI-MELLAL, Morocco — Mohamed was waiting on a bench in Beni-Mellal’s small, run-down bus station when a reporter from The Times of Israel arrived. Lit only by the sunshine streaming in from outside, the station was an oven on a late spring day that broke 100 degrees by noon. Though it was Ramadan and he was fasting, Mohamed was chipper.
“Welcome, my brother,” he said, offering a hug and inquiring about the four-hour journey north from Marrakesh.
Mohamed pointed out landmarks as he walked by a traffic circle with cars and small diesel trucks fighting to pass each other. Across the road, veiled women poured out of a bustling open-air market. The energy seemed outsized for the relatively small city of just under 200,000 where Mohamed attends university.
A small waterfall fed a stream running through a green park. Walking alongside it, Mohamed talked about things often on the mind of a 25-year-old undergraduate student – girls, his flat. He was in the middle of exams. In short time, he also asked after “Auntie Martha.”
He was referring to Martha Rettig, a retired American-Israeli tour guide who organizes financial support for Mohamed in his studies, as well as for the residents of his home village of Achamaoui. (The name of Mohamed’s village has been changed to protect his privacy.)
Mohamed was born in a cave. Today he studies English in Beni Mellal, which, though just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Achamaoui as the crow flies, requires Mohamed to travel upwards of eight hours each way due to circuitous mountain routes and indirect methods of transportation.
Rettig and Mohamed have never met in person, but over the past couple of years Rettig has collected and sent several thousand dollars to Mohamed, who uses the funds to purchase food, shoes, and warm clothing to distribute among the needy in his hometown. He also uses a portion to help offset the costs of his studies.
By Western standards, it is not an enormous sum of money, but to the families in the impoverished Berber village in the high Atlas mountains, the cash infusion has provided vital assistance, especially for getting through punishingly cold winters.
Rettig first encountered Mohamed through a Facebook page dedicated to indigenous groups in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these groups are struggling to gain cultural or political independence in areas where they don’t have official autonomy. Among those represented in the forum are ethnic Kurds, Armenians, and Berbers who, located across North Africa, often prefer to be called the Amazigh people.
All of a sudden here’s this guy with an Arabic name talking about Zionism and how the Jews are the real inhabitants of the Land of Israel
Following a two-year bout with cancer, Rettig found herself spending a lot of time online learning about and promoting Israel advocacy.
Rettig, who earned a BA in archaeology and a master’s in Jewish education, had worked as a licensed tour guide in Israel for 25 years. The strenuous physical elements of the job – from waking early in the morning, to driving the large, gearshift tour buses, to herding people around and trekking in rough terrain – made continuing as a tour guide all but impossible. Still, she sought something meaningful to do with her time.
Much to her surprise, through her online research and activism, Rettig discovered that she had a number of common values with people living in countries that many would consider hostile to Israel.
“I’m very pro-Israel, myself, so I was on these forums, having these discussions, and then all of a sudden here’s this guy with an Arabic name talking about Zionism and how the Jews are the real inhabitants of the Land of Israel,” Rettig said.
Today, there is a small but strong movement in Morocco to revive the region’s 5,000-year-old Amazigh language and culture. Within that movement, many identify with the modern State of Israel and the Jews, whom they see as having faced — and won — their own struggle to live independently in their ancestral homeland
Intrigued, Rettig reached out to members of the Facebook page to hear more. Speaking to a number of new contacts, including Mohamed, she learned that prior to the Islamic conquest of the Maghreb in the 7th and 8th centuries, indigenous Amazigh tribes populated North Africa from Libya all the way to Morocco. She learned that in Morocco, some Amazigh once practiced Judaism, and then Christianity.
Today, there is a small but strong movement in Morocco to revive the region’s 5,000-year-old Amazigh language and culture. Within that movement, many identify with the modern State of Israel and the Jews, whom they see as having faced — and won — their own struggle to live independently in their ancestral homeland.
In conversation with The Times of Israel, Rettig speculated that the Amazigh people’s ancient Jewish history and current struggle with an Arab majority may further entrench the connection between Amazigh and Jew in the movement’s mythology.
While it’s unclear exactly how many ancient Amazigh tribes actually observed Judaism, it is certain that Jews coexisted with them for many centuries, said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a professor of Middle Eastern and African history at Tel Aviv University and a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center. According to Weitzman, this shared history may go as as far back as the destruction of the First Temple 2,600 years ago.
“Jews were part of the landscape, and even fulfilled societal roles as traders and peddlers, and connectors between the different tribes and territories,” Weitzman said.
While exploring the ancient Amazigh culture, Rettig also learned from Mohamed about the dire living conditions in which many Amazigh live. He explained there is a large socioeconomic gap between Amazigh, most of whom live in small villages in the Rif and Atlas mountains, and Arab Moroccans, who tend to gravitate towards the more prosperous urban and coastal regions.
Pushed out of wealth and leadership roles
While it is estimated that people with Amazigh roots make up more than 60 percent of Morocco’s 36 million citizens today, Rettig claimed that they have been excluded from wealth and leadership roles.
“There are huge natural resources, and the [Arab] leadership has all the control over it,” said Rettig. “They [the leadership] have not at any time invested in infrastructure for the Amazigh population.”
“The people who live in the cities have infrastructure — the biggest ones are on the coast, so there’s always going to be more wealth and tourism — but all the inland places, all the different mountain ranges where the Amazigh live, there’s no infrastructure. There are dirt roads, there are some places that don’t have roads at all going to their villages,” she said.
The Times of Israel repeatedly reached out to the Moroccan Ministry of Solidarity, Equality, Family, and Social Development — one of a number of socially-oriented portfolios in the current government’s cabinet — but did not receive a response.
According to the ministry’s website, over 156 million dirhams ($16.1 million) have been used to subsidize 670 social projects over the last three years. The website is notably available in the Amazigh language, in addition to Arabic, French, and English.
While the website does not state that the initiatives were aimed at the Amazigh community specifically, many Amazigh people fall into the socioeconomic demographic being targeted for aid. According to the website, projects include educational drives for disabled children from underprivileged families, social work services, family mediation, social protection services, and senior care.
Care packages from abroad
Still, the limited government funds earmarked for such welfare projects can only go so far.
Moved by Mohamed’s story of destitution and the shared ideology of the Amazigh people, Rettig set up a GoFundMe page together with her friend, New Yorker Denice Marie, to raise money to buy essential items such as shoes and socks for the impoverished villagers of Achamaoui.
Rettig said that 90 percent of the roughly 100 regular donors are Jewish, and half of them are Israelis. Contributions usually range anywhere between three dollars and $100, and earlier this year a $1,000 pledge came through – “but that’s very rare,” Rettig said.
Through trial and error, she said, and after sending care packages to the residents of Achamaoui in the mail, the group found that the most practical means of helping was by sending the cash directly to Mohamed.
Through his subsidized studies, Mohamed says he hopes to become an English teacher or a tour guide one day. He also wants to write the story of his life, to share his experience with Westerners.
“Most people have some sheep, which they herd in the mountains, like my father. They stay there and try to survive,” said Mohamed, who snaps photos of the villagers enjoying the gifts purchased with the funds sent by Rettig, which he sends her.
“Some people have tents, like my parents, some make huts out of clay and rocks, and other people live in caves,” Mohamed said.
“Last winter there was a lot of snow, and people suffered a lot. Kids and old people didn’t even have clothes to wear to warm themselves, and it was very, very cold. It was crazy. And the government didn’t do anything,” claimed Mohamed.
A variety of Amazigh experiences
Though the country has the largest concentration of Amazigh people of any in North Africa, centuries of Arabization, assimilation, and cultural overlap have blurred the line between Arab and Amazigh.
Rettig claimed that the Moroccan government has – often successfully – made efforts to suppress an independent Amazigh identity.
“Many Amazigh have become so Arabized through an intentional move by the Arab leadership over the last 60 years or so,” Rettig told The Times of Israel, adding that a large number of Amazigh don’t speak the language nor feel the need to reanimate the culture.
According to the US State Department, 99 percent of Moroccans are Sunni Muslim, regardless of how they identify ethnically.
“There’s a variety of Amazigh experiences,” said Tel Aviv University’s Weitzman. “In Morocco, there’s sort of a hybrid identity. Most Amazigh people speak Arabic, and over time with modernization and integration there has been a loss of Amazigh identity – of language and culture – and this is what the modern Amazigh movement is trying to combat.”
According to Dr. Mohamed Chtatou, a professor of education science in Rabat, over the last decades, the Moroccan government’s attitude towards the movement to reassert Amazigh identity through language, names, and culture has varied from outright hostility to cautious embrace. Since 2005, schools in heavily Berber areas have been allowed to teach Tamazight, the language that largely defines the Amazigh people, and it is finally being given official recognition, writes Chtatou in a March 2018 article.
But Mohamed said that demonstrations focusing on socioeconomic inequality are often targeted by police, who have arrested and jailed hundreds of leaders within the movement on trumped-up charges, or no charges at all, sentencing them to anywhere between six months and 20 years in prison.
Rettig said that Facebook accounts are also regularly monitored, and that one of her contacts in Morocco was awoken by police in the middle of the night and taken to the local station, where he was threatened and intimidated into stopping online activism on his own Facebook page before they let him go.
In addition, many Moroccans, including some of Amazigh heritage who no longer identify as such, can be hostile, and even violent, to people involved in the movement.
Shortly before publication of this article, Mohamed got in touch with The Times of Israel via text message, requesting that neither his last name nor photo be published.
“Some people here are crazy and I’m afraid for my safety,” he wrote. “Please don’t use my pics or family name I beg you, because it’s serious here.”
Relations with Israel run hot — and cold
Though Morocco has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, it is among a growing number of Arab states with warming unofficial connections. These are driven by quiet economic ties and a growing distrust among Sunni Muslim states for Iran’s Shia regime.
According to Israeli media reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita last September while the two were in New York for the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu was also rumored to have attempted to arrange a secret meeting in Morocco with King Mohammed VI ahead of Israeli elections this past April.
When it comes to the Jewish state, people on the street are more ambivalent. After US President Donald Trump announced that he was moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, government opposition parties rallied 10,000 people in Casablanca to demonstrate against the move. Protestors there chanted “Death to Israel.”
Amazigh activist Mohamed cited fear of being associated with Israel when he asked that he remain anonymous for this article. Besides the obvious dangers from police or extremists hearing him criticize the government, receiving aid from an Israeli and being featured in an Israeli publication would not do him well among his peers and professors at university, he said. He suspects they already dislike him for his connection to his Amazigh heritage.
A drop in the bucket
In the touristic Medina neighborhood in the center of Marrakesh, politics seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds as tourists pivoted and jumped to avoid the passing motorbikes speeding through the narrow alleyways. Avoiding the scooters became second nature. Buyers squeezed up against merchants as they haggled over the price of cheap jewelry, trinkets, and shoes or other crafts woven from the leaves of the native raffia palm.
Like other shopkeepers, a shoe vendor sat on the steps in front of his store. He had placed a piece of scrap cardboard on the stoop, which he sat on. It was nearly as black as the ground beneath it. All of his shoes, he told a reporter, were hand-woven by women from his native village two hours southwest of Marrakesh.
Much of the craftwork cheaply sold to tourists is made by people from the mountain villages, he said. For their leatherwork, jewelry, and woven Berber cloaks and blankets, the villagers receive barely enough to subsist on.
Asked if he was Amazigh, the shopkeeper shrugged. He was half Berber, he said, “but what does it matter?”
Those who work as vendors and hotel staff in Marrakesh don’t make much more, and often send money back home to support their families.
Youssef, a mild-mannered attendant at the small bed and breakfast where this reporter stayed, said that he regularly sends a portion of his paycheck home, but that he wished he could send more. He at first described himself as Berber, and was surprised that a foreigner had heard of the Amazigh cultural movement.
As night fell and the Ramadan fast ended, Youssef opened up about his transition from a small mountain village to the big city while smoking hookah on the building’s lavishly decorated rooftop. His family was very poor, he said, and he came to Marrakesh to help support them, as options in the village were extremely limited. He was also a proud Amazigh, and supported the identity movement, but said the government is not doing nearly enough to support the Amazigh people culturally or economically.
The French owner of the bed and breakfast sat on a nearby sofa, nodding in agreement. It was not clear if he’d heard Youssef’s claim that low wages in Marrakesh help perpetuate the difficult situation.
“I have known Youssef for years,” he said. “He is smart and reliable. That’s the thing — I always hire Berbers. They are the best workers.”
The contributions by Rettig and her co-donors to their Amazigh beneficiaries are just a drop in the bucket. As most of those interviewed for this article have pointed out, there is a dire need for systemic change, which may or may not be coming.
In the meantime, Rettig continues to be involved with a number of people and causes both in Israel and Morocco, not all of which require financial assistance. She is the friend and confidant of an Amazigh man in the northern Moroccan city of Nador who is seeking to convert to Judaism. Rather than financial assistance, she provides moral support. But Mohamed, and a few others like him, hold a special place for her.
Mohamed said that it is his dream to visit Israel one day and thank Rettig in person. In the meantime, he said, not everyone was so lucky to receive outside help.
“We’re struggling, and meanwhile, people just go out and hoist a Palestinian flag because Trump said Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” Mohamed said, adding that something needs to change in order for his people to live sustainably.
“But it’s fine,” he said sarcastically. “Because the government does whatever it wants, and nobody ever says a word about the people living in the high Atlas mountains.”