The letter yaz (pronounced z) is one of the letters of the modern Neo-Tifinagh alphabet, an abjad script used to write the Berber languages. The script was introduced in the 20th century as Amazigh ethnic nationalism and awareness increasingly rose to prominence across Northern Africa. The Neo-Tifinagh script was based on the traditional Tifinagh writing system, which was mainly used to write down the Tuareg languages of the Sahara region. While many of the northern Berbers wrote in the Arabic abjad script throughout the Middle Ages, the Tuareg people kept their traditional script alive in the form of rock art and tomb inscriptions. The Tifinagh alphabet, in turn, probably descended from the much older Libyco-Berber script, a regional writing system used for the indigenous languages of Numidia and the surrounding areas during the Classical period. Most surviving texts of that language are funerary inscriptions on stone stelae and hard-to-date rock inscriptions.
During the 20th century, Berber activists introduced the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet, a modern variant of the Tifinagh script written left to right and in which all vowels were marked. The script became increasingly popular for its symbolic use within the Amazigh rights movement, although it’s also used for educational purposes in Morocco and Algeria. For many, seeing public signs and street names written in indigenous Neo-Tifinagh letters marked a victory and a sign of official recognition. The letter yaz in particular became a widely used icon to represent the Amazigh people.
The letter as part of a Berber flag was proposed in 1971 by a group of mostly Kabyle intellectuals, artists and journalists belonging to the Berber Academy cultural association in Paris. The flag consists of a blue, green and yellow band, respectively representing the sea, the nature and the desert. In it’s center, a red letter yaz is featured, representing “freedom” or “free man”, which is in fact the meaning of Amazigh. With regard to flags, the yaz is also featured on the semi-official flag of Kabylia. That was unveiled by the Kabyle Provisional Government in exile in March 2015.
The letter yaz became part of the Amazigh identity, emerging as a symbol in itself detached from the flag. It emerged a lot during the most recent mass protest movement in the Berber-speaking Rif region in northern Morocco, as well as in the yearly independence marches of Kabyle Berbers in Algeria. Amazigh communities outside of northern Africa are also well aware of its symbolism. When Algerian Berber intellectual ‘Ammār Negādī started his Berber calendar in the Amazigh year of 2930, corresponding with the Hijri 1401 or the Gregorian 1980, the symbol yaz was featured as well. In foreign Berber communities, you can find stickers, pendants and posters with the letter, often to make a statement and as a sign of Amazigh identity.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.