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Last Updated: Friday, 12 March, 2004, 15:30 GMT
Q&A: The Berbers
Musician Matoub Lounes has become a cultural icon
Algeria's Berbers revere slain singer Matoub Lounes

For centuries Berbers have fought to prevent their language and culture from being swamped by Arabs. Most numerous in Morocco, they are scattered across nine countries. Their voice has been most loudly heard, amidst outbreaks of violence, in Algeria.

Q: Who are they?

The Berbers are a non-Semitic people who since prehistoric times inhabited the Mediterranean coastline from Egypt to the Atlantic. They dominated North Africa until it was conquered by Arabs in the 7th century.

Ethnically, a majority of Moroccans and Algerians are Arabicised Berbers. Today it is more language and culture that set Berbers apart. Berber speakers account for some 50% of Moroccans and 30% of Algerians.

Q: Where does the name come from?

One theory derives 'Berber' from Barbaros, ancient Greek for 'Outsiders'.

Berbers call themselves 'Imazighen' (Free), plural of 'Amazigh'. They call the Maghreb 'Tamazgha', or Land of the Imazighen.

Q: What do they speak?

Tamazight belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family and is related to ancient Egyptian and Ethiopian.

The Moroccan government wants Tamazight taught in all schools within 10 years. It is recognised as a national language in Mali and Niger.

In 2003 the Algerian authorities also made Tamazight a national language. But Berbers there want it to have equal status, as an 'official language', alongside Arabic.

Where do they live?

Berbers are found in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania.

In Morocco and Algeria, they form groups with different dialects.

Moroccan groups (Berber names in brackets): Shleuh (Ishalhiyan), in the High Atlas, Tashalhit dialect; Imazighen (Imazighen), Middle Atlas/Eastern High Atlas, Tamazight dialect; Rifans (Irifiyan), Northern Morocco, Tarifit dialect.

Algerian groups: Kabyles (Taqbaylit), Kabylie region, Kabyle dialect; Chaouia (Ishawiyan), Eastern Algeria, Tashawit dialect; Mozabites (Imzabiyan), northern edge of Sahara, Tamzabit dialect; Tuaregs (Tamachaq), extreme south, Tuareg dialect.

Q: Where are the other populations?

Libya: In Jabal Nefusa, Zwara and Ghadamis.

Tunisia (just 1% of the population): In Djerba, Tataouine, Metmata and east of Gafsa.

Egypt: In the Siwa Oasis near the Libyan border.

Tuareg: Some 600,000 Tuareg Berbers live in Mali and 400,000 in Niger. Tuareg Berbers also found in Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Their total is put at 1.5-2.5 million.

Canaries: The indigenous people were Berber. The language survived till the Spanish invasion in the 15th century. The first World Amazigh Congress was held in Gran Canaria (Tafira in Berber) in August 1997.

Kabyle Berbers: Key dates
1963-65: Berber rebellion
March-April 1980: 'Berber Spring'
September 1994-April 1995: School boycott
June 1998: Singer Matoub Lounes killed
April 2001: Wave of unrest starts
June 2001: Citizens' Movement issues demands

Q: Who are the Kabyle Berbers?

This group is the most active in promoting Berber identity. Kabylie region, east of Algiers, is home to some 5 million Berbers.

It comprises the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira. Some 50% of neighbouring Setif, Bordj Bou Arreridj and Boumerdes provinces are Kabyle speakers. About half the 3-million-strong population of Algiers are Kabyles.

Q: Why conflict with the government?

Whereas Algeria's constitution says Islam is the state religion and Arabic the official language, the Kabyles see their cultural and linguistic heritage in pre-Islamic North Africa.

After Algeria gained independence in 1962, the Kabyles confronted the new government.

The Socialist Forces Front (FFS), founded by war hero Hocine Ait Ahmed, led a two-year rebellion from 1963 to 1965.

Q: What was the Berber Spring?

In March 1980 police stopped writer Mouloud Mammeri from entering Tizi Ouzou to give a lecture on ancient Berber poetry.

Students took to the streets in Kabylie region and later in Algiers. On 20 April security forces stormed Tizi Ouzou university.

These events, known as the 'Berber Spring', centred on the language issue, which has remained a focus of discontent.

The Berber Cultural Movement organised a rally in 1990 in Algiers to call for language recognition. The same demand was behind a school boycott in the Berber region from September 1994 to April 1995.

Who was Matoub Lounes?

Matoub Lounes was a singer who asserted the linguistic and cultural rights of the Kabyles.

He was killed in an ambush in June 1998, shortly after his latest album parodied the national anthem. His death sparked weeks of violent protests.

Q: What is the Citizens' Movement?

In April 2001 a student was killed in police custody in Tizi Ouzou, sparking riots which spread to other provinces.

Over 120 people are said to have died in clashes which continued for much of 2001.

A 'Citizens' Movement' emerged in the Berber provinces. In June 2001 the movement met in El Kseur (Bejaia Province), and drafted the El Kseur Platform. It listed 15 demands, including full recognition for Tamazight.

In 2004 Algerian Berbers threatened to boycott the presidential election over the language issue.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

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