IMILCHIL, MOROCCO // Deep in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, the ancient Berbers live on, defying a harsh environment, and remaining loyal to their traditions and way of life in some of the most hard-to-reach parts of the African continent.
Indomitable and proud, they call themselves the Amazigh, which is believed to mean “free people” or “noble men,” and trace their origins as an indigenous people in western North Africa to at least 10,000BC
They dislike the term Berbers, which stems from Latin and which they find insulting. They are among the many peoples the Romans called Barbarians, but they became the stuff of legend, giving the world famous names such as the medieval explorer Ibn Battuta, who travelled further in distance than Marco Polo.
Their home is the majestic Atlas, the largest mountain range in Africa. Amazigh villages are scattered across arid desert landscapes with burnt-orange rock, occasionally dotted with lush green slopes and surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Across North Africa, the Berbers number about 50 million. At least 15 million Moroccans are Amazigh, divided into different groups according to their dialects. While they speak the native Amazigh language of Tamazight, which has a numerous dialects and recently gained recognition as an official language in Morocco, many have adopted Arabic as part of a long process of Arabisation and Islamisation.
Today, they rely on cattle and agriculture as their main sources of income, and maintain a nomadic lifestyle closely resembling their ancestors. Some live in clay houses with no electricity or running water, while a few still dwell with their sheep and goats in remote mountain caves. Others live closer to the towns at the Atlas foothills, benefiting from modern amenities.
For much of the year, they face extreme weather conditions. The mountains are covered in snow in winter. In summer, the sun scorches what little crops they grow. When the streams empty during the dry season, the community bands together to dig underground water wells for irrigation.
Many Amazigh own mountain donkeys, often the only mode of transport across the rocky, unpaved roads that connect Berber villages.
That isolation has dashed 26-year-old Mohammed Tamejout’s hopes of finding a job away from home. He studied geography at the university in the Atlas city of Ouarzazate, expecting the degree would lead to a job. But three years after graduating, he remains unemployed and works on his family’s farm in Imilchil, surrounded by almond trees.
When the trees bloom, the farm becomes a sea of cotton-white almond blossoms amid green pastures. Mohammed says the idyllic scene doesn’t touch him.
“There’s no future for me here. If I don’t move to the city, I’ll remain a farmer for the rest of my life,” he said.
Follow Mosa’ab Elshamy at @mosaaberizing