I’ve been reading old French academic papers, because they’re always the best source on pre-Colonial Berber culture. I came across a collection of riddles from the Souss region in the south of Morocco, and of course as an Anglo-Saxon enthusiast, it intrigued me (the Anglo-Saxons also loved riddles).
Reading these really put a smile on my face. Like our own culture’s Exeter Book Riddles, these word games are a window into something timeless.
The author of the paper writes:
My principal source, Madame Afiani Rkia, is a woman of around 60 years. She is originally from Tiznit but now lives in a nearby village…Within the family, she is highly respected and esteemed. She is recognized as an authority given her great knowledge of culture and oral knowledge. She is the raconteur of the family…We learn more and more about the customs and culture of the Soussi people as we read through these riddles.
1. I have preserved the collector’s transliteration method, which is inconsistent with the system I use in my other blog posts. Shouldn’t be too confusing.
2. To better serve as a language-learning tool, I’ve included literal word-for-word translations of each of these. The problem here is that I’m translating the French translations of the original — so the literal translations are photocopies of photocopies — might not be 100% accurate is all I’m saying.
You can read the original text for these here (français).
1. snat lhażat llant ḥ yan lmakan ur tssaggwa yat yat – alln
two / things / they (f) are / in / one / place / not / she sees / one / one / – / eyes /
Two things in the same place, but cannot see each other – eyes
2. snat taɣaḍin ifrrq tnt ya wdrar – timzgin n bnadm
two / horses / it is separate / the (pl) / one / hill / – / ears / of / human /
Two horses; a hill between them – the ears of a man
3. iṭṭuḍḍa ir iẓẓuḷ – lmayyit
he did ablutions / not / he prayed / – / death /
He does ablutions, but does not pray – death
Explanation: In Islam, ablutions are always followed by prayer. The dead are exempt from this rule of course, while they are given last ablutions before being covered by a shroud
4. immudda ur d yiwrri – lmayyit
He voyaged, but did not return – death
5. ddan ar iggi n waman hššmn – idukan
they went / up to / on / of / water / they are ashamed / – / slippers /
They went to the water’s edge but did not dare to go in – slippers
Explanation: One takes off one’s slippers before wading into water.
6. ar lddin mraw kkuẓ – ṭiẓi
they shoot / ten / four / – / udders
Ten shoot four – a cow’s udders
Explanation: One uses all ten fingers to milk a cow’s four udders
7. tmmɣi ur tzgzaw – taḍut ḥ iggi n thray
she is growing / not / she is green / – / wool / on / back / of / sheep /
it grows but does not turn green – the wool on the back of a sheep
8. tga kullu tgmmi nnun ikurayn ilaḥ i baba m ma s a ikkat ma m – iḍarn n thray
she is / all / house / your / sticks / he lacks / have / father / your / what / with / he hits / mother / your / – / legs / of / sheep /
Your house is full of sticks, yet your father has nothing with which to beat your mother – the legs of a sheep
Explanation: Animals, especially sheep, are often present in traditional Moroccan houses. A small interior stable is reserved for them, and it is often the job of the women who to care for them. The thin legs of a sheep are compared to sticks in this riddle.
9. hat manza t – agḍiḍ
Here and gone – a bird
Explanation: this very simple structure (non-verbal, interrogative) describes the speed with which a bird appears (hat) and disappears (manza t)
10. tžyyr ur ṭṭṭaf imi – taglayt
Whitewashed [like a building], but without a door – an egg
11. yuru xabbaš falkay yaru falkay xabbaš – tafullust d tglayt
Scratcher gave birth to cute, and cute gave birth to scratcher – chicken and the egg
Explanation: This riddle describes the famous circle of the chicken and the egg. Here, the chicken is called xabbaš, a term which evokes a chicken’s activities — from the verb xrbš which means ‘to scratch, to snoop’
12. ar ittuddan ur a itẓaḷḷa – afullus
He makes the call to prayer, but doesn’t pray – rooster
Note: in Tiznit slang, a rooster is called lmuddn, ‘muezzin’
13. imun d uɣrab ar izznza ififl – iɣirdm
Moving along the wall, he sells his peppers – scorpion
14. yat tgmmi igan tazgzawt t3mmr s ismgan tisurna ns ti wzzal – tadllaht
A green house full of black people, for which the keys are iron – watermelon
Explanation: Often in these riddles, fruits are compared to buildings. Here, the ‘key’ is the knife which opens the melon.