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Berbers of Morocco

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The Berbers are native to North Africa and it is estimated that there are between 30 and 40 million Berber speaking people in Africa. The majority live in Morocco and Algeria, with pockets of Berbers residing in Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Smaller communities can also be found in Egypt and Burkina Faso.


      Travel Guide | The Berbers


Origin and Lifestyle of the Berbers of Morocco


Prior to the invasion by the Arabs in the 7th century, Berber people were either Christians, Jews or Animists. An Animist believes that it is not only humans who have souls and spirits but that all plants, animals and even the land is spiritual, connecting us all to one another. After being conquered by the Arab nation the Berbers were forced to convert to Islam.

The Berbers have a long and ancient history, much of which has been overlooked because the ancient people had no written language. The first hint of their history came with the discovery of cave paintings. North African cave paintings as old as 12,000 years have been found in Tadrart Acacus, Libya. Many of the paintings depict farming activities and domestic animals. There are also paintings that have been found at Tassili n’Ajjer in southeastern Algeria.

North Africa cave painings

Neolithic cave paintings found in Tassil-n-Ajjer (Plateau of the Chasms) region of the Sahara
[Attribution: PD-USGOV - Library of Congress Country Study of Algeria]

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The overwhelming majority of the Berber community are Islamic (Sunni Muslim). A large Jewish Berber population could be found in Morocco up until the 1960’s, now much smaller after their numbers decreased dramatically as a result of emigration. Many Christian Berbers have also emigrated, mostly to France, with only a handful remaining in Morocco.


Berber Social Structure

There is a very definite hierarchy within each tribe but how the chain of command is regulated depends on the region. Each tribe will have a leader and in the Middle Ages some leaders were women. The most famous is probably Kabylia who fought for her people against the French.

It is typically the men who choose a wife for themselves within their tribe, but in some tribes the decision is taken from him and is made by the families. Although in the Tuareg tribe it is the woman who chooses the man she would like to marry. It will depend on the tribe whether the family structure is patriarchal or matriarchal. The strict adherence to custom has given the Berber people a strong sense of unity and has protected their culture.

Portraits of berber: nomadic and children of the High Atlas

Portraits of Berber People: a Nomadic Berber (left) and Children of the High Atlas (right)
[Attribution: Wikimedia Commons - (l) Christopher and (r)]

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The Festival of Fantasia

It is one of the better known festivals and is also known as the Game of Gunpowder. When battles were still fought on horseback, Berbers were skilled horseman and their skill was a strong asset in battle. Today this same horsemanship is showcased as a performance during or at the closing of a Berber wedding celebration. They will also perform at religious or cultural celebrations. There are many Fantasia groups in Morocco, also known as Serba groups.
The performance is an exhilarating colorful display of expert riding. A group of riders adorned in traditional dress, line up on their horses. They rush forward at great speed for about 200 meters before firing their old gunpowder loaded weapons, into the air, in unison, effectively creating one synchronized sound. This is where the skill lies. The riders have to not only keep their horses in a straight line while charging forward but have to also fire a single shot at the very same moment as their fellow riders. 

Fantasia Festivel - Oujda, Morocco

Above: Festival of Fantasia (Oujda, Morocco)
[Attribution: Wikimedia Commons - Moonik]

Fantasia Festivel - Benidrar, Morocco

Above: Festival of Fantasia (Beni Drar near Oujda, Morocco)
[Attribution: Wikimedia Commons - Amjahed]

The horses are known as Fantasia horses and the performance is a testament to the bond between man and his horse. The Game of Gunpowder is inspired by the wartime strategy used by the Berber warriors as they charged their enemies in the desert. Today it is considered a form of martial and cultural art. There are some restaurants in Morocco that offer Fantasia riders as part of the dinner entertainment.

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Imilchil Betrothal Festival

The Betrothal festival of Imilchil is a music filled dancing feast accentuated with colorful traditional clothing. It is celebrated to remember a legend of two lovers who were forbidden to marry because they came from families in different tribes. Conservative rigid social rules meant that men and women from different tribes could not marry. The legend tells the story of a young man and woman from different tribes who met one day and the attraction was instant. Their love however was forbidden and in their grief they cried themselves to death. Their tears produced two lakes; his is called Isli and hers Tislit.

Their deaths stunned and saddened the two families. From then on the families decided that one day a year would be set aside when young men and women from different tribes could meet and marry one another.

The men and woman dress in their finest, men in white with large shiny daggers hanging at their sides to demonstrate their affluence. Women will adorn themselves with jewels and put on their best dresses to enhance their beauty. It is the women who choose on this day and the men stand on display as the women look for their soul mate. Once a woman has made her choice she will take the hands of her man and walk with him. They will talk and ‘negotiate’ if they are happy with the arrangements they have decided on they will walk to their families to introduce their new partner. Then it is off to the scribe’s tent where they will be declared husband and wife. The festival stretches over 3 days giving the women plenty of time to choose.

The Betrothal festival is not only a match making event but also a fair where goods are traded, land disputes are settled and old friends meet. On the final day of the festival/fair there is a great feast accompanied by food, dance and music. Everyone will participate, even those who did not find the right partner this time round.

Imilchil Marriage Festival, Morocco
[Attribution: AtlantiConnection]

The Betrothal Festival is an enormous attraction and highlight for any cultural trip to Morocco but visitors are urged to stay as observers only and not to join the festivities. This way the authenticity of the event is protected and secured.

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Berber Art and Culture

Culture and traditions within each Berber community is very tribal and will differ from region to region. Day to day life is nomadic with men taking care of the livestock and women taking care of the family and handicrafts. The community will move to ensure that the livestock has ample grazing, water and shelter. This allows the women to continually collect different plants that they will use to dye wool and cotton. Their livestock provide them with wool which they use to weave kilims, a tapestry like woven carpet. These are sometimes made for personal use but are also often sold at local souks (markets). The patterns woven into the kilims are distinctive and characteristic of the tribe and region. The Moroccan Berber women like to embellish their kilims with fringes and sequins whereas other Berber weavers from different regions will simply use geometric designs such as diamonds and triangles.

Berber art is predominantly crafted and expressed as wearable or useable pieces such as in pottery, furniture, fabrics, jewelry or carpets. Artistic design is also represented in their architecture. 

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Berber Music in Morocco

Moroccans love music and it forms an important part of every celebration.

Village music is performed using flutes and drums; the rhythmic beat is often accompanied by groups of dancers. Men and women take part although in some regions only men are allowed to dance. This music is rarely heard in the cities.

Ritual music is played at ceremonies such as weddings. It is also played to ward off evil spirits.

Folklore 'Houmada' Couleurs Berberes Resort and Luxury Camp

Folklore 'Houmada' at Couleurs Berberes, Morocco
[Attribution: Couleurs Berberes]

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Berber Cuisine

As with everything Berber, the style of cooking and range of food differs from tribe to tribe. Inevitably the various cultural invasions throughout the generations have influenced and evolved the Berber cuisine. Some of the staple ingredients such as couscous still remain though.

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