Arabs and Berbers in History Textbooks

Over the course of four decades, the content of Moroccan history textbooks has barely changed, leaving room for only minor adaptations and adjustments to the textbooks’ contents, such as errata. The basic narrative template within each textbook has thus remained unaltered. The narrative in national history textbooks located the Berbers’ origins in the Middle East and hence accorded Arab origins to the Berbers, albeit in a more primitive state. The Berber did not disappear after the end of colonization; it rather remained a signifier in the state’s nationalism-in-reverse (Silverstein, 2002). Historical narratives were adjusted to meet the needs of national unity and identity. After independence, historians could not erase the Berbers. The French view on Arab-Berber relations had been propagated in schools and among the urban and rural elites. It was a matter of incorporating and interpreting the presence of the Berbers in such a way that a Berber past would not be problematic: the Berbers were to remain ‘other’ and non-Arab, but at the same time they had to be incorporated into an Islamic and Arab nation. The Berber had to be assimilated into the historical destiny of an Arab and Islamic nation (McDougall, 2003, 2006).

Therefore, national historians underlined the Canaanite origins of the Berbers, providing them with a distinct genealogy that linked them to the Arabs as their distant ‘cousins’ (McDougall, 2003: 72). Ibn Khaldun had located the Berbers’ origins in Mesopotamia. Some French ethnologists, not all, had supported this thesis. Historians thus struck a balance between relatedness with Arabs on the one hand and indigenousness on the other, albeit in a very distant, obscure past. The first Berber is Arab-Islamic historiography’s true ‘noble savage’ (McDougall, 2003: 75). Maghrebi historiography thus inverted the French discourse on civilization and replaced ‘the French’ with ‘Arabs’. There had been Arab-Berber unity all along. Islam was an important turning point in national history. Islam salvaged and perfected both ethnic groups.

A narrative of the ‘mixing’ of races lies at the basis of Moroccan national identity and civilization. In Algeria, colonial politics of assimilation had resulted in a reconceptualization of the West and the ‘Algerian’ national spirit was now thought of as fundamentally different from Europe. Uniting Berbers and Arabs under the umbrella of ‘Islam’ did, however, not mark the beginning of history; in Algeria, according to McDougall (2006), it rather signified its end. This set out the principles and terms under which one could interpret what would follow after the unification established by the coming of Islam. In fact, in Maghrebi national historiographies, there is little change after the establishment and rooting of Islam: there are only outside threats, seen as violence against the nation and as ‘civilizational’ violence. Colonialism is regarded as such a form of violence. Islam acts as a binding factor of the new ‘mixed race’, from which it also gathers its strength as a nation.

According to this Arab-Islamic master narrative, indeed, history ends with the arrival of Islam. Therefore the Berbers are accorded a negligible role in history and are hence cast and caught in a time before Islam, before civilization and before history. Not surprisingly, it is this specific dimension of time in the narrative construction of Berber identity which has been most contested by political opposition in the Maghreb. National histories tend to stress the common origins of the members of the national community, imbuing history with uniqueness and community with destiny. This uniqueness might be obtained through stories stressing the nation’s ethnicity and religion. In so doing, national histories are always excluding others (Lorenz, 2010).

National identity is equally consistent in that it undergoes change (Lorenz, 2011; see also Ricoeur, 1992). National narratives on the Berbers’ pres?ence were thus plotted as linear, progressive stories and secularized versions of historical destinies (Lorenz, 2011). As an ethnic minority in independent Morocco and Algeria, Berbers were simultaneously rendered as ‘other’ because they were different from the Arabs. At the same time, they were conveyed as being part of the Arab and Islamic nation, minimalizing their cultural difference. There had been no substantial historical break with the coming of the Arabs and Islam, as the Berbers had originated from the very same region. Islam was seen as a uniting factor in national histories. Moreover, the idea of progress of history is linked to the Islamic ‘awakening’ and integrity of the national territory.

In My lessons in history, a Moroccan history textbook that has been used from the early eighties onwards in primary education, the origins of the Berbers in Morocco is treated. The subject of history in primary schools was taught in Arabic, not French. In the third chapter, The ancient populations of Morocco and their contact with Mediterranean peoples, Moroccan children are introduced to the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines. A fourth chapter discusses the advent of Islam in Morocco and the ‘Islamic opening’ in Al-Andalus. Afterwards, chapters are built around dynastic successions: the foundation of the Idrissid dynasty and the creation of the Moroccan nationstate by Idris II. Then, the relations between Morocco and Europe during the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution in Europe and colonial empires and ‘the Moroccan crisis’ during the First and Second World Wars, are treated thematically. Particular attention is paid to the exile of Mohammed V and Moroccan independence. The textbook’s last chapters discuss the kingship of Hassan II.

The third chapter thus summarizes the presence of ancient ‘peoples’ in the Maghreb and devotes equal attention to each population, forming an ‘ethnic map’ of Morocco. The narrative (compare McDougall, 2003) balances between primordiality and hybridity. The Maghreb is considered as a ‘mixed’ region, which is nevertheless comprised of an original substratum that can justify the nation’s Arab-Islamic identity: all of these ‘peoples’, including the Berbers, originated in the Middle East. Young Moroccan citizens were hence taught that the first peoples inhabiting Morocco originated from the Arab peninsula, from Yemen in particular, allegedly fleeing from the war with the Canaanites.

These distinct groups interacted with each other and thus created the Barbar, the Barbarians (compare Maddy-Weitzman, 2011). The Berbers called themselves Amazigh in their Berber language, meaning ‘free people’. The word ‘Barbar’, the author of the textbook My lessons in history explains, was used by Romans to name these groups. According to the Arabs that would come to North Africa, he further explains, the name meant ‘sons of Barbar’. The Berbers were not treated as one group in the textbook but as several smaller groups. The author distinguished between sedentary and nomadic Berbers. The first practiced agriculture, the second did not and lived off their cattle.

Furthermore, the book asserts that the Berbers are to be divided in three dialect groups: Tashelhyit-, Tamazight- and Tarifit-speaking Berbers. These dialects are ‘unintelligible’, the book asserts, because they are based heavily on the sounds ‘b’ and ‘r’. All three dialect groups are perceived as ‘Barbar’. The Berbers are represented as ‘simple’ people who are very much dependent on their own ‘traditional’ techniques and lifestyles. Within these groups, there are tribes headed by a sjeikh who unites them in times of war. The textbook notes that the Berbers are ‘equally courageous and noble’ in times of war. It is stressed that they are ‘good people, just like the Arabs’. Their psychical appearance is depicted and detailed; the textbook then focuses on their pagan religion. Tapestry and tajines are considered ‘typical Berber handicrafts and products’.

The narrative on the Berbers’ origins is followed by the story that the Romans colonized Africa. However, they were unable to penetrate into the mountainous areas. The Romans had a racist attitude and they focused on the economic development of the Maghreb. Christian and Jewish beliefs were propagated among the local populations, but—so the book states—traditional beliefs survived. From then on, the book directs attention to the Arabs and no longer to ‘Berbers’ or ‘local populations’. When the book details the coming of the Vandals and the Byzantine Empire, we find a story about ‘the Kahina who goes by the name of Dahia a woman who was at war against the Arabs. The latter destroyed those who were against Islam, the Berbers. The Berbers, the book tells us, were the ones who had previously obstructed foreigners from colonizing ‘the ancient Berber lands’. Hassan murdered the Kahina in 82 hijra (year-numbering system of the Islamic calendar starting in 622 CE, according to which 82 hijra corresponds with 701 CE). After the defeat of the Kahina, the author stresses the Berbers’ initial resistance against converting to Islam. However, after they had converted, they propagated Islam with ferocity. This culminates in the historical justification and narrative on Al-Andalus and the armies led by Tarik Ibn Zyad. The textbook’s antagonists in this particular chapter are the Romans, Vandals and Byzantines but not the Berbers. We read how the Berbers were acknowledged for defending their territory and the safeguarding of its integrity against foreign invaders. While the difference between Berbers and Arabs is maintained, it is also toned down. They are united as Muslims.

According to James Wertsch (2002, 2008a, 2008b), narratives are the cultural tools that we apply to remember. He argues that, in order to be able to remember, we must story the ‘memory matter’. Memory matters as such are not storied. This often happens dialogically. Such narrating relies on the application of templates and formats. In the case of the origins of the Berbers, stories were dialectically narrated through the categories of Arab Muslims and Berbers. In the official narrative, the coming of Islam and Arabs signals a moral evaluative point and the definition of what it meant to belong to the nation and to be a Moroccan citizen.

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