Amazigh: The Berbers of Morocco


    Morocco’s tribal populations consist mainly of disparate Berber groups who pride themselves on being the original inhabitants of the country. Despite their strong sense of identity, the Berber tribes throughout history have been deeply divided amongst themselves, rarely acting in unison. Endemic warfare and feuding were fundamental elements of traditional tribal society in the past. David M. Hart, in his book Tribe and Society in Rural Morocco, argues that “Berber” and “tribalism” are by no means completely coterminous, “but they have nevertheless tended to become so in the minds of modern Moroccans. Berbers represent, in this sense, both the most autochthonous as well as, until very recently, the most change-resistant and conservative element of the population.” (Hart 2000, p.8). In terms of physical anthropology, it is difficult to distinguish Berbers from the majority Arabic population of Morocco, since there has been so much racial and cultural intermixture since the first Arab invaders arrived in the 7th century AD. Most anthropologists use linguistic criteria to make the distinction. Berbers are those whose primary language is Berber, a language classified by linguists as belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family.


    Perhaps the most salient point in a review of Berber history is the record of interaction of these tribes with the outside world, not only in terms of cultural change and adaptation to foreign influence, but as conquerors of foreigners themselves. Depending on the particular historical period in question, the Berbers have been aggressive jihadists who overran Morocco and then went on to conquer Spain and part of North Africa, and they have also been rebel tribesmen fighting desperately to keep the outside world from controlling their isolated mountain communities. They have gone from tribe to empire and then back to tribe, thus rendering irrelevant the pre-civilized, evolutionary connotation of the term “tribe.” The Berbers are a people with an ancient past, which is a current source of inspiration to a new generation of ethnic nationalists seeking to lead a pan-Berber movement. Historical records document diverse North African Berber interactions with ancient Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Carthaginians. This was also the period when the first Jewish immigrants arrived in Morocco, some say on Phoenician ships from the Levant. When the Roman Empire reached Berber lands, it found both allies and enemies. Numidian Berber King Juba II grew up in Rome, married Cleopatra’s daughter and remained a loyal ally. In contrast, King Jugurtha campaigned with the Roman legions, studying their tactics, before launching a fierce rebellion against them in Numidia, which was ultimately put down. The countryside in what is now Algeria and Tunisia was devastated by Roman reprisals. Berber tribes were subjected to slave raids and many communities were depopulated. Years later, St. Augustine, of Algerian Berber origin himself, complained that the main commerce of the African colonies had become trafficking in humans (mainly Berbers). Many rural Berbers abandoned their homes and fled into the desert and the mountains. Some writers argue that this was the period when the original Berber Punic script was lost, and Berber became an unwritten language, save for the Berber Tuaregs deep in the Sahara Desert. These hold-outs maintained the Tifinagh script, the one recently approved by Morocco’s Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture as the standard to be used in reviving Berber as a written language.