When you hear the word ‘Berber’, what do you immediately think of? For me (and by the way, I’m a tiny bit ashamed to admit this), my first thought was of nomads riding their camels and trekking through glorious expansions of desert land. It was only after I sat down and did some proper research into Berber culture, did I realize how narrow my understanding and perception of the world was. And so, to stop more of you from making the same mistakes I did, here’s 10 interesting facts about Morocco and Berber culture you probably didn’t know about!
The Moroccan population is approximately 40% Berber.
As the Berbers are descendants of the first inhabitants of Morocco, there are approximately 13 million Berbers there. In fact, of all the cities in North Africa, Marrakech has the largest Berber population and is considered more Berber than Arab. That’s why the Kingdom of Morocco is also known as the Land of the Berbers.
Berber means ‘barbarian’
The term ‘berber’ is derived from the Greek word ‘barbaros’ which means ‘barbarian’. Back in the early days, the French and Arabs who came across them had difficulties understanding certain aspects of their culture and customs. This led to the Berbers being perceived as barbaric and uncivilized. This is of course not true, and thankfully in modern society, we are now so privileged to be able to co-exist with a myriad of cultures and customs and be accepted for who we are. Not surprisingly though, many Berbers prefer to use their indigenous name – Amazigh, which means ‘the free man’ In Tamazight. I don’t know about you but I think that’s absolutely beautiful.
There are many different tribes of Berbers.
Within Morocco, there are three dominant Amazigh tribes called the 1) Riffians, 2) Zayanes and 3) Shilhah respectively. They each have their own unique customs, cultural practices, live in different regions of Morocco and speak different dialects. The Riffian Berbers who speak Tarafit live in the Rif Mountains, the Zayanes who speak Tamazight live in the Middle Atlas and lastly, the Shilhah Berbers who speak Tachlhit live in the Southern Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains.
There are seven variations of Berber language.
Approximately 14-25 million people speak Berber and there is a total of seven dialects of Berber language.These dialects vary so much that they are almost considered different Berber languages but on a general level, the three main ones spoken in Morocco are: Tachlhit (southwest region), Tamazight (central region) and Tarifit (northern region)
The Tamazight language has 38 consonants and only 3 vowels!
Some Berber women have heavily tattooed faces and necks. This is part of an old Berber tradition that uses these tattoos for tribal identification/to show their social status. Some of them also chose to have them to appear more beautiful and desirable. Note: Please do not take photos without asking permission as many of the old Berber women are uncomfortable with photography.
Unique Wedding Traditions
While men are allowed to choose their own wives, there are still cases today, where families set up marriages between their children. Once a year however, there is a festival called the Imilchil Betrothal Festival where men and women from different tribes can meet and marry each other if they please. This is because of an ancient legend where a man and woman of different tribes killed themselves after their families refused to let them marry. Overwhelmed by grief and regret, the families decided to set one day a year where men and women from various tribes could meet and marry each other.
During the festival, single guys are easy to identify as they are dressed head to toe in white and carrying silver daggers. The single girls wear as much jewellery as their families can afford and wear glorious hand-embroidered capes of intricate designs to enhance their beauty. On this day, the woman will choose and the men stand on display while women look out for their soul mate. Once a woman has chosen a match, she will take his hands and the pair will go for a walk together. They will then proceed to talk and negotiate and if they are happy, they will head to their families to introduce the new partner. The festival lasts for 3 days and the women have plenty of time to choose. After they meet the family, they will then go to the scribe’s tent where they will be announced husband and wife.
While you might see a lot of them showing their craft in Marrakech, most Berbers live in the mountains. They believe in sustainability and farm their own food, and a significant number live a nomadic lifestyle. In general, men and boys take care of the livestock and women raise the children, cook and do craftwork such as weaving and dying wool. These crafts would either be for personal use or to be sold in souks (traditional open air markets).
Berber New Year & Moroccan Halloween
As Berbers are mostly Muslims, they celebrate the typical Islamic holidays such as Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Besides that, they also have their own New Year called Yennayer that is typically celebrated on 14th January with a big feast. Another unique tradition is essentially a Berber version of Halloween called Boujloud Festival.
On this day, people (not just children) dress up creatively with sheepskin, bird feathers and goatskins and go from door to door to collect eggs, sweets and money for fun. When a group arrives in front of a door, they shout “Wake up and God will blow luck into your home, Amen” and in return, the inhabitants will offer treats and eggs to thank them for their well wishes. This is truly a unique custom of the Amazighs and also, their way of bidding farewell to the winter and welcoming spring.
Berber culture & descent extends further than we think
Even though the exact number of Berber speaking population cannot be defined (a few countries do not record language-related data), approximately 14-25 million people speak Berber. There are also many Berber descendants amongst us outside Morocco, Algeria and the other Berber-inhabiting regions. Specifically, the migration of colonized Arab-Berbers from Algeria to France was the most extensive of all colonial migrations to Western Europe before the 1960s. As such, there’s a significant number of descendants all around Europe. One such example is Zinedine Zidane – famous French footballer and current coach of Real Madrid.
How many of these facts did you know about before you read the article? If you liked it or happen to know another interesting fact about Berber culture, leave us a comment below! We’d love to hear from you!