Berbers

The Berbers form a group of islamized but weakly arabized people who have retained many aspects of the indigenous culture and language. They are linked by the the use of dialects (Chleuh, Tamazight, Tamasheq, etc.) which can be found over the whole of North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, reaching southward to Niger.

The word Berber seemingly comes, through Arabic, from the Greek « barbaroï » (barbarians, with the meaning of foreigners). North African place names are strongly influenced by Berber culture and many towns and regions bear typical Berber names, e.g. Agadir, Tetouan, Oran, Tlemcen, Tamanrasset, Toughourt, or regions such as Adrar, Tafilalet, Tenere.

The Berber dialects, although rarely written, are still alive in rural areas, especially in the mountains (Moroccan Atlas, Aures and Kabylia in Algeria), in isolated areas (Rif in Morocco, Matmata and Djerba in Tunisia, Siwa in Egypt), or in the Saharan desert where it is spoken by the Tuaregs (their total is put at 1.5-2 million).

Berber society is composed of small tribes or villages which jealously guard their autonomy and resist state authority. They have been submerged, but never subjected, by successive invaders (Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs).

A Berber kingdom, Numidia, existed from the 3rd to the 2nd Century BC in the northern part of the Maghreb. After the destruction of Carthage, a reduced Numidia became a vassal-state of Rome while the rest of it became a loose independent confederation of tribes. They gradually converted to Islam at the end of the 7th Century but freed themselves in 756 of the newly established Abbassid Caliphate. Different Arab dynasties and Berber tribes disputed the control of the Maghreb for the next three centuries until the Berber rooted dynasty of the Almoravids controlled most of it until the middle of the 12th century. They were succeeded by another dynasty of Berber origin, the Almohads, who unified for a while all of North Africa and most of the Iberic peninsula in a prosperous area.

Today, although most Maghrebis are originally Berbers, those who actually identify themselves as Berbers are the people who speak one of the Berber languages and still live in predominantly Berber-speaking areas or have kept strong links with Berber culture and traditions.

Berber renaissance is currently taking place, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. More and more, the Berbers demand recognition of their identity of Imazighen (« Free Men »), of their language, Tamazight, and of its script, Tifinagh, an alphabet used by the Tuaregs (although the Arabic script has been used since a long time to write the Berber dialects, especially in Morocco, as well as the Latin script in Algeria). The language belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family and is related to ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian.

In Algeria

Governments since independence have preferred to ignore Berber demands, proceeding instead at a steady pace with various “Arabisation” programmes. The Kabylie region is certainly the most active in promoting Berber identity. Berbers have often taken their cause to the streets and clashes between Berber youths and the army have erupted on several occasions, notably in April 1980, when demonstrations best remembered as the ‘Berber Spring’ marked the start of overt activism for official recognition of the Berber language and culture (1). Usually denouncing the Berber movement as a separatist movement and thus as a threat to Algeria’s national unity, the Algerian authorities have nevertheless tried at times to co-opt a number of Berber activists in the political game so as to appease Berbers and give the regime some democratic credentials. The authorities have also tried to play off the generally secular Berber parties against the Islamists.

Berber-based parties include the FFS (Socialist Forces Front) founded in 1963 and led by Ait Ahmed and the RCD (Rally for Culture and Democracy) founded in 1990 and led by Sidi Saidi. These parties have lost much of their clout among the young lately as the former is mostly considered to be ineffective and the latter, having joined a government coalition in 1995 is perceived as a party which collaborates with the enemy.

Although the Algerian authorities have made a few concessions to the Berber movement, creating departments of Berber language and literature in various universities for example, it has never officially recognised the Berber language and culture as part of the national Algerian heritage and has often treated the Berbers with contempt if not brutality. And it is the death of a Kabyle teenager in the hands of the local Gendarmerie which, on 18 April 2001 sparked off riots in the streets of the Kabyle region. What started as a Kabyle revolt quickly spread and turned into a mass national protest against the Algerian regime and its track record of incompetence, corruption, and power abuses. Around 120 people are reported to have died in 2001 clashes.

In June 2001 the « El-Kseur Platform » drew up a 15-point list of demands for improving living conditions of Berbers. These included full recognition for Tamazight, the withdrawal of the despised paramilitary gendarmes, greater democracy and accountability, and a programme to re-launch the region’s economy. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced in April 2002 the recognition as a national language of the Tamazight (2). One year later, the language was included in the educational system and the institutional consecration of private education at all the levels.

In protest for the failure of talks with the government, Berber parties threat to boycott presidential elections of April 2004.

In Morocco

The situation is quite different: Berber culture and languages are considered to be part of the national heritage and can be promoted more freely.

State television broadcasts daily news editions in 3 different berber dialects (Amazight, Tachilhit and Tarifit) and the authorities are planning to introduce the teaching of Berber languages in schools and universities. There are numerous Berber cultural associations (such as Amrec and Tamaynut) and publications.

In September 2003 the government allowed the language to be taught in schools. The government said the aim is to have Berber classes taught in all schools and at all levels within the next 10 years. King Mohammed VI set up a  royal institute aimed at dealing and preserving Amazigh language, culture and heritage.

In Tunisia, there is a small minority of people who speak Berber but it isn’t much of an issue there.

Notes:

(1) In March 1980 police stopped writer Mouloud Mammeri from entering Tizi Ouzou university to give a lecture on ancient Berber poetry. Students took to the streets in the whole region and also in Algiers. On the 20th of April, security forces stormed the site of Tizi Ouzou.

(2) The government wants the official recognition of the Tamazight to be the object of a referendum and the issue is still being negotiated with Berber groups.

Repartition of Berber speaking people in North Africa:

Morocco (notably Rif and Atlas): more than 10 million

Algeria (Aurès, Kabylia, Mzab, Hoggar or Ahaggar): 5.5 million

Mauritania: 400.000

Tunisia (Djerba, tataouine, Metmata and East of Gafsa): 250.000

Libya (Jabal Nefusa, Zwara, Ghadamis): 200.000

Egypt (Siwa oases and near to the Libyan border): 15.000

Berbers are found also in Mali (around 600.000 Tuareg berbers), Niger (around 400.000 Tuareg berbers) and Burkina Faso.

For more information:

http://www.mondeberbere.com/