The Berbers make up more than half of Morocco’s population, but only recently have their language and culture been recognised.
When the Arabs arrived in Morocco in the 7th century, they found a country inhabited by the fiercely tribal Berbers who have lived in Africa for 4,000 years. The Romans called these wild tribes the “Barbari”, a name that has since been transformed into “Berbers”.
Today the Imazighen, as they prefer to be called, represent a widespread group of tribes that are scattered from Libya to the Canary Islands and south, to Mali and Niger.
The Berber language is split into three dialects: Tamazigh (“language of the tree”, from central Morocco / Middle Atlas), Taselhit / Shilha (High and Anti-Atlas) and Tarifit (Rif). Since independence and, as a result, Morocco’s Arabisation as a means of asserting its identity after years of colonial rule, the Berbers were sidelined and their language banned from being spoken and taught in schools.
However, today, thanks to activism among Berber cultural associations, it is starting to revive. It is now broadcast on radio and television and is beginning to be studied in the country’s universities. In 2011, Mohammed VI announced that Berber would be recognised as an official language of Morocco. Interestingly, it is the Berber way of life – the music, crafts and tribal customs – that most tourists come to Morocco to see, and in many ways responsible and enthusiastic tourism can help to encourage the revival of this ancient and incredibly rich culture.
One of the most famous Berber gatherings is the wedding moussem (religious festival) of the Aït Haddidou tribe near Imilchil in the High Atlas. Every September this tribe meets to celebrate the feast day of Sidi Mohammed el Maghani, the patron saint of the Aït Haddidou, and also to remember the sad Romeo and Juliet-esque legend that inspired the festival.
The story goes that lovers Tislit and Isli, unable to marry because of their feuding families and unable to live without each other, decided to drown themselves in nearby lakes. But even in death they remained apart as a mountain separated their lakes and thus prevented their souls from meeting in the afterlife.
Today, the Imilchil festival is held to enable the men and women of different local tribes to meet and later marry whom they choose. Dozens of potential brides, dressed in blue, white and red shawls, their cheeks rouged and their eyes lined with kohl, come to sing, dance, feast and flirt with their white-robed male counterparts. The festival is a time of great celebration and, though private in the past, is opening up more to tourism each year.