Who are the Berber? Briefly describe their culture.
What do Berbers call themselves, and what does it mean in English?
Write your name in the Berber alphabet.
An anthropologist is someone who examines culture, artifacts, religion, language, lifestyles, and traditions to describe and understand a group of people, either from the present or the past. How would an anthropologist describe your community’s culture and history?
The main ethnic group inhabiting the Maghreb – which literally means “the west” in Arabic, and includes Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – are known as the Berber people. They and their ancestors have inhabited North Africa for more than 10,000 years, and possess a rich history and culture shaped by the varied geography of the area, as well as by their interactions with other groups, including the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French.
The Berbers call themselves Imazighen, which means free or noble people in their own language. It is a fitting descriptor.
Historically, the Berbers have been successful in trade, navigating the harsh conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains, linking Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean world when other groups struggled to do so. In ancient times, this wealth – as well as Berber prowess on horseback meant that groups such as the Carthaginians were paying them tribute in North Africa.
Unlike the conquests of previous religions and cultures, the coming of Islam, which was spread by Arabs, was to have extensive and long-lasting effects on the Maghreb. The new faith, in its various forms, would penetrate nearly all segments of Berber society, bringing with it armies, learned men, and fervent mystics, and in large part replacing tribal practices and loyalties with new social norms and political traditions influenced by the Arab world.
Traditionally, Berber men take care of livestock such as sheep, goats, cows, horses, and camels. Families migrate by following the natural cycle of grazing, and seeking water and shelter with the changing seasons. They are thus assured with an abundance of wool, cotton, and plants used for dyeing. For their part, women look after the family and produce handicrafts like clothing, rugs, or blankets – first for their personal use, and secondly for sale in local souqs, or markets. While many Berber still live according to these patterns, many more no longer follow these traditional patterns – they now have jobs, homes, and lifestyles similar to any of those found in your country.
The Berber are experts of irrigation, drawing water from mountain rivers and feeding it via gravity into green oases of productivity.
Traditionally, Berber men have raised livestock like these sheep, which provide wool, meat, and leather.
The goats are nearly as resourceful as the Berber themselves.
Staple crops of the modern Berber are wheat, corn, dates, and tomato.
The Berber inhabit a wide range of climate zones, including this harsh foothills of the Atlas Mountains, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Rainfall and grass are sparse here, and the hearty goats herded by the Berber graze in the Argon trees that thrive in this arid landscape.
Berber women have traditionally created inticateky woven patterns on looms such as this one.
Berber women hand stitch the lushly detailed patterns seen on these kaftans. The work is exacting – and can earn a good income for the skilled artisan.
The Berber also cultivate alfalfa as a feed for livestock. This alfalfa is cut, bundled, and carried home from a family garden plot, usually by women.
Other Berber men work in tanneries, turning animal hides into leather in these vats of ammonia. The ammonia is sourced from the waste of animals.
Increasingly, the Berber are sedentary, but traditionally, many have been nomadic, following the green grass with their herds on a seasonal basis. This is mobile home of one family who still follows such a nomadic existence.
Like kids almost anywhere, modern Berber children love to play soccer – anywhere, any time.
Some Berber men create impressive tiled mosaics. These are the plain backsides of vibrantly-colored tiles, which will be held together with concrete. When flipped over, they will create a stunning geometric pattern – avoiding the depiction of the human form, as prescribed by Islam.
The traditional social structure of the Berbers is tribal. A leader is appointed to command the tribe through a generally democratic process. In the Middle Ages, many women had the power to govern. The majority of Berber tribes currently have men as heads of the tribe.
Imazighen (Berber) cuisine draws influence and flavors from distinct regions across North Africa and the Mediterranean world.
Principal Berber foods include:
Couscous, a staple dish made from a grain called semolina
Tajine, a stew made in various forms
Pastilla, a meat pie traditionally made with squab (fledgling pigeon) often today using chicken
Morocco is a former French colony, and French-style cafe culture has also influenced the country. Men in particular can be found at most hours of the day drinking espresso or tea, and possibly eating a pastry in one of the country’s thousands of cafes.
A tajine (Standard Moroccan Berber: ⵜⴰⵊⵉⵏ) is a Maghrebi dish which is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. The earliest writings about the concept of cooking in a tajine appear in the famous One Thousand and One Nights, though the dish would have been already famous amongst the nomadic Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula, who added dried fruits like dates, apricots and plums to meat like mutton, chicken, or camel, giving tajine its unique taste. Tagine is now often eaten with french fries, either on the top or on the side.
Couscous (Berber : ⵙⴽⵙⵓ seksu, Arabic: كُسْكُس kuskus) is originally a Maghrebi dish of small (about 3 millimetres (0.12 in) diameter) steamed balls of crushed durum wheat semolina that is traditionally served with a stew spooned on top. It is a staple of the Moroccan diet, meaning that is eaten routinely and in such quantities that it constitutes a dominant portion of a standard diet for a given people, supplying a large fraction of energy needs and generally forming a significant proportion of the intake of other nutrients as well. In Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya, couscous is generally served with vegetables (carrots, potatoes, and turnips) cooked in a spicy or mild broth or stew, and some meat (generally, chicken, lamb or mutton).
Pastilla (Moroccan Arabic: بسطيلة, romanized: bəsṭila) is a traditional Moroccan dish of Andalusian origin consumed in countries of the Maghreb. It is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavours; a combination of crisp layers of the crêpe-like werqa dough (a thinner cousin of phyllo dough), savory meat slow-cooked in broth and spices and then shredded, and a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. Pastilla is said to be “uniquely Moroccan, intricate and grand, fabulously rich and fantastical.”
In Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other parts of the Middle East, prickly pears of the yellow and orange varieties are grown by the side of farms, beside railway tracks and other otherwise noncultivable land. It is sold in summer by street vendors, and is considered a refreshing fruit for that season.
Writing in 1377, the scholar Ibn Khaldun offered a general description of the Berber that applies nearly as well in the twenty-first century:
“As for [their] moral virtues, one can cite: respect for one’s neighbours; the protection of guests; the observance of obligations and commitments; faithful adherence to promises and treaties; resolve in misfortune; indulgence towards the failings of others; renouncement of vengeance; kindness to the unfortunate; respect for the elderly; veneration for men of science; hatred of oppression; resolve before states; determination to win in matters of power; devotion to God in matters of religion.”
Indeed, nearly eight hundred years later the anthropologist Ahmed Skounti echoed these sentiments:
“The Imazighen (singular Amazigh) also known as the Berbers are among the original peoples of North Africa. Their myths, legends and history span 9,000 years, back to the Proto-Mediterraneans. They have achieved unity by keeping up their unique language and culture which are, like their land, both African and Mediterranean.
The Berbers of Morocco share this duality, reflecting the diversity of their nature and stormy history. Through contact with other peoples of the Mediterranean, they created kingdoms but also vast territories organised into powerful, democratic, war-mongering, tribal communities. Both aspects of this social political organisation have left a mark on recent historical events and the two millenia of the country’s history. As opposed to the pagan Mediterranean kingdoms of Antiquity, Berber empires developed inland and were Muslim. Judaism continued to be practiced, and the Sunni Islam majority gradually took
on a Berber hue with its brotherhoods, zaouias, marabouts. and rituals.
The roots of the Berber culture go deep down into Morocco’s proto-history. They are illustrated by a strong link with their land, a sense of community, hospitality sharing food and a specific relationship with spirituality. Its openness to many influences whether Mediterranean, African, Oriental, European or international have defined its current characteristics.
The Berber language, an Afro-Asian idiom, is the melting pot of the history and culture of the country. It has outlived most languages of Antiquity such as Ancient Greek, Phoenician, Latin and Egyptian. It used to be written but is now mainly oral. Though there are fewer now that can speak it, the language is nevertheless still used by a substantial number of Moroccans.”
The hamsa (Berber: ⵜⴰⴼⵓⵙⵜ tafust) is a palm-shaped amulet popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa and commonly used in jewelry and wall hangings. Depicting the open right hand, an image recognized and used as a sign of protection in many times throughout history, the hamsa is believed by some, predominantly Muslims and Jews, to provide defense against the evil eye. It has been theorized that its origins lie in Ancient Egypt or Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) and may have been associated with the Goddess Tanit. The Hamsa is also known as the Hand of Fatima after the daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
The Berber are known for their skills in working with silver. Its color is associated with purity and piety. The vibrant colors that highlight the silver are called enamel, which is a technique that probably arrived in Morocco in the 1400s, as many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Christian Spain.
Inseparable from poetry and associated with the dance, Amazigh music take many forms, but two popular folk forms include Ahwach and Rouaiss. – AHWACH: is a collective dance according to musical rhythms and with a accompaniment of songs. The group composed of flatists (aouad), percussion flat drums (bendir), percussion sionists of metal instruments (naqos) and dancers. ROUAISS a musical group that sings Amazigh poetry (amerg). The instruments used are the three-stringed lute (guembri), the monochord violin (rebab), the flat drum (bendir) and an instrument percussion metal (naqoss).
If men cover their heads, it is often with a wrapping as seen in this photo, which shields their heads and faces from the heat of the sun and the any sand on the wind.
Two men in traditional Berber clothing. The long tunic worn by both men and women is called a kaftan.
The djellaba is a long, loose-fitting outer robe with full sleeves that is worn in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Djellabas are made of wool in different shapes and colors, but lightweight cotton djellabas have now become popular. Among the Berbers, or Imazighen, such as the Imilchil in the Atlas Mountains, the color of a djellaba traditionally indicates the marital status (single or married) of the bearer: a dark brown djellaba indicating bachelorhood. Almost all djellabas of both styles (male or female) include a baggy hood called a qob (Arabic: قب) that comes to a point at the back. The hood is important for both sexes, as it protects the wearer from the sun, and in earlier times, it was used as a defence against sand being blown into the wearer’s face by strong desert winds. In colder climes, as in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria, it also serves the same function as a winter hat, preventing heat loss through the head and protecting the face from snow and rain. It is common for the roomy hood to be used as a pocket during times of warm weather; it can fit loaves of bread or bags of groceries.
Many women cover their heads in accordance with Muslim tradition, but many more do not.
No matter how traditional the dress, Berbers are not stuck in the past – this man carries a messenger bag containing his cell phone and other modern necessities.
The unique Berber alphabet is called tifinagh. Like the Berbers themselves, the writing has been attributed in turn to having Egyptian, Greek, Phoeno-Punic or South-Arabic origins, though none of these theories is definitive. Other research points toward the indigenous origins of Berber writing, linking it closely to cave art. The undecoded signs and symbols that accompany the depiction of humans, animals, weapons and ritual or combat scenes create a sort of visual vocabulary which may have later developed into the writing system.
Historically, Berber writing had limited uses, primarily in memorials and commemorative stone carvings. It was largely replaced by Arabic around the fifth or sixth centuries, and later by French in the twentieth century. Berber was originally written vertically from top to bottom, but today is oriented from right to left, like Arabic. The alphabet is composed of a distinctive geometric written form, in which 33 characters are created from three basic shapes: the circle, the line, and the dot.
This ancient alphabet serves as the basis for the formation of the modern tifinagh alphabet adopted since 2003 by Morocco in order to write the Berber language.
THIS LESSON WAS MADE POSSIBLE THROUGH A GENEROUS GRANT FROM THE QATAR FOUNDATION.
(Information on the Berber alphabet was adapted from the work of Aline Star, anthropologist at the Institut National des Sciences de L’Archéologie et du Patrimoine. Rabat)