From my experience, the word Amazigh has only recently become recognisable by the wider world in the past few years. Through scrolling endlessly on twitter, there is a question that scarcely fails to pop up on the pages of young political activists: are the North African peoples Arab? If not, why are they so often grouped under the Arab world, both politically and socially, by both academics and those with little to no background on the region?
The word ‘Berber’ is more widely used to describe the Amazigh people (Imazighen). This is perhaps an improvement from the word Arab in terms of accuracy, however it is still lacking in credibility. Coined by the Greeks, coming from the word ‘barbarian’, referencing the sound apparently uncivilized people make when they attempt to speak, has become largely rejected by the new generation of Imazighen in favour for their indigenous word. (Amazigh — Minority Rights Group, 2020).
Humans are known to have occupied North Africa since as early as 250,000 BC. These inhabitants are Imazighen, indigenous to the region, although their indigeneity is disputed. Rich in natural resources due to its proximity to both the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the prospect of trade attracted Greeks and Romans from Europe, and Phoenicians from the Levant to its shores. The expansion of trade in the region led to colonisation, and cities such as the Phoenician Carthage became increasingly powerful, serving as a counter force to Rome. Fast forward to the Vandal conquest, a Germanic people that ruled the region (bar Egypt) until the 6th century.
Alas, this is not intended to be a history lesson. Before I lose you on the intricate history of the region, let us move on to the Amazigh identity itself. North Africa has been a melting pot of cultures and ethnic backgrounds; the indigenous Amazigh tribes broadly range in skin tone and features. Imazighen from the North tend to be fairer skinned, many with blue eyes and blonde hair, particularly in the Kabyle region of North-Eastern Algeria and in the Riffi people of North-Eastern Morocco. As you descend through the Atlas Mountains, down to the Souss area of Southern Morocco, darker skin tones and features typically recognised as African are far more common. Stretching to the Amazigh tribes of the Sahel region of Africa, encompassing southern Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Northern Nigeria, the Tuaregs are known for their traditional Indigo robes and turbans. Amazigh tribes and their descendants stretch all the way from Morocco to Egypt (Berber | Definition, People, Languages, & Facts).
As with most civilisations, the Imazighen did have some intermixing with their invaders, bringing some European, west Asian, and Arab genes into their African DNA. The Arab conquest of the 7th century brought the Arabization of the region, primarily with the religion of Islam. In 680 BC, Arab tribes from the region of Saudi Arabia and Yemen brought Islam to North Africa with initial resistance from some Amazigh tribes, who sought to preserve their indigenous Pagan religions and significant Jewish population, which may be surprising for Orientalists to learn. Eventually accepted by the Imazighen, Arabic became the dominant language and Islam was spread further into West Africa by several Amazigh tribes.
Language and the Struggle for Recognition
The diversity of the Amazigh population is reflected in the various spoken languages, all part of the Amazigh language family of Tamazight. There are thought to be over 3000 Amazigh languages, with 20 to 40 million speakers in Africa. These include Tarifit, common in Morocco, Kabyle in Algeria, and Tashelhyt in Central Morocco (Who Are the Berber People?, 2020). These languages are largely intelligible between different Amazigh groups.
The diversity of Imazighen has, perhaps understandably, contributed to an identity crisis that many young (and old) North African’s face. The Amazigh identity has been historically supressed by those in power, often being seen as a threat to homogeny, in turn becoming a threat to stability. Newly independent North African states used Arabization as a means to push the old colonial languages of French (and in Morocco’s case, Spanish also) out of the region and remove its dominance as the main educational, political and business language. Arabization was initiated by the Arab tribes that ruled North Africa, Tamazight languages were supressed and often banned, as was the case with Libya, Morocco and Algeria (The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?, 2015). In Morocco, a variant of the Tamazight language is spoken by 35–40% of the population. Despite this, giving children traditional Amazigh names was often frowned upon, with Tamazight only becoming an official language in Morocco in 2011, and Algeria in 2016. Despite the efforts to Arabize the region and the erasure of much of their Amazigh roots, North African culture still retains much Amazigh tradition. Music, cuisine, clothing, and in fact much of the various North African dialects of Arabic have retained varying levels of Amazigh culture and linguistics – so much so that Middle Eastern Arabs usually struggle understand North African Arabic to the point where it is unintelligible. This is particularly the case in Morocco and Algeria, with their Arabic dialects of Darija and Darja respectfully.
Till this day, many families knowingly or unknowingly deny their Amazigh heritage, perhaps indicative of the air of Arab-supremacy that resides in much of the region. The Alaoui royal family which has ruled Morocco since 1631 themselves claim to come from the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad’s. In recent years, education has improved vastly in my own country of Morocco, however is not yet thought to be of a high quality. Literacy rates remain low in rural areas, often where the Amazigh reside. A combination of harsh terrain leading to agricultural issues, lack of employment and access to education, and the government’s failure to invest in infrastructure and society in general has increased resentment from much of the Amazigh population. Take for example the literacy rate in Morocco; the rural rate from 2012–2017 was on average 6.1 years of education in urban areas, compared to 2.2 years in rural areas where Imazighen populate more densely. (ONDH: Rural Moroccan Adults Have 2.2 Years of Education on Average, 2018). This has been especially present in the Riff region of Morocco and the Kabyle region of Algeria, with growing political movements triggered by a lack of recognition and uneven social and economic development between Amazigh and non-Amazigh regions (The Amazigh Cultural Renaissance, 2019).
According to the brilliant article from Al-Fanar Media mentioned above, Abdeslem Khalafi, a researcher at the Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (Institut Royale de la Culture Amazigh du Maroc, IRCAM), outlined the hesitation for fully adopting Tamazight into education and wider society:
“There’s hesitation. Mentalities aren’t ready to integrate Tamazight and give it a chance. There’s a change in discourse, but not yet in practice.”
This represents the growing change in mood that has mostly swept through younger generations.
From my own observations, much online debate surrounds the question of whether North Africans are in fact African. I have seen countless amounts of dialogue from both sides, with many Africans that identify as Black not claiming non-black North Africans in their sphere of ‘African-ness’. In my opinion, this is not surprising, despite the indigenous origins of the Amazigh people to Africa. It is not completely uncommon to see Non-Black North Africans be racist, colourist and discriminatory towards Black Africans and North Africans, despite having many Black and dark-skinned North African’s as part of the population. This combined with the perceived Arab identity of the region, and the lack of awareness and education on the Amazigh identity and struggle creates a perfect storm. Integrating Tamazight into the education system is just the first step in recognising and appreciating the Amazigh history of North Africa. Indeed, many street and building signs in Morocco today display both Arabic and Tamazight text. The younger generation is pioneering this cause on social media especially, also joined by older generations in political protests across North Africa. I hope someday we see the North African people become aware of their rich culture and origins, ensure their political and cultural rights, and further this to the rest of Africa and the wider world.
WorldAtlas. 2020. Who Are The Berber People?. [online] Available at: <https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/who-are-the-berber-people.html>.
Minority Rights Group. 2020. Amazigh — Minority Rights Group. [online] Available at: <https://minorityrights.org/minorities/amazigh/>.
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Chtatou, M., 2019. The Amazigh Cultural Renaissance. [online] Washingtoninstitute.org. Available at: <https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/the-amazigh-cultural-renaissance>.
Blidi, S., n.d. Declaring Tamazight An Official Language Sparks Controversy In Algeria | Saber Blidi | AW. [online] The Arab Weekly. Available at: <https://thearabweekly.com/declaring-tamazight-official-language-sparks-controversy-algeria>.
Kasraoui, S., 2018. ONDH: Rural Moroccan Adults Have 2.2 Years Of Education On Average. [online] Morocco World News. Available at: <https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2018/12/261834/ondh-rural-morocco-education/>.