Who Are the Moroccan Amazigh?
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the Arab world, there are multiple identities. Among the many identities, there are the Amazigh, who live in North Africa. The Amazigh have their own unique identity, traditions, culture, and history. If you want to learn more about the Amazigh, this article will tell you more.
The Amazigh, or Imazighen, people total about 25-30 million people in North Africa. They live most commonly in Morocco (where the biggest population is), Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, and small parts of Mali and Egypt. The traditional language that the Amazigh speak is called Tamazight, although many today also speak Arabic. “Amazigh” means “free people”.
Other people refer to the Amazigh as the Berber. However, this name sparks controversy among the Amazigh because of its history. The word “Berber” is the Latin word for barbarian, which the Romans named the Amazigh when they came to Africa. “Barbarian” has a negative implication to it, which many Amazigh say belittle and oppress them and their ancestors. Many Amazighs today are also Muslim, but that was not always the case.
In Morocco, the Amazigh people are divided into three groups: the Riffians, the Chleuh, and the Central Moroccan Amazigh. The divisions are based on geography, where the Riffians are in the Rif Mountains while the Central Moroccan Amazigh are in Central Morocco. Today, the Amazigh communities have mixed, where some are living in the mountains or more rural areas, and others moved to the cities.
Their history can be traced back to as far as 3000 BC. That means that they loved in North Africa long before the Arabs came. Originally, the Amazigh’s religion was based on solar and lunar deities (or animist) and everyone spoke Amazight, both aspects of Amazigh culture which have changed since the Arabs settled in North Africa. Before that, though, the Amazigh were relatively isolated from the rest of Africa because of the Sahara Desert.
Most of Amazigh history is passed down verbally, as their written language is difficult to find (but it does exist). What we do know is that between the Carthage and Roman ruling, the Amazigh established their own kingdoms. There were (and still are) multiple tribes present throughout the region.
The Amazighs have multiple central components to their culture. Of course, there is the language (Tamazight) and religion (animist, although many now are Muslim). In addition to that, the home is very important in their culture: families, especially those who live in rural areas, live in multi-generational houses and are organized in a patriarchal way.
They are also known for their artistic and creative skills, which includes pottery, weaving, jewelry, henna, and other art forms. When artists are making their work, they incorporate “baraka” into their art. The concept of “baraka” doesn’t have a direct translation, although it is best translated as ‘spiritual power’ or the ‘power of the saints’. It means to keep the evil spirits, such as the evil eye, away by applying specific symbols, motifs, and colors in their artwork. Baraka is central to Amazigh culture, and existed long before they converted to Islam. As well as their artwork, Amazighs believe that henna, sandalwood and oleander will keep away the evil spirits. For this reason, women will do henna designs on themselves, and even put heavy eye makeup using kohl to protect themselves from the evil spirits.
One tradition for women is the face tattoos. These face tattoos are a rite of passage for women as they grow out of adolescence and into adulthood. However, this tradition is fading, as tattoos are not allowed in Islam. Instead, women will use henna for the tattoo. Women will also wear a decorated scarf on their head to show their creativity.
The land is another very important and central part to their culture. Amazighs believe that land will sustain life and that it has protected theirs from multiple invasions.
Of all of the Arab countries that the Amazighs live in, Morocco is the only one to have officially recognized the Amazigh as a group. In 2011, King Mohammed VI of Morocco changed the constitution to add Tamazight to the list of their official languages, a huge step for Amazigh. With it, they have also made an effort to preserve it by creating a written alphabet.
However, the other Arab countries have not recognized the Amazighs, and some have even banned part of Amazigh culture (such as flags, traditional clothing, etc.). instead, they are expected to give up their culture and fully adopt Arab culture. This has sparked anger for many people, resulting in protests to allow their culture to be recognized and represented. On top of that, many people will still call them Berbers, knowing the implications of the name and how it has been used in the past. Some progress has been made on this issue, but not enough.
The Amazighs still have a long way to go until they are accepted and recognized in many Arab countries. Their presence in the Arab world is significant and historical, yet they are not treated as such.
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