Kids in Taghazoute, Morocco. Photo: Staale Førre Jensen
People living in North Africa, from Morocco‘s west coast to the oasis Siwa in Egypt, from Tunisia‘s north tip to the oases in mid-Sahara.
Berbers comprise a clear majority of the population of North Africa in terms of race, but in terms of identity, a considerable minority. It is essential to understand this difference between race and identity in order to grasp the meaning of being Berber. The influx of Arabs in North Africa has been far too insignificant throughout history to justify those large numbers of people now claiming to be Arabs. And the influx of other peoples in North Africa has not been of any significance since the Vandals in the 5th century.
Thus, in terms of race, Berbers represent 80% of the population in Morocco and Algeria, more than 60% in Tunisia and Libya and 2% in Egypt, making up more than 50 million people. In addition there are about 4 million Berbers living in Europe, primarily in France.
But as the Arabization has swept away the indigenous language from many regions and, along with it, the Berber identity, many people with Berber ancestry, are now claiming to be Arabs. An estimated half of the ethnic Berbers living in Europe regard themselves as Berbers, making up 2 million.
Berbers, just as most other peoples in the world, easily blend in with other people. There are visible differences between Berbers reflecting a surprising past – European slaves and war prisoners were transported and sold to North Africa, and with them blond hair and red hair as well as green and blue eyes were introduced into the Berber face. Estimates go as high as 1 million Europeans arriving in North Africa this way, but many returned to Europe and how many actually reproduced and had children that would live among the Berbers is impossible to assess.
The origin of Berbers is not certain either, some believe they may have come from Europe, but it is safest to consider the Berbers as the original population of North Africa.
The Berber communities are scattered around in the North African countries. They often live in the mountains and in smaller settlements. There are around 300 local dialects among the Berbers. Berbers are Muslims, but there are many traditional practices found among them. Since Berbers typically outnumber Arabs in rural areas, traditional practices tend to predominate there. The conversion of Berbers to Islam took centuries and in many areas Islam was not dominant until the 16th century. This has resulted in Berber Islam being somewhat atypical in its incorporation of traditional beliefs, preserving more traces of former religious practice.
Of major cities in North Africa, only Marrakech has a population with a Berber identity. The Berber dominance in the mountains can be traced to the days of Arab conquest, when the Arabs took control over the cities, but left the countryside to itself. The number of Arabs being too small for a more profound occupation. Berbers in those days had the choice between living in the mountains, resisting Arab dominance, or moving into the Arab community, where Arab language and culture were dominant.
Until a few years ago, being Berber was considered to be second class (like in many societies in the West: Indians in America, Aboriginals in Australia, Lapps in Norway). For example, in the most modernized society in North Africa, Tunisia, being Berber has been (and still is to some extent) synonymous with being an illiterate peasant dressed in traditional garments.
As with other indigenous peoples in the world, Berbers are now protesting against the undervaluation of their culture and identity, and specifically about the absence of a written language and the lack of political influence. This has been most clear in Algeria but also quite evident in Morocco. In Algeria the situation has been so tense, especially through the 1990’s, that foreign commentators have speculated about the prospects for a civil war and a partition of the country. Algerian Berbers are often unfamiliar with Arabic and use French as second language. Arabs in Algeria and Morocco object very much to the blossoming of Berber identity in their countries, but so far there has been little aggression between the two groups.
Throughout history, Berbers have founded several dynasties strong enough to threaten countries in Europe. Numidia in Algeria was so strong in the 2nd century BCE, that Rome feared that it could become a new Carthage. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Almoravids and later in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Almohads, were Berber dynasties strong enough to control major parts of Northwest-Africa and Spain. At the dawn of colonization, Abd al-Qadir in the Algerian Kabyles halted French occupation for many years (until 1847).