Berbers: the marginalized indigenous peoples of North Africa

Algiers – The Berbers – descendants of pre-Arab populations across North Africa – are currently celebrating their New Year festivities.

Friday – for the first time – the Yennayer New Year is marked as a national holiday in Algeria.

Berbers, who refer to themselves as Amazigh, have long fought for greater recognition of their ancient ethnicity, culture and language.

In Algeria, they make up around a quarter of the country’s total population of 40 million and live mainly in the mountainous region of northern Kabylia.

Here is some information about other Berber communities that spread across North Africa long before the Arab conquests:

Morocco

At the northwest tip of Africa, Morocco is the country with the largest Berber community in the region.

Their language – of which there are three main dialects – only gained official status alongside Arabic in a new constitution in 2011.

One of the major consequences of this recognition was the appearance of their Tifinagh alphabet on public buildings alongside Arabic and French.

Since 2010, the Tamazight television channel has been dedicated to promoting Berber culture.

Legislation currently being considered by the government would diversify teaching at school to help strengthen their language.

Several years ago, lawmakers caused a stir by speaking in the Berber language during parliamentary sessions.

Despite progress, the Moroccan authorities still sporadically refuse to register Berber names on the official register.

The Amazigh flag was a major symbol of the protests that hit the depressed Rif region in the north of the country last year, where the group is in the majority.

The Berbers of Morocco have long demanded that their New Year be marked as national holidays like its equivalents in the Muslim lunar and Gregorian calendar.

Libya

Persecuted under dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who denied their existence, Berbers in Libya have called for the formalization of their language and greater political representation.

They make up around 10% of the 6.4 million and live mainly in the mountains west of Tripoli or in the vast desert regions.

Their demands have grown stronger in this country ravaged by turmoil since the ousting and death of Gaddafi in 2011. The Berber flag is now visible on administrative buildings.

Textbooks in their language have also been produced, but these have not been officially endorsed by the internationally supported government.

Under a draft constitution approved by parliament, but still awaiting ratification by referendum, the languages ​​spoken by the various communities, including Tamazigh, are recognized as part of Libya’s cultural heritage but without official status.

Tunisia

In Tunisia, estimating the number of Berbers is difficult because official statistics based on ethnicity are prohibited.

Outside of their traditional southern heartland, Berbers are found mainly in the capital Tunis following an exodus from the countryside.

They complain of marginalization and exclusion in a state that only recognizes Arabic in its constitution.

Jallol Ghaki, the head of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture, estimates that while around half of Tunisians may be of Berber descent, the vast majority have been fully Arabized and only one percent speak the local Chelha dialect.

While activists complain that the state makes no effort to preserve or educate children about Berber culture, there have been some improvements since Tunisia‘s 2011 revolution.

The media and civil society opened up and in 2017 the country’s human rights minister marked the Yennayer festivities by wishing the Berber community a happy new year.

About Wesley V. Finley

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