Just mention the word Berber, and immediately your imagination takes you to the desert where a group of nomads trek with their camels. Facing head-on the desert wind, they navigate through knowing how to flow with the sand to conserve their energy. Inside of them, they keep the age-old knowledge and feel for the desert that hundreds of ancestors have shared with them.
Today, many of the Berbers no longer live nomadic lives and have settled down to become farmers doing agriculture and raising cattle, sheep and goats in the mountains and valleys of Morocco. They participate actively in the Moroccan economy, especially in the area of tourism where their natural hospitality makes them competent tourist guides.
In Morocco, there are about 10.4 million Berbers. They constitute about 40% of Morocco’s population. The Berbers are not only in Morocco but are also in neighbouring Saharan countries including Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The Tuareg Berbers live mainly in Mauretania, Niger, Mali, and Burkina-Fasso.
My fascination with the Berbers started when we visited the parts of Spain formerly ruled by the Almoravids and the Almohads. Inspired by what I saw of their achievements in the Spanish cities of Cordoba and Granada, I immediately accepted the invitation of family members to visit Morocco.
They are the indigenous people inhabiting the land that stretches from Egypt to the Sahel. They include these tribes: the Drawa, inhabiting the Draa Valley; the Dades, who live in the North-East; the Mesquite, Seddrat and Zeri, who live in the North-West; and the Ghomara, who call the Rif Region home.
Berbers have influenced history for millions of years and though a minority in a few countries now, their culture seems to peek through the dominance of whatever cultures they have inserted themselves. We saw the Berber talent and skills in the old souks of Morocco and Fez where the colourful woven carpets, the kills, hang on the walls with intricately embroidered fabrics and elegantly crafted jewellery.
The Berbers proudly call themselves “Imazighen” ( “Amazigh” for males; Tamazight for females) which means noble people. Unhappily, most of us equate the Berbers with barbarians because of the Greek word, barbarous (barbarian), used then to refer to foreigners who did not speak Greek. Eventually, the name became associated with those who were uncivilized and, today, this is its widespread use.
I was further impressed when I read that the following famous people are indeed Berbers:
Furthermore, the Berbers were responsible for establishing many of the trading routes between the West-African and the Sub-Saharan region. In their camel caravans, they transported goods in five trans-Saharan trade routes to cities like Timbuktu in Mali. From here, these goods reached the far corners of the world. One of these goods transported was rock salt, the then Saharan desert prime resource.
Traditionally, Berber men raised cattle, sheep, and goats. Some worked in flour mills, quarry millstones, made pottery, woodcarving and jewellery. The women tended to the home, cooked and wove rugs and also made pottery and crafts. Though still true of the Berbers living in the mountains and rural areas today, many Berbers have now found employment in the cities mostly in tourism. Due to their hospitable nature and broad knowledge of the country, the tourism industry values their involvement. The more adventurous of them became migrant workers as far as Spain or France.
The Berbers, initially been Christians or Jews, to survive and stay in their land, converted to Islam in the middle of the 7th century. That was the start of the Arabization of their language, tribal laws and literary traditions.
Despite the modernization of the Berbers, about 40% of them in Morocco only speak their native dialect. They talk not one language but several dialects which are different from each other. Of these dialects, most of them prefer to speak mainly: Tarifiyt in the north, Tashelhiyt in the south-west, and Tamazight in the centre. This Tamazight language has 38 consonants but only three vowels. The Berber dialects have elements of the Germanic languages because the Vandals ruled the northern part of Africa for about a hundred years.
When we went to Morocco this time, we chose to spend a day in the Moroccan village about several hours drive from the city. When we arrived in the hamlet, the guide unusually a woman welcomed us to their home, a typical Berber abode but more significant because of her father's status in the village. She brought us to a traditionally designed rooftop area where we had a very distinct view of the landscape.
We welcomed the hearty breakfast, having driven early from the city. The main feature, for me, is the traditional bread baked in a makeshift oven drizzled with honey. Served with this bread is the conventional thick brown paste made out of almonds, honey and, of course, the famous Moroccan argan oil. Olives grown right in the area complimented the breakfast, and a cup of fresh mint tea finished it.
After breakfast, our guide brought us around the village through winding paths in the hillside. The picture presented a traditional village hundreds of years ago centred around its traditional communal olive press and amid mud-caked homes plastered on the sides of steep hills. I felt transported to centuries ago when civilization was at its beginning.
It was interesting to meet the families living in the area. Our guide told us stories of how some family members moved and worked in the city and come and visit the families every so often. As they bring back home their earnings, improvements in their standards of living appear.
The single thing that intrigued us most was how our guide broke through the conventions of her culture to be in her current position. It was an exciting series of decisions which gladly her parents supported. She studied, lived in the city and learned the ropes of the tourism industry. She is not stopping at this as she outlined her plans for the future. Inspired, we reluctantly left the village, said goodbye to our new friends and headed back to the city.
A piece of us stayed there, but a more significant bit of them came back with us forever etched in our memory.