Berbers of Morocco - Orientation

Identification. "Berber" refers to any native speaker of a dialect of the Berber language, although many—if not most—Arabic speakers in North Africa are also Berber by descent, even if they have lost the language. Especially in Morocco, "Imazighen" is today the preferred vernacular name for the three main regional subgroups of Berbers themselves, and its feminine form, "Tamazight," refers to their language. In the northern Moroccan Rif, encompassing the provinces of El Hoceima and Nador and part of Taza, major tribal groups include the Aith Waryaghar, Ibuqquyen, Aith 'Ammarth, Igzinnayen, Thimsaman, Axt Tuzin, Aith Sa'id, Aith Wurishik, and Iqar'ayen. In the larger and properly Imazighen region embracing the Middle Atlas and Central High Atlas chains, the Saghro (pronounced "Saghru") massif, and the Presaharan oasis regions and encompassing parts of Kenitra, Meknes, Fès, and Taza provinces and all of Khenifra, Azilal, Ouarzazate, and Rachidia provinces, major tribal groups include the Zimmur, Ait Ndhir, Ait Yusi, Ait Warayin, Iziyyan, Ait Imyill, Ait Mhand, Ait Massad, Ait Sukhman, Ihansalen, Ait Siddrat, Ait 'Atta, Ait Murghad, Ait Hadiddu, Ait Izdig, Ait 'Ayyash, and Ait Saghrushshn. In the Ishilhayen region embracing the Western High Atlas, the Sus Valley, and the Anti-Atlas and parts of the Essaouira, Marrakech, and Ouarzazate provinces and all of Agadir, Taroudant, and Tiznit provinces, important tribal groups include the Ihahan, Imtuggan, Iseksawen, Idemsiren, Igundafen, Igedmiwen, Imsfiwen, Iglawn, Ait Wawzgit, Id aw-Zaddagh, Ind aw-Zal, Id aw Zkri, Id aw Zkri, Isaffen, Id aw-Kansus, Isuktan, Id aw-Tanan, Ashtuken, Malen, Id aw-Ltit, Ammeln, Ait 'Ali, Mjjat, l-Akhsas, Ait Ba 'Amran, and Ait n-Nuss.

Location. Of the three major Moroccan Berber-speaking areas, the northern Rif runs from roughly 34°30′ to 35°20′ N and from 2°30′ to 4°30′ W; the central region from roughly 29°30′ to 34°00′ N and from 3°30′ to 6°30′ W; and the southwestern region from roughly from 29°30′ to 31°30′ N and from 7°00′ to 10°30′ W. In Morocco, too, all three Berber-speaking areas are essentially mountainous. The highest peak in the Rif chain (actually just west of the Rif proper) is Adrar n-Tidighin, at 2,458 meters. The two highest in the Central and Eastern Atlas are Adrar Mgun and Adrar n-l'Ayyashi, at 4,071 meters and 3,737 meters, respectively. The highest peak in the Western Atlas and highest in the country is Adrar n-Tubkal, at 4,165 meters. The Atlas chain forms the backbone of Moroccan geography and orography. The higher mountains are always snow-covered in winter and during the rainy season. Precipitation is irregular, however, and only the higher areas receive more than 100 days' rainfall per year, generally much less. Morocco and Algeria are semiarid countries, and, even in the mountains, summers are hot, with temperatures often reaching more than 30° C. The western part of the Rif chain, inhabited by Arabic-speaking Jbala and not by Rifians, is one of the few parts of the country to receive more than 200 centimeters of rainfall per year. The eastern part—the Rif proper—is much drier and badly deforested. Overpopulation and the infertility of the soil have brought about a long-standing Rifian labor migration. The same is largely true of the Anti-Atlas, another area of strong Berber labor migration. Only the Middle Atlas has considerable agricultural and stock-raising potential. Since Moroccan independence from France in 1956, many Berbers have become urban dwellers as well. Tangier, Tétouan, and Fès have long been urban centers for Rifians, and since 1936 Casablanca has become a major center for the Ishilhayen or Swasa.

Demography. Morocco has never had a census taken along ethnolinguistic lines—and neither has Algeria. At the beginning of the colonial period in 1912, when France annexed Morocco and leased its northern tier, the Rif chain, and the Ifni enclave on the southwest coast to Spain, the population was an estimated 45 million, of which an estimated 40 percent was Berber speaking. The remainder speak Arabic, the official language in both countries. As of 1960, Morocco's population was 11.2 million, and by 1972, 15.7 million. By 1993, it had risen to 27 million, as had that of Algeria. Berber was only given nominal recognition as a second language by the authorities in both countries in 1994 and censuses of Berber speakers have pointedly not been taken. In-depth figures can be provided only for the 1960 Moroccan census, which, entirely by interpolation, yielded roughly 903,000 Rifians, 1,573,000 Imazighen, and 1,724,000 Ishilhayen/Swasa, amounting to a total of 4.2 million—or 37.5 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. "Berber" is primarily a linguistic term and designation; the Berber or Tamazight language belongs to the Hamitic or African Branch of the Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic Family. Dialects of Berber are spoken here and there all over North Africa, from Morocco to the Siwa oasis in western Egypt and from the Algerian Jurjura to Mali and Niger, but in no case is Berber the national language of any country in which it is spoken. The various dialects (Tharifith or Rifian, Tamazight "Proper" or Central Atlas Highland, and Tashilhit or Southwestern Atlas Highland in Morocco; Taqba'ilit, Tashawit, and Tamahaq or Ahaggar Tuareg in Algeria; other Tuareg dialects in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger; and various oasis dialects from Algeria to western Egypt) are all closely related from grammatical and syntactical standpoints but in no case to the point of total mutual comprehensibility. Many contemporary Berber speakers also know colloquial Arabic, and some even know literary Arabic, French, and Spanish.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: