There are 54 culturally diverse nation-states on the African continent, yet many Americans tend to perceive Africa as culturally and ethnically homogeneous. However, scientific research has demonstrated that there is more genetic diversity within Africa than between Eurasia and Africa itself. One prime example of the diversity of Africa can be found in the Northern country of Morocco, a nation that many consider the melting pot of the African continent. All of the cultures described below have rich histories that can be traced back to ancient times, and each are treasured, celebrated parts of a greater Moroccan culture. Here are six of those Moroccan cultures today.
Sanhaja Berber Women
Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Berber people, also known as the Amazigh (meaning proud raiders), were the first inhabitants of North Africa and are the indigenous people of Morocco. They fought against Roman, Arab and French invaders and have an long, rich history.
Today most Berber live in the South of Morocco, represent more than half of the Moroccan population and speak different yet similar languages depending on their location. These languages include Tarifit in the Rif of northern Morocco, Tamazight in the Middle Atlas region and Tashelheet from the High Atlas and Souss region.
The Berber people are known for their folkloric music, jewelry, tattoos and beautiful poetry.
Arab invaders conquered Morocco in the late seventh century and spread Islamic culture to the Berber natives. Despite the fact that most Arabs live in the northern regions of Morocco, Arab culture can be seen across the nation. Not only is Arabic the first language of Morocco and the ethnicity of the nation's leaders, but the religion of Islam, brought to Morocco by the Arabs, is followed by over 99 percent of Moroccans today.
The national dish of Morocco is couscous, which though mostly associated with Arab tradition is a common dish across the Maghreb. Classic Arab dress has become traditional Moroccan garb, consisting of caftans, djellabas and more.
Map French and Spanish presence in Morocco in 1912
During the 300 years of Roman occupation that ended late in the third century, Roman territory and influence extended to just north of Rabat, the present day capital of Morocco. The northern tip of Morocco known to the Romans as Mauretania Tingitana, present day Tangier, exported olive oil and wheat to Rome, and was the home to many Berber who had become Christian. However, today the population of Christians in Morocco is very small and anyone trying to convert Moroccans to Christianity can be punished by law.
Morocco, like every other African country, did not escape contemporary European colonization that began as early as the 15th century on the coasts of Africa and India. By the 19th century, Spain and France were the two major European powers that occupied Morocco and had the most recent impact on the nation's culture. The French protectorate controlled most of the country until 1956 when Morocco became independent, and soon thereafter regained most of the territory from Spain.
Although the country's first language is Arabic, about 85 percent of the population frequently uses Darija (the colloquial language) which has integrated French and Spanish words and phrases. Andalusian cultural influences can be seen in the ruins of 11th century mosques and architecture in the northern cities such as Fez, though the Spanish Protectorate controlled only about 1/10 of the country.
A Gnawa Festival
The Gnawa people are an ethnic group originally from the northern region of West and Central Africa known as the Sahelian region. With pre-Islamic African spiritual traditions, the Gnawa eventually adopted the Sufi order, a mystical spiritual version of Islam that focuses on peace and love and looking within. The famous 13th century Sunni Muslim Persian poet, popularly known as Rumi, Persian Sunni Muslim poet, as well as scholar of Islam and a jurist, founded the mystic Sufi order of Islam. The Gnawa people mix pre-Islamic African traditions with classical Islamic Sufism.
Gnawa music has attracted leading musicians from around the world, including Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin lead singer, for example.
The music is often accompanied by rituals with a specific purpose to connect with the spiritual world in order to heal. When Gnawa music began attracting droves of tourists, the Moroccan government publicized it on a government website and in 1998 launched the Gnawa music festival in the southern city of Essaouira.
A Fountain at the Temple Beth-El in Casablanca
The roots of the Jewish population in Morocco can be traced to four diasporas that took refuge in the country over a period spanning many centuries. While the faith has many unique traditions, ever since the fourth wave of Jewish immigration to Morocco, many aspects of their culture have meshed together with that of the Moroccan land they inhabited. The Moroccan city of Casablanca maintains the largest Jewish community along with the only Jewish museum in the Arab world.
Today Morocco's Jewish population numbers are small, yet many are optimistic about the future revival of the community and live in peace with Moroccan Muslims. The country is experiencing growth in Jewish-heritage tourism.
During Shabbat Jews in Morocco traditionally enjoyed a meal of wheat, meat and dried peas. Possibly the original slow-cooked meal, this Moroccan stew was prepared by cooking these ingredients slowly overnight at a low temperature. The name of the dish, known as dafina, refers to it being covered or smothered. Interested in the recipe? Click here!