Berbers


Source:Encyclopaedia of the Orient

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 are making up a clear majority of the population of North Africa in terms of race and in terms of identity, a considerable minority. The difference between race and identity here is central to understand what being Berber is all about. The influx of Arabs to North Africa, has been far too small up through history to, defend the large numbers of people now claiming to be Arabs. And the influx of other peoples to North Africa has not been of any size since the Vandals in the 5th century.

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 th indigenous language from many regions, as well as the Berber identity, many people with Berber forefathers, are now claiming to be Arabs. In terms of identity Berbers represent 40% of all Moroccans, 30% of all Algerians, 5% of all Tunisians, and 10% of all Libyans and 0,5% of all Egyptians, making up more than 20 million people. An estimated half of the ethnic Berbers living in Europe regard themselves as Berbers, making up 2 million.

Berbers are just as most other peoples in the world, blended with other people. T here are differences between Berbers which have inspired many stories, of European slaves and war captives, bringing blond hair and red hair as well as green and blue eyes into the Berber race. 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 more popular practices found among Berbers as more Berbers than Arabs live in rural areas, where popular practices are generally found more often. The conversion of Berbers to Islam took centuries and many areas Islam didn't catch on until 16th century. This has, of course, left more traces of former religious practice in the Islam of the Berbers.

Of major cities in North Africa, only Marrakech has a population with a Berber identity. The Berber dominance in the mountains comes from the days of Arab conquest, when the Arabs took control over the cities, but left the countryside to its own (the number of Arabs was to 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 dominating.

Up until a few years ago being Berber was considered to be secondary (like in many societies in the West: Indians in America, Aboriginals in Australia, Lapps in Norway): in the most modernized society in North Africa, Tunisia, being Berber is 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, the absence of a written language and about having little political influence. This has been most clear in Algeria but quite evident in Morocco, too. In Algeria the situation has been so tense, that foreign commentators have speculated in the chances of 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.

Up through 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, Abdu l-Qadir in the Algerian Kabyles halted French occupation for many years (until 1847).

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