Who are the Amazigh?

(Brittani Kline, America's Next Top Model, Cycle 16 Episode 10.)

Under the beating sun of the Moroccan desert, photographer Michael Woolley shoots the contestants of "America's Next Top Model." Perched on irritable camels, they wear what he calls "a crazy mix of Berber traditional costume and European sophistication." With this, awareness of the Berbers, an ethnic minority in North Africa, reaches the apex of American pop culture—reality TV. In "America's Next Top Model," the Berbers, or Amazigh, are associated with romantic images of brightly colored textiles with geometric patterns, women wearing diaphanous veils, and, of course, the ubiquitous camel.

During the Middle Ages, the outsider's view of the Amazigh was different. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African historian, wrote that the Amazigh were "powerful, formidable, brave and numerous; a true people... The men who belong to this family of peoples have inhabited the Maghreb since the beginning."

In the course of their long history, the Amazigh have been in contact with the Jews, Romans, Christians, Muslims, and other peoples, through both trade and conquest. They have alternately accepted and rejected outside political regimes, religious beliefs, and cultural tropes. For this reason, Amazigh ethnicity and cultural identity are a pastiche of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa.

Since modern North African states, particularly Algeria and Morocco, gained independence from colonial rule, an Amazigh national consciousness has emerged—partly in opposition to Arab nationalism, which has viewed the Berbers with suspicion. In recent decades, the Berber Culture Movement, which is secular and focuses mainly on Amazigh language rights, has blossomed. The movement has been mostly peaceful, with some bouts of violence, particularly in the Kabylie region of Algeria.* The movement has achieved more in Morocco, where Tamazight is the mother tongue of approximately 50 percent of the population. Still, neither state has given Tamazight an official status on par with Arabic.

Even as the Berber Culture Movement asserts Amazigh identity, their culture remains obscure to most outsiders. Who are these people who have been animist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim over several thousand years; who have fought for the right to study in their language; who embrace the patchwork of their culture and ethnicity; and whose manifest promotes secular humanist ideals?

Tune in to this month's show, where we discuss these questions and more!

*Bruce Maddy-Weitzman explores this issue in The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States, recently published by the University of Texas Press.

Shoshi Shmuluvitz

Diwaniyya Contributor