North Africa is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse regions on the continent. Centuries of invasions, colonization and foreign domination have shaped the identity of the region and its cultural heritage.
The colonizers had different cultural origins and ethnic identities. Roman, Byzantine, Arab and European cultural origins and ethnic identities were all absorbed into the North Africa we know today.
But despite the changes brought about by the foreign presence, the indigenous culture of the region remains present in societies.
Berbers or “Amazighs” are generally considered to be the original population that inhabited the region. From Siwa in southwestern Egypt, to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco, the Berbers exist as an ethnic group with their own cultural heritage and traditions.
Morocco, in particular, has a significant number of citizens of Berber descent, however, there are no official statistics indicating their exact percentage of the overall population. Socially, the Amazighs are organized into clans or tribes, depending largely on their geographic location.
The Berber tribes of Morocco live in remote, rural and mountainous areas. The tribes can be divided into three groups according to the region they inhabit: the “Rifans” of the north, the “Shlu” of the southeast and the “Berraber” of the Sahara.
The decision and desire to live in the peripheral regions of the country dates back to Arab rule in Morocco in the 7th century.
The Arab invaders implemented a policy of “Arabization”, aimed at spreading their culture and transforming the already existing culture. In this regard, they have mainly relied on language and religion as tools to change cultural identities to further instill Arab domination.
In Morocco, the Arabization process took place in central cities and coastal regions. In an attempt to preserve their own culture, the Berbers of Morocco at the time withdrew to outlying areas like the mountains and the Sahara.
Their relocation has helped preserve Berber culture for centuries, but it has come at a price. The withdrawal from the center has become over the years a reason for the marginalization of the Berber people, which in turn has created a political dimension to the global question of Amazigh.
Regional identity is an important dimension in Amazigh culture, mainly because it is linked to the concept of connection to the land or “Tammurt”, which is a defining concept in Berber culture. The other two dimensions are the importance of kinship through tribal solidarity and the importance of language as a source of identity.
Some argue that these concepts define Moroccan identity in general. These characteristics not only help Berbers to coexist with diverse cultural identities, but also influence others. However, these concepts remain more specific and significant for the Berbers.
It is indeed very difficult to understand the essence of Berber culture without first understanding this triangle of land, language and tribe. In fact, it is this very triangle that has helped preserve the culture over the years. This is also reflected in various cultural habits of the Amazigh tribes.
For example, traditional Amazigh music is played on a wooden stringed instrument mostly made from the few resources available in rural or mountainous areas. The link with the land as a term of identity has allowed Berber culture to adapt to its environment despite the scarcity of available resources.
Likewise, the importance of kinship and tribal solidarity is manifested in cultural habits. Berber weddings, for example, take place over three days, and each day has its meaning. But the founding idea of the long marriage is to celebrate the tribal cohesion that is supposed to preserve the culture through marriage.
Although they have been in the minority and marginalized for many years, Amazighs have managed to cope with various challenges while preserving their cultural heritage. Fearing that modern life with all its technological advances will only make the Amazighs care about preserving history and culture, they have therefore developed an adaptation strategy that is based on the one hand on maintaining traditions and on use of civil society as a tool of pressure on the government.
The preservation of culture has now become a matter of politics. Civil society organizations and Amazigh political parties are striving for more policies that would help protect their culture and history, such as amending the Moroccan constitution in 2011 to include Tamazigh (spoken mainly in the Middle Atlas, the Central High Atlas and the Sahara) as the national language.
The key to preserving Amazigh culture in Morocco today is institutionalization. The heritage, history and popular culture of the Berber tribes must be put into an institutional framework through different organizations that aim to ensure coexistence in diversity.