The Berbers, or Amazigh (“Free People”, Imazighen pl.) as they call themselves, are the indigenous, non-Arab tribal peoples of North Africa. Their domain, a land idealized as Tamazgha, stretches from the Siwa Oasis of Egypt in the east, to the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco in the west.
The Amazigh population density is highest in Morocco, where they make up 55- 65% of the population, and Algeria, where they are 20-25%. Despite having recently played a central role in the recent overthrow of Gaddafi, they are not as common in Libya (10 -15%), and even less so in Tunisia (5%).There are more than a million of the nomadic Tuareg Berbers living in Niger and Mali, where they have been involved in armed conflict against the governments.
The Amazigh origins are heavily disputed. They are not a homogenous people, as there are numerous tribes with differing histories and physical characteristics; some even appear blonde and blue eyed. “Modern Berber identity has multiple strands, from the illiterate female keeper of the household in the southeast of Morocco, to the rugged Kabyle villager in Algeria, to the Touareg camel-driving nomad, to the Paris-based intellectual.” What unifies them is linguistics, and although the Tamazight language is split into various regional dialects, they are mutually intelligible. As the signifier of a people, the Tamazight language is vital to the Berber culture and a huge factor in constituting a Berber cultural identity. It has been diffused orally for centuries, and with it the cherished poems and music that are crucial to the fabric of Berber life. However, an oral culture also means that invaders and colonists, who generally depicted them as savages, have written the history of the Berbers. The term “Berber” itself was conferred to them by the Romans, and comes from the Latin barbarus, implying that the indigenous peoples of North Africa were barbaric. The resilience of the Berbers and their ability to maintain their culture in the face of conquering civilizations rests in their nature to rebel, an inherent tendency rooted in the “particularism of tribe and village.” This spirit has manifested in new modes of political action, including artistic, resulting in the intercontinental Berber Culture Movement of ethnic and cultural affirmation.