Hemmou Ounamir, a monument of oral tradition goes digital

Deeply rooted in history, Moroccan myths constitute a legacy whose contribution may prove particularly valuable in these times marked by the multiple restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the imaginary constructions represented by the myths can fill in what may be lacking in times of confinement. For example, the Hemmou Ounamir
myth can serve as a gateway to universes that extend beyond material borders, while at the same time providing information about the richness of Moroccan culture and the relationships that Moroccans have had with other nations.

A Moroccan myth with Mediterranean
analogiesThere are several versions of the myth of Hemmou Ounamir, the most famous tells the story of a boy named Hemmou Ounamir, whose beauty seduces a Tanirt (angel or fairy depending on the version). The latter visits him at night and coats his hand with henna while he sleeps. When he wakes up, Ounamir discovers the henna stain on his hand, and decides to tell the Taleb (master) of the Koranic school he attends. Thanks to a trick developed by the Taleb, Ounamir stays up at night and succeeds in capturing Tanirt, who agrees to marry him on condition that he sets up a secret dwelling for him.

But one day, the protagonist’s mother comes across the hidden key to Tanirt
‘s room and violates the forbidden space, after which the fairy flies away to seventh heaven.

Ounamir rides his horse and sets off in search of his beloved. He meets an Iguider (mythical eagle) who will carry him on a celestial journey to seventh heaven to find Tanirt. In order to do so, Ounamir will have to make a sacrifice: he must slit his horse’s throat and cut it into seven pieces to feed the eagle. Along the way, he drops the last piece of meat and replaces it with a piece of his own flesh.

Hemmou finally finds his beloved in seventh heaven. In order to stay with her, he must respect one condition: never lift a stone from the slab. On the day of the feast of the sacrifice, Hemmou gets carried away by nostalgia, he defies the ban and lifts the stone. Looking through the hole, he sees his mother and is shocked by what he sees: having gone blind from crying for her departure, the old woman holds a ram with no one to perform the ritual sacrifice, and desperately calls out for her son.
Hemmou then throws himself out of heaven to return to earth, but his body is diluted in space. Two drops of his blood reach the earth, the first one restores his mother’s sight while the second one burns the beast.
This Amazigh myth has analogies with Greek mythology, in particular the story of the couple of Eros and Psyche or that of Orpheus and Eurydice. These two examples have in common with the myth of Hemmou Ounamir the fact that a human faces the forces of the afterlife at the risk of his life in order to find the love of his life. This confrontation passes through a movement of ascension called “Anabase” which transcends reality and materiality. Such a myth, in addition to its unquestionable artistic dimension – linked to the narrative itself – is coupled with an aesthetic dimension that relates to the creativity of its reception by the reader or listener. In this sense, it is impossible to claim that a narrative has a limited number of interpretations. Each reader or listener is able to produce one or more meanings according to his or her own understanding and referential system.

Social and existential functions The myth of Hemmou Ounamir fulfils several functions. According to Najate Nerci, a teacher-researcher at the Hassan II-Casablanca University, this tale has been invested to “explain the relationship to the mother following the example of the Greek myth Oedipus, to represent a social ethic of promise and speech, to probe the existential questions of the human being, to question the relationship to the land and to identity, and to examine the path of the Amazigh cultural movement”.

In an interview with MAP, Ms. Nerci explains that this myth has been transcribed many times. First by the Berberists (Stumme in 1895, Laoust in 1918, Justinard in 1925, Leguil in 1949, Roux in 1949), then in the Moroccan transcription of Amzal in 1968.

Subsequently, he made his passages in modern writing (Bourass in 1991, Aassid in 1999), his entry into literature (in three novels by Khaïr-Eddine: “Corps négatif” in 1968, “Le Déterreur” in 1973, and “Légende et vie d’Agoun’chich” in 1984), poetry, short stories, theatre, cinema, political discourse and psychoanalysis.

All of these versions, variants, rewritings and readings, transformations and passages from oral to written, from one literary genre to another, from one register of discourse to another and from one reading to another “have shed new light on the functioning of the myth,” Nerci argues. “The vitality of this myth right down to its silences has provided fertile material for all rewritings, genres and discourses,” she notes.

The preservation of this intangible heritage faces unprecedented challenges, because today, says the academic, “we are faced with a new context, which challenges the dynamism of the reproduction of the oral tradition, and generates crucial breaks in its production, management and transmission to present and future generations”. Based on this observation, Najate Nerci pleads for the use of new technologies to ensure the preservation of the national oral tradition.

The digital revolution at the service of the oral tradition
“The preservation of the oral tradition requires the participation of new information technologies in the conservation, exploitation, dissemination, reproduction and archiving of the supports obtained through collection”, underlines the specialist in questions of the imaginary in discourse. In
this respect, she believes that a renewed interest in the oral tradition in the countries of the South in particular will have to be accentuated in the years to come, stimulated by “the phenomenon of globalisation-globalisation, which increasingly leads ethno-linguistic communities to be convinced of the urgency of preserving their identity, paying particular attention to their own heritage”.

“The new information technologies are essential in this undertaking”, she emphasises, noting that in addition to the prodigious potential provided by digital technology, there is also product fidelity and the existence of new media with large storage capacities and great resistance.
She considers that digital technology “represents a kind of dynamic accommodation of the oral tradition in its competition with the written word, and that it can ensure its wide dissemination which does not recognise real geographical boundaries”.
An opinion shared by Rachid Bouksim, artistic director of the Issni N Ourgh International Amazigh Film Festival, who has been at work since the first months of confinement to ensure the presence of the Amazigh myth in the virtual sphere.
To do this, he has chosen to rely on social networks to ensure a wider dissemination of the legend of Hemmou Ounamir, among other tales drawn from the Amazigh repertoire.
In a statement to MAP, Mr. Bouksim goes back over the genesis of the idea. When the fall of the confinement was announced, he recounts, he chose to return to his village near Sidi Ifni, where the idea crossed his mind.
“As I was expecting the confinement to continue, I told myself that I needed a rhythm so as not to fall into boredom. I talked to several people to think of another way to tell our stories and tales, and I consulted people in my family, as well as my mother and grandmother, about this,” he says.

He thus began the experience of telling the myth via the Facebook platform, on which he shared a first capsule that earned him several expressions of appreciation and encouragement.

Rachid Bouksim did not use graphics. He says he chose to tell the myth of Hemmou Ounamir without accompanying the narration with drawings or animations, based on his wish to preserve what he considers to be the very purpose of the tale.

“The aim of the tale is, for the receiver, to listen while capturing the images, and for the narrator, to stimulate the imagination of the listener,” he says.
Telling Amazigh myths such as that of Hemmou Ounamir is equivalent to recounting human and universal values that Moroccans share with other cultures and nations, especially those around the Mediterranean, he believes.

In short, the use of new information and communication technologies is vital to the preservation and propagation of Morocco’s intangible heritage. This is a fair undertaking for a myth such as that of Hemmou Ounamir, which Najate Nerci rightly considers “the most important and striking account of the fictional production of Amazigh cultural heritage”.
The transition from Moroccan mythology to the virtual universe integrates it into a new era that introduces new generations of Moroccans to a long unknown part of their own heritage, while at the same time consecrating the recognition of the richness of this heritage to the international level.

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