Diverse Africa

Draa Valley, Morocco

Traveling from Senegal to Mali to Mauritania to Morocco is very much a trip from black sub-Saharan Africa to Arab North Africa, as I described in my posts of 09.01.04, 09.01.05 and 09.01.11. In this post, I wanted to discuss in somewhat greater detail some of the questions of race and identity that arise in these countries, as seen through the eyes of someone who is part of both a homogenous culture (East Asia) and an incredibly diverse one (America).

Generically, imprecisely and unscientifically speaking, there are two native “races” in Northern Africa: black Africans, who have until relatively recent times been the sole occupants of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert, and Berbers, who have lived in the area north of the Sahara to the Mediterranean coast. In addition, since antiquity, the northern coast of Africa has been subjected to numerous external cultural influences, from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in classical times to the Ottoman Turk and Western European imperialists more recently, the most lasting of these external influences being the Arabs, who stormed across the entire North African coast soon after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century. Below, some thoughts on race and identity in Africa north of the equator, organized by question and answer.


Who are the Berbers?

The Berbers are a people who have lived in Africa, from the Sahara northward to the Mediterranean coast, for thousands of years. (St. Augustine may be the most famous ancient Berber.) Many look Mediterranean, by which I mean the olive-skinned, dark-haired type that is found from Spain to Turkey to the Levant, but others are quite fair–some as blond as any northern European. Since the Arab conquest of the seventh century, which swept across the entire North African coast, most of the residents of North Africa have grown to identify themselves as Arabs, and the countries of the North African coast, all members of the Arab League, are generally thought of as Arab countries, but the true “genetic” history is that these countries are still largely populated by the people who have always lived here–the Berbers. The Arabs came, intermarried and spread their language, religion and culture, but did not totally replace the native population. That is, the residents of North Africa speak Arabic, are Muslim and think of themselves (to a large extent) as Arabs, but in reality they are principally the descendants not of Arab invaders (who were always small in number) but of a race that has lived in North Africa for thousands of years. (Berbers exist on the European mainland as well–it is estimated that some 10% of the Spanish population is Berber, presumably from the Arab/Berber conquest of Spain in the eighth century.)

Berber man, Taroudannt, Morocco

How come I’ve never heard of Berbers?

To a large extent, because Berber identity has become subsumed by Arab identity. Even though, as I’ve said above, the residents of North Africa are largely descendants of the people who have lived in North Africa since time immemorial, and in a genetic sense are probably not very Arab at all, Arab identity, through language, religion and culture, has come to dominate most of the region, leaving relatively little sense of Berber identity, at least in most of the population centers of North Africa.

However, just as Christianity survived in the mountains of Maalula (see post of 08.05.22) and in the deserts of the Sinai (see post of 08.10.01), and Zoroastrianism survived in the deserts of Yazd (see post of 08.05.14) and in the hills of Abiyaneh (see post of 08.05.22), Berber identity has survived intact in the two greatest geographical extremes of Northern Africa–the high mountains and the Sahara. In the Atlas mountains not far from the coast, communities of “pure” Berbers speak Berber languages and not the Arabic which has become the dominant language of the region. Even occasional signs can be seen in the ancient Berber script.

Berber girl in the High Atlas, Morocco

Berber language sign near Todra Gorge, Morocco

Similarly, in the Sahara live many different Berber “nations,” the most famous of which is probably the Touareg (see post of 09.01.04). Some of these groups may still in some senses identify themselves as Arab, and there is no doubt that Islam and aspects of Arab identity have well permeated these desert populations, but they also retain their native Berber languages and a distinct culture.

Touareg boys, Timbuktu, Mali

What is the future of Berber identity?

Morocco in particular is experiencing something of a Berber renaissance, as late King Hassan II and especially current King Mohammed VI (who identifies himself as part Berber) have promoted a stronger sense of Berber identity, including by teaching Berber languages in Moroccan public schools. To the outside observer, such moves may appear in part motivated by a desire to build a sense of Moroccan identity that is independent from greater Arab identity, not only to strengthen Morocco as a nation generally but also to create psychic distance between Morocco, a relatively progressive and economically dynamic country increasingly oriented toward the West, and parts of the Arab world that are politically or economically more stunted. Already geographically remote from the conflicts of the Levant and the extremism of parts of the Gulf, it is possible that the Moroccan leadership sees in Berber identity a way to create a sense of Moroccan-ness that is better suited to the country’s particular identity and needs.

Friends, Todra Gorge, Morocco

All of which goes to show you the extent to which ethnic identity can be molded by political forces. As I described in my post of 08.12.22, Mauritania in the 1970s went through a transition from being a West African country oriented toward the rest of black West Africa and the former French colonial world to a North African country oriented toward the Arab world through membership in the Arab League. Of course, the real answer is that Mauritania is part black and part Arab/Berber, but at least in some formal ways that country “changed its color” in that period. There are of course many other examples of such political acts of ethnic/cultural definition.


From these points I want to draw one lesson: Africa is more diverse than it is sometimes made out to be.

Timbuktu, Mali

Often, people are guilty of lumping all of the African continent into one homogenous mass–in the ignorant popular imagination a continent of impoverished black people, living alternately in the desert or the jungle. Even those more familiar with the ethnic and social diversity of the continent are likely to think of it in shorthand as a “black” continent with a strip of Arabs along the northern coast. But, in reality, there are many significant and distinct variations within African identity that even a very basic sense of history reveals. Ethiopians and Eritreans speak a Semitic language and have an ancient Christian tradition, making them in some sense part of Middle Eastern history as well as African. Along the entire coast of East Africa, Arab cultural influence is greatly felt in the hybrid Swahili culture. Madagascar is largely populated by people from now Indonesia (see post of 08.08.31).

And all of northern Africa is a place of great cultural diversity, the Sahel a transitional zone in more ways than one. Going from the sub-Saharan south to the Mediterranean, one encounters a mixture of black African Christians, black African Muslims (on the two religions, see post of 08.12.16), fairer skinned Africans of Berber ancestry and then those who identify as Arabs. Indeed, so many of the conflicts that have riled this region–such as those in Western Sahara, Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria, Chad and the Sudan–have been caused by ethnic tensions. Even along the coast, where “Arab” identity seems mostly solid, ethnic identity is to some extent uncertain, as Moroccans and others begin to think of themselves as Berber. (For that matter, even closer to the heart of the Arab world, Arab identity is not something that is uniform–Egyptians, with their incredibly ancient and continuous history rightfully think of themselves as somewhat sui generis and many Syrians and Lebanese are quick to point out their Phoenician or other pre-Arab ancestry (see post of 08.04.25).)

Having a sense of the internal diversity of a place, rather than sticking with a simplistic caricature that wipes out such granularity, is essential to understanding it. And, for a number of reasons, learning about Africa, starting to understand the second-most populous continent, remains for much of the rest of the world a low priority. This post is a small attempt at remedying this defect.

2 thoughts on “Diverse Africa

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  2. South Africa is a heady mix of third and first world cultures – along with the best and least crowded beaches in the world.

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