The magical arts of a warrior race

While nomadic Jews became farmers in the Atlantic littoral well over 2,000 years ago, there is a tradition that several large polytheistic Berber tribes chose Judaism rather than Islam.

By MEIR RONNEN
October 9, 2005 12:55

 
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An otherwise delightful show of some of the traditional weavings and jewelry of Berber tribes, now at Jerusalem's Museum of Islamic Arts, pays scant attention to the historic links between the Berbers and the Jews who once lived at the foot of the Atlas mountains in southwest Morocco. This is a pity, given that many of the thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent who have come to see this show possibly have at least some Berber genes. While nomadic Jews became farmers in the Atlantic littoral well over 2,000 years ago, there is a tradition that several large polytheistic Berber tribes chose Judaism rather than Islam. Their names and Hamitic features survive in many Israeli families today. Their story has been preserved by Arab historians like Ibn Khaldun, who noted their active resistance to Islam under the leadership of a Jewish warrior princess called the Kahina (a title derived not from Cohen, but from the Arabic kahin, prophet or soothsayer). Initially successful as a general, the Kahina laid waste to the country's cities. In defeat, she was executed, after ordering her sons to embrace Islam. Some Moroccan Muslims still have names derived from Cohen and Levy. Under the Muslims, Jews were soon at the bottom of the Berber pecking order, but were usually treated with respect. They were famed as the best makers of the jewelry that played such an important role in Berber culture; many of the pieces in the private collection on loan here were probably made by Jews (who, like their co-religionists in Asia Minor, were also skilled dyers of indigo). Jewish Berbers were also at the bottom of the Moroccan-Jewish pecking order too, looked down upon by both urban Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The Berbers are descended from the original Caucasoid population of the area but there were once over 700 Berber tribes and clans of various ethnic origins, from Yemenite and Israelite farmers to the proud nomadic Tuaregs whose blue-veiled males still range across the Sahara that separates Morocco from Egypt and black Africa. Some Berber clans were white, others dark, but they all spoke versions of the same, purely oral, language. Their lack of a written language caused the Arab invaders to regard them as primitive; the Arabs respected the bravery of Berber warriors but used the word Berber in a derogatory sense. The Berbers don't use the word at all. They proudly call themselves Imazighen, freemen. The Berber languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic linguistic family, including Kabyle, Tachelhit, and Central Atlas Tamazight, with a total of roughly 14m.-25m. speakers in Algeria and Morocco. (There are some 32m. people in Morocco today). The Berbers successfully resisted the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, Arabs and even the French (as late as the 60s in Algeria), but they became Muslims. Still, half of today's Moroccans claim Berber origin and just two years ago, the kingdom for the first time permitted the teaching of their language (now written with Arabic characters) in schools. Over 200 distinct Berber tribes still survive, each with its own visual culture. Berber survival was helped by their terrain, the high Atlas mountain territory backed by the Sahara; and the smaller mountains of the Rif, where Abd el Krim harried the French east of Casablanca. It was cold in the mountains and warm clothing was needed. The tribeswomen made the marvelous carpets, caftans, capes, sleeping bags and saddlecloths on view here from woolen flatweave or thinner mixtures of wool and goat hair, sometimes double-sided as a result of using the skip method. Each tribe had its own decorative geometric, amuletic designs, but today neither the weavers nor textile historians have been able to read most of the motifs as a symbolic language. What is remarkable, however, is the innate good taste and mastery of these abstract designs. Perhaps this talent came easier to a people that did not read or write. Many of the geometric motifs are however, still associated with animals and things that ward off the evil eye. Despite being Muslims, the Berbers have never shaken off a primal fear of demons and evil spirits. Even the makeup and the tattoos on the faces of young women are designed to ward off the evil eye. Colors have a positive or negative meaning and were also associated with good and evil. These and other symbols common to all Berbers, long precede Islam. Berber weavings are so richly pleasing to the eye that Europeans judging them by the esthetic parameters of the best of modern painting have no difficulty in being drawn to them at once. Berber carpets can be found in many Israeli homes. They have long been popular in Germany, where nearly every town has a store selling a fabulous range of creamy thick-pile Berber carpets that are woven by one particular tribe on a virtual production line. But then even the traditional weavings in this show are all considerably less than a century old. All the magnificent jewelry on view, also from a private collection abroad, has to do with warding off demons and the misfortunes of the evil eye. The hamsa, the hand of Fatma, daughter of the Prophet, is well known to Israelis. Like all Berber adornments, it is an amulet designed with absolute symmetry. The pins, rings, bracelets, anklets, earrings and necklaces are all basically geometric and symmetrical. They were generally dowry gifts and the personal property of the wearer. Not having a safe to lock them in, Berber women wore them all the time, a not inconsiderable burden. But then they stood between the wearer and very bad luck. Cannily perhaps, the Berbers held that the use of gold, found in the Sahara, was depraved. All their jewelry is of good quality silver, the symbol of purity. Coral was a favorite addition. Carnelian, filigree and enamel were later refinements. Jewelers were men, just as the spinners and weavers were all women. Despite barely acknowledging the tradition that some Berber tribes converted to Judaism, curator Hasson's fully illustrated catalog is a mine of information about the customs, geography and history of the Berbers, as well as providing detailed information about the exhibits. A 15-minute film accompanies the exhibition, which will remain open till April. Lea Nikel, 87 Israel's leading abstract expressionist painter and Israel Prize laureate Lea Nikel, died this week aged 87. Dogged by cancer in her late years, she never stopped painting or exhibiting. Her entire life was devoted to a daily battle to find new ways to energize an empty canvas. Nikel was an instinctive painter, often beginning without a plan. A few arbitrary gestural marks with the brush, or the chance choice of a color or a grey wash, were enough to start a flow of compositional ideas. She wrestled with each subsequent development of an emerging theme the way a Japanese Nanga painter adds a carefully considered leaf to a stick of bamboo. Yet her lively works always appeared freshly dashed off. The method sometimes led to works that never came quite right, but even then her high color and calligraphic gestures always produced a feeling of joy. Painting always came first for Nikel. Nearly half a century ago, she scandalized male-dominated Tel Aviv by embarking on an extended stay in Paris, leaving her small daughter behind. Then she survived a brain tumor and an operation that for a while changed her style. Nikel's works did not tell stories. Her only narrative was how one part of a composition was uniquely connected to all the other elements. Singularly in Israeli art, her canvases projected happiness.

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