Who are Berbers in Morocco and the Arab World?
Morocco is home to world’s largest Berber community. The Berbers have long fought for recognition of their ancient culture and language throughout history. Persecuted by the Arabs, the Berbers have experienced oppression and isolation which intern strengthened their quest for autonomy and freedom. The Berbers, refer to themselves as Amazigh, meaning “free people,” plural Imazighen. The Imazighen are descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa whose historic homelands stretched from the Canary Isles and Morocco to the deserts of western Egypt.
The Berbers were the original inhabitants of Morocco, 4.000 years ago, well before the Phoenicans, Carthaginians , Romans, Byzantines and the Arabs who arrived in the 7th Century. The Romans made them citizens and many served in their legions but they never subjugated them.
The tribes in the Atlas mountains withstood the Arab invaders and while they accepted Islam, they maintained their independent customs and way of life in a remarkably resilient way despite attempts to repress and marginalize them. The great dynasties of Morocco began with the Almoravids (1062–1147) with their capital in Marrakech and the Almohads (1147–1269) through to the Merenids and Saadians who ruled from the Sahara to Spain were Berber dynasties . When the French Protectorate was established( 1912-1956) the Berbers in the South resisted them and in the North Abdelkrim El Khattabi proclaimed the Riffian Republic from 1920-26 and resisted the combined forces of the Spanish and French for ten months when they launched poison gas attacks by air against the Berber forces.
Most figures put the Berber population of Morocco at around 60 per cent of the Moroccan population, though Berber experts say that almost 80 percent of the country claims at least some Berber heritage.
According to a 2014 census, more than a quarter (26.7 percent) of Morocco’s population of 35 million (38 million in 2021) use one of the country’s three main Berber dialects; Tamazight, Tachelhit and Tarifit.
The Berbers in Modern Day Morocco
Today under King Mohammed VI, Tamazight as an official language has been given its status alongside Arabic in the Morocco’s new constitution in 2011. The Berber alphabet is now written on public road signs and buildings next to Arabic and French. Courts also assign translators for Morocco’s Berber population who are not able to converse in Arabic. In 2010, Tamazight TV (Tifinagh: ⵜⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵜ) the Moroccan government created a public television Berber language TV channel dedicated to promote and preserve the Amazigh culture in Morocco and the North Africa region.
Tamazight is recognized as an official language also at the Universities including the University of Ibn Zhor and there is a Royal Institute of Amazigh language and culture (IRCAM) which is working to create a standardized version of the Berber language and a dictionary.
Berber first names were once banned for yet were recently declared legal. Today there is a satellite Amazigh TV channel which broadcasts daily in the Tachelhit, Tarifit and Tamazight dialects, reflecting the diverse cultural achievements of Berber writers, poets, artists and craftsmen.
The Berber flag can be seen flying from innumerable shops and windows in nearly any city. The Amazigh flag has a red emblem set against thick yellow, blue and green horizontal stripes was a key symbol at protests in the Rif region in the north of the country in 2016. The Berbers represent a majority in Northern Morocco.
Even with these changes, lawmakers caused a sensation by speaking Berber in parliamentary sessions, and the Civil Registry refused to register many newborns whose parents had given them Amazigh first names. This has finally changed over time with the rights given to the Berber communities to name their children Amazigh names.
Berber radio programs and a small film industry have both grown in recent years. Berber musicians and singers such as Raissa Talbensirt, the doyenne of Amazigh singers, and Najat Aatabou are extremely popular in Morocco. Berber ritual music often features drums and rhythmic hand clapping. It is used in the rites of the agricultural calendar – such as moussems – as well as on occasions such as marriage. Ritual music is also performed to help deal with evil spirits.
In the Atlas Mountains professional troupes of musicians, called Imdyazn, travel during summer and perform in village squares and at weekly souks. A leader improvises poems telling of current affairs. Drum, rabab and clarinet accompany the singer.
The Berbers of Algeria
In Algeria, the Berber population, referred to as Kabyle, rank at approximately 10 million which is almost a quarter of the country’s population of 40 million. For decades, the Berbers in Algeria have strongly disagreed to to have a government dominated by Arabic speakers which has created friction and strife for them.
The Kabyle, Berbers in Algeria, are indigenous to Kabylia, a region in the north of the country that spreads across the Atlas Mountains, one hundred miles east of Algiers. The majority of Berbers within Algeria live in Kabylia, meaning “Land of Kabyles”, which is known for being a natural and historical region. Kabylia is a part of the Tell Atlas Mountain range located at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
Kabylie contains a symbolic chapter in the long fight for Berber rights, thousands rioted 20 years ago, in what became known as the “Berber spring” or “Black Spring”. On April 18th, 2001, a young high school student named Massinissa Guermah was held at a gendarmerie (police) post near Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylie, and was hit by bullets which took his life two days later.
Following the death of Guermah in April 2001, major riots took place, whereby approximately 123 people died and over two thousand were wounded. Massinissa Guermah’s death sparked the “Berber spring” or “Black Spring” riots. During this time, the Kabylie were preparing to celebrate the 21st anniversary of its fight for recognition for their Berber identity.
In 2002, the Algerian military court blamed a gendarme for killing Guermah and jailed him. The same year, Berber was recognized as a national language, not an official language yet, which gave authorization to begin teaching Tamazight in some Berber areas.
in 2006, Algerian authorities have taken steps to recognize the cultural rights of the Amazigh people by establishing Tamazight as an official language in the Constitution and designating January, “yannayer” as a public holiday since 2018. The Algerian constitution also recognizes “Amazighness” as one of the fundamental components of Algeria’s identity.
However, dozens were arrested in 2019 for waving or possessing the Amazigh flag which cracks down on freedom of expression.
The Berbers in Libya
In Libya, the Berbers were persecuted under the reign of Dictator Moamer Kadhafi, who did not recognize their existence or take into consideration that they were 10 percent of the population, living primarily in the mountains west of Tripoli or in the southern desert regions. The Berbers of Libya wanted political representation and their language to be official, like Arabic. Their demands would not have been accomplished if it wasn’t for the death of Kadhafi’s in 2011. Today, the Berber flag now graces many administrative buildings in Libya.
The Berbers in Tunisia
In Tunisia, ethnicity is prohibited. The Berbers’ heartland is in the south but due to the evacuation from the countryside, Berbers today are mainly found in the capital Tunis.