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AMNAY SON OF THE ATLAS

Hafsa Bekri-Lamrani 

Translated into English by Sarah Walls

« [Berber art], which is very ancient, has […] a remarkable permanence. Like a river flowing to the sea, sometimes powerful, sometimes underground, it is always present in the Maghreb unconscious. »

Gabriel Camps – Les Berbères 

In the shadow of the Atlas

Yitto had the beauty of the Atlas girls, full of laughter and freedom.   Her green eyes, flecked with hazel and highlighted with antimony, had the kind of bewitching gazewhich, for thousands of years, had enchanted the men of her own country and those from far away.   Her neatly plaited brown hair gave her a modest look and her cloak, attached at her chest with silver fibulae, hinted at a slim and supple body. It was washing day and several girls and women were gaily chatting while they worked at the edge of the Khoumane River in the countryside surrounding Volubilis. They were using “Tirrecht”* and clear water to wash the woollen fabric they had woven.

Not far away, Amnay, hidden behind a tree, devoured Yitto with his eyes.  They had been born on the same day, in the same Izlaten tribe, and had grown up not far from the waters of Juba (Aquae Jubae), which ignorance and forgetfulness transformed centuries later into “Moulay Yacoub”. They had played together near their respective mothers, until love, without their knowledge, wove other ties between them.

Amnay was slender in build and vigorous, with black hair curling around a face with regular features. His honey-coloured eyes were bright and intelligent. His father had a field of olive trees and an oil press. His stable and conciliatory character made him liked by all the village. He loved Yitto deeply and their marriage was planned for the next harvest festival.

On the way back, Yitto noticed Amnay and caught up with him discreetly.  She was alarmed by his sad expression. “Mach Yaren?” “What’s wrong?”, she asked him, ruffling his hair.  He looked at her, his red eyes brimming with unshed tears.  “I have to go away.” “Go away? Where? Why?” He looked at her again, as if terrified by the words he was going to say, and finally burst out: “With the Romans, over there, to the North, beyond the land and the sea”.

Yitto froze, the blood draining from her cheeks. Thunderstruck by the news, she fainted. He took her in his arms, made his way to the river and set her down gently, then sprinkled her face with cool water. She opened her eyes. For a moment she hoped it was only a bad dream, then her expression clouded over again at the sight of the sadness and seriousness in Amnay’s eyes.

“No, Amnay! Not the Romans!” she cried. But she already knew that she could do nothing against Rome’s call when Rome threw out its lures to raise troops in order to slake its thirst for power. Amnay and Yitto walked, their souls entwined.  He put his arm around her. Then they separated in silent heartbreak. Rome had struck the fiancés (there is a tradition still alive today called les “fiancés d’Imilchil)” from the Atlas.

Amnay got up before dawn. His mother blessed the darkness that hid his red eyes, made him a breakfast of barley soup with goat’s milk, bread flavoured with Azoukenni*, olive oil and honey. He ate half-heartedly, tore himself from the embrace of his mother and sisters, and rushed off with his brothers and his father, who accompanied him to the south-east gate of Volubilis like a human offering sacrificed to a treacherous god.

That day Amnay Yiddir would become Rome’s soldier. Facing his destiny alone, he went to the Forum, the heart of Volubilis, the place of social, commercial and administrative activities, to register with the cavalry regiment, and he became Amnius Idirius. He met many acquaintances gathered there by the same destiny. Without showing his loneliness to his future fellow travellers, Amnay meditated on his situation, his commitment, his love for Yitto. Proud and peremptory, like the men of Mauretania Tingitania who, through one of their number, Lucius Quietus, had created a cavalry regiment in the Roman Army made up solely of Moors.

In Amazigh “Amnay” means horse rider and Amnay loved horses. He had heard of Lucius and had great admiration for this Moor hero who had conquered the East for the Roman Army. Emperor Trajan had understood the advantage for Rome of giving free rein to this formidable warrior, who razed Dacia, Syria and Judaea for Rome. But what is History if not a succession of feats of arms? The dead do not count. Rome razed to establish its Pax Romana. Rome particularly loathed the Jews, because their power lay not in arms but in their faith. Their belief in the Oneness of God made them refuse any human tyranny, even that of Rome. And the massacre of some constitutes the “bravery”, the “strength of civilisation” of those who enter History by the front door, namely that of tyranny.

Lucius Quietus’ exploits flattered his Amazigh compatriots. Amnay secretly raged against Hadrian who had had their hero assassinated when he came to power in 117.  Five years later, en route to serve this same Hadrian against other innocents further north, Amnay remembered his people’s uprising. The young adolescent he then was had retained the memory of this revolt against Rome, which hired men, raised them up, glorified them and then killed them, as its emperors pleased. He had learned to be suspicious of Roman power. But Rome also represented other lands, and Amnay’s veins teemed with Moorish blood which combined a peaceful love of nature, sung in its poems, with a fiery love of adventure and the courage to face it.

The expedition to the north began with the assembly of the troops under the direction of Roman officers, then their departure through the Tangier gate leading to the Decumanus Maximus and the main road from Tangier to Tipasa.

They were five hundred men, Roman legionnaires and auxiliary troops. Their Roman company leader was called Casius Valerius, and the Moorish leader of the auxiliary troops was called Melilius Mauritius. Amnay and his comrades called him his Amazigh name, Oumlil.

The convoy left Volubilis the following day. The force headed west to Gilda. “What will be my fate?” Amnay wondered in the evening, thinking of Lucius Quietus, after a long day travelling in the mild spring air of the year 122.  Hadrian had calmed the revolt by the Moors and was recruiting them again. No longer able to fight the fierce tribes in the north of the British Isles, he was using other more or less Romanised “barbarians” to contain these tribes of Picts, ancestors of the Scots, behind a wall.  This was how Amnay, who often went to Volubilis where he had some friends who were craftsmen, first heard people talk of Hadrian’s Wall. An excellent rider and taking advantage of the existence of this special Moorish cavalry regiment within the Roman Army, he got himself hired for the construction of this wall. His regiment comrades had, like him, left their job, their land and their family to build and guard Rome’s Wall.

After Gilda, they went around the marshy area of Banasa as far as Vopiscianis. Stage by stage, they went further north towards Tanger. Roman forts were dotted along the route they marched:  Tremulis, Oppido Novo, Ad Novas, Zilil, Ad Mercuri, and finally they arrived at the mythical, magical city of Tingi.

In 42 Tingi had been declared a Roman colony. It had become one of the major storehouses of the Mediterranean from which Rome siphoned off luxury food items such as the famous “garum”, agricultural products, ivory, medicinal plants, animals for the circus and slaves.  Rome organised Tingi’s profitable trade and received the caravans of raw materials that came from Africa. The Roman proconsul appointed to Tingi commanded the chiefs of the Amazigh tribes. Amnay fell down in admiration of this city which swarmed with goods, people high in colours and impressive African animals of all kinds.

The Departure

Two days that were too short in this magical city, and Amnay embarked on the Nautilus with his auxiliary comrades and their Roman supervisors.  They sailed along the Spanish, Gallic and British coasts and, after two months, berthed near Fort Aluana, the Roman fort nearest Aballava.  In this Roman fort, the headquarters for the Wall soldiers and a great maritime trading centre, he again found Tingi’s multicultural appearance. After two days at the Fort, they took the road to Aballava, which in other times would become Carlisle.

Thus began Amnay’s new life in this land of water and mist. A land so green and so cold. What pushes men to leave? Their primitive hunting instinct, the taste for adventure, the attraction of the unknown? The young man from the Atlas got used to his new life. Dressed in his helmet and coat of mail, armed for battle with his lance, shield and sword, he almost felt Roman. He “protected” the “civilisation” of the Empire against the Celtic tribes, these Picts and Brigantes who, like his own people, were the oldest inhabitants of their island.

Roman! In 20 years, he would have his retirement pension, his military diploma, Roman citizenship and a plot of land for his retirement. But when he put down his arms in the evening, then, no longer weighed down, he became Amazigh again and thought about his people, far from all this fog. He thought of Yitto, so beautiful, and his heart was gripped. Why do men always leave their beloved? Why are they constantly torn between love which gives life and war which kills?

Stone after stone, fort after fort, tower after tower, the Wall advanced from east to west, tracing a divide between the “barbarian” head of the island in the north and its Romanised body in the south. During the six years the Wall was being built, Amnay protected it as it grew solid and fought the indigenous Celts who did not intend to be walled up without a fight, then, exhausted, he went back into the last fort built where, in private, he again called up memories of his family, his blue sky and olive trees and, of Yitto’s hazel eyes.

In 139, Emperor Hadrian had his Wall and Amnay settled in the last fort in the north-west of the British island. Fort Maia was the eightieth and final fort built in the north-west of the island. It gathered together the Moorish community in this marshy region, this paradise for birds where stretches of sea penetrate deep into the land which would later be called the Solway.

Gradually, life became calmer as the days and years went by; the northern tribes reluctantly understood that Rome, a new kind of enemy, had settled down, with its fortress wall, its roads, its forts, its vicus*, its soldiers and its craftsmen.

Rome was not advancing any further. Its soldiers kept the “Barbarians” at a distance and lived a worldly, peaceful life. Testimony to this is a letter of invitation which would remain in the archives of this part of the world, a letter from Claudia Severa inviting Sulpecia Lepidina, the wife of the Roman prefect of Vindolanda, to her birthday party on 11 September. But what could be more boring for a soldier than a peaceful life? A calm life was against nature for the fiery Amnay. Romans, “Barbarians” from the south, and even some “Barbarians from the north”, who had finally, after having fought it, given in to the temptation of “Pax Romana”, all rubbed shoulders in this organised life where everyone had a rank, a place and a function.

One of these men from the north had a forge in the town near Fort Maia. His red-haired daughter, with her deep blue eyes, had spotted Amnay and arranged to be around the forge whenever he came to get his arms repaired. He finally noticed her. In vain he tried to cling to Yitto’s image, but he could no longer be contented with a memory, and as the days went by, Yitto’s memory faded in the face of Gwendolyn’s blue eyes and slender, lively body.

Ten years had passed since the spring when he had left his native land. A few furtive encounters with no future, and then this girl with her fiery blood which made his own sing. With nature’s help, Amnay and Gwendolyn loved each other and then discreetly united, Roman Law not permitting its legionnaires to marry.

Tamazirt*

The bright Volubilis countryside, Oualili, this city that bears the name of a flower, the song of birds and women in the spring, all this had lost its charm for Yitto. Since Amnay had gone, nothing had the same carefree taste of youth for her. Amnay! Her childhood companion had become the handsome young man who made her heart race. Year after year, she waited for him, cultivating her love with images of their games as children then as adolescents, under the kindly eyes of the people of their tribe.

Amezul (the courageous one), Yitto’s brother, who was well named, continued his tribe’s tradition in his own way: well practised in the art of horse-riding, he trained Roman soldiers at Volubilis in the art of his ancestors. One leave day, he brought home with him a Roman friend called Flavius. Flavius, tall, well-built, with green eyes and blond hair, had become friendly with Amezul, and through their conversations, he started to become interested and to understand the culture of the Amazigh people whose land had been occupied by Rome for several centuries. As hospitality was an old reflex in this region of the known world, Amezul invited his Roman friend to visit his home.

Flavius was charmed by the welcome given him: the spontaneity, the food, the songs and dances of the women. But he was especially dazzled by Yitto’s beauty and mind. He found it hard to take his eyes off her. On the way back to Volubilis, he could not stop talking about her to Amezul. The latter remained silent and pensive. It was so long since Amnay, his sister’s natural fiancé, had left, and since then his cherished younger sister had been plunged in melancholy, refusing any other claimant. Amezul loved Yitto deeply and wanted to see her happy. His Roman friend was so open and candid that he had nicknamed him Annekaf (the generous one). He was a handsome young man. “Hey! I am talking to you,” exclaimed Flavius, and Amezul came out of his reverie. They returned to Volubilis. Amezul promised himself to invite his friend more often.

In the village, Yitto too was pensive. Flavius had left behind him something comforting, a freshness that elicited in her a feeling of rebirth. Little by little, she began to wait for his visits which became increasingly frequent. This new presence, the gentleness and beauty of this Roman Apollo got the better of Amnay’s ghost.

Love prevails over war and oppressive powers, and the simple attraction between a man and a woman always wins the day when it does not create one of these separation dramas found in all the literature of humanity. Amezul did not have too much trouble convincing his parents: Berbers and Romans had been living together in adversity or agreement for centuries. Moreover, while the Romans imposed their laws and their gods, they left the indigenous peoples free to follow their local beliefs.

As the visits continued, Yitto fell for the charms of Flavius, who asked for her hand in marriage.  The ceremony was full of beautiful songs, shimmering colours and joyful dances. Yitto became gay again. Flavius was loving and attentive. Some months of love went by and the couple were blessed with a fine boy whom they called Afulay, like their contemporary, the famous Numidian Platonist writer whose name would become “Lucius Apuleus” in Latin.

Much further north another child was born, another fruit of another meeting between peoples, a chance encounter of history which moves and manipulates human beings. A little girl with her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s features, whom Amnay called “Tazerwalt”, the blue-eyed one. Tazerwalt grew up in this northern region of the British island until her father reached the Roman retirement age. Twenty-five years later, with Roman citizenship, the title to a plot of land in his native land, accompanied by his wife and daughter, Amnius Idirius found himself back in the joyful Volubilis countryside. His tribe put on a celebration for him. He felt a mixture of joy and pain on meeting his people again: the joy of coming h0me and the pain from the heartbreak of absence. A profound and peaceful joy which is to be found in this land where being uprooted emphasises the extent of a settlement that is ancient and instinctive. His beloved olive trees and the horses, so present in this region that they have bestowed their name on ancient ancestors, the “Equidians”. The carpets with their simple designs and vivid colours. The cheerfulness of the young people reminded him of his happy childhood. The melodious laughter of the women. Everything filled his soul and spontaneously brought Amnius Idirius back to Amnay Idir, and he felt the Roman parenthesis close.

And then they met once again.

When Amnay and Yitto saw each other, time stopped, as if this instant wiped out twenty-five years of separation. They saw themselves again as young and carefree, lulled by their innocent love. They experienced again the torment of their separation. The waiting in vain, the struggle not to forget, the birth of another love, the resistance and the implacable work of time to which one finally surrenders. An instant. An eternity. Then joyful laughter brought them back to reality: Afulay and Tazerwalt, fruits of love defying empires, were playing not far away under an olive tree.

Glossary:

  • Tirrecht: A plant used by the Berbers to wash woollen cloth
  • Azoukenni: Thyme
  • Amghrar: Chief
  • Garum: A condiment prized by the Romans, made with salt and fish
  • Vicus: Small built-up areas along Hadrian’s Wall where the prefect, the soldiers, the skilled workers and their families lived.

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