A philosopher defined history as all that remains when we have lost everything. So that the identity, the culture, even all the particularities of an entire people, do not join the cemetery of History, it is necessary to maintain, preserve and revive all its components. Such a task has nothing to do with ostracism: Humanity and the universal being are only the sum of the different components that make up this world in which we live. Moreover, given the locked game imposed by the various successive powers within Tamazgha, the homeland of our people, our culture, our history and our identity, the Amazigh Diaspora is today in fact invested with a share of responsibility for safeguarding and revitalizing one’s own identity and culture while waiting for a better tomorrow. Therefore, it is in this well defined frame that the Amazighe Diaspora celebrate the Yennayer (Amazigh new year).
What is Yennayer?
Yennayer is the feast celebrating the transition to the new year by the Imazighen. This day corresponds to January 12 of the Gregorian calendar, which became universal. Like the other civilizations in the world (Russian, Chinese, Irish, Arabic, etc.), the Imazighen thus had their own very old calendar, based both on the changes of seasons and the different cycles of vegetation that determine the crucial moments in agriculture, and the positioning of celestial stars such as the moon and the sun. At the arrival of the Romans, another calendar (the Julian calendar), would replace the native calendar, which no longer met the new seasons born of agricultural innovations. January 12th of the Julian calendar (instituted in 45 BC by Emperor Julius Caesar) corresponds to January 1st of the current Gregorian calendar (established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582).
Why January 12th 2969?
The advent of Yennayer of the year 951 before Jesus Christ of the Gregorian calendar corresponds to a political event of immeasurable significance for the Imazighen. Numerous in the different armies of the Pharaohs, the Imazighen would gradually assert themselves and influence the Pharaohs. Thus they managed to tear their right to observe their own rites as funeral cults, a spiritual practice of paramount importance at the time. There was one that could not go unnoticed, the funeral rite organized on the death of Namart, father of Sheshonq I, who was soon to be the founder of the XXIIth Pharaonic dynasty. Indeed, in the year 950 BC, on the death of the Pharaoh Psusennes II, an Amazigh named Sheshonq I attains the status of Pharaoh of Egypt by submitting the entire Nile Delta, as well as the Egyptian High Priesthood under his authority, and founded his capital at Bubastis. Previously, Sheshonq I ruled over a territory from the eastern part of present-day Libya to the Nile delta. He reigned over Egypt as Pharaoh from 950 until 929 BC. Concerned to respect the Pharaonic tradition, his son married Princess Makara, daughter of the late Psousennès II. In commemorating this event, Yennayer also becomes the symbol of the reunion between the Imazighen and their millennia history, of which they have been unjustly robbed.
The celebration of yennayer.
To the Imazighen, Yennayer is first and foremost a gateway to the new year and it is often called ‘tabburt useggwass’ (the door of the year). Its celebration is explained by the importance given to the rites and superstitions of the time, some of which still exist today. The period in question attracts particular attention because the season corresponds to the approach of the ending of the provisions kept for the winter. It is therefore necessary to renew one’s spiritual strength by appealing to rites. At this time of year, the rites must symbolize wealth. Thus, for the new year to be more fruitful and the land more fertile, it is necessary to purify and clean the premises. Ritual laws such as the sacrifice of an animal (Asfel) on the threshold of the year are also still performed on the foundations of a new building. The Asfel ritual symbolizes the expulsion of evil forces and spirits to make room for the beneficial spirits that will sustain us throughout the year. If the means allow it, there should be a sacrifice of as many animals as there are family members. Tradition has retained the sacrifice of one rooster per man, one chicken per woman and one of each for pregnant women so as not to forget the future baby. In the absence of meat, each family member will be represented by an egg surmounting a crown of pasta.
Dinner on this day will be served late and must be hearty, which in the eyes of the Imazighen foretell a plentiful year. The meat of the sacrificed animal will be served according to the rite. Those who cannot afford such a sacrifice, serve dried meat, such as acedluh, kept for such occasions: a Yennayer without dry meat is not Yennayer! During the dinner, a ceremony is held to preserve the memory of absent loved ones and to make the year-to-be a good one. The absent ones will not be forgotten: cutlery arranged on the dining table by the mother of the house symbolize their presence and a symbolic proportion will be left in the collective palace, assumed to gather all the forces of the family. After the meal it is necessary to check if everyone has eaten to an end. It is the lady of the house (the grandmother or the mother) who asks the children the question to know if they have eaten to their fain: and the answer should hopefully be necca nerwa (yes, we have eaten, and we are satiated). The lady of the house does not forget neither her closest nor her neighbours, who in return also make her different foods: it is not costumery to leave empty utensils around the house on the blessed day of laawachar.
The party keeps its flavor during the few days following the event. The new utensils arranged after the last celebration will come down from tareffit (shelf), we prepare lesfenj (donuts), tighrifin (pancakes), and any other dishes and cakes recalling a rare flavor were imported. The dried fruit will also be present, or bought throughout the rest of the year, dried figs, almonds, hazelnuts, dates, etc.
Nowadays, in some areas of Algeria like Oran, Beni Zennassen, etc., the celebration of Yennayer has lost none of its freshness or authenticity. In the latter, some abstain from eating spicy or bitter foods for fear of presaging a year of the same taste. Yennayer’s meal is conditioned by the harvests according to the region but also by the means of each other. The foods served will symbolize wealth, fertility or abundance. It is thus irecman (boiled wheat and beans) or the heart of the palm in the beni-Hawa: no question of missing the meal of blessing that is that of Yennayer. The good omen of Yennayer also makes it associated with other family events such as the first haircut of the last born or marriage. In recent times, we place kitchen utensils full of salt on the outside of our homes and on the roofs of our houses. The number of which symbolizes the months of the year.
Yennayer in the Diaspora
In the land of exile, far from ours and places of our childhood, Yennayer is first and foremost an opportunity to meet and celebrate the new year in an Amazigh cultural bath. It is also an opportunity for us to remember our duty to fight for the survival of our culture and our identity, and to affirm our presence alongside our brothers and sisters who are struggling currently in an environment that is politically hostile.
By Karim Achab