Are North Africans really “Arabs”?

1. Background

In August 2017, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi confirmed that his government would be pushing ahead with new laws that would allow women to marry outside the Muslim faith and grant them equal inheritance rights.

Praising Essebi’s controversial decision to reform the country’s laws on marriage, Dalenda Larguèche, an academic from Manouba University in Tunis, said that “with this new Tunisia, we are an example to the Arab world.”

Larguèche’s statement clearly indicates that she feels Tunisia, a country sandwiched in the middle of North Africa with Morocco and Algeria to the west, and Libya and Egypt to the east, is an Arab country with ties to the Arab world.

This is a sentiment that is also shared by many other Tunisians. After all, their country was the starting point of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in late 2010.

With the demonstrations came the resurfacing of a grassroots collective Arab identity, which stood in opposition to the authoritarian governance of the ruling elite.

As the protests spread eastwards from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, the Arab identity manifested itself in the chant “al-shaab youreed isqat al-nidham” (the people want the fall of the regime). This chant was not only universally understood by all Arabic speakers, regardless of their dialect, but it also reaffirmed the similarities of Arab dissidents when it comes to their shared experience.

Culturally, therefore, Larguèche was right in calling Tunisia an Arab country.

***

This has not always been the case. For most of history, the peoples of North Africa have not been of Arab ethnicity or descent.

The Maghreb region in north-western Africa (loosely comprising of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Mauritania) has historically been inhabited by the colonially-termed “Berber” (or Amazigh) people since circa 10,000 BCE.[1]

In north-eastern Africa, Egyptians have lived with their own Pharaonic past and Coptic language and culture since circa 3,100 BCE.[2]

The Arab people, on the other hand, were only first recorded in circa 900 BCE, and were indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, Syrian Desert and parts of Mesopotamia. Despite this, by the end of the 8th century CE, the Arab Islamic Empire had encompassed the entirety of North Africa.

As the Arab Rashidun Caliphate (631-661 CE) invaded North Africa, they brought with them not just Islam, but a new language and new customs.

The conquest of North Africa continued with the Arab Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE) and led to the growing Arab influence on the previously non-Arab populations of North Africa. With time, a process of Arabisation took place in North Africa: its people adopted the Arabic language, incorporated Arab culture into their lives and, albeit sometimes by force, adopted an Arab identity.[3]

***

2. “Arabisation” in North Africa

History has continued to reinforce the Arab identity of North Africa.

The first stirrings of a modern Arab identity grew in the late 19th century CE out of the tension between the Arab people and the ruling Ottoman Empire. The Arab nationalism that was born alongside the Arabs’ struggle for independence promoted the achievements of the Arab race and the glories of Arabic literature.

The call was founded in the Arab people’s desire to overthrow the Ottoman Empire and stretched from Algeria to Syria.

But it was the betrayal of Britain and France during the First World War that truly created a horizontal comradeship amongst Arabs from both North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Following the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, Arabs gained a new sense of unity and direction as they fought for independence against colonial powers.

It was then the Arab-Israeli conflict which cemented North Africa as politically, historically and ethnically Arab.

In the 1967 Six-Day War, belligerents from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya all came to support their Egyptian and Palestinian Arab “brothers” in the war against Israel.

***

Today, it is not just political ties and solidarity against common enemies which binds Arabs together. Arabs have their own customs, traditions and culture; and the people of North Africa are just as involved with these as the people of the traditional Arabian Peninsula are.

Not only are all the countries in North Africa members of the Arab League, founded in Egypt in March 1945, but they also all take part in the Arab Nations Cup. The football competition brings together 19 Arab countries from the Middle East and North Africa, fostering a sense of community and fellowship amongst Arabs.

In addition, one is just as likely to hear the strings of an Oud playing in Morocco as one is to hear it playing on the urban streets of Beirut.

***

However, identity is multifaceted, and to assume that the conquests of the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates led to a complete and uniform Arabisation of North Africa would be misleading.

Additionally, there are still communities across the Maghreb that still identify with their Amazigh roots, while whole North African countries speak an Arabic dialect called Darija that heavily features French and Amazigh phrases and is largely incomprehensible to some Arabs east of Libya.

Darija, in this sense, can be seen as the true product and manifestation of continued colonisation in the region. Nonetheless, Darija is becoming more widely understood and incorporated into general Arab linguistic culture due to the rise of young Moroccan talent being aired on popular Arab entertainment channels.

***

Though ‘al-shaab youreed isqat al-nidham’ may have transcended regional dialects, the phrase did not reach the westernmost point of North Africa as Morocco and Algeria were largely “spared” the uprisings their neighbours faced.

Going back further in history, Morocco only shares a fraction of the history of the Ottoman conquest that characterised Arab nationalism for much of the nineteenth century.

***

3. Conclusion

Across North Africa, countries and people alike have had their own history, developed their own culture, and indulge in their own customs. As a gateway to both Africa and the Middle East, the countries of North Africa often find themselves battling between multiple identities, whilst also developing identities of their own.

But it is undeniable that North Africa has strong ties with the Arabian Peninsula. Despite this, geneticists find that Moroccans that identify as “Arab” and Moroccans that identify as “Amazigh” share near-identical Arab-Amazigh blood.

This blood is predominantly Amazigh and also collectively resembles the geneticism of Iberians (modern-day Spain and Portugal).

Therefore, there is a combined history in colonial resistance; time has given North Africans a “pooled” culture, architecture and art; and, for the most part, they share a common language and common customs. Darija is even spoken in Malta.

Yet, homogenising North Africa as wholly Arab would sometimes ignore the region’s diversity in nations, cultures and ethnicities. In some respects that have a point: how “American” are “Americans”? Further, is it not also language and customs that define us as a people?

Identity is subjective. While North Africa can sometimes appear Arab on the surface, exactly how Arab North Africans are is ultimately down to each individual’s perceptions.

***

4. References

[1] Hsain Ilahiane, Historical Dictionary of the Berbers (2006), pg.112

[2] Niloofar Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (New York, 2003) pg.47

[3] Gordon Kerr, A Short History of the Middle East From Ancient Empires to Islamic State (2016), pp.32-36

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