The Berber realmis like a world in itself, vast and full of a history that plunges into the distant past of humanity, rich and colorful with a morning identity from its roots to the three horizons, solid, almost mineral, and yet vibrant multiple resonances of its culture. It is now recognized that Amazighness is an integral part of North Africa, the Canary Islands, and part of sub-Sahara.
Imazighen, who are they?
The word Berber is derived from the Greek barbaroi and retained by the Romans in barbarus, then recovered by the Arabs in barbar بربر and finally by the French with berbère. This term designated above all “people whose language is not understood”, i.e. foreigners. By extension, the word meant “wild” or “uncivilized”. This is why the Berbers refer to themselves as Imazighen (plural); in the singular, the term Amazigh is used. The word Tamazight designates their language (Berber), but we also write “Amazigh language”; the word Tamazgha designates the territory to which they belong. The word Amazigh means “noble man” or “free man”. (1)
The Imazighen, (2) are the descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. (3) This word is derived from Greek and Roman term Masices according to Edward Lipiński, (2001). (4) However, according to Ibn Khaldun, the name Imazighen is derived from Mazigh, the name of one of their early ancestors. (5)
Today, Berbers live in communities scattered across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Canary Islands. They speak several Amazigh dialects all belonging to Tamazight (6) of the Afro-Asiatic family related to ancient Egyptian.
The Berber populations have been present in the northern continental region of Africa since the Upper Palaeolithic. (7) These indigenous populations were formed by the arrival of several waves of people, some from Western Europe, others from sub-Saharan Africa and still others from Northeast Africa and apparently even from the Caucasus mountains. (8)
The Palaeontological finding of Jebel Irhoud indicate that the autochthonous people of Morocco, i.e. the Imazighen have been the inhabitants of this part of the world for over 300 000 years. In this regard, Michael Greshko argues in National Geographic : (9)
“On a tree-speckled savanna in what’s now Morocco, a group of early humans once huddled near a fire, their stone tools scattered around their campsite.
Now, examinations of fire-baked tools from the site suggest that these ancient people lived more than 300,000 years ago, making them twice as old as previously thought.
The findings, announced in Nature on Wednesday, fill a crucial gap in the human fossil record. That’s because these people bear many striking similarities to modern humans even though they lived well before what may be the oldest fossil evidence of Homo sapiens, from a site in Ethiopia dated to about 195,000 years ago.
The residents of the Moroccan site weren’t quite the Homo sapiens of today; their skulls were less rounded and more elongated than ours, perhaps signaling differences between our brains and theirs. However, their teeth closely resemble those in the mouths of modern humans—and their faces looked just like ours.
“The face is the face of somebody you could cross in the metro,” says Jean-Jacques Hublin, the paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who led the new research. “It’s pretty amazing.””
The origins of the Berber people are not clearly known but their history is long and ancient, (10) much of which is unknown because these peoples did not have a written language at the time. The first clue to their history was the discovery of cave paintings. Indeed, 12,000-year-old North African cave paintings have been spotted in Tadrart Acacus, Libya. Many of these paintings depict agricultural activities and domestic animals. Paintings have also been found in Tassili n’Ajjer, in southeastern Algeria. (11)
Paleolithic remains reveal that the region has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. It is also known that the populations, which settled soon after, were probably originating from Europe and Asia. They gave rise to the ancestors of the Berbers. We know little about the language of these peoples, which has been called “Libyan”, especially since their writing still seems almost indecipherable while presenting similarities with the Tifinagh of the Tuareg. Berber languages were introduced to the territory at least 5000 years ago and, in fact, Berber is the oldest language attested in North Africa.
In the seventh century B.C., the Phoenicians founded trading posts on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa in territories with names of Berber origin, such as Tingi (Tangier), Casablanca, and Russadir (Melilla). The Phoenicians introduced Phoenician, but Phoenician civilization remained marginal, as its influence does not seem to have penetrated deeply inland where Berber kingdoms were founded: that of Mauritania or “land of the Moors”, which appeared in the 4th century BC in the north of Morocco, and that of the Masaesyls, in the east.
From around 2000 BC, the Berber languages spread westward from the Nile Valley to the Maghreb, passing through the northern Sahara. In the first millennium BC, their speakers were the native inhabitants of the vast region visited by the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans. A series of Berber peoples – Mauri, Masaesyli, Massyli, Musulami, Gaetuli, Garamantes – then gave rise to Berber kingdoms under Carthaginian and Roman influence.
Among these kingdoms, Numidia (12) and Mauritania were officially incorporated into the Roman Empire at the end of the IInd century BC, (13) but others appeared in late antiquity following the Vandal invasion of 429 AD and the Byzantine reconquest of 533 AD, only to be suppressed by Arab conquests of the VIIth and VIIIth centuries AD.
For three centuries, the Bocchus dynasty ruled the country of the Moors, which was much more like a confederation of tribes with a leader than a centralized monarchy. (14) The foundation of the kingdom of the Moors and its exact extent remain little known because of the scarcity and almost non-existence of written documents. The few mentions found among Roman historians allow us to believe that it was a kingdom that extended from northern Morocco to the Atlas Mountains, with the Wadi Moulouya as a natural border separating it from Numidia, an eastern Berber kingdom that was sometimes allied and often a rival.
For a long time, the kingdom of the Moors was a friend and supporter of the Romans in their various struggles in North Africa. Thus, at the end of the IIIrd century BC, King Baga provided Scipio the African, the famous Roman general, with contingents of fighters to fight a final battle against the powerful Carthage. The victory of the Romans over Carthage and the destruction of the latter created a new face of the Mediterranean and North Africa. An empire was born from this victory. The alliance of the Moors with the Roman Empire allowed the Bocchus dynasty to extend its kingdom, to nibble on the territory of its neighbors, and to gain power and influence. The outbreak of a conflict between Rome and the Berber kingdom of Numidia was an opportunity seized by the Bocchus to spread the domain of the Moors in a spectacular way.
It was then that around 109 BC, Jugurtha, the young Numidian king, refused the plan proposed by Rome to divide his kingdom between different heirs, thus triggering a long war with the Romans. Jugurtha then turned to his neighbor and father-in-law Bocchus I, king of the Moors, to help and support him in his fight. But the Moorish king, fearing a devastating reaction from Rome and thinking first of his own political interest, ended up delivering his son-in-law Jugurtha to his enemies. The counterpart of the betrayal was great: Bocchus I received from the Romans the whole western part of the Numidian kingdom, (15) which extended over a large part of present-day Algeria. The new subjects of the Moorish kings gradually lost their old name and the name of their fallen kingdom, Numidia, disappeared to become the country of the Moors. (16)
However, the Romans’ hold on the region (17) continued to grow and their control over North Africa reached considerable proportions. The fall of the Moorish kingdom in the year 40 with the assassination of Ptolemy, the last ruler of the Bocchus dynasty, put an end to the Berber kingdoms and placed North Africa under direct Roman administration.
The Berber past goes back to the mists of time, more than five thousand years. Three Berber kingdoms saw the light of day in North Africa:
- The Morts-Mauricies: Juba 1st;
- Massaessylie: King Syphax; and
- Massylie: Gaya, then his son Massinissa.
King Syphax was born in 250 BC. He tried to create peace between Rome and Carthage. (Carthage, now the Capital of Tunisia. The Berbers gave this land to the Phoenicians, then the city became a dominant power in the western Mediterranean). King Syphax was defeated and captured. He died in 202 BC in Rome.
King Massinissa was born in 201 BC. (18) Massinissa was the king of the Numidians (around 238- 148 BC) in North Africa. He was the son of Gaia, king of the Massyls, a nomadic people of eastern Numidia. He was an ally of the Romans in their fight against Carthage. He favored the urbanization of the country and the diffusion of the Punic (or Carthaginian) civilization and the Greek cults in the countryside. He made Cirta (today Constantine) his capital. In the war opposing Carthage to Rome, King Massinissa finally played the Roman card until the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. The first king of unified Numidia. He founded and organized the most powerful and prosperous state in Berber history. A long reign of half a century. He died in 148 BC.
King Jugurtha (160 – 104 BC), king of Numidia. (19) Grandson of Masinissa, he shared power with his cousins Adherbal and Hiempsal (118 BC), whom he had assassinated while they were protected by Rome. He obtained from the senators, at the price of money, to escape condemnation. But when he took Cirta (112 BC) and massacred the Numidian and Roman defenders, the Senate declared war on him. Marius, elected consul in 107 BC, reorganized the Roman army and took Capsa (Gafsa). Finally, Bocchus, king of the Moors, delivered Jugurtha to Sulla, Marius’ quaestor (105 BC). Jugurtha decorated the triumph of Marius (104) before dying by strangulation. The war of Jugurtha was written by Sallust (42-40 BC). (20)
Juba I was born in Hippone (current Annaba) about 85 BC, and died in 46 BC.(21) He is the last king of Eastern Numidia (60-46 BC). He was the son and successor of king Hiempsal II, and the father of Juba II, his successor, king of Mauritania (52 BC – 23 AD). Deprived of his kingdom annexed by the Romans, the last king preferred a duel to the death rather than surrender to Caesar. He died in 46 BC.Juba II, then five years old, was taken hostage and sent to Rome where Caesar triumphed.
The Berbers have been known since ancient times. They were called by different names. They are Numidians and Libyans who are at the origin of the capture of Tunis in 396 BC. Sallust, (22) Roman historian named in the De bello Jugurthino (23) the first inhabitants of Africa the Getules and the Libyans. (24)
Le Commandant Rinn, in relation to the Berber kingdom, makes a reference to the various battles of Jugurtha against the Romans to preserve the independence of Tamazgha; He says: (25)
“It is with reason that the Ancients counted Sallustus among their four great historians and that Tacitus quoted him as a master. The account of” the war of Jugurtha is conceived and presented in a really superior way, and one does not know what one must admire more of the form or the substance.
Familiar with the geography of Numidia, which he had traversed as Caesar’s lieutenant before administering it as governor, Sallustus speaks of men and places with an indisputable competence. Moreover, admirably gifted as a writer, he always knows how to remain clear, precise and complete in spite of the desired conciseness of certain passages. Very explicit in his philosophical or political insights, as well as in the topographical or military details necessary to the understanding of the events or to the highlighting of his characters, he remains however always preoccupied not to weigh down his account. He also passes quickly over the small facts of war that do not bring any appreciable change in the situation of the belligerents. This is indeed the way to tell the story of the African war which, for centuries, has remained the same. Small incessant fights, alerts, surprises, raids, daring spikes, glorious and brilliant episodes that make a lot of noise, then, at the same time, more effaced, but doing a no less useful and sometimes more lasting job, “the column” that weighs on the country, forces the undecided to decide, drives out the recalcitrants, takes hostages, raises goums, collects contributions, provides food, means of transport, etc. These periods “when the column is made” cannot be told in detail, any more today than in the time of Salluste: the historian can only devote a few words to them, which often summarize entire months of fatigue for the soldier, and of skilful direction on the part of the general.”
Much later at the time of the Vandal kingdom, from 508 to 535 BC, Masunabore the title of king of the “Moors and Romans” in Caesarian Mauritania. Several of their leaders distinguished themselves and had glorious reigns, notably Syphax king of the Numidians who reigned in 220 BC on the kingdom of king Massinissa who from 203 BC unified Numidia and conquered Carthage.
The religion of the Berbers
In antiquity, the Berbers probably had their own divinities, but as they have almost always been in contact with Mediterranean peoples, and have been influenced by Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Egyptian, and probably Iberian and Celtic beliefs; they have also influenced these beliefs. Let us not forget that the Berber land is associated since the highest antiquity with Greece, since Plato situates Atlantis there (Timaeus and Critias). Apparently, that it is there that the titan Atlas was condemned to carry the load of the world, and Hercules defeated the giant Antaeus, etc. It is also there that according to the Greeks, Athena, the daughter of Zeus, was born on the banks of the river Triton (today Lake Kelbia, at the foot of Mount Waslatiya, the Mount Vasaletus of Ptolemy, in Tunisia). Many Greek authors of antiquity have evoked, even if only in a line, this western part of the Mediterranean Sea, what they called Libya.
On what concerns Berber divinities, Bryan Hilliard writes in the Amazigh World News: (26)
‘’Although never formalized beyond local cults, the Berbers had a rich mythology and belief system structured around a pantheon of gods. Many of their beliefs were developed locally while some were imported or later influenced by contact with other African mythologies, such as the Egyptian religion along with Phoenician mythology, Judaism, Iberian mythology, and the Hellenistic religion during antiquity. The most recent influence came from Arab mythology, when the Berbers were converted to Islam during the ninth century. Today, some of the traditional, ancient, pagan Berber beliefs still exist within the culture and tradition, especially in Algeria, where older cults survive to varying extents.
Many prehistoric peoples considered rocks to be holy, including the Berbers. Second century Latin writer Apuleius, along with Saint Augustine, bishop of the Hippo Regius (ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, in Algeria), both remarked on rock-worship among North Africans. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of their sacrifices: They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the neck. They sacrifice to the Sun and Moon, but not to any other god.’’
The cult of Dionysus introduced in Greece by the Phoenician Cadmos, brother of Europa, both children of Agenor the king of Tyre, naturally found its place among the Berbers allies of the Carthaginians. The Berbers also seem to have followed the the solar cult linked to Apollo, who is the Hellenized version of the Phoenician god Baal and who was worshipped in Troy.
If the Berbers have adopted some gods of the Romans, the latter, used to the multiplicity of rites by the growing cosmopolitanism within their empire, did not formally enrich their pantheon with Berber gods. Rome, which, let us recall, was not a colonizing country as cruel as the colonialism of France, did not exclude the possibility of natives climbing the ladder of the political hierarchy. Many Berbers, Gauls, and Eastern peoples under their tutelage became proconsuls and emperors even, or holders of higher administrative functions. Let us quote the names of Septimius Severus, Macrinus (Moqran), and Heliogabalus.
Like the Persians described by Herodotus, (27) the Berbers had a religion based on the worship of the forces of nature, the sun and the moon, the sea, the mountains, and the caves. (28) They did not worship statues so much and did not build special temples for this purpose. They abstained from eating pork, from consuming the blood of sacrificed animals, according to the Egyptian religion, which was perhaps itself of Berber origin.
Archaeological research on prehistoric tombs in the Maghreb shows that the bodies of the dead were painted with ochre. While this practice was known to the Iberomaurusians, this culture seems to have been primarily a Capsian industry. The dead were also sometimes buried with ostrich eggshells, jewellery, and weapons. The bodies were usually buried in the fetal position.
Unlike the majority of the Berbers of the continent, the Guanches mummified the dead. Moreover, in 1958, Professor Fabrizio Mori (1925-2010) of the University of Rome discovered a Libyan mummy about 5500 years old – about a thousand years older than any known Egyptian mummy. (29)
The North African region practiced many religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) including various forms of pagan rituals. (30)
Berber Judaism (31):
The arrival of the Jews in North Africa, probably in the company or wake of the navigators trading with the Phoenicians, goes back a long way, without it being possible to pinpoint the exact date on which this migration began. (32)
In 70 AD, thanks to the Pax Romana, many Jewish communities settled all around the Mediterranean. After the fall of Jerusalem, Titus sent twelve ships of Jewish captives to Mauritania (Caesarean and Tingitanian), who were bought back by their co-religionists, thus reinforcing the existing Jewish colonies. These groups were reinforced by the arrival in 115 AD and 117 AD of Jews from Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Cyprus. Seven sages were sent from Palestine for the purpose to help these Jews spread their faith among the local Berber tribes.
On the topic of Berber Judaism, Ali Chibani writes in Le Monde diplomatique: (33)
“Like L’Invention du peuple juif, by Shlomo Sand, who prefaces it, Berbères juifs challenges the “ethnicization” of the Jews, based on the history of Judaism in North Africa, particularly the ancient period. According to the author, the diffusion of Judaism, introduced by the Phoenicians in the Amazigh world, is helped by the common use of the Punic language in the large cities, and will touch the Berber rural environment thanks to the nomads. An active proselytism, in a socio-political context favorable to a syncretic monotheism. Judaism adapted to pagan beliefs, which it sometimes violently opposed. Attacked by Christianity, which forced it “to withdraw into itself and abandon its missionary zeal”, it flourished during the Islamization of North Africa. Islam never considered the Jews as a political threat and joined them in condemning the Trinitarian cult. According to Julien Cohen-Lacassagne, whose arguments would sometimes deserve to be developed, the French Republic, during colonization, identified communities on an “ethnoreligious” basis.”
Acting as a genuine transmission belt, the Numidian Berbers welcomed Judaic proselytism, thus forging an ideological base, that would later ferment the Judaeo-Muslim civilization in the Maghreb and in al-Andalus.
Throughout the Roman Empire, Jewish communities were formed as a result of voluntary or forced migrations that occurred before and after the ruin of the ancient Jewish state. In Rome, Gaul, Byzantium, Spain, and pre-Muslim North Africa, these communities of the first millennium have left epigraphic, architectural, and documentary memories. They were reinforced by growing immigration during the Islamic conquest and expansion (642).
In North Africa, Jewish communities date back to Roman times: the synagogue of Hammam-Lif (near Tunis) has a Latin dedication; the Fathers of the Church mention Jews in Algeria. Very early on, Kairouan appeared as a Jewish metropolis that corresponded with the academies of Babylon before supplanting them. The Muslim conquerors came up against Jewish tribes, the cUbaid Allāh, who, fleeing Tunisia in the VIIIth century, settled in Djerba. In Algeria, the Arabs fought against the Berber tribes converted to Judaism: Nafusah, Faudalawah, and Jaroua. At the head of the Jaroua, Dihya, known as the Kahina, fought the Arabs for a long time (703).
In the Sahara, the Daggatoun settled, driven out of Tementit in the Touat, where they constituted a small principality. In Morocco, Fez and Marrakech became large communities. The father of the gaon Samuel ibn Ḥofni presided over the rabbinical court of Fez. In 1013, Isaac al-Fassi, (34) one of the greatest Talmudists of the Middle Ages, was born near Fez. (35)
The Christianization of the Berbers, which began in the IInd century, first affecting the Romanized populations of the cities, before spreading throughout North Africa. This evangelization was done in a rivalry with the Jewish religion which was seriously spreading in some tribes. And with the pagan beliefs that the Berbers did not want to abandon easily. Donatism (36) was the most widespread form of Christianity among the Berber tribes, because of its opposition to the Roman central power and its philosophy of social demands. (37)
At the beginning of the IVth century, the arrival of the emperor Constantine who made Christianity official in Rome was unfortunate for Donatism. This emperor persecuted the Donatists, before changing his mind and authorizing their cult which will be professed, in particular, by the Circumcellions, that is to say, the agricultural workers, during the revolt of the Berbers in 740.
Eminent Christian theologians and thinkers came from the Berber world. First, Tertullian, called by some “the master”. Born in Carthage in 160 and died in 220. He was a great polemicist. He opposed the conversion of the Berbers to Judaism which was spreading more and more among his fellow-creatures. Then, Cyprian, became the bishop of Carthage in 249. Finally, the great Saint Augustine, (38) born in Taghest, today’s Algeria, an eminent Christian theologian, and philosopher, was one of the founders of Christian thought.
The Romanized Berbers had gone far in assimilating; it cannot be said enough how many Berbers were deeply Christianized. Saint Augustine, who was a Berber, is the only father of the church whose works and doctrine gave birth to a system of thought.
Born in Arabia, Islam has spread during the last decades, rapidly in the North-East, towards Iraq, Iran, and in the West towards Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Islam gained Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya after the death of the prophet Mohamed in 670.
In the Maghreb, the mass conversion of local tribes was done from above, i.e. through the intermediary of the chiefs of tribes. It had certainly been facilitated by the prospects and potential benefits of integration into the army and continuing the war westward and then across the Straits. The freeze on military expansion in the 730s, however, would exacerbate tensions between the “Arabs”, identified with the conquerors, and the populations left on the bangs of the state.
The outbreak of the conflict is explained retrospectively, in Arab sources, by the progress of the conquests. The advance of the troops had come up against strong resistance in North Africa embodied by the legendary figures of Kusayla and Kāhina. The first, a tribal chief convert from the very beginning, revolted in 683 against the injustice and arrogance of the general cUqba b. Nafic, presented by the chronicles as the proud conqueror of the whole of Africa, (39) from the oases of Fezzan to the Atlantic). (40) As for Kāhina, queen of the Aures, she stands up to the conquerors but, before dying with her arms she entrusted her Berber followers with her sons, who converted and then took part in the continuation of the conquests. (41)
After the initial “opening” of the Maghreb to Islam, presented as a generalized submission of the tribes, a second wave of conquests began, long and cruel, as illustrated by the striking image of Mūsà b. Nuṣayr, the future conqueror of al-Andalus, who saw a bird land on his chest, seized it, slit its throat and dismembered it, as a violent metaphor and image of the conquest of the Maghreb. (42)
Moreover, the violence committed by the conquerors can, no doubt, be used to explain, posteriori, if not to justify, the wave of insubordination that was to shake the Maghreb, from Tangier to Tripoli, between the years 739-740 and the 770s, leading to the loss of sovereignty of the Eastern power over a good part of the territories concerned. The insurrection of Maysara (43) in Tangier in 739 opened with the assassination of the local governor, whom a chronicler accuses of having exceeded the limits of the acceptable in tax matters by placing the Berbers in the legal category of polytheistic enemies, which made their persons and their goods a licit booty (fay’) for the “Muslims” and for the quint (khums) intended for the ruler. (44)
An Andalusian source from the eleventh century, the Akhbār majmūʻa, (45) transcribes the complaints of the rebels against the oppression of the central state:
“The caliph and his son had written to the governors of Tangier to [request] lamb skins colored of honey. They killed a hundred head of cattle, while perhaps not even one suitable skin could be found among them”.
Two generations after the conquest, between the middle of the VIIIth and the IXth, depending on the region considered, the situation had evolved. Islam had become rooted, localized, and autochthonous. It was no longer the religion of a minority of conquerors. It had become the norm among the Berber populations of the Maghreb, where Christianity was already only residual. In al-Andalus, where on the contrary there was ecclesiastical structures and a consequent Christian population, a turning point was drawn in the social diffusion of Islam, which had become a mass religion thanks to the phenomena of migrations, conversions, but also of absorption of the local lineages, of structuring of the State and the religious elites, or quite simply thanks to matrimonial alliances. (46)
The geographical distribution of Berber languages
Berber speakers are mainly distributed between Algeria and Morocco. In Algeria, the majority of Berbers are concentrated in Kabylia (dialect: Kabyle or Taqbaylit). The number of Kabyle speakers is estimated at 5 or even 6 million, of which 3 or 3.5 million are in Kabylia and 2 or 2.5 million in the large cities (especially Algiers). Their presence is also very important in France. Chaouia (tacawit in Berber) in eastern Algeria (Aurès and surrounding regions) is the second Berber dialect in Algeria by the number of its speakers (estimated at least 2 million). In addition, Chenoua is spoken in central Algeria in scattered areas, while in the west of the country between Tlemcen and the Moroccan border a Berber-speaking island (Beni Snous) survives.
In Morocco (as well as in the Berber-speaking world as a whole), the Chleuh dialect (Tachelhit in Berber) is the most important in terms of the number of its speakers (around 8 million). It extends over most of the Atlas: southwestern High Atlas, Anti Atlas, and Sous. The Tamazight of central Morocco (to be distinguished from the generic name) is spoken by 4 to 5 million speakers in a vast area covering the entire Middle Atlas, the central and eastern part of the High Atlas, the Jebel Saghro. Rifi (or Tarifit) is spoken in northeastern Morocco (around 3 million people). Along with the Beni Iznasen languages, as well as Chaouia, the Rifi dialect is classified as a Zenati dialect.
In Tunisia, Berber has hardly survived (a few villages in the island of Djerba) while in eastern Egypt, a Berber dialect (Tsiwit) has survived in the Siwa oasis, not far from Libya, which is also home, in the northwest (djebel Nefousa) to a few groups that remained Berber.
As for the Tuareg (Kel Tamasheq, those of Tamasheq language), Saharan and Sahelian, they occupy in their great majority the northern parts of Mali and Niger in addition to southern Algeria (Tamanrasset), southwestern Libya (Fezzan) and the Sahelian part of Burkina Faso. The Tuareg languages are distinguished by the preservation of the ancient writing in Tifinagh characters.
Closely linked to the reconstruction of Berber cultural identity, the transition to writing (Latin-based) developed after 1945 and experienced a revival from the 1970s, with transcription in Tifinagh characters (neo-Tifinagh) recently being considered by some Berber speakers, including the founders of the Berber Academy created in Paris inJune 14, 1966 and dissolved in 1978 under pressure from Algeria and also officialized in Morocco on February 10, 2003. (47)
As to what concerns the officialization of Tifinagh in Morocco, Fadma Ait Mous writes: (48)
‘’The year 2003 is marked by another great debate between Amazigh militants and Islamists. It is about the choice of the writing for the teaching of the Amazigh language in school. The IRCAM had to choose between three possibilities: Tifinagh, Latin and Arabic. Finally, IRCAM adopted Tifinagh as the official transcription system for the Amazigh language. This choice is technically costly but very significant in terms of identity: the Amazigh language has its own alphabet, the tifinagh, a symbol and guarantee of Amazigh authenticity. This officialization of the alphabet, which comes before that of the language, certainly puts an end to the “graphic anarchy” that reigned before, but hardly closes the debate. The long and complex process of standardization of Amazigh has reopened the debate between the supporters of the tifinagh adopted by the IRCAM, those who advocate the tifinagh of the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) and those who claim the tifinagh of the Berber Academy.’’
Berber culture or Berber cultures?
One can distinguish two main Berber cultures: that of the north, in the countries bordering the Mediterranean, and that of the south in the Sahara and the Sahel. (49)
The Berbers of the North received the denomination of Imazighens and those of the South of Tuaregs. The Imazighen are mostly sedentary with a nomadic minority and the Tuareg are mostly nomadic. The Imazighen are found from the Siwa Valley in Egypt to the Canary Islands via Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. The Tuaregs in Mali, Niger, and a tiny part in Burkina Faso and Chad. (50)
First of all, the traditional Berber community has as its basic unit the nuclear family, generally patrilineal. Starting from this unity, the tribal group is composed of the reunion of several families gathered around the name of a common ancestor. It is also from this founding name that the tribes acquire a public identity. They use the name aït, which means people or family, followed by the name of the common ancestor. (51)
In principle, all families within a tribe are equal, governed by a code of honor under the authority of a council of elders, the jmācath (a democratically elected political entity) which maintains harmony within the community and acts of judgment in the event of conflicts, in particular, to fix compensations and determine punishments.
In fact, the different Berber societies were not so egalitarian. The tribe regularly admitted new people to their village, but they were then considered inferior. More generally, the elders who held power often came from the same ruling families.
Berber culture has proved to be a true test of time, Camille Lacoste-Dujardin (2005) writes in this regard: (52)
‘’While the Gallic language, for example, disappeared after a few centuries of Romanization, the Berber language and culture, after thirteen centuries of Arabization, have been kept alive since prehistoric times, in the Sahara and, above all, in the mountains of North Africa near the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.’’
One can distinguish three main themes in the Amazigh culture which constitute an important and primordial trinity in its system of values. (53) These themes have transcended Berber culture and have been widely accepted as core concepts of North African identity.
The trinity in question revolves around the following notions:
- First, we distinguish the importance of language as a vehicle of culture and the main marker of identity (Tamazight/awal) both in terms of communication and the perpetuation of history; (54)
- Then there is the omnipresence of the strong and indivisible system of kinship and belonging to the extended family (ddam/tamount) which is expressed by solidarity and coexistence, (55) and;
- Finally, there is the strong connection to the earth and the identification with its benefits and the belief in its sacredness (akkal/tammourt/tamazirt); this last identity marker is very strong among other peoples around the Mediterranean. (56)
The most obvious theme, which is present in the Amazigh community in Morocco, is the importance of language in society, civilization, and life. When one contemplates the culture of the Amazigh people, there is a clear correlation between the relevance of the language and the preservation of civilization and millennial traditions. This is the case, for example, of the Master Musicians Jahjoukain northeast Morocco. Their trance music and anthropological theater have gone through four thousand years of history without a scratch.
The history and belief system of the Amazigh people have been preserved orally from father to son; where one generation transmitted history, wisdom, and laws to another, automatically through the mother tongue, a powerful linguistic vehicle. (57) In reality, despite the existence of three distinct Amazigh dialects in Morocco, the history and laws of the Amazigh people have synchronized and survived countless invasions through a long history of eight millennia.
However, the idea of kinship that manifests itself through people related by blood, experience, and history shows a relevant distinction between Amazigh and Moroccan culture in the sense that the Amazigh community system emphasizes the notion of the matriarch as the pivotal person of the family (58) imbued with democratic values, while Moroccan culture, of Arab substrate, prefers patriarchy, very strong and undivided.
Among the Amazighs, blood ties are sacred in marriage, paternity and family affiliations. Indeed, two tribes sign their alliance by a marriage. Blood, in the context of sacrifice, is also a sign of reconciliation, of asking for forgiveness and of respect (tagharst). (59) It is also the symbol of hospitality, a sheep is slaughtered to welcome a guest or any stranger because to shed blood is to establish a bond of respect with the newcomer and include him in society and in the community, the jmacath.
The Amazighs regard the land as a sacred good which not only supported life, but provided protection against Western and Arab imperialist campaigns and which also helped to preserve the language and the community system. Moreover, the sale of any inherited piece of land has been a strongly stigmatized notion of shame (Hshuma) in the Amazigh culture of always.
The Amazigh civilization has survived the wear and tear of time and invading cultures thanks to the infinite love that the natives of North Africa have for the land that nourishes, protects, and strengthens them. We can also see that the Amazigh have managed to defy time because the mountains (akkal) that have protected them from acculturation and invasion. (60)
The love of the Amazigh for the land is manifested in agriculture and during festivals celebrating its benefits for the community. We find such celebrations among the ancient Amazighs of the Jbalas, in particular the Aït Serif clan with their oldest musical traditions in the Mediterranean, the Jahjouka, who celebrate the fertility of the land in music and dance, in pagan mode, during their annual festival known by the name of Boujloud in Arabic and Bou-Irmawen/Ilmawen in Tamazight. (61)
However, one wonders whether the Amazigh are one united people situated in Tamazgha or many peoples as stated, quite rightly, by Nationalia: (62)
“While Amazigh political and cultural movements share a consensus over the cultural and linguistic unity of the Amazigh world, its political unity and the consideration of the Amazigh as a nation is more controversial. A part of the Amazigh movement advocates the concept of the Amazigh people as one single nation living within a more or less defined territory —Tamazgha—, while another part argues that each of Tamazgha’s major regions are separate nations by themselves, having their own, distinct political projects —this is mostly true for the Kabyle and Tuareg sovereignty movements. In this latter case, the notion of “Amazigh peoples,” rather than “the Amazigh people,” is sometimes used.”
Exogenous political and cultural powers have regularly occupied Amazigh territories
The history of the Berbers living today in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, is deeply marked by the domination of groups of populations from elsewhere – first by the Romans, then by the Arabs, and later by the French, Spaniards and Italians.
“Adaptation and rebellion” – these were the only options open to the Berbers under foreign rule. As free men, that is how the term Imazighen can be translated into English, they mostly opted for non-adaptation and retreated to mountainous areas to practice their culture in their families and escape prosecution from foreign rulers.
Tattoos were one of the means of rebellion. The signs and ornaments that decorate the backs of men’s hands speak of tribal affiliation and religion – and they were banned under Muslim rule.
To counter its assimilation in the face of the cultures of the conquering peoples, the Berbers were able to ensure their own cultural continuity throughout history thanks to their arts and the identity symbols that were thus conveyed. Music obviously played an important role. The ancient Berber culture is extraordinarily rich and diverse, with a variety of musical styles. These range from bagpipes and oboe (Celtic style) to pentatonic music (reminiscent of Chinese music), all combined with African rhythms and a very large stock of authentic oral literature. These traditions have been kept alive by small bands of musicians who travel from village to village imedyazen, as they have done for centuries, to enliven weddings and other social occasions with their songs, stories and poems.
The Amazigh New Year
History and traditions
Although anthropologists say that it is difficult to establish with precision the possible historical roots of the Berber New Year, known as Yennayer. Some historians link it to the enthronement as pharaoh of the Amazigh Numidian king Shosheng I after defeating Ramses III, in 950 BC. (63) The Amazighs thus succeeded in establishing a kingdom that stretched from Libya to Egypt. This glorious victory would have marked the beginning of the Amazigh calendar. To codify the Berber calendar, the academy of the same name, which was created in Paris in 1966, refers to the accession to the throne of the Numidian king Shoshenq I, who became Pharaoh of Egypt in 950 BC.
The Amazigh New Year marks the first day of the agricultural year for Berber communities. It corresponds to the first day of January in the Julian calendar. The year 2022 thus corresponds to the year 2972, and the day of the new year is around January 12 in the usual calendar. The Berbers sometimes call this festival “Id u-Suggas“, which means “night of the year”, and Arab communities call it “Hagouza“, which means “Agrarian Year”.
The Berber people celebrate Yennayer in Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and parts of Egypt. The Algerian government recognizes it as a national holiday. In Morocco, many people are working to have Yennayer recognized as a national holiday as well.
As an agricultural holiday, Yennayer is a celebration of life and fertility. Like the January 1 holiday, it is a time for people to wish for longevity, prosperity and good future prospects. It is a day for weddings and other important life events. Children go through important rites of passage during the Yennayer holiday: boys may receive their first haircuts, and parents send their children to get fruits and vegetables.
Yennayer or Yennar depending on the region is the first day of the year of the agrarian calendar, used since antiquity by the Amazigh in North Africa. This calendar, which has always had the rhythm of the agricultural seasons, was not calculated until the 1960s. The Berber Academy then took the initiative to start calculating the years from 950 BC. This date is not improvised, it corresponds to the accession to power of the first Lybian pharaoh in Egypt, Shoshenq I.
Offset by 13 days from the Gregorian calendar, Yennayer is celebrated between January 12 and 14 of each year depending on the region: while it is celebrated on the 12th in Algeria, it will be celebrated only on January 13 in Morocco.
Yennayer is most often celebrated the evening before: a moment of sharing and family conviviality around a big meal to start the year with good luck and to ward off famine, which always threatened this period.
Food is an important part of the celebration and several dishes are traditionally served on this special day. Orkimen is a thick soup made of dried beans and wheat. Couscous is another traditional dish, and on Yennayer it is specially prepared with seven vegetables. Tagoula is a meal of corn grains prepared with butter, ghee, argan oil and honey.
A date seed or a piece of almond can be hidden in the Tagoula or couscous. Whoever finds the seed or nut is supposed to be blessed throughout the year. In the past, this person was entrusted with the keys to the storage room for the rest of the year.
There are also many amazing traditions and practices that accompany the food that the Amazigh prepare for this festive night. In addition to the special dances and songs of love, fertility, and prosperity that welcome a new agrarian year, the Amazighs, especially those living in the countryside, find this occasion a better chance to socialize, exchange food, and reconcile with those with whom they have had some misunderstanding. (64)
A copious meal is planned for imensi n-Yennayer (the dinner of Yennayer). Most often, it is a couscous based on poultry (sacrificed especially for the occasion to ward off bad luck) and dried vegetables, sometimes mixed with dried meat (acedluh). Depending on the region, one can find the famous seksu s-abisar (a specialty of couscous with beans), seksu s sebca issoufar (couscous with seven vegetables), berkoukes with chicken (a kind of couscous with very large grains). For snacks and breakfast, tiγrifin (pancakes), sfenj (fritters) are also served. These dishes and foods all symbolize the abundance of food that the new year promises, wealth and fertility.
During the day of Yennayer, it is the great cleaning! The houses are cleaned from top to bottom, the inyân (stones used for the wood fire) are replaced and the walls are bleached. Nowadays, instead of replacing the inyân, which are becoming rare in modern houses, families have taken the habit of renewing the dishes and kitchen utensils. In some regions, freshly picked herbs are also used to scent and purify the air in the home.
The first Yennayer following the birth of a child is particularly important. The first haircut is performed. It is also customary to place the child in a djefna, a large earthenware or wooden dish used to roll semolina. It is then gently poured on the head ettrez, a composition of nuts and candies.
Agricultural initiation rites were also put in place: children were sent to the fields so that they could pick their own fruits and vegetables.
In some Amazigh regions, children dressed up and strolled through the village streets to ask for sfenj and other sweets from house to house: a way to start the new year under the influence of the sun.
Since 2015, the Amazigh New Year is listed as a universal intangible heritage by UNESCO, as an ancestral tradition, alongside Tifinagh, the Berber alphabet, and couscous
What is the role of women in Berber culture?
The mother is the vector of Berber cultural continuity. Berber mothers have been largely responsible for the survival of the Berber language and cultural identity. Mothers share traditional stories and beliefs with their children. Women also preserve cultural traditions through handicrafts, such as tapestry, jewellery, tattoos, and pottery.
Rural women, especially those who are illiterate, preserve Tamazight as a living language, infusing traditional art forms with a certain orality to transmit linguistic traditions from generation to generation. In the realm of music and poetry, Amazigh women use their verses to keep the community informed of the movements of different members, to recount important events, to uphold moral and social codes, and remind the wider community of the ties that unite them and their common memory.
The orality of women, most of whom are illiterate, is a major factor in the survival of Tamazight, as they use this language in domestic communication, raising children, and repeating folk stories, poems, proverbs, songs, and family and cultural stories. Because Tamazight and related Amazigh languages are not taught in public schools, it is incumbent upon Amazigh women to pass on knowledge of the language to subsequent generations. And as primary caregivers, women are the children’s first link to Tamazight, giving the language its mother tongue status and consolidating its longevity despite its lack of representation in the public sphere.
Fanack.com writes in this regard: (65)
“Women are valorized as keepers of Berber language and culture as central to identity construction. Identity construction and preservation through art is also at the heart of Berber women’s religious and spiritual agency. Through their artistic expressions, women not only control weddings as a means of preserving the sacredness of cultural distinctiveness in the midst of powerful societal influences, such as modernization, which are rapidly affecting their lives, but they also weave carpets, make tents and pottery, decorate face, hands and feet with henna and embroider clothing that reinforces Berber ethnic identity. Through art and mother-daughter transmission, Berber women link the past with the present. “
Another reason why women can be considered the primary actors in the preservation of Tamazight lies in their related role as custodians of culture. In addition to managing their homes and raising their children, women play a vital role in preserving Amazigh artistic and cultural heritage through their work in areas such as textiles, music, poetry, and dance. (66)
Again, women are particularly important because they infuse these arts with traditions passed down orally from generation to generation. For example, women give Tamazight names to their textile designs and pass them on to their daughters. The names vary depending on the similarity the weaver imagines between the pattern and surrounding objects or the natural world, so that a single pattern may have a multitude of descriptive Tamazight names for different artists and families.
Moroccan Amazigh rugs are unique and have a fascinating history. They are one of the most famous folk art carpet styles. These carpets have been made continuously for over two millennia. The weaving of Moroccan carpets has always been the responsibility of Amazigh women both in terms of creation, weaving and artistic representation.
Women were responsible for preserving and transmitting the knowledge necessary for the manufacture of these carpets, including the secrets of family patterns, looping techniques and the colors to be used. All of this knowledge about the history of Amazigh carpet weaving was passed down matrilineally, with each generation of women responsible for passing it on to the next. Carpets were used within tribal groups as house covers, horse blankets, banners, flags and other utilitarian objects.
Fatima Sadiqi argues quite rightly that Amazigh women are transmitters, par excellence, of Berber culture and oral traditions: (68)
‘’Berber women in Morocco have always been closely linked to the Berber language and culture since the dawn of time. They are the artists in the Berber communities: they are the weavers of an art that abounds in symbols whose meanings go beyond the geographical borders of Morocco. They have transmitted the language and preserved the rituals that are today at the heart of a thousand-year-old heritage that has escaped colonization and state censorship. Since the Berber language has never been the official language of a central state even during the reign of Berber dynasties such as the Almoravids (1035-1120) and the Almohads (1120-1147), Berber women have been able to express what their communities have absorbed as civilizations and have thus contributed to both the cultural and linguistic diversity of Morocco. The Berbers belong to one of the oldest civilizations of humanity. Their origin has been the subject of controversy. Two categories of historians have been interested in them, each with its own ideological agenda: Western historians on the one hand, and medieval Arab historians on the other (Chafik 2005). For the former (e.g. Fournel (1857), Marçais (1946) and Peygasse (1950)), the history of the Berbers goes back to the three Punic wars that opposed Rome to Carthage and ended with the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. In other words, Western historians associate the origin of the Berbers with a glorious period of ancient Rome, which implicitly means that they have a Western origin…’’
As the guarantors of Amazigh ideologies, women have always had an important role. But throughout their history and political and socio-cultural changes, they have seen their rights gradually limited and the Amazigh community, which until then was governed by a matriarchal system, has given way to an exclusively male society, thus endangering the Berber culture.
Assimilated to insubordinate, prophetesses, priestesses or witches by Arab historians, Amazigh women have often occupied an important place in history. Many of them have also marked the latter and have even sometimes been at the head of kingdoms, such as Tin Hinan, known as the “Queen of the Hoggar”, from the kingdom of the Amohaks; (69) Taougrate, a poetess from the Middle Atlas; Mririda, from the High Atlas; (70) Ytto, from the Anti Atlas; Zaïnab Tanfzawit, from Aghmat, who, thanks to the decisive role she played in the dynasty of the Almoravids, marked the history of medieval Maghreb in the XIth century; or Dihiya, known as Al-Kahina, from the Zenata tribe in the Aurès, in the north of present-day Algeria, who almost changed the course of history by halting the advance of the Umayyads during the Islamic expansion in North Africa in the VIIth century. (71)
Advocating plurality and diversity, the Amazigh society has always defended freedom of conscience, participation in political and cultural life and equality between men and women. As a result, women were respected as human beings, but also as mothers and wives: (72)
“Texts in Amazigh customary law, “Izrf”, prove to us that the status of Berber women in history was much better, such as the “Tamazzalt”, still in force in the south of the country, which consists of an equitable division of property between the husband and wife in the event of a marriage break-up (which the Moudawana only finally adopted in 2004!); or the sanctions against a man who abuses a woman, who violates her or who is incorrect towards her”, explains Meryam Demnati, member of the Amazigh Observatory of Rights and Freedoms.
It is owed to them the right to preserve cultural traditions by transmitting to the young generations the songs, dances, poems, proverbs, tales, the love of the Amazigh language as well as the customs and the know-how.
The Tuaregs, a people of aristocratic nomads
The Tuareg people represent a Saharan offshoot of the Berbers, who have resided in North Africa for several millennia. While today’s Tuareg are nominally Muslim, their ancestors fled to the Sahara Desert to avoid submission to Arab conquerors and conversion to Islam. Following the Arab conquests in the seventh century A.D., and then the Bedouin immigrations to North Africa in the eleventh century A.D., many groups of Berbers sought refuge in the oases of the Sahara. There they adopted a nomadic and predatory lifestyle, modelled on that of their invaders. (73)
These nomadic pastoralists inhabit a region of North Africa that stretches from central Algeria and Libya in the north to northern Nigeria in the south, and from western Libya in the east to Timbuktu in Mali in the west. Today there are an estimated 1.3 million Tuareg, most of whom live in Mali and Niger. (74)
Tuareg society is traditionally feudal, with five castes: nobles, vassals, holy men, artisans and workers (former slaves). The Tuareg are traditionally monogamous and have a matrilineal inheritance system. In this, they differ markedly from their Berber relatives, the Arabs and most other sub-Saharan peoples. (75)
The Tuaregs of Ahaggar and southern Sahara, also known as “blue men” because of their indigo-dyed robes and face veils, were aristocratic nomads (76) who ruled over vassals, serfs and slaves who cultivated the oases in their name; they in turn recognized supreme chiefs or kings, who were called amenukals.
The Tuaregs have, also, retained a form of the ancient Libyan consonant script under the name Tifinagh, although most of the script is done in Arabic by a class of Muslim scholars. Alongside they have retained the language and many of the customs of their ancestors, and have developed a unique culture of their own, a true synthesis of many traditions, including not only Berber and Arab but also elements of indigenous peoples who resided in the Sahel for millennia.
An aura of mystery and romance surrounds these desert nomads. Long known as warriors, traders, and skilled guides in the arid, harsh Sahara Desert, the Tuareg have seen their independence severely threatened by recurring droughts that kill their herds and by international borders that severely restrict their travel. Many have been forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and settle down, forming small villages or moving to cities to find work. (77)
Hélène Claudot-Hawad presents the Tuaregs in the following terms: (78)
“The nomadic lifestyle of the Tuareg of the central Sahara still represents a valued reference point in relation to the sedentary condition, even if, in the modern context, city dwellers are often materially richer than nomads. The lung of the Tuareg economy before the colonization of Africa was caravan transport, which provided a link between the Mediterranean and the south of the Sahara on the one hand, and between the Atlantic and the Middle East on the other. In fact, nomadic and sedentary activities were closely complementary, integrated into the same economic system. The Tuareg confederal model allowed nomadic and sedentary groups to be understood as a whole, whose social and micro-cultural diversity was considered a real asset for the community. The colonial administration, on the other hand, set them up as radically distinct entities (in the census grids, for example), whether in the “racial”, “ethnic” or cultural mode, while the passages from the nomadic to the sedentary state, and vice versa, are frequent. This context has favored the installation of a new type of frontier between nomads and sedentaries, based on the modern Western representation of the “proper use” of the land and also on the classifications specific to the scientific racology of the 19th century (Whites/Blacks).”
Moroccan Amazigh culture
The cultures that make up Morocco are inextricably linked. But the Amazigh culture is nevertheless the central element of the way of life and the popular belief system dominant in Morocco. One example is Twiza, or community support network, which is basically an Amazigh concept but has become the foundation of Morocco’s contemporary social structure. (79)
Thus Twiza means to help each other, to support each other, to assist each other. It has other equivalent terms in Berber and Arabic
Twiza is an organized structure that is created out of necessity and fades away once the problem has been solved, only to resume when necessary. It is a set of interdependent elements whose complementary differences create the dynamics of development. In this sense it is a functional unit that aims at overcoming an imbalance: it is therefore a psycho-sociological phenomenon that is part of the adaptation strategies.
Through its resilience, this organization seems to respond to economic needs, of course, but also to very important ethical and relational needs that maintain cohesion and links between groups and individuals. If the sharing of knowledge and experience characterizes all societies, the maintenance and development of these practices can become a means of bringing together our “modern” societies, which tend to lock themselves up in technicism and every man for himself.
In Morocco, Amazigh customs and belief systems are central to popular Islam, including Sufism as practiced by Sunni Maliki Muslims. The relationship between Islam and the Amazigh in Morocco is mutually reinforcing. Islam is the religious tradition of the Amazigh. The Amazigh in turn color the tradition with their local languages, customs, and beliefs, some of which predate Islam. Thus the ancient Amazigh animistic belief in the religious significance of the seasons gained an additional layer of Islamic significance when Moroccan followers (sing. murid, pl. muridun) of the Amazigh Sufi Sidi Harazem associated the miracle (karâmah) of spring with this Friend of God.
Popular Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, in Morocco reconstructs pre-Islamic religious phenomena through an Islamic theological medium. The Amazigh awliyâ’ Allah, or Friends of God, do the crucial work of locating the Islamic tradition in their Amazigh linguistic and religious context. Popular Sufi Islam in Morocco is thus a tradition that values both the local Amazigh cultural context and the Islamic tradition.
It should not be forgotten that the Amazigh are the original inhabitants of Morocco. They have continuously lived in this country for over five thousand years. The relationship between Amazigh culture and Moroccan society is therefore natural. The beliefs and lifestyles of the original inhabitants of Morocco are therefore central to contemporary Moroccan culture. (80)
Conclusion: Amazigh culture revival
Although they were among the first inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers have long lived in enclosed and very closed communities. Despite Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman and French incursions, these populations lived outside the acculturation factors and were little affected by external influences. (81)
The Berbers claim a presence in the Maghreb that is more than five thousand years old. Their community extends over nearly five million square kilometers, from the Egyptian-Libyan border to the Atlantic and from the Mediterranean coast to Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Their culture, identity and rights have long been scorned, with their demands being equated first with the “colonial party” and then later interpreted as secessionist. But there is a renaissance of the Berber movement, particularly in Morocco, where a third of the population speaks Tamazight. (82)
Born at the end of the XIXth century, a “Berberist” current developed within the Algerian nationalist movement. Its representatives demanded an “Algerian Algeria” against the supporters of an “Arab-Muslim” Algeria, a conflict that led to a crisis within the PPA-MTLD (Algerian People’s Party-Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Freedoms) in 1949. The muted opposition between “Kabyles” – in the forefront of the national liberation struggle – and “Arabs” did not disappear completely thereafter.
The Arabization undertaken as soon as Algeria became independent, this led to an open conflict between Hocine Aït Ahmed – accused of “separatism” by the government – and Ahmed Ben Bella (1963). The coup d’état of Houari Boumediene (1965) contributed to the revival of an autonomous “Berberist” movement in Kabylia, Algiers and in the emigration.
The question of the rights of the Berber minority took a more political turn in 1980 with the “Kabyle Spring” tafsut imazighen (March-April 1980), which was not followed by any significant concession but had a great impact in Morocco. In this country, where Arabization is also a government priority since the 1950s, an Amazigh cultural movement developed in the late 1970s around the Association of the Summer University of Agadir, the most politicized groups being those of the Rif (Intilaka, linked to the extreme left and dissolved by the government in 1981) and that of the Middle Atlas.
The Berber question took on a new urgency in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, with the Algerian and Moroccan states showing a certain openness. It was first in Morocco that concessions to “Amazighness” were (timidly) granted by King Hasan II, who in his speech of August 1994, advocated the teaching in all elementary school of the three “Moroccan dialects” (Tarifit, Tamazight and Tashelhit). In order to institutionalize the issue, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) was created in 2001 after Mohammed VI accessed the throne.
In Algeria, after the April 2001 riots in Kabylia, Article 3 bis of the Constitution (introduced in 2002), grants Tamazight the status of national language: (83)
“the State working to promote and develop it in all its linguistic varieties in use on the national territory.”
The new Moroccan Constitution of 2011, recognizing that the unity of the country was: (84)
“forged by the convergence of its Arab-Islamic, Amazigh and Saharan-Hassan components,”
“an official language of the State, as a common heritage of all Moroccans without exception.”
Over the course of invasions and interbreeding, Tunisia has lost its Berber identity, which all successive powers have perceived as an element of sedition and separatism. If the revolution of 2011 has given rise to a new enthusiasm for the Amazigh, it is mainly a reaction to the debate surrounding the Arab-Muslim identity of Tunisians. Associations and festivals are often organized to perpetuate the traditions, although the text of the fundamental law still does not mention the Berber origins of Tunisia. However, more than 150,000 speakers continue to practice Tamazight, the language of their ancestors. Under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Arabic and French, languages of colonization, took precedence over Berber, which seemed incompatible with modernity.
Today, the Berber question is above all cultural. The movement remains too timid to address political issues and to constitute a bulwark against political and religious models imported from the Middle East. Conservative religious currents are strongly entrenched in regions where Berber centers have always been present, even if they are dwindling. The Amazigh heritage as a component of the country’s identity is only timidly recognized. On the other hand, the newspaper distributors in Tunis, all of whom come from Douiret, like Mohamed Daadaa, the boss of the corporation, still use Tamazight to communicate with each other. But neither Brahim Kassas, nor Habib Bribech, nor Said Kharchoufi, elected to the National Constituent Assembly in November 2011, have mentioned their Berber roots ever.
Divine surprise of the February 17, 2011 revolution or threat to the unitary identity of Libya? Whatever the case, the Amazigh question has appeared on the political scene and one thing is certain: the time was over when Muammar Gaddafi could declare, peremptorily, that:“Amazighness has disappeared.’’ Adept at pseudo-historical explanations, he told that all the inhabitants of North Africa were originally from Yemen, coming by land.
In September 2012, the day after the fall of Tripoli, the flags that welcomed Mustapha Abdeljalil, the president of the National Transitional Council (NTC), were mostly stamped with a Z (in the Tifinagh alphabet.) More present than in Cyrenaica, where they are concentrated in the Oujla oasis, the tigrawlin [rebels] played a decisive role on the western front. In Jebel Nefoussa, they were the first to receive weapons from abroad and multiplied the sources of resistance around the capital. Some of their leaders managed to climb the ranks of the CNT, such as Othman Ben Sassi or Salem Gnane, a fellow traveler of Mansour Kikhia, a famous opponent of Gaddafi. However, this activism did not bear fruit on the political level immediately. Despite a few elected members in the General National Congress (GNC), the rare Amazigh voices are eclipsed by the growing tension between Ali Zeidan’s government, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the federalists.
The Tuaregs (or Kel Tamasheq), who are sometimes marginalized within the Berber world, and who are estimated to number nearly 3 million, are even more marginalized in the states in which they live, which often perceive them as foreign bodies. Depending on whether they lived in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali or Niger, they were subject to policies that aimed either to marginalize them or to work towards their economic, political and cultural assimilation.
In the Sahel, the leaders of the rebellion denounce the underdevelopment of the “country” they share with the Songhaïs, the Peuls, the Arabs, and the Bellas. This is a reality that is not denied in Bamako, where it is argued that efforts have been made in recent decades and where the integration of many Tuaregs (and Arabs) into the army and the administration is emphasized, often at a forced march.
In Mali, the problem began at independence, when the notables of Kidal opposed their integration into the Malian state. The first rebellion in 1963 was violently repressed, the second in 1990 (and the first fragile peace agreements in 1992 and 1996), the third in 2006, and the last in 2012, which led to the eruption of armed jihadist movements and the partition of the country. This crisis is far from being resolved. While some of Mali’s Tuaregs reject armed violence, and some notables claim to be attached to the Malian nation, many are sympathetic to the dream, if not of independence, then at least of autonomy as advocated by the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).
At the same time, in Niger, the spectre of a third armed rebellion seems to be receding. Efforts have been made since the first revolt to integrate Tuaregs into the army and the administration, and decentralization has been in effect for four years. However, the risk of a new uprising in the north has not been completely eliminated: while Niger is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, the northern part of the country no longer attracts tourists and does not benefit fully from its rich subsoil, which fuels the anger of young Tuaregs, some of whom have taken to joining armed groups in Libya or local mafias.
You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu
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- Ilahiane, Hsain. Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (Imazighen). Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.
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- Fage, J. D.; Clark, John Desmond; Oliver, Roland Anthony. The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 184.
- Camps, G. « Bocchus », Encyclopédie berbère, 10, 1991, document B84, 2013. http://journals.openedition.org/encyclopedieberbere/1775 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.1775
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- Derived from the Latin word “Maurus,” the term was originally used to describe Berbers and people from the ancient Roman province of Mauretania in what is now North Africa. Over time, it was increasingly applied to Muslims living in Europe. From the Renaissance onward, the word “Moor” was also used to describe anyone with dark or tanned skin.
- Whittaker, C.R. “Roman Africa: Augustus to Vespasian”, in The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
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- Salluste or Caius Sallustius Crispusn, born in 86 BC in Amiternum, city founded by the Sabines, and died in 35 BC or 34 BC, is a Roman politician and historian.
- Sallusti Crisp, C. Conjuratione Catilinae – De Bello Jugurthino – Texte Latin. Paris : Hachette, 1921.
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- Rinn, Le Commandant. Les Premiers Royaumes Berbères et la Guerre de Jugurtha. Op. cit., pp. 3-4
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- Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Brett, Michael & Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996, p. 35.
- https://web.archive.org/web/20151016012823/https://www.temehu.com/wan-muhuggiag.htmThe Tashwinat Mummy is a small mummy of a child, discovered in a small cave in Wan Muhuggiag, in the Acacus massif (Tadrart Acacus), Fezzan, Libya, by Professor Fabrizio Mori in 1958. The mummy is currently on display at the Assaraya Alhamra Museum (gallery 4) in Tripoli. The name Muhuggiag appears in various forms, including Wan Mughjaj, Uan Mugjaj (probably a typing error of: Muhjaj), Wan Mahugag, and Uan Muhuggiag. The local pronunciation of the name gives: Muhjaij: /mouhjeej/.Cf. Van Der Meer, M. “Ancient Agriculture in Libya: A Review of the Evidence”. Acta Palaeobot. 35 (1) : 1995, pp. 85–98.
- Basset, René. “Recherches sur la religion des Berbères.” Revue de l’histoire Des Religions, vol. 61, 1910, pp. 291–342, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23663540
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- Donatism is a Christian doctrine judged posteriori to be schismatic and then heretical by the Church, a doctrine that took off in the diocese of Roman Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries. It takes its name from Donatus the Great, bishop of Cases-Noires, Casae Nigrae, in Numidia (Negrine today). The main point of disagreement of the Donatists with the undivided Church concerned the refusal of validity of the sacraments delivered by the bishops who had failed during the persecution of Diocletian (303-305). This position was condemned at the Council of Rome in 313.
- Fentress, Elizabeth. “Romanizing the Berbers.” Past & Present, no. 190, 2006, pp. 3–33. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600886.
- Saint Augustine (354 – 430 AD) was a Christian philosopher of late antiquity, born in Algeria. He is one of the four Fathers of the Western Church. After a dissipated youth, which he tells in the Confessions, he is interested in the problem of evil. First seduced by Manichaeism, he converted to Christianity and became bishop of Hippo. He wrote the City of God, the work most reproduced by copyists in the Middle Ages. He was canonized in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII.
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- Ibn ʻAbd al-Ḥakam s.d. Futūḥ Miṣr wa l-Maghrib, éd. ʻA. M. ʻĀmir. Le Caire, pp. 262-265, 268-269.
- Ibn ʻIdhārī. 1998. Al-Bayān al-Mughrib fī akhbār al-Andalus wa l-Maghrib. Op. cit., 1998, I: pp. 35-39.
- Ibid., I: pp. 40-41.
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- Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Land Tenure in Amazigh Societies in Morocco – Analysis’’, Eurasia Review, November 9, 2020. https://www.eurasiareview.com/author/dr-mohamed-chtatou/page/4/
- Chtatou, Mohamed. « Ben Abdelkrim Al-Kattabi dans la tradition orale des Gzennayen », in Awal, Cahiers d’études berbères, 14, 1996. pp. 25-45.
- Claudot-Hawad, Hélène. ‘’Matriarcat (berbère)’’, Encyclopédie Berbère, Aix-en-Provence : IREMAM (MMSH), 2011, pp. 4697-4705. https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00879435/file/2011-HCH-Matriarcat.pdf
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- Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’Le tapis amazigh: identité, création, art et histoire’’, Le Monde Amazigh, July 18, 2020. https://amadalamazigh.press.ma/fr/le-tapis-amazigh-identite-creation-art-et-histoire/
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- Mseffer, Dounia Z. ‘’Amazones Amazighes’’, 2015 Femmes du Maroc. https://femmesdumaroc.com/enquete/amazones-amazighes-1918
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- Chtatou, Mohamed. ‘’A la découverte de la culture amazighe du Maroc’’, SudEst Maroc, November 14, 2020. https://sudestmaroc.com/a-la-decouverte-de-la-culture-amazighe-du-maroc/
- Chaker, Salem. Berbères d’aujourd’hui. Paris : L’Harmattan, 1989.
- Laraoui, Abdellah. L’Histoire du Maghreb. Paris : François Maspéro, 1970.