Morocco's complex identity: African, Amazigh, and Arab

Illustration - Analysis - Morocco
5 min read
24 January, 2023
In-depth: Who are Moroccans? It is a difficult question to answer. While the World Cup reflected a shared cultural affinity in the region, it also showed that it is still struggling to have difficult conversations about complex identities.

The Moroccan football team's outstanding performance during the World Cup was a rare moment of unity for a region often divided by political conflicts.

Everyone seemed to agree on Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou’s handsomeness, trying their best to pronounce ‘Dima Maghrib’ correctly while rooting for the first ‘Arab’ team in history to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament.

However, pan-Arab bonding over the Atlas Lions’ impressive victories also sparked a wider debate about the complex cultural dimensions of Morocco’s national identity.

"It feels like we were never Arab enough to be accepted by the Arab world. The moment we made it in a sports competition they wanted us to be only Arab and nothing else"

“Our team represents Africa, because FIFA does not classify football teams based on their race or ethnicity. However, our team members are Amazigh and not Arab. And Arabs should respect us as we respect them,” Adil Adaskou, a Moroccan Amazigh activist, told The New Arab.

The Amazigh are considered the indigenous people of North Africa and trace their presence back millennia, before the Arab and Islamic conquest in the 7th century.

Estimates vary about the number of Moroccans who claim Amazigh heritage, with some as high as 70 percent.

Despite revolts and resistance by Amazigh tribes to preserve their land, the history of that period remains barely acknowledged in Morocco’s education system, despite the state’s attempts to reconcile with the community.

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Although present across Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, and the Canary Islands for centuries, Morocco has the largest proportion of Amazighs as part of its population, with their identity largely suppressed since the 1930s.

The ‘Berber Dahir’, or decree, by French colonial authorities in 1930 – which allowed Amazighs to create a separate legal system based on their language and culture – was seized upon by Moroccan nationalists as an attempt to divide the Amazigh and Arab peoples under the law and undermine national unity.

Influenced by the rising pan-Arab movement, Moroccan Nationalists envisioned a state with a homogenous language, religion, and dynasty: Arabic, Islam, and the King, respectively. 

However, under this vision of a united Arab and Islamic nation, Amazigh culture often found itself repressed.

Morocco's complex identity: African, Amazigh, and Arab
Morocco's defender Jawad El Yamiq waves his national flag as he celebrates with supporters after winning a penalty shoot-out against Spain on 6 December 2022. [Getty]

The names of towns and geographical landmarks were changed, Amazigh baby names were prohibited by local authorities, and historical Amazigh figures and battles were excluded from the curriculum of Moroccan education or reduced to unsavoury characters who rejected Islam.

In the aftermath of French colonialism, the late Moroccan King Hassan II launched an Arabism project to erase French influence on Moroccan institutions.

Reflecting on the reality of Morocco today, this project can be viewed as having failed in its mission while also undermining Amazigh culture and strengthening long-standing feelings of discrimination among the community.

It wasn’t until 2001, for example, that the Moroccan state officially acknowledged Amazigh culture. In 2011, the Moroccan palace announced a new constitution that made the Amazigh language (Tmazight) an official language. The announcement came amid the Arab spring protests in Morocco, during which Amazigh activists were prominent.

"The debate surrounding the Arab, African, or Amazigh dimensions of Moroccan identity is often superseded by the concept of 'Tamaghrabit' – a multicultural 'Moroccan-ness'"

But a decade later, the implementation of the officialisation of Tmazight in Morocco is still burdened by bureaucratic and state negligence.

When the Atlas Lions toured the capital Rabat in a hero’s welcome, signs on the bus they used were only written in Arabic and English. Some Amazighs felt hurt as they were excluded once again from the World Cup celebrations.

“Amazighs respect the Arab language because as people we separate valuable civilisations’ symbols from the acts of occupation and invasion. But we as Amazighs consider Arabic our second language and Tmazight our first,” Ahmed Aasid, a leading figure of the Moroccan Amazigh movement, said during a recent interview.

Despite the fact that Arabic is an official language in Morocco, many Moroccans do not speak classical Arabic, instead using the Darija dialect, which has linguistic influences from Latin, French, Spanish, and Tmazight.

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For decades, Moroccan Darija has been the subject of jokes and memes in the Middle East due to its ‘complexity’, leading many to proclaim that Darija is not authentic Arabic.

“It feels like we were never Arab enough to be accepted by the Arab world. The moment we made it in a sport competition they wanted us to be only Arab and nothing else,” Aymane, a 23-year-old Moroccan student, told TNA.

The debate surrounding the Arab, African, or Amazigh dimensions of Moroccan identity is often superseded by the concept of ‘Tamaghrabit’ – a multicultural ‘Moroccan-ness’.

To dance Ahidous and Al-Hayt, to make Tagoula and Pastilla, and to switch swiftly between Tamazight, Darija, French, English, and Spanish in one conversation is the only way to be ‘Maghribi’ for many.

Morocco's complex identity: African, Amazigh, and Arab
A Moroccan demonstrator waves the Amazigh flag during a protest against the jailing of Al-Hirak al-Shaabi or 'Popular Movement' activists in the capital Rabat on 15 July 2018. [Getty]

Nevertheless, it is still far from perfect. Racist jokes about Amazighs and black Moroccans are still considered lighthearted humour in the country, despite rising denunciations from the communities themselves.

While some Moroccans like to identify as Arab, Amazigh, and African all at once, others reject, often controversially, a link to ‘Arabness’.

“Amazighs are our ancestors. Africa is our continent. But what do we have in common with Arabs besides the language? We have nothing in common,” Nouaman, a 25-year-old Moroccan who likes to identify as an African, told TNA.

Modern Arab nationalism took form as the region emerged from centuries of Ottoman and European rule. But today, many Moroccans feel more at home in pan-Africanism.

Yet the collective enthusiasm for Morocco’s unprecedented success in the World Cup shows that a cultural affinity binds people in the Middle East. At the same time, it also shows that the region is still struggling to have difficult conversations about its complex identities.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma