The people of Morocco
The people of Morocco
The Moroccan population can be divided into two main groups: Arabs (some 60 %), who are primarily city-dwellers, and the Berbers (nearly 40 %), who live mainly in the mountains and countryside. This distinction is not always clear cut because many Berbers were Arabised. A few Moors still live in the south and east of the country.
The first Arabs to reach Morocco in the 7C were few in number. It was not until the 11C that the Beni Hilal, invading Arab nomads from Upper Egypt sent to Barbary by the Fatimids, increased the Arab population significantly. This was followed by the massive influx of Spanish Arabs in the 15C after they were forced to leave Spain by the Reconquista. The Arabs slowly converted the entire population to Islam and Arabic became the official language. Today most Arabs live in the major conurbations and in the northern coastal regions.
The word “Berber” comes from the Latin barbara, which means “he who is not acquainted with the Greco-Latin civilisation”, and refers to the country’s first inhabitants. Little is known about the Berbers’ origins, except that they lived all over North Africa from prehistoric times onwards.
Today the Berbers are a tribal population who live in the mountains and some parts of the desert. They can be broken down into three linguistic groups each of which has retained its own language and customs: the Rif in the northeast who speak Tarifit, the Shluh from the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas who speak Tachelhit, and the Berbers of the Middle Atlas who speak Tamazight.
They all have a strong cultural identity, often due to their isolated lifestyle. During a trip to Morocco, don’t miss the chance of admiring their architecture, costumes or legendary sense of hospitality. Even those who have moved to the cities remain very attached to their native village. It is estimated that there are over 10 million Berbers.
Saharan nomads with Arab, Berber and black African blood in their veins, the southern Moroccan Moors are often referred to as “blue men”, because of the dye of their indigo-coloured clothes which rubs off on their skin. Their turbaned heads, piercing eyes and regal bearing astride their dromedaries has captured the imagination of many a novelist and traveller. They can be encountered at Guelmim at the Saturday market where they come to sell their white camels. Watch out, however: this market has lost much of its former prestige and now attracts a certain number of false nomads dressed up to play the part. The blue men continue to live their nomadic existence, little affected by today’s modern world, as they travel around the southern and eastern reaches of the country.
Jews have been established in Morocco since the Phoenicians first invaded North Africa. From the 5C-3C BC, they took part in the gold trade which grew up after Carthage was founded. The inscriptions on the tombstones of Roman ruins, in Hebrew at Volubilis and in Greek at Salé, bear witness to the Jewish presence in Roman Morocco.
Between 1390 and 1492, thousands of Jews (20 000 in 1492), fled from Spain to Morocco and boosted the existing community which numbered some 70 000 people.
In 1956, independence brought a tide of emancipation to Judaism: the king proclaimed equality between Muslim and Jewish citizens. However, the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Zionist movement curbed this short-lived cohabitation. Between 1948 and 1956, 92 000 Jews left the mellah (traditional Jewish districts) for Israel and in 1993, only 8 000 still remained in Morocco. Nonetheless, the Jews remain very attached to this country which has never repudiated nor evicted them.
The other communities
Morocco’s black population, concentrated in the desert regions and the oases, originally came from sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, etc) where many sultans stocked up in slaves.
Many Andalucians persecuted during the Reconquista moved to Morocco permanently, mainly to the towns of Rabat and Salé. Four centuries later, Spanish settlers annexed the northern provinces following the Franco-Spanish treaty of 27 November 1912.
The European population fell sharply after the country’s independence and now amounts to little more than 60 000 people (compared to 800 000 in 1921 and 500 000 in 1954), most of whom are French nationals.