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November 17 , 2010


Ecology, Social Order and Ritual In the Tessawt Valley of the High Atlas of Morocco


Tazz’unt presents a group of Berbers (Imazighen), the Ait Arbaa, who live in the Tessawt Valley of the High Atlas of Morocco, eking out a meager existence from the eroded soil of their rugged environment, by harvesting turnips, millet and maize, and one cash crop of walnuts. They depend also on a simple form of summer pasture. Tazz’unt means “limit:” and it refers to an annual ritual which gathers around the shrine of a local Saint, Sidi Asdal, several villages of the Valley for its celebration. A ceremony, a feast, songs and dances accompany the rite.
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The book is based on a French ethnographic description recorded by a member of that group, Hassan Jouad, and a Frenchman, Bernard Lortat-Jacob during the celebration of the opening of the Summer Season Festivities, the Tazz’unt ceremony, in 1978. The original English analysis based on this description was a spring paper written in 1982 at the Department of Anthropology of Stanford University. Because such material is so lacking in the anthropological literature of Morocco, and given the fact that American universities are beginning to become more interested in Amazigh studies (North African Berbers and Tuaregs), this small book might be appreciated by a number of people entering that field. Hopefully, it will also be of interest to anyone else interested in ritual and religious practice in Africa.

The document opens with an introduction to the Berbers of the High Atlas of Morocco, who speak Tamazight, a form of a Berber language which has a number of different dialects through North Africa. A whole section is devoted to the analysis of their segmentary type of tribal organization, and what has been discussed in the past by anthropologists interested in segmentary structures of social organization in past anthropological literature. The various mechanisms of affiliations and alliances, recognized by Berbers (Imazighen) in this part of the world about the middle of the twentieth century, are also examined and assessed as to their function and place in the tapestry of relations not just among the Ait Arbaa, but more generally among the Berbers of that region.

The presence of “marabouts,” saintly men such as Sidi Asdal, the local saint of the upper Tessawt Valley, and a maraboutic complex which antedates the arrival of Islam and has been incorporated into religious practice in Moorcco, are also introduced and discussed in a separate section of the book. The concept of “Baraka” (blessing, and power of blessing) is introduced and analyzed. Social order and the segmentary structure of social organization are singularly modified by the presence of these powerful saintly men with “Baraka” as opposed to the rule of elected, temporal chiefs, or “amghars.” A model of equilibrium, fluidity, and flexibility emerges from such a factor at the core of a structured, hierarchical society.

The ritual of Tazz’unt itself is presented, explained, and analyzed. An anthropological reflection on the importance of ritual, song and dance, rounds up the presentation. All aspects of the presentation of the ritual of Tazz’unt and its meaning for the villagers and mountain people of the Tessawt Valley are backed by a series of poems and songs which were translated from their original Tamazight composition into French by Hassan Jouad, and subsequently translated from the French into English by the author of the book, Helene Hagan. The poetry is essential to the actual substance and meaning of the actions described. In addition to the importance of the poetry which accompanies the prose of the explanatory text, the author had the extraordinary luck to come across a set of photographs taken in that valley, around the very time that this document was being written. These photographs were taken by two architects, Anne and Olivier Fougerat, who were kind enough to share their beautiful photography taken in May of 1984 in the Upper Tessawt Valley of the High Atlas of Moroc
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