Berber culture in Morocco

The Berber people refer to themselves by their indigenous name, Amazigh, meaning ‘free people’. As opposed to the name given to them by Romans, with Berber coming from the Latin for Barbarian. No wonder they want to avoid that name. Far from being barbaric, if you have the honour of having an Amazigh guide, tour manager, desert camp host, kasbah owner or waiter during your vacation in Morocco, you will discover that hospitality is at the core of Amazigh culture, and you can’t fail to be struck by it when you travel there.
I have never been hugged so much on vacation as during my Berber homestay. The women treated me like a long lost sister, and chatted openly about everything. It was very touching.
The Amazigh have been in North Africa as far back as 3000 BCE, and many can trace their lineage back to Yemen and other countries in the Middle East. In Morocco, over 80 percent of people identify as Berber or Amazigh, and the Atlas Mountains range, which dominates the country like a strong spine, is home to the majority. Most also identify as Muslims and, as well as speaking Arabic, they have their own language, known as Tamazight. It is interesting to note that although the majority of the population is Amazigh, their language has only been taught in schools since 2009.
Amazigh people & homes
Thank you in Tamazight = Ake issrebeh moulana
Hello in Tamazight = Manzakine or Salam
The Amazaigh people can be divided into three groups: the Riffians, the Chleuh and the Central Moroccan Amazigh and the majority are subsistence farmers managing small holdings with goats and sheep, growing fruits and nuts. They may also be weavers and fabric dyers, with Amazigh carpet making one of many their artisan skills. There are also nomadic communities, although the majority is based in mountain villages now, with traditional adobe houses often built like a compound, enclosing gardens and private outdoor space for artisan work such as weaving. Home is most definitely where the heart is in Amazigh culture, with multi generational families living together in a traditional, patriarchal way.
In the Atlas Mountains, the tradition is for farmers to bring livestock up to summer pastures which is why you will get no better walking guide than the Amazigh. They know these mountains like the back of their hands and they have immense respect for this tricky terrain, especially when it comes to water, a well known local expression being ‘where there is water, there is life’.
Morocco’s Berber people should not be confused with the Tuareg people, famous for their elegant indigo blue robes and headgear to protect them in the desert. Although these are also people of the Sahara, the Tuareg have their own language and live, for the most part, in Saharan Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkino Faso.

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Believing in their art
The Berber or Amazigh people are celebrated for their artistic skills, from pottery to weaving, jewellery to henna art and, in particular, their exquisite designs. For many artists, however, their work is seen as an almost meditative process where they get a chance to incorporate ‘baraka’, into their work. The concept of ‘baraka’ is deeply engrained in Amazigh culture and is best translated as ‘spiritual power’ or ‘power of the saints’. This concept dates from long before their conversion to Islam and it is basically all about keeping bad spirits at bay or staying clear of the ‘evil eye’, by using symbols, motifs and certain colours in their designs.
You don’t need to cover your head as a woman in Morocco, although I had great fun having a Berber woman teach me how to wrap a headscarf, and also how to do eyeliner the Berber way.
It is also believed that henna, oleander, sandalwood and myrrh have the same effect, which is why Amazigh women like to do henna designs on their skin. Even their impressive kohl eye makeup is considered a traditional way of gaining self protection through creativity. Traditionally, Berber women would have also had tattoos on their face to mark the rite of passage from adolescence into adulthood, but as tattoos are against Islamic law, henna is often used instead. Some Amazigh women also wear head coverings, called the tahruyt, which are often colourful and embroidered. These scarves are seen as an extension of this self expression through decorative art, now that tattoos are no longer allowed.
Berber museums
There are two museums of interest when it comes to Amazigh culture, both in Marrakech. The first is Tiskiwin Museum, which was founded by a Dutch anthropologist who lived here and who had an incredible collection of cultural artefacts. This is one of Marrakech’s best kept secrets, unlike the second Berber beauty which is in the heart of the Majorelle Gardens also in Marrakech. Get to that one early or late in the day to avoid the coachloads.
The Kasbah du Toubkal
The Kasbah du Toubkal has been part of Responsible Travel pretty much since we began, and won one of our first ever Responsible Tourism Awards in 2004. It is completely unique in that it works hand in hand with the local Berber community, is sensitive to all the local people's needs, and feels like walking into an - albeit large - Berber home, rather than a big European footprint being plonked in the middle of their homelands. They are co-founders of the Imlil Valley Association website, a network of people working tirelessly to ensure that tourism is of the responsible kind in this Berber region. One of its most impressive projects is Education for All which provides education for Berber girls after primary age.  Read more about the Kasbah du Toubkal here.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Wei Pan] [Berber women with donkey : David Rosen] [Village : Jenny Brown] [Weaving: Dan Lun] [Tuareg people: Alfred Weidinger ] [Carpets: Nancy Williams ] [Berber women tattoos: Nina_pic ] [Museum: Werner100359]