I’ve found that an individual’s story can often provide greater insights into a foreign land than a textbook. For me, it’s the individual humans that give the macro facts and figures about a society any meaning in the first place. Today, I’d like to share the story of one such individual, Atmane Ahdach.
Atmane is what Peace Corps administrators would refer to as a Counterpart – a local host country national that partners with a Peace Corps Volunteer to accomplish projects in their community. It’s pretty safe to say that Counterparts are a key component of any successful Peace Corps project. But what a bureaucrat in Washington would call a Counterpart, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the field would usually just call a friend.
Atmane and I facilitated the creation of a Library Council, in which local government and school administrators work together to manage a series of small libraries. With a Peace Corps Grant, local contributions, and crowd sourcing, we are creating a multimedia library in our youth center, and 4 sub-libraries in local schools.
While working on the project, I got a chance to hear Atmane recollect about his childhood in the Sahara Desert. A few of the stories stuck with me, especially the ones about his family. For example, his father’s name was Ibrahim, named after the prophet Abraham. And similarly to the Old Testament patriarch, Ibrahim was 83 years old when his son Atmane was born.
Atmane was born in a large town on the outskirts of Zagora, a small Moroccan city in the Sahara that has served as an important intersection on the caravan trade route for centuries. He and is family are Amaziert (Berber), and speak Arabic only as their second or third language. They are a part of the Ait Atta tribe, a group of over 130,000 tamazight speaking people from various oases that all trace their ancestry back to a common historical person.
The more Atmane told me about his family, the better I came to understand that history in Morocco is not completely divorced from the present. It composes the context in which we find ourselves. Atmane’s father struck me as the personification of this. He was a living link to a pivotal but bloody part of Morocco’s history. A time in which European powers were laying claim to large swaths of North Africa, and the modern state of Morocco was being born. In this particular case, it was the French. During the scramble for Africa in the late 1800’s, the French laid claim to large portions of Morocco, and mixed military might with divide and conquer techniques until their realm of influence reached the Sahara Desert.
Armed with a rifle and a horse, Atmane’s father Ibrahim was among those who fiercely resisted French imperial ambitions. Unfortunately for the French Foreign Legion, the desert tribes had perfected a style of warfare suitable to the Sahara over centuries of raids and repelling invaders. The Amaziert (Berber) tribes turned an expectedly easy French victory into a costly venture – and stood with 19th century weapons against a professional army using airplanes, poison gas, and machine guns.
Despite possessing an overwhelming technological advantage and using controversial tactics, these desert territories would be the last lands in Morocco to be “pacified” by the French, in the 1930’s.
As so often seems to be the case, the invaders do not appear to have benefited much from the tentative conquest. The French would retain their grip on the Morccan Sahara for less than a decade. For soon after, France would be invaded itself by Nazi forces, and Morocco would gain independence with the strong support of the United States in the 1950s.
(Here’s a picture of Atmane’s father, Ibrahim. He’s the second person from the right)
(This photo shows a few members of the French Foreign Legion in Morocco)
It was at the end of this era, and the beginning of a new one, that Atmane was born. And although separated by 60 years, his father’s story seemed to link the two worlds together.
Life in the Moroccan Sahara changed dramatically during this time period; arguably more during Ibrahim’s lifespan than the last 500 years combined. Moroccan independence, electricity, running water, and infrastructure development have transformed the lives of the Ait Atta tribe. The Peace Corps has been serving in Morocco for about 50 years now, starting about the same time when these changes began to occur.
Atmane first started working with Peace Corps Volunteer when he was 18, when he met a Peace Corps Volunteer working with a local association. He took advantage of the free English classes and helped her to create a new computer lab, as well as paint a world map mural on the Dar Chabab wall. Not long after this, Atmane moved to central Morocco in Marrakech to attend the university. These days, when Atmane is not volunteering on projects, you can most likely finding him working to finish his Master’s Degree in Linguistics and Advanced English Studies at the University of Marrakech. I first met Atmane while he was working as a Language and Culture Facilitator for Peace Corps Trainees. He speaks 2 tamazight (Berber) dialects, Moroccan Arabic, Standard Arabic, and English fluently.
I think I enjoyed learning about Atmane’s story not just because it’s so radically different from my own. Nor was it solely due to the fact he’s a good guy working to improve the wellbeing of others in an exotic place. Hearing stories about individuals such as Atmane are like tugging on a string interwoven into a greater tapestry. Pulling on one string reveals how it is connected to the rest of the garment. It explains a lot, like how a guy from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia ended up becoming good friends with a guy from the Sahara Desert. To learn more about this part of the world and the Ait Atta tribe, Atmane recommends reading works by David Hart.
Thanks for checking out the blog! Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Please note that the term Berber is considered pejorative by many Moroccans, and is often compared with using the word “Negro” in America. This is because the original Greek translation of the word “Berber” meant barbarian.
(Fun Fact: Barbarian was originally a Greek word used to describe any people who did not speak Greek, because to them, they sounded all sounded incomprehensible and like sheep – saying “bar, bar, bar, barrrrr”. Americans would have been considered barbarians by ancient Greeks.)
However, most of the books written to describe Moroccan history to Westerners use the word Berber, so for the sake of clarification, I included the word Berber in this article to avoid confusion.
(Zagora, Atmane’s hometown)