Berber Breeding


It was a rough trek, countless hours swaying and jerking back and forth across the dunes as my camel planted and replanted his enormous feet in the sand.  But, though no path marked their way, the wind whispered of countless others over the centuries who’d traversed this part of Morocco.  At last the setting sun fired that vast, endless ocean of sand-sculpted waves.  Then, under such a magnificent canopy of stars so bright that they hurt my tired eyes, when I could no longer make out the color but only the shape of the waves, I felt a dreamy certainty that my camel was indeed walking on water.

Finally I got the first glimpses of the flickering firelight of that night’s camp amidst the waves.  My camel’s jerky pace quickened, and he started grinding his teeth, reminding me of what I was going to have to listen to all night as I slept at his side.  But I could smell the robust spices of Moroccan cooking and couldn’t wait to take the tagine cover off my dinner.

In the tent a Berber man joined me.  I ate; he drank.  He offered me some, but I thought I better stick to water.  By the time I finished eating, he had not finished drinking, nor had he finished delighting me with a more indomitable spirit than I’ve ever seen before and many a misty tale of long ago.

Somehow, we got onto the subject of breeding.

He told me there are three Berber languages, which he described as Northern, Middle, and Southern.  I asked if these were associated with different countries, like Morocco vs. Algeria, but this member of a long line of nomadic people didn’t seem to recognize the distinction between countries.  He only identified as “African” or, when I tried to narrow that down a bit, “Saharan.”

I then asked if speakers of one Berber language could pretty well understand speakers of the other Berber languages.

He said no.

That struck me as a bit odd, especially because he said it rather forcefully, so I frowned.

He gave an example.  First in one of the Berber languages and then the English translation for each language’s way of saying the same thing:

Northern Berber:  “Give me water.”

Middle Berber:  “Water give me.”

Southern Berber:  “Thirsty I am.”

The first thing that struck me was that there didn’t seem to be a word for “please” in any of these three languages.

He went on to explain some of the significance of expressing this same situation these three different ways, but I must admit that here our own language incompatibility started to show.  (I only speak English.)  Therefore, from here on, is a lot of extrapolation on my part:

Northern Berber:  “Give me water.”

The biggest problem here seemed to be that the speaker committed the spiritual and social faux pas of considering him or herself the most important thing, and therefore the thing that should be mentioned first.

Middle Berber:  “Water give me.”

Better, in that it corrects the offense in the first example, but still bad in that it specifies what should be given.  (What if the person this is said to either has no water to give, or would prefer to give some other liquid instead?)  Also, still bad because it specifies (demands) how the person this is said to should respond, id est by giving something.

Southern Berber:  “Thirsty I am.”

This, I gather, is the correct way to express this situation.  The speaker is not the first thing said.  Water isn’t specified as the solution to the speaker’s being thirsty.  In fact, giving anything or even doing anything isn’t requested, let alone demanded.  This allows the person this is said to complete freedom…to ignore the speaker, slit the speaker’s throat rather than be annoyed by having a thirsty person around, or give the speaker something to drink, maybe even water.

Perhaps needless to say, the Berber man I was speaking with said he was brought up speaking Southern Berber.

We moved on to speak of other things while the firelight flickered against the dark and our respective camels contentedly ground their teeth.  It was late; I did at last grow weary of trying to decipher his English.  (However superior it may have been to my Berber!)  Still there was a lot I at least glimpsed from the entirety of that conversation, one thing being that this man valued freedom to a degree I’d never seen before anywhere and viewed many of the social restraints the rest of us take for granted as so utterly intolerable that, rather than submit to them, he’d fight to the death.  (This last said with such a truly frightening timbre to his voice that I did not doubt him.)  But that one example he’d given me of a restraint he condoned left me thinking about how very much less demanding we might all be of each other if we lost the ability to sugar-coat everything with “please.”

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