The (Berbers) Amazigh people, are dispersed throughout North Africa. They are the most populous in Morocco, but they also are present in Burkina Faso, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Niger. Reliable information on the demography of the Amazigh population is difficult to obtain, but it is estimated that the Amazigh constitute more than 50% of the Moroccan population and 30% of the population of Algeria. Amazigh language (Tamazight) exists in several dialects. It is recognised as a national language in Niger and Mali. Although this recognition has been technically extended to Morocco and Algeria, it has not received the same status as Arabic Language. Amazigh people in Morocco and Algeria are fighting for the preservation of Tamazight Language. Although the Amazigh people and their presence in Morocco predates the arrival of Islam and the Arabic language, many Amazigh have been assimilated into the Islamic, Arab and Moroccan society. Many Amazigh fear that this phenomenon will result in a total loss of their language and their distinct identity.
In Algeria, there are the Bilda Amazigh in the central region, the Chaoui Amazigh of eastern Algeria, the Chenoui Amazigh of western Algeria, the Kabyles of northern Algeria, the Mozabites of the M’zab valley, the Tlecen Amazigh of the southern Aith villages of western Algeria, and the Zenatas in western central Algeria. In Tunisia, there are Chenini and Duaret Amazigh, Djerba Amazigh, and the Southern Malmata Amazigh. In Egypt, there are the Siwi Amazigh of the Siwi Valley. In Libya, there are the Nafusis of Western Libya, and the Zuwaras of the North West in Libya. There are Zenaga people from Northwest Mauritania. The Tuaregs live in the Sahara. They are present in Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
The Amazigh flag has a singular particularity. It is neither a national flag nor an ideological emblem, but a cultural flag. The colours of the flag refer to elements of Tamazgha, North Africa, and the great territory where the Berbers live. Blue represents the sea, the green the mountains, while the yellow refers to the Sahara. The letter Z, in red, represents the common blood of the Amazigh, “The freemen”. It is also synonymous with resistance.
The Tamazight Language
The Berber languages or Berber (Tamazight) is a set of dialects or languages that form a group of Semitic languages (or Afro-Asian languages) derived from the “ancient Berber”. They are present from Morocco to Egypt, via Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Niger and Libya. There are about thirty varieties. Berber or Tamazight has its own system of writing, the one that the Tuareg have preserved: the tifinagh.
There are no official figures for the number of Berber speakers, but the number of speakers is estimated at more than 45 million.
Geographical distribution: location of Berbers in North Africa
• Rifain (tarifit, northern Morocco)
• Braber (Tamazight, centre of Morocco)
• Chleuh (tachelhit, southern Morocco)
• Zenaga (tuddungiyya, south-western Mauritania)
• Chenoui (ha’chenwit, north-western Algeria)
• Kabyle (taqbaylit, north-eastern Algeria)
• Chaoui (tacawit, centre of Algeria)
• Nafusi (tanfusit, north-western Libya)
• Other Saharan Berbers (wargla, mozabite, siwi, etc.)
• Touareg (tamahaq, tamashek, tahaggart, tayart, tawellemmet, tetserret, cross-border of the Sahelian region)
The Tamazight in Morocco
Morocco is the main Berber-speaking state and the only one with Berber as an official language; it is estimated that Berber speakers represent between 40% and 50% of the population.
Three main dialects of Berber are spoken in Morocco:
• Tachelhit (or chleuh), spoken by nearly 8 million speakers, mainly in the High Atlas, Anti-Atlas, Souss and Northern Sahara. It is the most spoken Berber dialect.
• Tamazight (or Tamazight of central Morocco), spoken by 4 to 5 million people, mainly in the High and Middle Atlas.
• Tarifit (or rifain), spoken by nearly 3 million people, mainly in the Rif Region
There are also other dialects, spoken by a small number of speakers such as the sanhadji of Srayr (about 40,000 speakers) and the ghomari (about 10,000 speakers) spoken in Rif and Chleuh Figuig (a few thousand speakers). Other distinct dialects are spoken in Morocco but are usually attached to larger ensembles. The dialects of Aït Seghrouchen and Aït Warayn, zenetic dialects of the Middle Atlas, are generally attached to Tamazight with which they are mutually intelligible. The dialect of Ait Iznassen, spoken in the region of Berkane, is generally related to the Rifain, with which it is mutually intelligible. Judeo-Berber, attached to Tachelhit and spoken in the past by some Jewish communities, is practically extinct in Morocco. It is still spoken by nearly 2,000 people in Israel.
Introduced since 2003 in 317 schools of the country, Tamazight language is, in 2012, taught in about 4000 schools by 14000 teachers. Approximately 545,000 Moroccan schoolchildren (15% of schoolchildren in the country) attend Tamazight classes. The learning of the Amazigh language is limited to the primary education cycle. It is done using the tifinagh alphabet, which is not consensus. The teaching of Tamazight is almost absent from private schools in the country. In 2012, the city of Midelt was the first to generalize the teaching of Tamazight in its schools.
Berber is transcribed, since the middle of the first millennium before the Christian era, using the Tifinagh or Libyan-Berber alphabet. It has vowels and consonants, of which there are several variants. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Berber has mainly been written using the Latin alphabet or the Arabic alphabet, although Tuaregs continue to use it fluently. However, standard Tifinagh suggestions came into existence from the end of the 20th century. The Berber Academy, worked on a version, later revised by Professor Salem Chaker of Inalco. IRCAM officialised a version of the tifinagh alphabet in 2003. The main difficulty in setting up a standard alphabet lies in the gradual localization of Berber languages, which has led to a differentiation of certain phonemes and letters.
Berbers have lived in Africa since the earliest recorded time. References date back to 3000 BC. There are many scattered tribes of Berber across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Forty percent of the Moroccan population is Berber, 30% live in Algeria, and 1% in Tunisia. There are smaller numbers of Berbers in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. They tend to live in desert regions like the Sahara and in the Atlas Mountains. They live there because the Arabs conquered North Africa in the 7th century AD, and pushed the Berbers out. The number of Berbers in North Africa has slowly declined because more and more Berbers are adopting the language and culture of the Arabs.
Berber is derived from the Roman term for barbarians. Berbers are non-Arabic tribes. Throughout the centuries Berbers have mixed with many ethnic groups, mostly Arabs. Because of this, Berbers have come to be identified by linguistics instead of racial basis. The Berber language has 300 closely related dialects. A number of tribes have their own distinct language. Some of the largest Berber tribes are Rif, Kabyle, Shawia, Tuareg, Haratin, Shluh, and Beraber. The written language is not commonly taught and is rarely used.
Berbers are traditionally Muslim, and societies are quite fragmented. Berbers have had a constant struggle for power in North Africa with Arab tribes for centuries. The Barbary Coast of North Africa was named after the word Berber, and was known as a place where Arab and Berber pirates would prey on ships on the Mediterranean Sea. Traditionally, Berbers raised sheep and cattle. However, some Berbers subsist by working in flourmills, doing woodcarving, quarrying millstones, and making pottery or jewelry. Women were generally involved with housework, weaving, and pottery. Berbers generally live in rural areas. Their housing is usually clay huts or tents made out of goat hair. In larger villages, however, houses are made of stone. Today, most Berbers are migrant workers who work in Spain or France.
Traditionally, men take care of livestock. They migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton and plants used for dyeing. For their part, women look after the family and handicrafts – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in the souqs in their locality. The Berber tribes traditionally weave kilims. The tapestry maintains the traditional appearance and distinctiveness of the region of origin of each tribe, which has in effect its own repertoire of drawings. The textile of plain weave is represented by a wide variety of stripes, and more rarely by geometrical patterns such as triangles and diamonds. Additional decorations such as sequins or fringes, are typical of Berber weave in Morocco. The nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Berbers is very suitable for weaving kilims. The customs and traditions differ from one region to another.The social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern, such as Kahina and Tazoughert Fatma in Aurès, Tin Hinan in Hoggar, Chemci in Aït Iraten, Fatma Tazoughert in the Aurès. Lalla Fatma N’Soumer was a Berber woman in Kabylie who fought against the French.The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe. In Algeria, the el Kseur platform in Kabylie gives tribes the right to fine criminal offenders. In areas of Chaoui, tribal leaders enact sanctions against criminals.The Tuareg have a king who decides the fate of the tribe and is known as Amenokal. It is a very hierarchical society. The Mozabites are governed by the spiritual leaders of Ibadism. The Mozabites lead communal lives. During the crisis of Berriane, the heads of each tribe resolved the problem and began talks to end the crisis between the Maliki and Ibadite movements. In marriages, the man selects the woman, and depending on the tribe, the family often makes the decision. In comparison, in the Tuareg culture, the woman chooses her future husband. The rites of marriage are different for each tribe. Families are either patriarchal or matriarchal, according to the tribe.
Berber cuisine is a traditional cuisine which has evolved little over time. It differs from one area to another within and among Berber groups.
Principal Berber foods are:
- Couscous, a semolina staple dish
- Tajine, a stew made in various forms
- Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with pigeon
- Bread made with traditional yeast
- “Bouchiar” (fine yeastless wafers soaked in butter and natural honey)
- “Bourjeje” (pancake containing flour, eggs, yeast and salt)
- “Tahricht” (sheep offal: brains, tripe, lungs, and heart): these organ meats are rolled up with the intestines on an oak stick and cooked on embers in specially designed ovens. The meat is coated with butter to make it even tastier. This dish is served mainly at festivities.
Although they are the original inhabitants of North Africa, and in spite of numerous incursions by Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and French, Berber groups lived in very contained communities. Having been subject to limited external influences, these populations lived free from acculturating factors.
Berber music, the traditional music of North Africa, has a wide variety of regional styles. The best known are the Moroccan music, the popular Gasba, Kabyle and Chawi music of Algeria, and the widespread Tuareg music of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The instruments used are the bendir (large drums) and Gambra (a lute), which accompanying songs and dances.Traditional Kabyle music consists of vocalists accompanied by a rhythm section, consisting of e’ṯbel (tambourine) and bendir (frame drum), and a melody section, consisting of a ghaita (bagpipe) and ajouag (flute). Kabyle music has been popular in France since the 1930s, when it was played at cafés. As it evolved, Western string instruments and Arab musical conventions, like large backing orchestras, were added.By the time raï, a style of Algerian popular music, became popular in France and elsewhere in Europe, Kabyle artists began using less traditional instruments and formats. Hassen Zermani’s all-electric Takfarinas and Abdelli’s work with Peter Gabriel’s Real World helped bring Kabyle music to new audiences, while the murder of Matoub Lounes inspired many Kabyles to rally around their popular musicians.There are three varieties of Berber folk music: village and ritual music, and the music performed by professional musicians. Village music is performed collectively for dancing, including ahidus and ahouach dances. Instruments include flutes and drums. These dances begin with a chanted prayer. Ritual music is performed at regular ceremonies to celebrate marriages and other important life events. Ritual music is also used as protection against evil spirits.