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African identities

Arab North, Black South? A false separation

In political, academic and other analyses of Africa, the North is often either removed from the continent or treated as fundamentally different from “black” aka “real” Africa. The separation is not only false, but also damaging to African identity and unity.



When I see a picture or representation of the African continent, such as on jewellery or in/on artistic works, the depiction is usually of a single continent.  The North is not cut off.  There is no line drawn between North and what is otherwise considered “real” Africa.  That would be ridiculous.  Yet in political, academic and other analyses of Africa, the North is somehow removed from the continent, and this is not considered ridiculous.  Why would it be, when the North is typically considered fundamentally “different” from the rest of the continent and, it is said, more appropriately grouped with the Middle East, in the so-called MENA region?

North vs. sub-Saharan Africa [598 x 620]

Speaking Arabic does not make a North African an Arab
This separation of the North from the rest of Africa is done partly on the justification that the people in the region are Arab, and thus not African.  It is true that Arabs invaded northern Africa in the 7th century C.E., and colonised parts of the continent, and those Arabs were not indigenous Africans, but the north of Africa is not, however, Arab, and speaking Arabic does not make a North African an Arab.  As one commenter put it, to call North Africans Arabs “… would be like calling people from Hong Kong British, or Peruvians Spanish, I mean yeah the culture is similar and the likes of Tunisia aren’t that far from the Middle East but they’re not the same. You wouldn’t class the Greeks as Turks would you?”

North Africa and the Middle East [435 x 280]

The vast majority of North Africa and much of the Sahara itself are the lands of the Amazigh people, a large African ethnic group entirely distinct from Arabs or any other Middle Eastern or European people.  Contrary to what many believe, very little mixing actually occurred between Arabs and Imazighen or other North African populations. But the Imazighen have suffered under Arab dominance, and have been oppressed for their ethnicity and particularly their language, Tamazight.

Arab hegemony in North Africa, particularly through the Arab-Islamic regimes of the region, has sought to silence the indigenous Amazigh population, and in the process ally with Middle Eastern, Arab nationalist states.  Societally, some believe that taking on an Arab identity grants higher prestige than an African one, especially by those who accept the exogenously designated identity of a people derogatorily called ‘Berber’, a word etymologically related to ‘barbarian.’ (While Arab-identified North Africans may consider themselves to have more cultural, linguistic and religious connections with the Middle East, Imazighen generally prefer to distinguish themselves and their homeland, Tamazgha, from the Middle East or the “MENA region”. Imazighen see their culture as Amazigh, not Arab, and Amazigh culture is an African culture. There are many non-Arab societies and countries that are Muslim but have their own cultures: Senegal and Niger are overwhelmingly Muslim countries but we accept that they are African countries.  There are African forms of Islam that have developed in these societies, as well; likewise, in North Africa there are Amazigh forms of Islam.  Many Africans follow a religion that arrived through colonialism, whether this is Islam or Christianity, but they may not believe that this denies their ethnic identity). This dubious source of prestige is partly a consequence of Arab imperialism continuously and consistently painting Imazighen as “backwards,” “pagan” and “uncivilised”, thus imposing shame in identifying as Amazigh.  Taken further, this systematic attempt to destroy Amazigh identity and the Amazigh social group re-writes the history of North Africa by re-defining the region as “Arab-Islamic” and as a part of the “Arab world.” Many outside the continent now believe this to be true, and so do many on the continent, so the PR offensive (or brainwashing, if you prefer) has worked.

South Sudanese (on independence day) rally for recognition of their identities as African, not Arab.

South Sudanese (on independence day) rally for recognition of their identities as African, not Arab.

Déjà vu?
Have we not encountered this issue before, in Sudan (North and South)?  A conflict – albeit complex and multifaceted – of Arab and African identities, of forced Arabisation and opposing nationalisms? My intention is not to ignore economic, religious, and other factors of the Sudanese conflict and paint it solely as ethnic, but to point out that Africans have previously had to struggle with questions of Arab vs. African and North vs. South.  Issues of Arab racism toward Africans are hardly new, and arose again in 2011 during the Libyan Civil War when dark-skinned people in Libya were attacked and accused of being “African mercenaries.” Libya is an African country, but it has been dominated by Arab nationalists who have oppressed Imazighen and stifled the Indigenous African culture of Libya in favour of an imposed Arab-Islamic identity.

The separation of the North from “sub-Saharan” Africa depends on the idea of the Sahara as a vast, oceanic desert with no inhabitants, human migration or cultural exchange occurring across its borders.  One of the indigenous people of the Sahara is the Kel Tamasheq, known by outsiders as “Tuareg,” a sub-group of Imazighen. To many people of the Sahara, not just the Kel Tamasheq, the separation of supra- and sub-Saharan excludes them entirely.  A Hausa colleague from Niger once questioned: “If you are only speaking of sub-Saharan Africa, what am I? I am Saharan.”  There is a continuity of culture, language, migration and trade across the Sahara that is even stronger when we look at the history of the continent: the desertification of the Sahara never cut off exchange between regions.

Trans-Saharan trade in Northwest Africa

Trans-Saharan trade in Northwest Africa

Non-existent racial divisions
The supposed “difference” of the North implies also a sameness in all of “sub-Saharan” Africa, on the grounds that sub-Saharan is Black whereas the North is white or Arab, suggesting that all Black people are similar, or the same, simply by nature of their Blackness.  This, too, we have seen before, in the ubiquitous Western portrayals of Africa as an unchanging, timeless, homogenous “country.”  Why, then, can we not accept difference between any given regions or cultures? Are there not cultural differences between peoples of West and East Africa?  Or between Somalis and Oromos and Tigres?  Or even within the same ethnic group, such as Imazighen from the Rif or Nafusa or Souss?  Just as I also discover connections of music, dance, art and food with friends from Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Somalia.

Incorrect racial classifications of North African as “white” and/or “Arab” further serve to separate the continent and create a false division between Africans.  Due to this false separation, the Kel Tamasheq and other dark-skinned Imazighen are usually classified as black, while other Imazighen are considered white (or entirely erased and called “Arab”).  Can there be two racial groups within a single ethnic group, one black and the other white?  I am not sure, but it seems unlikely – and strikingly reminiscent of European colonial racism – to divide a single people based on external indicators – like color – which are not indigenous to that group.  Instead, Imazighen should determine the factors of belonging to the social group and should be united as one people based on their own criteria: language, ethnicity and culture.  As Meryam Demnati, a prominant Amazigh activist, has noted: we may come in all colours and shades, but what is important is our Amazigh identity.

Amazigh girls’ Despite regional differences these girls are all Amazigh, demonstrating some of the diversity in North Africa.

Amazigh girls’ Despite regional differences these girls are all Amazigh, demonstrating some of the diversity in North Africa.

To achieve real decolonisation and reject all forms of colonialism – Arab and European – in Africa, we must recognise the existence and belonging of the indigenous peoples of North Africa, the largest of which are the Imazighen.  The silencing of Imazighen has occurred precisely because of Arab dominance in the region, despite vigorous attempts to be recognised in their homeland and abroad.  Arab colonialism has been no less devastating than European colonialism to North Africa, although they have certainly taken different forms.

It is to the great Amazigh leader, and king of Numidia, Massinissa, that I have heard Imazighen attribute the saying “Africa for Africans.”  As young Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, we can learn from this and promote greater unity within our communities and across the continent as a whole.  Africa is one continent, a continent with a huge amount of internal diversity, as well as difference and similarity across its regions and cultures.  The separation of the continent into “Arab North” and “Black sub-Saharan” is not only divisive but false, misleading, unnecessary, counter-productive and damaging.