The Free People A Study of the Ancient and Contemporary Berbers of North Africa Amanda Brown, Anum Khan, and Chelsea Rendelman
Historical Perspective • The history of the Berbers is somewhat problematic • Though their specific local origins are unspecified, they have been known to have occupied regions in North Africa (the Maghreb region) and Spain
Berbers were first mentioned in ancient Egyptian writing in 3,000 B.C • They are thought to have been a part of a Mediterranean racial group that included Celtic, Iberian, and Semitic people, or as being related to the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, and the Caucasians
Historically, Berbers were nomadic shepherds and cattle herders • They were also small farmers and lived in villages that had small local industries • They manufactured products such as, iron, copper, lead, pottery, weaving, and embroidery • The Berbers even sold slaves to other states during this time
By the third century B.C, the Berber-Maghreb region had now included Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia • These areas were ruled by the Moors, the Massaesylins, or the Massylins
The Berber kings were known to have lived a very luxurious lifestyle • The first Berber ruler that reliable historical data makes reference to, is King Sphax. • King Massinissa was another prominent ruler
The Berbers were of many different religious denominations including pagan, Christian, and Jewish • Islam came to the Maghreb region during the 7th century • They were quickly integrated into the Islamic faith and wanted to help spread their newly learned religion
The Berbers united with Arab-Muslims to spread Islam throughout the rest of the world • One such region that was a main focus was Spain • The conquest in Spain brought about two main Berber ruling groups, the Almoravids and the Almohads.
Almoravids and Almohads • Both shared the same Hamito-Semitic language. • The Almoravids followed a less strict version of Islam • They moved this form of Islam into Morocco and established Marrakech as their capital in 1070 • The Almoravids were able to keep command in Spain for quite some time. • The Almohads followed a stricter, more conservative form of Islam. • They focused on purifying their religion • In 1147, the leader of the Almoravids was killed, and the capital city of Marrakech was taken over by the Almohads. • Almohad power declined during the Christian reconquest • In 1212, the Almohads left Spain, due to the Christian army aggression and the seizure of Seville 1248. • Other civilizations continuously conquered the Almohads and the Almoravids because they could never unite to form a strong force
The Islamic influence soon had an effect on the language of the Berbers. • The so-called “Arabization” of North Africa, has contributed to many Berbers adopting the Arabic language. • Arabic was the language of the conquerors, their religion, and their administration • Arabic soon became the universally accepted language of learning, business, and trade • The Berber language was isolated during this time, and was regarded as “an unintelligible language”
There was certain discrimination based on physical appearance that existed between the Arabs and the Berbers. • The Berbers generally wore turbans and Arabs wore “bonnets” • As the two ethnic groups interacted with one another, they began to adapt some of each others practices, such as the Arabs beginning to wear turbans themselves by the fourteenth century
Europe had long been heavily invested in this region for trade purposes • In 1881, Tunisia was made a French Protectorate, in 1911-12, Italy invaded Libya, and France and Spain split up Morocco • Some Berbers were at a disadvantage during this time, and some benefited
Independence • Libya (1951) • Morocco (1956) • Tunisia (1956) • Algeria (1962)
Culture Amazigh, Not Arab.
Imazighen are usually portrayed as nomadic peoples constantly crossing the Sahara on camels; however, contrary to popular belief, most actually are sedentary subsistence farmers in the mountains and valleys of North Africa.
Women do all the house work, help the men with the harvest, and take newly cut grain to the threshing floor. Amazigh men are also involved in flour milling, wood carving, and quarrying millstones.
Religion • The ancient Amazigh religion pagan and animalistic • Imazighen embraced Judaism, and helped spread Christianity • Now, the majority of Imazighen are Muslim, and follow the orthodox, Sunni, branch of the religion of Maliki
Tamazight Tifinagh Translation: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Cuisine Couscous Tajine
Music • There are three main varieties of Amazigh music: village, ritual and popular music. • Village music mainly includes instruments like the flute, tambourines and drums, and is performed for dancing. • Ritual music is performed to celebrate marriages, protect against evil spirits and other important ceremonies. • The most popular Amazigh musician is Idir. Berber Music from the Atlas Mountains
Dance • There are many different varieties of Amazigh dance, such as ahwash, taskawine and guedra • Guedra is the most well known Amazigh dance. • Video Clip
Human Rights Issues Modern Struggles for the Amazigh
Although the Berbers do face discrimination because of many different aspects of their lives, their major struggles revolve around the issue of language and the implications that the suppression of their language has on their cultural identity.
The right to their native language, whether that is in national government, public education, or simply the right to have an indigenous name, is a major point of the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. However, many nation states do not respect this right.
This is due to the Arabization of North Africa which resulted from the winning of their independence from France following WWII. This process is characterized by these new governments unifying their populations under Islam and the Arabic language.
However under the policy of Arabization there has been a complete disregard for Berber language and cultural practices.
Whether this disregard is done in an attempt to create oneness in these new nations or because of a fear of minority uprising, one can not be sure but these new Arab states have put their strongest forces behind protecting this ideal.
However, it is not the religion that upsets the Berbers, as many are practicing Muslims; it is the restrictions made on their language and thusly their culture.
One of the ways which nation states practice ‘language imperialism’ is through the legal sector. Constitutions and other legal documents blatantly discriminate and ostracize the Amazigh, most specifically their language.
One example is the Libyan national constitution which states that, “that Arabic was the country’s official language. Again, there was no mention of the Berber language, and accordingly Berber was not recognized despite the fact that it was, and still is, a living reality in Libya. The Berber language was officially excluded”.
However Berber languages are, without a doubt, being destroyed almost single handedly by the education system. Arabization of the national government collided with the school system and Arabic became the only acceptable standard. Because of this there is a high drop out rate among the Amazigh children.
One could make the correlation that the nation state diminished their language purposefully to keep them from receiving an education. They believed that education would cause them to demand greater indigenous rights and rebel against the nation state.
Recently there have been some reforms in this system, specifically in Morocco where 60% of the population speaks a Berber dialect. In 2001, King Mohammad VI, “announced a program to teach all schoolchildren Tamazight and bankrolled a research institute, IRCAM [Royal Institute of the Amazigh Culture], to develop a curriculum and promote study of the language”.
However there is still a strong resistance to the program and in many communities it is not implemented. In a similar way, many textbooks do not recognize Berber history as national history, citing that the earliest people in North Africa were “ancient Arabs” and it is almost as if , “the Berbers, their history, language, culture and civilization had never existed”.
One interesting case that deals with the fundamental right for these groups to their indigenous language and the discrimination it receives in North Africa are indigenous names.
Both Libya and Morocco have these ‘name laws’ which state that, “Amazigh first names are prohibited…Amazigh parents are effectively forced to choose first names from a pre-established list of Arabic first names. They thus cannot choose an Amazigh name for their newborn”.
This system is managed by the Ministry of the Interior of which all people must register. This control of the nation state combined with deep seated prejudices already present towards Berbers has resulted in the prohibition of many of their traditional names.
Many groups including the Human Rights Watch have spoken out against this system. Sarah Lee Wilson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, stated that, “Unless a first name is patently offensive or objectionable or harmful to the interests of the child, authorities have no business curbing the right of parents to make this very personal choice – especially not when the curb amounts to a form of ethnic discrimination”.
This oppression of language which has resulted in the suppression of their entire culture has boiled down for the Berbers to a desire for the right of cultural identity which has so long been denied them.
The Berber Manifesto, declared in 2000 by the Amazigh community, has certain requests of North African governments including: the recognition of Berber language included in the education, economic development of Berber communities, acknowledgment of Berber history in the evolution of the region, and a gained respect for Berber cultural attributes.
However, there is no indication that governments are willing to comply with these demands, a common characteristic of countries with large indigenous populations. This leads to one conclusion: although the Sahara desert may remain a barren stretch of land forever, under the implementation of these discriminatory laws this ancient indigenous groups may not survive to watch over their homeland.
Conclusion The Berbers of North Africa have had a turbulent and tumultuous history in North Africa. Ranging from their initial development in the region to their interactions with some of the greatest civilization of all time to even now under the pressures of Arabization from racist nation states, they have attempted and in many ways have been successful in maintaining their traditional way of life.
Resulting from that, the Amazigh have a culture that is rich and adaptive, taking on traits from all those they encounter. They appreciate the many different groups which have influenced their development and honor them in food, song, language, and dance. They have, without a doubt, one of the largest knowledgebase of survival skills, especially considering their environment, which is almost invaluable.
Most recently, they have unified once again as an indigenous group to challenge stereotypical ideas of them in order to gain their indigenous rights and in the same sense their overall human rights. They face harsh prejudices from their nation states which suppress their language, even will go so far as to not allow traditional names. But the Berbers pull from their strong cultural heritage and fight to perverse their cultural identity, not only for themselves but the next generation.