Morocco is often lumped into the Middle East (rather than North Africa) and classified as an Arabic country. But the indigenous people of Morocco—the Berbers—are the area’s original inhabitants. The majority of the country’s population of around 34 million is Berber, not Arab.
To experience Berber culture in Morocco, one doesn’t have to look far. But you may soon realize that there is no single defining characteristic of Berber culture. The sheer diversity of it is something you simply have to experience for yourself if you want a feel for the soul and spirit of Morocco.
A Brief History of Berber Culture in Morocco
The original inhabitants of North Africa are commonly known as the Berber people, but the correct term to use when referring to them is actually Amazigh. The Amazigh lived in North Africa as early as 5000 BC. It is estimated that over 70% of the Moroccan population today has Berber ancestry. Over time, however, there has been intermarriage among people from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. All of these cultures contribute to Moroccan ancestry today.
The people of the region practiced their own religion based on beliefs that evolved with the introduction of different religions over time. The Punic and Hellenic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and most recently Islam have all shaped Moroccan belief systems. In modern day Morocco, nearly all Berbers are Sunni Muslim. But their traditional practices and beliefs can still be found woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Morocco has seen many conquests, and the Berber people have faced discrimination, subjugation, and enslavement throughout history. But through it all, the tribal system has remained a constant.
The Diversity of Berber Cultures in Morocco
The Berber population of Morocco is divided into over 100 different tribes of varying sizes, spread across the country.
The main Berber language is known as Tamazight , a standardized version of the various Berber dialects. It has its own letter system, and is not related in any way to Arabic. Today, many Berbers include Arabic words (primarily religious terms) in their everyday speech. It is estimated that around 40% of Morocco’s population speaks Tamazight.
Every tribe has its own cultural practices and unique features that set it apart; one of the most visible ways for tourists to see this is in the practice of rug weaving, which Berber women are known for. Every tribe has a different style, and no two rugs are alike.
Traditionally rugs were made for practical reasons, but now they are also made to sell. Women use the rugs to tell stories and share their family history. Early rugs were a visual representation of stories passed down from generations. Today, you may still find this style in private homes. But as rugs adapted to a more commercial purpose, they were also made to be aesthetically appealing to visitors.
The Rural vs. Urban Divide
Most Amazigh people live in the rural regions of Morocco. This includes the mountainous regions—the High Atlas, Middle Atlas, and Rif mountains—as well as the desert areas. However, due to a lack of economic opportunity in rural communities, many families move to larger cities such as Marrakech, Casablanca, or Tangier in order to find work.
In rural communities, traditional life remains relatively intact. People farm, raise livestock, and do the jobs that villagers have relied on for centuries. Much of this work is done by hand, with very little help from modern technology. Women bake bread every morning in the traditional way. They haul firewood and animal feed. Men tend the fields, or else they are away in cities working.
When visiting these parts of the country, it can be hard to meet people. Those that work in tourism may speak French or English, but many others don’t. New opportunities are being created to not only generate income for locals, but also to introduce Berber culture and local ways of life to visitors. Sharing a meal in a family home or hiking with local guides are a few ways this is already being done.
In urban areas such as Marrakech and Casablanca, there are many people who are 100% Berber or have Berber ancestry. But Moroccan city life has been dominated by Arabs for centuries. It’s now very common to hear people use the term “Berber market” as a way of enticing people to visit their shops. However, most times these claims are simply a profit-driven ruse.
Unique Berber Cultural Holidays and Traditions
The Berber culture celebrates the same holidays as the rest of the country, such as Ramadan and Eid al Adha. But they also have their own unique holidays and celebrations.
Yennayer is the most well-known. It’s the Amazigh New Year, and is based on the Amazigh agrarian calendar. This is typically celebrated on January 14. A large meal (always including couscous) is prepared, and it’s seen as a good omen to marry on this day. Children are also encouraged to pick fruits and vegetables themselves as a sign of initiation into the agricultural life.
A lesser-known Moroccan cultural celebration is Boujloud. Taking place a few days after Eid al Adha and lasting for three days, this celebration has different interpretations throughout the country. Myths claim that the purpose is to show the battle of good vs. evil. Men dress up in goat skins, paint their faces with charcoal, and even attach hooves to their hands. The stranger they look, the better! Women and children sing, dance, and play music.
There are many other festivals and celebrations that happen around the country that aren’t exclusively Berber, but have a strong tie to the agricultural heritage of Morocco. Witnessing these ancient traditional celebrations while visiting Morocco is truly something special that every traveler should experience.
Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki is an American food and travel writer living in Marrakech, Morocco. She writes the website MarocMama, a fearless guide to food and travel, where she shares stories on food and culture from around the world.