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The Berbers

“We are not Westerners, following a Western lifestyle. But neither are we from the East. We are a unique race, and we will remain so.”

-Abane Ramdane

Let’s get one thing straight. Algerians are not Arabs. Their own indigenous values and languages may have given way to the onslaught of the invaders from the Arabian peninsula, who spread their values, traditions, language, as well as their religion, Islam, in the seventh century, but they are not ethnic Arabs.


Except perhaps for a few exceptions — the direct descendants of those first Arab invaders who did not mingle with the local population; of the Beni Hilal, a tribe sent later by the Fatimids of Egypt to punish the Berber Zirid dynasty; or of Ottoman Turks — Algerians are predominantly Berber, perhaps with a few dashes of Italian, Spanish and yes, Arab genes, to a greater or lesser degree. Nowadays, however, most Algerians, ignorant or in denial about their own history, claim an Arab heritage, a consequence of the Arab nationalism of the early twentieth century. A truer description of the majority of the Algerian people would be Arabised Berbers.

For years, experts have debated the origins of the Berbers, whether they migrated from  elsewhere, or have always lived in North Africa. These experts have more or less reached the same conclusion – that the Berber is the original “Mediterranean Man”or proto-mediterranean, and has always lived on the southern rim of the Mediterranean basin, from the Atlantic coast to the banks of the Nile. Even further, as research on the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, the Guanches, have proved that they were also Berber.


Guanche chiefs being presented to Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain

Given that most Algerians are Berber, it begs the question: why some have retained their language and culture and others not? There has been much discussion about whether the highland Berbers of Algeria, of which T is one, took refuge in the mountains, thus retaining their heritage, or whether the Berbers of the lowlands were simply more easily Arabised and culturally assimilated, relinquishing their ancestral language and customs in the process.

The mountainous regions of Algeria remained largely independent in Roman and Ottoman times, with the Ottoman Beys never able to bring them under their authority as they did other parts of Algeria. The Arabs contented themselves with spreading Islam through the medium of marabouts, or religious teachers. The French left the mountain tribes more or less to their own devices. There are still many inhabitants in some villages who do not speak a word of Arabic, much less French.

Although the word Berber comes from “barbarian” (T had not been far wrong in calling himself a barbarian when we first met) Berbers refer to themselves as Imazighen, Imaziɣen, or ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵗⴻⵏ (free men). The name probably had its ancient parallel in the Roman and Greek names for Berbers, Mazices, although this is still disputed. A link exists, however, to the Tuareg word amajegh, meaning “noble.” Berbers are the mauri (moors) or andalusi of ancient writings.

Their language, Tamazight (Berber), from which many closely related dialects have sprung, is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language. The remaining groups in Algeria using one of the Berber dialects as their main language are the Kabyles, in their stronghold of the Djudjura mountains; the Chaoui, based in the Aurès mountains near the Tunisian border; the mysterious Mozabites living in the five cities of the M’Zab valley, and finally the Tuareg or Blue Men, nomads living in the Sahara. T tells me that he can understand Chaoui, but only a few words in Mozabite, not unlike an English person listening to Dutch, or, at a pinch, German.

In the other Maghreb or Tamazgha countries, such as  Egypt, Morocco, Mauretania and  Libya, more Berber dialects are to be found. There is an ancient script, tifinagh, which has been revived, but Kabyle, for one, is often transcribed in Latin characters. Symbols similar to those in the tifinagh alphabet have been found in the Canary Islands.




For years after Algeria’s independence in 1962, in their quest for unification of the Algerian people under the Arab/Muslim umbrella, the government tried to expunge the words “Berber” and “Kabyle” from the national consciousness, even going so far as to rename Upper and Lower Kabylie as the provinces of Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaïa. After twenty years of their cultural and linguistic identity being denied, the Kabyles finally rose in revolt in 1980.

There followed a period of political activism and civil unrest, starting with the Berber Spring in 1980, (tafsut imazighen) of which little or nothing is known outside Algeria and France, although it resulted in one hundred and twenty six deaths and around five thousand wounded. As a result, Tamazight has finally been recognised as one of Algeria’s national languages, but not an official one. The Berber heritage of Algerians has also been grudgingly recognised, through the official description of the triple nature of Algerian identity: Muslim, Arab and Berber. Note which one comes last.


Amazigh or Berber flag

In antiquity, before the arrival of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Berbers adhered to their traditional religion, involving ancestor veneration, polytheism and animism. Many Berber beliefs were developed locally, whereas others were influenced over time through contact with other traditional religions. Some ancient beliefs still exist today within Berber popular culture and tradition.

Some remote villages in Kabylie never converted to Islam, untouched by the evangelising fervour of the Arabs. Some communities were coverted to Christianity by French missions, but there is also a current tendency amongst militant Kabyles, bent on autonomy, to convert to Christianity under the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”

They want nothing further to do with the Arabo-Islamic identity that they have been forced to assume since independence. They say that, as they are not Arab, they do not want to be Muslim. They reject both parts of the official identity imposed on them by the pan-arabist ideology first forged by Nasser, former Egyptian president. Some explain their conversion by saying they are returning to their Christian roots, following the tradition of Augustine and Donatus Magnus.

Berbers have a history dating back thousands of years. They had a series of kings – Jugurtha, Massinissa, Juba I and his son, Juba II, who married Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. Their tomb is still to be found near Tipaza, between Algiers and Cherchell (their capital, called Iol Caesarea at the time) and is known as Le Tombeau de la Chretienne (The Tomb of the Christian Woman).


Source: Wikipedia

Famous Berber historical figures include Dihya (La Kahina), a female seer and political and religious leader, who led fierce Berber resistance against the Arabs, the author Apuleius as well as Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica. The Roman general, Lusius Quietus, was Berber, as was the Roman emperor, Septimius Severus. There is even a possibility that Pope Victor I was Berber, as well as one of the Pharaohs, Sheshonq.

The general who led Muslim forces in the conquest of Spain, Tarik Ibn Ziad, known in Spanish history and legend as Taric el Tuerto (One-Eyed Tarik) and after whom Gibraltar is named — Djebel Tarik (The Rock of Tarik), Abbas Ibn Firnas, a prolific inventor and early pioneer in aviation and Ibn Battuta, a medieval explorer who traveled the longest known distances of his time, were all Berber.

It seems surprising to me that most of the English-speaking world knows hardly anything about Berbers, given the important role they played in Mediterranean history. There is a story about an American professor, who affirmed that Lusius Quietus was black. When someone queried this, saying they thought the Roman General was Berber, the distinguished academic asked, “What’s that?”

As for me — well, after so many years, although T and I have never communicated in Kabyle, except for a few words and phrases, and even though the grammar is littered with many irregular verbs and plurals, I can speak “pidgin” Kabyle with a vocabulary of about four hundred words. I can understand about seventy-five percent of normal conversation in Kabyle and can make myself understood, which is the point surely.

And what is more — whenever I hear someone speaking in Kabyle, it feels like coming home.


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