The History of North Africa and the Fight for an Identity

An Arab Childhood?

Growing up in San Francisco I went to a mosque with a not so diverse group of Muslims. For the most part, I was surrounded by Egyptians, Yemenis, Palestinians, and other Arabs. I went to the same mosque every Saturday of my entire childhood to learn how to read Arabic in order to be able to memorize the quran, but I always found it immensely difficult. I remember struggling to understand and speak to my Yemeni teachers because what I knew as Arabic was a language that was completely different than what was spoken in my household.

People were quick to call me Arab but also didn’t hesitate to tell me I didn’t know how to speak Arabic. This is often the issue with people from northern region of Africa known as the Maghreb. The Maghreb is the northwest region of Africa consisting of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. I, myself am from the largest country of that region, called Algeria. I was born in the northern Algerian province called Bordj Bou Arreridj where I grew up speaking the dialect in the Maghreb known as “darija” or “darja” depending on which country. In Algeria it is referred to as darja and it is a language that comes from the indigenous language (Berber), Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, and French.

The older I got the more I realized that the language I spoke was merely borrowed words from all our colonizers. This made me look into my country and culture a lot more which is when I realized the people of the Maghreb region are not Arab because of how different the culture, language, and history are.

Who Are They?

It can get pretty confusing trying to wrap your head around this topic because of the history along with what the media has portrayed about the region. The people of North Africa are known as “Amazigh.” In western media this term is often replaced with the English word, “Berbers.” They are the indigenous people of the region who have lived there for at least 12,000 years with the indigenous language known as “Tamazight.” This language belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family.

Of the Amazigh people, there are sub-groups or tribes. Amazigh tribes found in Morocco and Algeria include the Kabyles, which is the largest Amazigh group in Algeria lcated in the North of the country; the Chawis, located in further inland closer to the Sahara; the Tuaregs, a nomadic group found deep in the Sahara in Algeria, Niger, and Mali; the Riffians, occupying the northern region of Morocco in the Atlas mountains as well as many other tribes. Although these are all Amazigh groups, they are not exactly the same. They differ in a few aspects but the most apparent difference is their look. Kabyles and Riffians are very fair skinned and could pass for white people whereas Chawis and Tuaregs are much darker in skin tone. However all of these groups originate in North Africa.

Arab Invasion

The Maghreb region is the Northwest most part of Africa reaching the Sahara and is home to many different groups of people. The indigenous people of this region are known as Berber or “Amazigh” as referred to in the indigenous tongue. However, in the 7th century, Arab conquest happened which resulted in the gradual Arabization and the spread of Islam. James Estrin touches on this his article on The NY Times, Among North Africa’s Berbers. He states, “Their language and culture have been suppressed, starting with the Arab invasion in the seventh century, continuing through the French colonial period and into the era of independence.” Reading up on North Africa’s history with colonizers can get quite hefty with the amount of colonizers that have occupied the region.

Because of this, the language spoken amongst North Africans began to change. Later on the Ottoman Empire colonized the region during the 16th century. Then Modern Day Colonialism came with Spanish and French in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is why the Moroccan dialect is widely infused with Spanish and the Algerian dialect is widely infused with French.

What Are We?

Despite people’s inclination to call North Africans “Arab” right off the bat, the people of Morocco and Algeria are not. According to a NY Times article written by Robert D. Kaplan, “Half the Moroccan population speaks Berber, a Hamitic language similar to ancient Libyan with an alphabet that bears no resemblance to Arabic.” Despite centuries of colonialism, Morocco has a great majority of their population still speaking the Amazigh language. Because of North Africa’s location being at the Mediterranean and being so close to Europe, it was made easy for colonizers. From the Arab colonizers in the 7th century to the French in the 19th century, many groups have come and gone.
There is so much to look at when talking about North Africa. From the tribes, to the languages, to the colonizers, to the identity of the people. This region of the world may not be talked about as much as the west but it is in fact rich with history and culture.

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