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“Al-Hashas”: On Identity and Origins of the Name

“Al-Hashas”: On Identity and Origins of the Name

Names reflect history and memory. They are containers of traditions, of hopes and aspirations. This applies to my name as well, my family name in focus here (and we leave my first name, and the family name of my mother, “Azirār” which is Amazigh and literally means “Tall/Long”, for another occasion). My name is poetic when read and pronounced in Arabic, composed of a repeated syllable, the vowel of the second is long, “ā”, written in the Arabic version as an “alif” but not visible in the Latin one: “has-has” – [transliterated as “ḥaṣḥāṣ”] – and not “ha-shas” as it is often pronounced by non-Arabic readers.

I was born in a village called Mestegmer, which is part of Taourirt province, 100 kilometers away from Oujda city, the capital of the north east side of Morocco, on the frontiers with the north-west part of Algeria. During the early postcolonial period in the country, citizens had to choose a family name, instead of using the classical Arabic family lineage of “X son of Y, son of Z” (X bin Y bin Z). So, my grandfather Ali chose the family name “Hashas,” being the second to do so after another companion of his village had just done so; then other cousins and far cousins of my grandfather followed suit and adopted the same family name. But where does it come from? Is it an Arab name, or an antique North African (Amazigh/Berber) name? And what does it mean?

In a note in his Tafsīr, known as Tafsīr al-abarī (Jāmi‘ al-Bayān ‘an Ta’wīl Āy al-Qur’ān), one of the most authoritative classical exegeses of the Qur’an, Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923 AD/ 310 AH) writes that al-hashas (“al-ḥaā”) refers to a place in al-Hijaz, or that it is the name of a mountain around Mecca (min buṭūn makka), and he cites two poetic lines, sung by a Hijazi poet, in which “dhī al-ḥaā” (i.e. area/people of al-ḥaā) is mentioned. There still exists a moutain called “al-ḥaā” around Mecca, and there is also a village with the same name, but without the second and long vowel “a” in Arabic script, nearly 400 Km south of Mecca towards Yemen; this al-ḥaavillage administrativelly follows Qilwah city in Al-Bahah region of current Saudi Arabia, a region surrounded by Hijaz mountains. I remember that one of my uncles told me once that the ancestors of our village  from the Arab side, besides the Amazigh side, may be originally Yemenite. The fact that there is still a village in the south of Saudi Arabia with this name may explain this possibility; ancient Arab pre-Islamic Yemen included good parts of Arabia and modern Saudi Arabia. However, in current Yemen one does not find al-ḥaā but finds different spellings for it: one finds ḥaāḥitiny village in Yarim governorate, and dhī al-ḥaāḥitiny village in Ibb governorate, in the south of the country.

The great linguist and judge Ibn Manzūr (d. 1311 AD/ 711 AH) explains in his voluminous and authoritative dictionary Lisān al-‘Arab (The Tongue of the Arabs) the various meanings of al-ḥaā. He, too, refers to it as a name of a geography. He also says it means stones  and soil/earth (ijāra, turāb), known also as al-ḥiṣhi. Another derivative like al-ḥaḥaṣa means “walking on/travelling in Earth,” and also means “moving or stirring something till it stands still.” It further means “the rise or appearance of right or truth after its eclipse or invisibility or after wrong.” Ibn Manzūr then refers to the meaning of the verb “ḥaḥaṣa,” and cites the only Qur’anic verse that uses it: “al-āna ḥaḥaṣa al-aq,” which means “now truth has appeared” or “now truth is manifest” (Surat Yusuf, 12:51). A person who is “ḥuḥuṣ” (rajulun ḥuḥuṣun) is “a man who follows meticulous details.” A “ḥaā walk” (sayrun ḥaāṣun) means a “straight and quick walk.”

Now, let us make some assumptions based on these ancient definitions. It is very possible that some of the first Arabs that entered Morocco, and North Africa in general, from the oriental part of the country gave the new geography they passed by or settled in this name as well, for various possible reasons. One possible reason is that they might have seen some geographic similarity between their “al-hashas” mountain or area or sand-type in Arabia and some mountain or sand in the east of Morocco, and so they renamed it so, as a form of “twinning” one area/geography with another for the existing similarities; this “twinning” could have happened during the pre-Islamic periods, during the travels that took place between the ancient Phoenician Levant, the successive Carthaginian North Africa, current Tunisia in particular, and Arabia. The racial, linguistic and political confluences among the Phoenicians, Carthagians, Amazighs and Arabs in the region might have allowed the travel of words and their adoption, in this case of “al-hashas” from Arabia to North Africa, before the advent of Islam. Or, it might have happened with the advent of Islam and Arab movement from Arabia to North Africa and during the rise of Arabic as the lingua franca among different peoples that adopted it for writing and sciences.

A second possible reason behind the adoption of the name “al-ḥaā”, whether this took place before or after the rise of Islam, may be that the new settlers in the east of Morocco, and North Africa at large, just missed home in Arabia, and gave the new area this name, to constantly remind themselves of their lands of origins, family and relatives. A third possible reason, linked to religion, may be that the new settlers wished to spiritually think of the closeness of “al-ḥaā” lands in the east of Morocco to Mecca, towards which they pray daily, the way al-ḥaāin Arabia is close to it. Renaming here reflects spiritual affinity, the way the choice of proper names in some religions are given to new-borns from generation to generation, like Muhammed, Maria, Jesus (in Latin America), Moses, David, Peter, Francesco, etc.

Two of the three assumptions above centralize the role of the new settlers, the Arabs, in naming, identifying, or occupying a geography. However, it may be the locals, the natives, the Amazigh (or the Berbers, “people of the land” or “the free people”) who adopted the name “al-ḥaā” themselves, for one of the reasons above, like the first reason which assumes that this naming could have taken place during the pre-Islamic period and the ancient cultural and linguistic confluences between the Mashreq and the Maghreb. It might also have been adopted by both the natives and the newcomers through deliberation and consensus.

Whatever may be the reason, the name sounds more Arab than Amazigh. In Arabia, those who live in “al-ḥaā” mountain/area were called “āl al-ḥaā”, i.e. the “people of al-hashas.” If it were populated and named beforehand by the Amazigh, its name should have been “āit ḥaā” (without the Arabic “al-”) as is common, for instance, in the Amazigh south of Morocco or in the other parts of my own area where both Amazigh and Arabs cohabited. This cohabitation explains why the Tamazight oral language my ancestors speak in the region, in al-ḥaā area and in Mestegmer village where I was born, is influenced by Arabic in vocabulary, and is no longer “pure” Tamazight, as the Tamazight of Souss/Agadir area in the south of Morocco; still, this oral language has kept the rhythm of Tamazight; someone who speaks only Arabic or only Tamazight could recognize this through the vocabulary though s/he may not be able to fully understand it. This convergence and co-existence of races and languages for centuries has led to the idea that my region has experienced both processes: Arabization and Amazighization/Berberization; it is a hybrid area. Otherwise said, the region was either dominantly Arab but had to Amazighize (tamazzaghat) with time, for co-existence, or was dominantly Amazigh but had to Arabize (ta‘arrabat or ista‘rabat), also for co-existence, for religious, political and cultural reasons. Tamazight was not a written and dominant language, and has only become so since 2001 in Morocco through the “Tifinagh alphabet,” not known nor learnt yet by most Amazigh speakers so far, though it is being gradually taught at schools and universities and is the second official language, after Arabic, in the country since 2011 new constitution after the so-called “Arab Spring” revolts. I myself do not know (yet) the “Tifinagh” alphabet though I speak the Tamazight of the east, which has lived for centuries as an oral tradition.

Now, driving through the national road or through the motorway from-and-towards Oujda, the portal of the east of the country, you pass by a banner on the road where you read “Oued Al-Hashas”/ “Al-Hashas River.” This is a river that crosses the region of “al-ḥaā” and stretches over a couple of kilometers; it is now dry, and it flows only when it heavily rains. My ancestors did not stand still in al-ḥaā, however. They kept moving back and forth between this area and a more fertile nearby area called Mestegmer, where I was born, depending on the season of the year, in search of waters for their domestic animals and agriculture. By the twentieth century they have settled once and for all in Mestegmer, though a few far cousins chose to remain in al-ḥaḥa, and from there some moved on to cities, and to other continents in the world.

Until a recent past, and maybe this is still the case, people in the whole region used to say that the sandstone of this area of al-ḥaḥa used for construction is of high quality, which brings back one of the definitions given by Ibn Manzur to al-ḥaḥa: sandstone and soil. Related to this, I have also found out that in the south of Tunisia there is a type of bread called “bread of al-ḥaḥa” to mean a type of bread cooked on fire on small stones that masons mix with cement for construction, and it gives a particular heating and taste to the bread. I have also come to know that the same name is also found in Ain El Kebira municipality of Setif region in Algeria; this village is known as ḥaḥaṣ, without “al”, and there are few Algerian families that use it as a family name as well.

What does this boils down to? To trace one’s identity? Of course one has to know where s/he comes from, otherwise s/he may not know where to go. The past is a mirror for the future; there is no present nor future without a past, but sticking to the past is equivalent to stagnation. The past is a background from which one has to take what s/he needs so as to look at the future in the face, with confidence, and with humility as well. No one is one thing. And no one knows how many identities the ancestors contained within themselves and lived at the same time and geography; our identities have to be firm regarding principles that render respect, dignity and a sense of creativity to the self and to the other, and all the rest is ephemeral, a construction for use, hopefully for good use. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (d. 2008) wrote the following words in the poem “ibāq”, mourning Edward Said (d. 2003): “I  am multiple…/ I do not define myself so as not to lose it” (anā muta‘addidun…/ lā u‘arrifu nafsī li-’allā uayyi‘ahā).

Scholar of Islam, contemporary Arab and Islamic philosophy and theology, Islam in Europe, European Islamic thought, Moroccan thought, and religion and politics in the Arab World.

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