Influenced by the oral tradition of his ethnic community -- its popular beliefs, traditions, and legends on the one hand and its resistance to the colonial power on the other -- Mohammed Khair Eddine writes a novel entitled Legend and Life of Agoun'chich. A descendant of the Chleuh people who settled in the Souss (southern part of Morocco), he wrote a novel to preserve their cultural heritage. In this paper, I propose to analyze the novel from the perspective of oral tradition, in particular the extent to which the novel's form and content emphasizes the importance of oral legend.
At the level of content, the novel is an expression of the importance of oral tradition. After twenty years of exile, the narrator returns to his homeland in South Morocco. Set in the early '80s, the first part of the novel describes the first contact with his roots symbolized by deep-rooted Argan trees. This physical description of the land contrasts with different aspects of modernization, which the narrator sees as evil. Besides criticizing modernization, he seeks to defend the cultural heritage of the Amazigh, seeing tradition as a "heaven" to be recuperated.
In this context, the role of the Berber woman as guardian of ancestral culture stands out. Depicted as a "benevolent goddess," the woman represents the primary vehicle through which legends are transmitted to children. Since she remains confined to the domestic sphere, she is in charge of transferring oral tradition. In addition to women, old people play an important role in preserving and passing on legends. Therefore, the disappearance of the aged poses the problem of "cultural perennity." As the only people whose memory can preserve oral tradition, their emigration threatens to allow it to become extinct. Modernity, which has come to replace tradition, appears a threat to the cultural identity that actsas an "anchor which allows for communication with other cultures" -- the word culture meaning "land and deep-rooted knowledge of land." Berber identity seems to be threatened by acculturation, modernity, and emigration. By implication, oral tradition which is part and parcel of the Berber identity, becomes endangered, too. In a word, the first part of the novel conveys the narrator's strong attachment to Amazigh culture. It is an homage to the Berber ethnic community and an assertion of a cultural identity threatened by modernization that takes hold of tradition in general and oral tradition in particular.
The novel's second justification of the importance of oral tradition apperars in its use of legend as a major form of expression. The second part of the novel opens with the legend of Lahcen Oufoughine who leave his homeland with his family and his herd, escaping a cataclysm which devastates the region where he lives and kills nearly everyone. After settling in the valley of Azro Wado (literally meaning Stone of Wind), nothing more is heard of Lahcen Oufoughine and his family. The only thing known about him is that his descendants later conquered lands of minor tribes in regions infested with tribal dissidence, anarchy, and inter-ethnic conflicts.
This legend is immediately followed by the legend of Agoun'chich, literally meaning "dead trunk of a tree." To take revenge for his sister who was killed inside their house, Agoun'chich takes his mule and departs for an unknown destination. The death of his sister is the beginning of a long expedition for him against his enemies. Gradually, Agoun'chich succeeds in haunting people's minds as a "cruel djinn" and as a tarmart is'mdal, literally meaning "mare of graveyards," which represents evil power in popular imagination. After spying on his enemies and stealing their goods, Agoun'chich poisons them.
One of the important moral traits of Agoun'chich is that he strongly believes in the power of the saints and their miracles. According to legend, Sidi Hmad Ou Moussa, one of those powerful saints, healed incurable illnesses and saved people from evil spirits. It is even said that he brought back to life his mother's dead cow. Agoun'chich remembers his aunt relating this legend to him. In the third and last part of the novel, four other legends show the importance of oral tradition in the novel. Besides the legend of Agoun'chich, the novel relates the legend of the qaid Haida Moys (qaid meaning head of a tribe), set within the context of colonization. Allying with the colonizer, Haida Moys leads an expedition to put an end to tribal dissidence of the Ait Baamrane tribe, which continues to reject quardianship. Linked to this legend is that of the qaid who accompanies Agoun'chich in his expedition. Attacked by Haida Moys, the qaid flees his homeland after killing a lieutenant named by Haida Moys as a qaid. After coming back to his region, the qaid finds traitors who pay allegiance to the colonial power.
Another legend is that of Izza Tasmlalt, a woman who became sanctified. Having accumulated an important theological knowledge and studied all medicinal plants, she spent her time and energy in healing and educating people. The last legend is the legend of Tiznit, which is believed to have been founded by a prostitute who came from the Sahara accompanied by a she-dog. They were extremely thirsty, and the dog disappeared for a while, coming back soaked to guide the prostitute to a source of water. It is believed that the prostitute settled in Tiznit and became a saint.
The novel's form, which also conveys the importance of oral tradition, can be divided into three main parts. The first one is the part before the narrative which does not include any legend, but introduces the centrality of orality in Berber culture. In addition, it provides us with the view of the author about his homeland that he left for twenty years.
The second part of the novel is structured like a Chinese box. As we move into the narrative, we find legend within legend, with all the legends gathered within the main legend of Agoun'chich, who is the "hero" of the novel and whose legend gives the title to the novel. This same part of the novel relates the legend of Lahcen Oufoughine, which is incorporated within the legend of Agoun'chich. As we get to know more about Agoun'chich and his famous expedition, another legend appears in the narrative: Sidi Hmad Ou Moussa, whose story Agoun'chich remembers from his early childhood. The following nine chapters of the novel focus on the adventures of Agoun'chich and different other characters in his endless chase of his enemies.
In what can be considered as the third and last part of the novel, the narrative includes four other legends. The two first ones are placed within the framework of the colonial enterprise. After giving a brief description of Taroudant and the colonial invasion of the Souss valley, the narrator introduces the legend of the qaid Haida Moys and his expedition against a Berber tribe. After this, the narrative returns to the legend of Agoun'chich directly followed by the legend of the qaid, which is related to the previous one and is also placed more directly in the general framework of colonial invasion. The legend of Agoun'chich again comes between the legend of the qaid and that of Izza T'asmlalt. Then there is the legend of Tiznit, which is also incorporated within the main legend of Agoun'chich. The rest of the novel relates only the adventures of Agoun'chich. So we can say that oral tradition, represented by the legend in the novel, is also important in the overall structure of the novel.
In conclusion, Legend and Life of Agoun'chich can be seen as one of the most telling examples of post-colonial literature since one of the main characteristics of this type of literature is its use of traditional modes of expression to celebrate the local cultural heritage rather than as supposed universal myths and legends, such as Greek and Roman mythology. By making use of the legend as a major form of expression, Eddine succeeds in elevating what is widely considered as a minor form of expression to the state of cultural mythology.
Last modified: 12 May 2001