Since time immemorial, North Africa has been inhabited by the indigenous people known as Imazighen*. These Berber populations, across northern Africa, have known a series of invasions and occupations that date back thousands of years, including those of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Spanish, the Turks and the French. Despite ceaseless efforts by each colonizer to erase and eradicate this indigenous culture, the latter not only survived but also constitutes the foundation onto which the other cultural layers were added. In addition, North Africa has also benefited from centuries-long contact with the Andalusian culture in the north and the sub-Saharan civilizations in the south. The Berber culture stretches from Egypt’s Siwa oasis in the east to the Canary Islands in the West, and from the Mediterranean shores in the north to the desert plains of the Sahara. The Berbers, whose total population is estimated at 25 million, are principally concentrated in Morocco and Algeria, with significant communities also living today in Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania (see appended map, page 21). Their language (usually referred to as Tamazight) is composed of a number of varieties, all of which are derived from the Afro-asiatic linguistic family. Berber groups inhabiting coastal North Africa today identify themselves by the terms Kabyles, Riffis or Chenwas. Others, living further inland are known as Chawis, Siwis, Chleuhs, Mozabites and Tuaregs (in the Sahara Desert). Many Berbers today are Muslim (essentially Sunnis belonging to the Maliki madhhab). Prior to conversion to Islam in the 8th century the Berbers had polytheistic and animistic religious practices.
World-renowned Berber authors from antiquity to our modern times, namely Saint Augustine, Tertullian, Apuleius, Arnobius, Franto, Saint Cyprian, Lactantius, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, Jean Amrouche, Kateb Yacine, Mouloud Mammeri, among others, have contributed immensely to world culture, but they are often inaccurately labeled in anthologies and history books as Roman, Arab, or French, depending on the period and the language they have used. In addition, until very recently, the Berber language (with its many dialects across North Africa) was not recognized as a national or official language in any of the countries where it was spoken and was not even allowed to be taught in schools. However, in both Morocco and Algeria the cultural status and historical importance of Berbers is now gradually being recognized by the governments of those countries.
Despite the recent emergence of Berber studies in North Africa and Europe as an important field of research and scholarship, academic focus on the Berber world is virtually absent in North America. No teaching or research programs devoted to Berber studies exist in any North American university today. For a number of years the University of California at Los Angeles offered a small-scale Berber studies program which was dependent on a single faculty member. However, since the retirement of Professor Tom Poncheon at UCLA, the only comprehensive teaching program in the United States devoted to the Berber world has vanished. Today, university courses focusing on Berber culture are few and far between, usually operating with marginal validation under the umbrella of either Middle Eastern Studies or Africana Studies departments. Given this dire situation, Oregon State University is committed to improving the presence of Berber studies in US institutions of higher education.
The paucity of teaching and research emphasis in the field of Berber Studies in the United States has, in part, contributed to current misunderstandings about the cultural personality of the entire North African region. Often confused with the Middle East and sometimes not well defined geographically, North Africa largely remains ignored and misunderstood, even among academics. Often categorized as the occidental fringe of the Arab world (the Maghreb), North Africa is rarely perceived from the vista of its Berber foundation. This foundation has profound genetic and biological roots: 60% of Moroccans are of Berber origin, as are 20% of Algerians. Many of North Africa’s Berbers do not primarily identify with Muslim civilization, nor are they necessarily drawn in any indigenous or even utilitarian way to Islam and Arabic, any more than they were to Catholicism and French. Often steering a course that avoided the dangerous waters of nationalism, and always accepting the cloak of multiple identities, Berber culture has been an ever prudent chameleon. In many ways it is because of this tenacity and modesty that it has simultaneously survived the torments of history and that it has not, heretofore, found its way into the university curriculum and into the mainstream of Western scholarship. In very practical terms, this means that an entire stratum of the Arab world (and specifically of the North African or Maghrebi world), remains on the educational sidelines. There is a need, therefore, to expand opportunities for teachers and researchers to gain a comprehension of the complexities of Berber North Africa. Berber culture is a well-worn, but necessary, key to both the understanding of the ancient Mediterranean basin and to the interpretation of the current dynamics of the Muslim sphere. It seems, particularly at this point in time, important to identify the cultural specificity of the Berber communities in Africa, and to disclose the potential importance of these communities in the dialog between Western and Mediterranean worlds.
For these reasons, it would be timely to give full consideration to the history and culture of Berber civilization, to trace its path from the earliest archeological evidence to its modern living form in the 21st century. A cultural exploration of Berber North Africa should include not only an understanding of its historical itinerary but also its contemporary nature revealed through cultural expressions such as literature, the plastic arts, crafts and music.
An NEH Summer Institute would constitute a first-time occasion for college and university teachers in the United States to be given the opportunity to consider the multiple dimensions of Berber North Africa. We propose to hold a four-week Institute at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, that will convene 24 college and university teachers from a range of disciplines seeking to situate Berber studies in their undergraduate or graduate coursework. The Institute will draw on the expertise of some of the leading scholars in the area of Berber studies.
The foremost practical goal of this project is to expose scholars and college faculty to the hidden face of this Berber world. This exposure should be particularly germane to those scholars conducting research in the field in North Africa and to teachers seeking to integrate Berber culture into their curriculum. For this reason, it is anticipated that prospective applicants will have ethnology-related backgrounds in the following academic fields: art history, Islamic studies, anthropology, human geography, Mediterranean cultural history, French and Francophone studies, linguistics, religious studies, music, and film studies.
The original name of the Berber people, meaning free men. Some activists prefer this name, as the word “Berber” is pejorative. It was derived from the term « barbari » that the Romans gave to the people they conquered.