On the Intricacies of the Moroccan identity


The questions that I am asking again, and again, and coming up with different answers every time…

great, I had half my post written, and then it got erased.. womp. womp.

Anyway, I met my host mother’s mother and “grandma” was sporting tatoos on her face, very common for older Moroccan women. It’s tribal mark of sorts.  I imagine that back in the day, “grandma” looked something like this … to her credit she still looks great.  The woman is 70 but could easily pass for 50 or even 45… you go girl.

But I digress…

At any rate, I assumed the tattoos were mainly a Berber thing.  That plus my host family’s choice of decor led me to believe that she is Berber. I brought the subject up with her.

And she flatly denied being Amazigh (the more politically correct name for Berbers).  I left it at that.

That conversation led me think about what I had heard/learned about the Berber identity in Morocco and how fluid it is depending on who you are talking to or about.  There are Berber tribes that have Arabic names and the opposite.  There are even some Berber tribes that speak Arabic and the opposite is true.  One of my teacher’s mothers was from such a tribe.

the Amazigh are the original inhabitants of North Africa (excluding Egypt) it’s safe to assume that most Moroccans are of mixed Berber-Arab heritage.   But for a long time, Berber identity, language etc. was suppressed.  A few years ago during my first visits to Morocco, the current King changed all that.  It’s now an official language, there’s a whole building in the capital dedicated to Berber affairs, the language has been standardized and is being taught in some schools.

I don’t want to make it seem like there is no such thing as Amazigh culture, because there is.  There is a significant minority that has this language and culture as it’s primary one. My first Arabic teacher for example, and my current Moroccan Arabic teacher, both speak Berber as their mother tongue.



I write all this to give a certain backdrop to my conversation with my host mom.  The Berber identity is contested by some, and even looked down upon by others, I’ve seen it and heard it with my own eyes and ears while here.  I sensed it when my host mother was talking about them and flatly denied being one.  Of course she wrapped up the conversation with the standard we are all one country spiel.  But I nonetheless felt like I had somehow offended her by assuming that she was Berber.

fast forward two weeks and some Berber singer comes on tv, her husband turns to me and says, this is my wife’s language, she is Berber, with the same stupid 5 year-old Arabic for dummies language that he still insists on using with me.  I thought I saw a glimmer of resentment in my host mom’s face.  I listened to the song, got tired of not understanding anything and said goodnight.

today at lunch, the news in Berber comes on, and she doesn’t change the channel.  I ask her, after 5 minutes or so, do you understand this?  She looks at me, a bit surprised by the question and says, “a little.”  Girlfriend understands a lot more than just a little.

Then it hit me, this  isn’t the first time I’ve seen Berber language programming on the tv here.  Is my host mom a closet Berber?  She told me she’s Arab.

Her uncle, her mother’s brother, is darker than me and has West African features.  I guess that makes him an Afro-Arab?

yup, the Moroccan identity is a maze.


4 thoughts on “On the Intricacies of the Moroccan identity

  1. Every single Moroccan is an Amazigh, whether they like it or not. If you’re Arab, show me something that will prove it. Maybe a blood test that tracks where da fuq your ancestors came from or maybe pictures of Arab ancestors. Other than that, i see every North African as an indigenous Amazigh/Berber. That whole “We’re all Moroccans” is nonsense to me. You’re either Moroccan or Arab, choose one. Also why would you class your uncle as an Afro-Arab? Why cant he just be a black Amazigh? Berber’s are not just white, i hope you know that. We come in different colours and we like to mix with each other too. There’s no Arab in this whatsoever.

    • gazelledusahara

      Hello Saf,

      I think there are some things that either you don’t understand from my post, or I have misunderstood from your comment.

      For starters, although I am not North African at all, this is not my first time here, it’s my 4th. I have been to Morocco several times, and each time the Amazigh issue comes up. You may look at all Moroccans as Berber and that’s your prerogative. but, I do not. If someone was raised speaking Arabic and identifying with that as their primary identity, then who am I to say that they are not?

      You are right to point to this point, (and I pointed this out in my post) that most Moroccans are a mix of Berber and Arab. But this mixing is also a perfectly plausible reason behind causes the choice. There are a lot of people who came to Spain after being expelled from Andalusia…. many of those people spoke Arabic and identified as Arab, many of them probably married people of similar backgrounds for the most part … I remember families in the old Medina of Rabat that traced their ancestry to that group.

      Arab is not a race, it’s an ethnicity. People basically have become Arabized by taking on Arabic as a mother tongue that’s why the ‘Arab” world is full of people who 1000 years ago were not at considered Arab (from Phoenecians in the Levant and Africans in Sudan to yes, Berbers in Morocco, if that is their prerogative). That’s also the reason why “Arab culture” is so varied.

      I am most certainly aware of the fact that Berbers come from all the colors on the color spectrum. As do Moroccans. But you what? there are for the most part, limits to that spectrum. The number of Moroccans my color or this man color is very small compared to the overall population. I HAVE NEVER been mistaken for a Moroccan, in Morocco. Not based on appearance, but I have been thought to be Sudanese or even Nubian. Once again, this man is darker than I am, he is ebony. Moreover, his facial features to me, look more West African than they resemble what the Moroccans I have seen have tended to look like (and this in spite of that very wide color and facial feeature wheel from super white, to olive skinned to even Asian looking at times).

      Although, I will admit, that I did visit a Berber town near Zagora in the south and saw several people who looked pretty much Sub-Saharan African there. Do you know how they explained their existence in Morocco? They came there as slaves.

      My point is simply this: black African Moroccans exist and they are NOT Amazigh not ethnically. And to me, that is what this guy looks like, especially in light of the fact that this family for whatever reason does not identify with being Berber (if that is what they are). If he were walking down the streets in the Gulf, or Sudan or even Egypt, Amazigh would not be the first thing that comes to mind.

      I know this is an emotional debate for some, and that certainly came through in your comment, but I hope this reply clarifies certain things.

      It really is interesting because identity is fluid, depending on the socio-historic circumstances. I have even had Moroccans who self identify as Arab say that the Amazigh identity was not as well defined today before the civil rights movement for it became politicized.

      At the end of the day, I’m interested in how people look at themselves and how they understand themselves and othersr.

  2. I find this post very interesting, mostly because since I joined Tumblr a few months ago I’ve had the chance to interact with Moroccans who are fiercely proud and protective of their indigenous, Amazigh and African identities. Saf who left the comment above is one of the Moroccans I follow (heya Saf!).

    From observing their discussions on identity, which I sometimes participate in, I’ve learnt that Morocco is/was essentially an Arab colony. Imagine if Nigerians started denying their ethnic identity and claiming to be English because we were colonised by the British…that may be less ridiculous-sounding if most Nigerians were pale enough to be “mistaken” as European but it would still be far-fetched and not true. I hope this analogy makes sense. We’re living in a world where most things/systems/people are anti-Black (and anti-African too), it is sad but not surprising that there are folks who do not want to identify with any sort of African identity. In this world, there are countless people who deny their true indigenous ethnicities in favour of they perceive to be the better, more accomplished race. Amazigh people in Morocco may claim to be Arab while indigenous people from South America will claim to have purely European ancestry. Likewise light-skinned Caribbean folk may deny all African ancestry in favour of others, it is the same mentality I believe.

    Morocco is apparently the only North African country with a majority indigenous African population. And the Imazighen come in a variety of shades, there is no reason to assume that her uncle is Afro-Arab. He’s Moroccan and he’s darker than you and has “West African features”, the first thing I’d assume would be that he is Amazigh (especially when you recall that the Tuareg (Kel Tamasheq) are part of the Amazigh family tree). As Saf said above there are “Black” and “white” Amazigh, and the “white” Amazigh may not be the ones with non-Black African ancestry either. There has been research has argued that the Amazigh are more genetically African than anything else, these are the sources my Tumblr friend, escapefromcrete forwarded to me if you’re interested;

    Olga Rickards, et al. “First Genetic Insight into Libyan Tuaregs: A Maternal Perspective.” Annals of Human Genetics 73, no. 4 (July 2009): 438-448.

    __________, et al. “Deep into the roots of the Libyan Tuareg: A genetic survey of their paternal heritage.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145, no. 1 (May 2011): 118-124.

    S.O.Y. Keita, “Biocultural Emergence of the Amazigh (Berbers) in Africa: Comment on Frigi et al.” Human Biology 82, no. 4 (2010): 385-393.

    Sabeh Frigi, Lofti Cherni, Karima Fadhlaoui-Zid, Amel Benammar-Elgaaied, “Ancient Local Evolution of African mtDNA Haplogroups in Tunisian Berber Populations,” Human Biology 82, no. 4 (2010): 367-384.

    I apologise for the lengthy comment! Like I said earlier, discussions on indigenous North African identity recently fascinate me.

    • gazelledusahara

      Hey Eccentric,

      yeah the Moroccan identity thing is something I have literally been trying to wrap my mind around for years, it’s weird how each trip the attitudes and leanings of those around me seem to indicate something new. I for one, am really surprised as my host mom who seems to be a closet Berber. Why would anyone be ashamed of that in this day and age? It’s cool to be Berber now at least. or so I thought.

      I wish I had a picture of this “uncle” because he doesn’t look like any Tuareg I have seen in real life or photos. He looks like a black African Malian or Senegalese man. I said this in my reply to Safi, but the Morocco color range stretches but so far. It would have been interesting to see how this man grew up being treated… While I know people of African-American (think Obama hued) latino, and mixed race heritage come to Morocco and being mistaken for Moroccans all the time. (and indeed saw that and continue to see that happening) I wonder if the opposite is true, especially since this man lives in Europe and has been there for the last 20 years… who knows.

      I know that Tuaregs are included in the Berber family tree, actually the instructor that I learned about the Amazigh rights movement (he was an activist) was Tuareg. But All is not as it seems, there are at least some that argue that Tuaregs shouldn’t be included in that spectrum. I have no idea who is right or wrong, and never studied Berber, so I don’t know how closely Tuareg relates to the larger language family. It’s a really emotional issue for some people in Morocco, and people have their reasons for identifying or wanting one thing or the other. I just try to take all what I see and hear into account, both popular Amazigh arguments and claims and the opposite. Life, I think is not about the truth, it’s about how people understand the truth.

      I said this in my response to Safi as well, but your point about Europeans and Africans doesn’t really carry over to Arabs because Arab (and latino) is an ethnicity not a race. I can not become white. But, I can become Latina, because speak the language, moved to Latin America and lived a life that involved the direct and indirect cultural influences of using that language as my primary identity and mode of communication.

      This is the difference between “Arab” colonialism and modern colonialism. This point is one that too often gets lost in the shuffle. While Britain and France are still grappling with it’s 2nd and 3rd generation “immigrants” Gisselle Buncham is considered Brazilian even though her family is clearly of German decent. And this is why we look at Shakira and Salma Hayek as Latina first, despite their clearly Arab heritage.

      Identity is weird, and in the case of places where lots of mixing goes on, it’s draining. you’re absolutley right, certain identities are less prized than others (the African one for instance in the case of many a North African, I can’t even count the number of times people in Egypt and Morocco talked about the African continent and Africans as if their country wasn’t situated there… sigh). This stuff is particularly interesting to me, perhaps because I don’t have many plausible identities to choose from…. but it’s interesting to see who identifies as what and to think about why.

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