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Among the Berbers On Assignment

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Among the Berbers
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Among the Berbers @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Jeffrey TaylerPhotographs by Alexandra Boulat



Isolated in Morocco's High Atlas range, the mountain Berbers take pride in holding on to a traditional culture now largely lost to their urban kin. But life is still a hard climb in these rugged hills.



Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Storm clouds had given way to a scorching noontime sun as we descended a hairpin trail into a ravine of striated pink-and-yellow rock, heading toward a distant promontory atop which clustered the stone and adobe houses of the village of Tamalout, where Driss, my guide, had a friend, Hossein Ounaminou.

We came upon Hossein riding a bony mule down the trail outside the village. He was a gaunt, bearded man in his mid-50s. From under a threadbare black turban, his warm eyes and snaggletoothed smile conveyed pleasure at seeing Driss again, and he welcomed us to Tamalout. Hossein leaned down and shook our hands, after each shake kissing the tips of his fingers in accordance with local custom. Driss asked if we could stay at his house. Dismounting to walk with us, Hossein said he would have it no other way. In Berber culture, hospitality graces even the simplest of homes.

On the outskirts of the village we had passed a circular lot some 50 feet (20 meters) wide with a stout pole poking through a foot of cut barley. Three young men in turbans and sweaty white smocks were threshing the grain, using whips to drive a half dozen donkeys tethered in a line to the pole. As the animals plodded through the grain, the dust flew up and caught the sun like powdered gold. In the surrounding fields of wheat and alfalfa, men plowed by mule, reaped by hand.

As we entered the village, children saw me and cried, "Arrumi!" ("Roman!"), an offhand tribute to rulers 16 centuries gone and the name by which Berbers still refer to Westerners. Little appeared to have changed since the days of the Latins: Barefoot boys used sticks to prod sluggish cattle toward their pens; turbaned men sharpened scythes on whetstones; women trudged by, amphorae of sloshing water on their backs.

Hossein lived in a dwelling typical of Berbers in the High Atlas—a squat house with stone walls and a wood-raftered roof. The ground floor was a stable in which he quartered his mule, a cow, and a few scrawny chickens. In a room on the second floor, a tarnished bronze dagger dangled from a hook; from another hung a long-dormant clock. Carpets of faded orange, red, and green wool overlapped on the floor. To freshen the air, Hossein opened the windows, and in rushed flies from the stable. Shooing them away, we stretched out on the carpets as Hossein ordered unseen women in another room to prepare lunch.


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Multiple brides and grooms are married in a traditional Berber wedding (photograph above). Photographer Alexandra Boulat describes the blessed—and bustling—mass wedding she attended.



More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Though Berbers are the original inhabitants of North Africa, no one really knows where they came from. Genetic evidence seems to indicate that the Berbers are descended from several waves of immigration into the area, some dating as far back as 50,000 years. These immigrants came from diverse areas such as the Caucusus and the African coast of the Red Sea. Since Berbers are a mixture of different ethnic groups, the term "Berber" refers more to the language spoken and not necessarily to a specific race.
 
Berbers are first mentioned in writing by the ancient Egyptians who fought against the Lebu (Libyans) on their western borders. In 945 
B.C. the Lebu conquered Egypt and founded the 26th dynasty. Berbers also led the Islamic conquest of Spain in A.D. 711.  Famous Berbers include the Roman emperor Septimus Severus; Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler and explorer; and French soccer star Zinedine Zidane.
 
—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
Amazigh Cultural Association in America (ACAA)
www.tamazgha.org/
The ACAA works to save, promote, and enrich Amazigh (Berber) language and culture. The organization provides a link for Berbers living all over the world to connect and offers information for researchers and scholars about Berber culture.
 
Amazigh Voice
www.amazigh-voice.com/
This Berber newsletter keeps readers apprised of news about the Berber movement and supplies links to Berber culture—providing a network for the Berber diaspora to stay linked together.
 
Tazzla Institute for Cultural Diversity
www.tazzla.org
The Tazzla Institute conducts research on indigenous people of North America and North Africa (specifically Berbers) and produces documentaries about these cultures. It also works with UNESCO in documenting and preserving indigenous art and music.
 
Katherine Hoffman
www.cas.northwestern.edu/anthropology/faculty/hoffman.html
Hoffman is a professor of anthropology at Northwestern. She has spent years researching Berbers in Morocco, focusing on women and their contributions to preserving the Berber language and culture.
 
David Crawford
www.faculty.fairfield.edu/dcrawford/
Crawford is a professor of anthropology and sociology at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He has written many articles about Berber culture, all available on this website.
 
Cynthia Becker
www.stthomas.edu/arthistory/UndergradSite/Becker.htm
Becker is a professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her research explores the relationship between art, gender, and identity in North Africa, with a focus on Berber textiles, jewelry, and other forms of visual culture.

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Bibliography
Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
 
Keohane, Alan. The Berbers of Morocco. Hamish Hamilton, 1991.
 
Maxwell, Gavin. Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956. Hippocrene Books, 1984.
 
McGuinnes, Justin. Marrakech and the High Atlas Handbook. Footprint Handbooks, 2001.
 
Pennel, C. R. Morocco Since 1830. New York University Press, 2000.

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NGS Resources
Rainier, Chris. "Ancient Marks." National Geographic Adventure (November 2004), 82-5.
 
Herndon, David. "Morocco: Freewheeling With the Berbers in the Atlas and Sahara." National Geographic Adventure (July/August 2000), 78-83.
 
Weed, William Speed. "How to Buy into the Berber Culture." National Geographic Adventure (Spring 1999), 58-9.
 
Zwingle, Erla. "Morocco: North Africa's Timeless Mosaic." National Geographic (October 1996), 98-125.
 
Hunt, Carla, and Nik Wheeler. "Berber Brides' Fair." National Geographic (January 1980), 118-29.
 
Englebert, Victor. "Trek by Mule Among Morocco's Berbers." National Geographic (June 1968), 850-75.

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