Part Four/North African Agricultural Civilization/Ancient Egyptians

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also (a) the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary
(b) the Berbers mind-mapping diagram

Part Four
North African Agricultural Civilization
— 15 —

Since late Paleolithic times the Mediterranean littoral of North Africa has been inhabited by people of Caucasoid race. Sometime after 4000 B.c. following a transitional Mesolithic period called Capsian, they acquired cultivated plants and domesticated animals from Egypt and entered a Neolithic phase. In the second millennium B.C. they received metals from the same source. When the Phoenicians and Greeks, and later the Romans colonized the North-African coast, they found the region occupied by a people of comparatively homogeneous culture known collectively as the Berbers. These had occupied a few marginal oases but in general had penetrated only slightly into the Sahara Desert. In the west, however, they extended somewhat farther south and had even settled the Canary Islands. In physical type the Berbers resemble the Mediterranean subrace of southern Europe, although they appreciably exceed the latter in average stature and show a somevvhat higher incidence of blondness in beard, hair, and eyes. Their languages, which are so closely related as to be almost mutually intelligible, constitute the distinct Berber subfamily of the Hamitic linguistic stock.
Though they had withstood earlier foreign invasions with considerable success, the Berbers were shattered by the Arab conquests of the seventh century and particularly by the mass Bedouin immigrations beginning in the eleventh century. Some fled or were driven into the desert, where they in turn displaced or subjugated the indigenous Negroes. Others submitted, becoming Arabized in language and to some extent racially mixed.
All, without exception, embraced Islam. Nearly thirteen centuries of acculturation have brought about such a degree of fusion and assimilation that North Africa today must be classed as an integral part of the great Middle Eastern culture area. Berber speech survives, as shown in Map 11 below, only in mountain fastnesses and other relatively protected pockets in the original homeland and in areas of dispersion in the desert. Although some groups who have adopted the Arabic language are still basically Berber in culture and some Berber speakers are strongly Arabized, it is nevertheless generally true that the tribes who have retained their original language have also preserved more of their ancient customs. We shall therefore adopt a strictly linguistic classification in segregating the Berbers from the Arabs in North Africa. The peoples who still speak Berber, at least in part, fall into the following twenty-nine groups.

Map 11. Areas of Berber Speech

  1. Atta (Air Atta), with the Yahia (Ait Yahia) . These tribes are akin to the Beraber and, like the latter, are transhumant pastoralists. Many, however, have established themselves in the plains as “protectors” of the sedentary Drawa, and some engage in the desert caravan trade. They number about 50,000.
  2. Beraber, including the Idrassen, Ndhir (Ait Ndhir, Beni Mtir), Seri (Air Seri), Serruchen (Air Seghrouchen), Sokhman (Ait Chokhman), Yafelman (Ait Iafelman), Yussi (Ait Youssi), Zaer, Zayan (Isaian), Zemmur, and other tribes of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Though they have permanent agricultural settlements, most of them also practice extensive transhumance. Their population was reported in 1921 as about 450,000.
  3. Drawa, including the Dades (Ait Dades), Mesgita (Mezguita), Seddrat (Ait Seddrat), and Zerri (Ait Zerri, Uled Jerri) tribes as well as the Arabized and detribalized residents of the districts of Fezwata, Ktawa, Mhammid, Ternata, and Tinzulin. All are sedentary date cultivators living in walled towns along the Dra River and its tributaries in southern Morocco. They number at least 150,000.
  4. Duaish (Idaouich). This tribe of semisedentary millet cultivators and sheepherders in the French Sudan is culturally indistinguishable from the Arabic-speaking Zenaga tribe except that about 4,000 of its members still speak a Berber language.
  5. Figig (Figuig), embracing the 10,000 inhabitants of ten fortified, date-growing oasis towns on the upper Zusfana River in the Algerian Sahara.
  6. Filala, including the inhabitants of the river oases of Ferkla, Gheris, Tafilalet, and Todga in southeastern Morocco. They number more than 100,000, occupy several hundred walled towns, and raise dates and other crops.
  7. Gadames (Ghadames, Rhadames), including the approximately 5,000 inhabitants of the oasis and important caravan center of Gadames in western Libya.
  8. Guanche. The aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands.
  9. Jalo (Gialo), including the sedentary Modshafra, Suaya, and Wadshili (Uadschili) tribes of the oases of Jalo in eastern Libya. They number about 10,000, but only the W adshili of Augila still retain their Berber speech.
  10. Jerba (Djerba, Gerba), including the 40,000 inhabitants of the island of Jerba in southeastern Tunisia. They are sedentary cultivators of cereals and fruits and, like the Mzab and Nefusa, belong to the schismatic Ibadite sect of Islam.
  11. Jofra (Djofra, Giofra), embracing the sedentary inhabitants of the Libyan oases of Forgha, Jofra (with Solma and Wadan), and Zelia. They number about 6,000 and are linguistically akin to the Jalo and Siwa.
  12. Kabyle, including nearly a million sedentary cultivators in a compact section of coastal Algeria.
  13. Marmara. A small remnant tribe in the Tabaga Mountains of southern Tunisia.
  14. Menasser (Beni Menasser), including the remnant tribe of this name in the Cherchel region of coastal Algeria and the even smaller (and unmapped) islands of Berber speech in the Dahra, Mascara, Ouarsenis, and Teniet regions.
  15. Mzab (Beni Mzab, Mozabites) , including the sedentary inhabitants of Berrian Guardaia, Guerara, and other date-growing oases of the Ued Mzab region of the Algerian Sahara. They belong to the heretical and puritanical Ibadite sect of Moslems and number about 30,000.
  16. Nefusa (Nafusa, Nefousa) including the Berbers of the Ibadite sect and some intrusive Arab tribes who occupy the Nefousa Mountains of Tripolitania. They number about 45,000 and subsist mainly by agriculture.
  17. Rif (Riffians), including the Metalsa (Mtalsa) and Znassen (Beni Iznacen) tribes and numerous subtribes of the Ghomara (Ghomera), Riffian, and Senhaja (Sanhadja) nations occupying the mountainous Rif region of northern Morocco. They number about 700,000 and subsist by cereal agriculture.
  18. Shawia (Chaouia), embracing the inhabitants of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria. They are sedentary cereal cultivators and numbered 126,000 in 1926.
  19. Shluh (Chleuch), including the Aghbar (Achbar), Fruga (Frouga), Gedmiwa, Glawa (Glaoua), Gontafa (Gentafa, Goundafa, Gundaffa), H aha, Hawara (Haouara), Jerrar (Ait Djerrar), Ksima, Mamud (Ida ou Mamoud), Massar (Ait Massar), Menaba (El Menaba, Mnebba), Mentaga (Imentagen), Mesgina (Imssegin), Mtuga (Imtuggen, Mtioua, Mtougga), Ntifa (Entifa), Seksawa (Iseksawan, Seksioua) , Semlal (Ida ou Semlal), Semmeg (Ait Ssimig), Shtuka (Chtouka), Tanan (Ida ou Tanan), Unein (Ounein), Uzgita (Ousgita) , Zal (Ida u Sal) ; Ziki (Ida u Siki), and numerous other tribes of the Grand Atlas, the Anti-Atlas, the intervening valley of the Sons River, and the adjacent coast of Morocco. They number over a million and are sedentary cereal cultivators.
  20. Siwa, including the sedentary inhabitants of the oasis of Siwa in western Egypt. They grow dates and olives, and number about 4,000.
  21. Tasumsa, with the Hadj (Ida-u-el-Hadj), Hassan (Idab-el-Hassan), and Tendega. These seminomadic Mauritanian tribes form part of the Arabic-speaking Trarza nation, from whom they differ chiefly in the fact that some 13,000 of their 29,000 members still preserve their original Berber speech.
  22. Tekna (Tekena), including the Aglu (Ahel Aglou), Akhsas (El Achsass), Azuafidi (Azouafit), Bamrane (Air Ba Amran), Bella (Ait Bella), Bra him (Air Brahim), Iaggut (Ait Djagut, Djeggut, Iggout, Jagut, Yakout), Izargien (Asergiin, Izerguiin), Jcmel (Aid Djemel, Ait Yemel) , Lhassen (Air Lahsen), Mejjat (Ait Medjat, Mojat), Musawali (Air Moussa ou Ali), Sahel (Ahel Sahel, Ait Sahel), Usa (Alt Jussa, Ait Oussa), and numerous other tribes of extreme southwestern Morocco, Spanish Ifni, and northern Rio de Oro. They number about 200,000 and are linguistically akin to the Shluh, from whom they differ chiefly in being more nomadic.
  23. Tuareg (Touareg), including the Ahaggaren (Hoggar Tuareg, Ihaggaren, Kel Ahaggar), Antessar (Kel Antessar), Asben (Air Tuareg, Kel Air) , Aulliminden, (Awellimiden, Oulliminden), Azjer (Adjeur, Ajjer, Kel Azdjer), Ifora, Ihajenen (Gat Tuareg, Ghat, Rhat), and other tribes of the central Sahara north of the Niger River. They number about 200,000, of whom more than half are Bella or Negro serfs.
  24. Tuat (Touat), including the sedentary inhabitants of the oases of Gurara, Kerzaz, Tidikelt, and Tuat in the Algerian Sahara, together with the Khebbache (Ait Khebbache) and other neighboring seminomadic tribes. They are primarily date cultivators and number about 50,000.
  25. Udalan (Oudalen, Wadalen), with the Igwadaren, Irreganaten, Logomaten, and other Tuareg tribes that have penetrated in recent centuries into the region south of the Niger River. They number about 100,000, largely Negro serfs.
  26. Uregu (Ait Oureggou), with the Feqqus (Ahl Feqqous) and Tinerst (Ait Tinerst). These small tribes are sedentary tillers on the middle Moulouya River in eastern Morocco.
  27. Warain (Ait Warain, Beni Ouarain). This seminomadic tribe, numbering about 100,000, inhabits the eastern part of the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
  28. Wargla (Ouargla), embracing the inhabitants of the oasis of Wargla in the Algerian Sahara. They are sedentary cultivators and formerly played an important part in the trans-Saharan caravan trade.
  29. Zekara (Zkara), with the neighboring Bekhti (Uled Bekhti), Chebel (Beni Chebel), Yala (Beni Yaala), and Zeggu (Beni Bou Zeggou) of eastern Morocco and the Snus (Beni Snous) across the border in Algeria. They are semisedentary and number about 50,000.

To comprehend original Berber culture, we must find some way of peeling off, so to speak, its Arab veneer. This feat is facilitated by the fact that we possess early accounts of the now extinct Guanche of the Canary Islands, who were never subjected to Arab influence. Until conquered by the Spaniards in the late fifteenth century, they had been almost completely isolated from the mainland by their lack of boats for several millennia and thus preserved into recent historical times a genuine Neolithic culture, unaffected by any of the innovations in the arts that have occurred since the discovery of metalworking. Though its descriptions leave much to be desired, Guanche culture provides us with a solid base line of unusual historical depth.
Cereal agriculture formed the basis of subsistence, with barley as the staple and possibly also wheat. The sources also mention figs and beans but no other crops. The Guanche kept goats, sheep, pigs, and dogs, ate the flesh of them all, and used the milk of the first two to make butter and cheese. They did very little hunting or fowling but gathered wild plants to some extent and augmented their diet substantially with fish, which they caught by means of hook and line, nets, harpoons, and poison. Men did the hunting and fishing, but both sexes participated in agricultural work.
A bride was fattened up for her wedding, and the groom paid a brideprice in livestock. Wealthy men on the island of Tenerife practiced polygyny, and Lanzarote women are reported to have been polyandrous, cohabiting for a month with each husband in rotation, but these constituted exceptions to the prevailing rule of absolute monogamy. Marriage was permitted between first cousins, and in the ruling family of Tenerife even between brother and sister.
The Guanche inhabited compact villages of rectangular stone houses with flat roofs. These were aggregated into districts—one or several to an island-under paramount chiefs. Beside the chief stood a high priest, who also acted as judge. A council of nobles, belonging to a hereditary class distinct from commoners, assisted the ruler. Since succession to the chiefship on certain islands followed the female line and since a man’s sisters’ sons regularly inherited his movable property, most authorities have concluded that the Guanche were matrilineal in descent.
The Berber-speaking peoples now inhabiting sections of the Sahara and adjacent Sudan, whence they were driven or carried by the Arab invaders, have undergone so profound a cultutal readjustment to the altered conditions of life that their ethnographic descriptions can be utilized only with extreme caution for purposes of reconstruction. In the case of the Tuareg and Udalan, the adaptation to a desert environment has involved so many genuine innovations, as well as borrowings from both the indigenous Negroes and the Bedouin Arabs, that we shall treat them separately in Chapter 53. In the more rugged mountain regions of their original habitat, however, the Berbers have been able, in greater or lesser measure, to resist Arab political and cultural penetration and to cling conservatively to many of their ancient ways. In attempting to isolate indigenous Berber culture we have therefore depended primarily upon descriptions of the mountain tribes, which are particularly satisfactory for the Beraber, Kabyle, Rif, and Shluh, and have used other sources principally for supplementation.
Since the separation of the Neolithic Guanche, the mainland Berbers have acquired the plow, improved techniques of irrigation, and a vast array of new cultivated plants. These include practically all those known to the ancient Egyptians and those introduced into North Africa in Greco-Roman times (see Chapter 18) as well as a fair number of Sudanic and American origin. Barley and wheat, however, remain the staples, supplemented to some extent by other grains, especially maize, millet, and sorghum.
Arboriculture generally ranks second in importance to cereal agriculture and fre quently surpasses it. Thus figs and olives are the staples of the Nefusa and some Kabyle, and the date palm among most oasis dwellers.
The mainland Berbers have likewise acquired a number of domestic animals unknown to the Guanche: cattle, horses, donkeys, mules, camels, chickens, and bees, as well as a few cats, pigeons, and rabbits. Only rarely, however, do any of these rival sheep and goats in importance, the chief exception being the place of cattle among the Rif. The importance of the pig in both ancient Egypt and the Canary Islands suggests that this animal, whose flesh constitutes an abomination in the eyes of all good Moslems, may also have played a prominent role in the economy of the Berbers prior to the introduction of Islam. A few isolated facts lend support to this inference. Thus the heterodox Zekara still eat pork, and a few pigs are kept even today by the Zaer tribe of Beraber and, surreptitiously, by the Rif.
The native Berber economy rests on a fine balance between animal husbandry and agriculture. Every tribe, without exception, depends heavily upon domestic animals for burden and usually draft, for meat, for hides and wool, and for milk and dairy products; nor is there a single undisplaced tribe that does not rely upon agriculture for a substantial portion of its subsistence. Even those that practice extensive transhumance, like the Beraber, have permanent settlements where the majority of the population lives throughout the year while a minority accompanies the flocks to the mountains in summer, to the plains in winter, or both. In contrast to most other areas of pastoralism in the world, it is the sedentary population that controls the land. Districts grant seasonal grazing rights to one another through reciprocal agreements. Unlike the Bedouin Arabs, the Berbers did not divorce pastoralism from agriculture. Historical accounts, to be sure, frequently mention Berber nomads, but they were only seminomads, attached to permanent agricultural settlements and resorting only seasonally to transhumant pastoralism. Until a thousand years ago, when a few of them learned differently from the Arabs, they never adopted an independent pastoral mode of life.
Hunting and gathering rarely add significantly to the food supply. Fishing, on the other hand, assumes importance wherever geographical conditions permit, as among the Drawa, Jerba, Rif, Shluh, and Zekara. The Berbers engage extensively in commerce and maintain regular markets nearly everywhere. It was they, indeed, who first initiated the trans-Saharan caravan trade, probably as early as the third millennium B.C.
In the division of labor by sex the men do the hunting, fishing, and herding, whereas gathering, shellfishing, and milking, if we may judge by fragmentary information, are assigned to women. Men alone engage in agricultural work in the oases and other regions of strong Arab influence, but women assist them to a substantial extent in all the less acculturated Berber tribes.
Marriage regularly involves a bride-price, paid sometimes in livestock, sometimes in money. The fact that in a number of tribes, including the Shawia, Shluh, and Zekara, the bride’s father does not retain the marriage payment but turns it over to his daughter as a dowry suggests that this may once have been the general Berber practice. A similar inference can perhaps be drawn from the custom of fattening up a bride for her wedding, which is reported for tribes as remote from one another as the Guanche, Jerba, and Tuat. T he marriage of first cousins is permitted or even favored. This might be attributed to Arab influence were it not for the fact that it is reported even for the isolated Guanche and for the additional fact that the Rif, who allow other cousin marriages, forbid a man to marry his father’s brother’s daughter, though such a union is regularly preferred by the Arabs.
Particularly striking, in view of the general acceptance of Islam, is the strong preference for monogamy among nearly all Berber peoples, including even the oasis dwellers and the Tuareg. Polygyny is reported only for the Jerba, the Kabyle, the Rif, and a few scattered Beraber and Warain tribes. In most of these cases, moreover, it is confined to a kw wealthy men or results, as among the Rif, from the operation of preferential levirate. So firmly held is the monogamous ideal that it has even been adopted by some of the intrusive Arabs.
Nuclear families are reported to be independent social groups only among the Mzab. Elsewhere they are aggregated into patrilocal extended families, each with a patriarchal head. An extended family consists ordinarily only of the head, his wife and unmarried children, and his married sons with their families. It usually breaks up with the death of the father, but occasionally brothers continue to live together even thereafter. The group may occupy a single house, as among the Nefusa and Shluh; a compound, as among the Kabyle; or a cluster of adjacent dwellings, as among the Beraber and Rif.
If matrilineal descent once prevailed among the Berbers, as the Guanche data suggest, it must have disappeared long ago, for no traces survive among the mainland tribes. The Tuareg, to be sure, have recently evolved a peculiar type of matrilineal system under a very special set of circumstances, to be described in Chapter 53, but all other tribes observe the patrilineal rule today. Their forms of social organization, indeed, reveal a striking uniformity. The fundamental unit is a small patrisib or major lineage, usually called a “bone” (ighs), which is typically localized as a clan in a hamlet or small village, or in a ward, or quarter, of a larger settlement. The sib is always composed of a number of minimal pantlineages, each the core of an extended family and sometimes, but not invariably, also of intermediate minor lineages. Sibs are never exogamous and are often preferentially endogamous, but in some tribes, e.g., the Rif and Shluh, exogamy prevails within the component lineages. The indigenous system appears not to be a truly segmentary one, for when a segment removes to another community the kinship tie is soon forgotten, and no distinctions are recognized between senior and junior lines. Cousin terms of the Omaha type are reported for the Semlal tribe of Shluh, and of the descriptive type for the Siwa. Groups larger than the sib, e.g., the community, the district, and the tribe, are political rather than genealogical units. Although a fictional kinship tie may be invoked to cement them, this is not typical and probably reflects Arab influence. Beyond the sib, the bonds that unite society are primarily territorial.
The Berbers in general recognize private property in movables and in cultivated land but only collective rights in grazing grounds and forest. Inheritance, like descent, is patrilineal. Sons divide equally the estate of the father. Daughters are usually excluded, even though it is necessary to use some fiction to circumvent the Koranic law, —which prescribes that they shall receive half shares. Distinctions in wealth are widely reported, and poor men often tend the herds or work on the lands of the rich for a share of the product.
Except for differences in wealth, often only moderate, the Berbers are remarkably egalitarian. Although a distinct noble class, as reported for the Guanche, doubtless also existed in the petty Berber states of pre-Arab times, no distinction between nobles and commoners is recognized today in the tribes that still occupy essentially their original habitat. Serfdom is absent in the same regions, and even slavery is undeveloped, rare, or lacking entirely. Only occasionally, too, do we hear of despised and endogamous outcaste groups, e.g., smiths, musicians, and town criers among the Rif. The minimal development of social stratification among the less acculturated Berbers contrasts sharply with the situation in those groups who have been politically subjugated by the Arabs and among those who have themselves subjugated indigenous Negro peoples. Here we find everywhere the typical Arab caste structure, with segregated classes of nobles, subject commoners, agricultural serfs, despised groups of artisans, and domestic slaves. The line is absolutely clear-cut. Among oasis dwellers, for example, those, like the Mzab and Siwa, who have not displaced Negroes are relatively egalitarian, whereas the rest, e.g., the Drawa, Filala, and Wargla, reveal the full range of caste stratification. The contrast can even appear within a single group, e.g., between the Shluh of the Grand Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains and those of the intervening valley of the Sons River, which alone had an earlier Negro population.
Chronic warfare has constituted a dominating condition of Berber social life from time immemorial. Raids, blood feuds, and even more severe forms of conflict are a constant factor, both as a threat and as a reality. They occur between districts, between communities of the same district, and even between lineages, wards, or factions of the same community.
They even characterize groups that have achieved some measure of political integration. Modern colonial powers find the unruly Berber tribesmen no less difficult to pacify than did the Carthaginians, the Romans, and the Turks in earlier epochs.
The conditions of perpetual warfare determine the patterns of settlement. Neighborhoods of dispersed family homesteads are impossible because indefensible. They occur only among the Jerba, who are uniquely protected from external aggression by their insular location. Tents and other flimsy shelters must be eschewed except when absolutely necessary, as in temporary camps during seasons of nomadism, and then they must be protected by temporary barricades and a constant watch. Consequently all Berbers except the Jerba and Tuareg live in compact and fortified settlements. In the oases and other densely populated locations the people congregate in towns or large villages protected by a high encircling wall, often equipped with towers and battlements. At the highest or most defensible points within the settlement, moreover, there is frequently a strong fortress or citadel, which commonly also serves as a communal granary. In areas of sparser population the units of settlement are hamlets, each protected by the high walls of its external houses and often, too, by an almost impenetrable surrounding hedge of thorny shrubs. In such cases the group of hamlets which forms a community usually also possesses a fortified granary at some central location, where each family stores its valuables and surplus food in special locked chambers. When danger threatens, the people drive their flocks into the central courtyard of the granary and man its battlemented walls against attack. In regions where the people have been subjugated by some powerful state with an Arab or Arabized Berber ruler, e.g., the Sultan of Morocco, the military and administrative officials build forts at strategic locations and strong castles as residences in order to defend themselves not so much from enemies as from their oppressed subjects.
Several house types are distinguishable. The more nomadic tribes, e.g., the Beraber, Shawia, Tasumsa, Tekna, Warain, and Zekara, have adopted tents from the Arabs but ordinarily use them only during the periods of transhumance. The Jerba, Nefusa, and lowland Shluh, some groups of Rif, Uregu, Warain, and Zekara, and all the oasis tribes occupy rectangular houses with flat terraced roofs, interior courtyards, and thick external walls of stone or sun-dried brick. The Beraber, Shawia, mountain Shluh and northern Warain likewise have rectangular houses with flat roofs and stone walls, but the interior courtyard is lacking. The Kabyle, some Uregu, and the Ghomara and Sanhaja tribes of the Rif live in rectangular houses with gable roofs covered with thatch, shingles (common among the Rif), or tiles (common among the Kabyle). Flimsier shelters of the last type, with dismountable wooden frames, are used by some groups in their pastoral camps and were doubtless generally so used before the adoption of the Arab tent.
Native Berber political organization reveals a striking degree of homogeneity when allowance is made for the wide range in the size of settlements, from small hamlets to oasis towns with several thousand inhabitants. Three levels of integration can be distinguished, namely, the community, the district, and the tribe. The community is a political aggregation of clans, i.e., of localized lineages or sibs. It may consist of a cluster of small hamlets or, where settlements are larger, of a single sizable village; in the large oasis towns it is recognizable in the ward, or quarter. The district constitutes an aggregation of communities, i.e., a union of several hamlet clusters or villages or, in the oases, a town. The tribe represents an aggregation of districts, characterized by a common territory, name, and culture. The community is always, and the district usually, a firm political unit. The tribe, however, except under conditions of alien conquest and subjugation, reveals little political cohesion. It functions as a unit only under extreme emergencies. An impromptu tribal council may, for example, be assembled to meet the threat of a foreign invasion. Normal regulative functions, however, are observable only within the community and the district.
Government at the community level is notably democratic. All authority is vested in an assembly (jemaa) composed of all adult males, which usually meets weekly in the mosque or under a tree in the open. The assembly commonly appoints certain executive agents, e.g., a presiding officer, a secretary, and a custodian of mosque funds, but it reserves to itself all important decisions, which are reached by unanimous consent after general discussion. The heads of lineages and extended families usually exert a major influence and are often assigned special seats, but younger men may always attend and express their opinions. In some instances, especially in the oasis towns, the local assembly has become rudimentary or has disappeared entirely.
The district is governed by a council, usually also called a jemaa, composed normally of representatives of each of the sibs or major lineages of the component communities. Since these groups tend to appoint their older, wealthier, and more influential men, the district council has a somewhat oligarchical character in contrast to the democratic local assembly. Each year the council elects one of its members as president (moqaddem), usually selecting him from the various communities in rotation. He presides at council meetings, executes the decisions of the council with the help of appointed assistants or policemen, and may, if influential, be called upon to arbitrate private disputes, but his authority is severely limited and he is jealously watched lest he usurp autocratic powers. The council reserves for itself all legislative, administrative, judicial, and fiscal functions.
Among the Drawa, Filala, and Mzab, whose original assemblies have degenerated, the council of the district, i.e., of the town, has become subdivided into two bodies, a senate and an assembly. Among the Todga group of Filala the former body deals with external and the latter with internal affairs. Among the Mzab, the senate is composed of the clergy and of literate men, the assembly of ordinary male citizens; the former legislates regulations in accordance with the dogmas of the Ibadite sect, whereas the latter executes these and exercises all temporal functions. In the Drawa town of Nesrat the senate is controlled by a few wealthy families and leaves to the assembly, whose members It appoints, only minor police functions.
When a district becomes involved in a war, the council appoints a military leader (amghar) with absolute authority for the duration of the emergency. A strong and successful military leader, even though closely watched by the council, occasionally succeeds in usurping personal power and in subordinating or suppressing the democratic institutions of his people. Usually such usurpation is temporary and ceases with his death, but in favorable circumstances it may be extended and perpetuated in the form of an authoritarian state, of which Berber history shows numerous examples. This has happened within the past century in the Glawa, Gontafa, and Mtuga tribes of the Shluh, where amghar first established authoritarian power over their respective tribes and then, by allying themselves with the Sultan of Morocco, embarked on careers of conquest by which they acquired very large semi-independent domains. In the process they have completely shattered the local democratic institutions and substituted the rule of force.
Though comparable developments have occurred from time to time throughout the nearly 3,000 years for which we have some record of Berber history, they seem, on the whole, to have been localized and exceptional. In general, the Berbers have achieved a measure of political integration transcending that of the district in a very different manner. For our understanding of the peculiar mechanism by which this has been accomplished we are heavily indebted to the acute field observations and comparative research of Montagne.
In nearly every Berber society each district, and sometimes also each community, is divided into two opposing and rivalrous factions called sof. Membership is hereditary and apparently determined by lineage membership. In the oasis of Gadames each faction occupies a separate walled section of the town, which members of the other may not enter. They meet only on neutral ground, e.g., the mosque or the market, and their encounters are commonly marked by bloody fights. In the oasis of Siwa their residential areas are separated by a street rather than a wall, and each of several hamlets lying outside the main town is affiliated with one or the other. Again, fighting and feuding have occurred constantly between them. Similar divisions are reported for the Drawa, Kabyle, Mzab, and other tribes. Their existence frequently makes it necessary for elective or appointive officials to be selected alternately from each, or for a principal and his assistant to be chosen from opposite factions.
Among the tribes which have not been displaced from their original habitat political units are allied with one another in dual divisions of a higher level, called lef. Though best described for the Shluh, these groups are also well attested for the Kabyle and Rif and are reported in lesser detail for the Beraber and Warain. Since they function in a strictly comparable manner in all these societies, the situation among the Shluh will serve sufficiently as an illustration.
The lef of the Shluh are composed of districts which, when mapped, reveal a checkerboard pattern. Each district is bounded by some which belong to its own lef and by some belonging to the opposite one. The districts comprising a lef are bound to one another through treaties which provide for mutual assistance in defensive war, for reciprocal grazing rights during transhumance, and for peaceful trade with one another. The bonds of alliance are cemented by traditional forms of hospitality and by great annual feasts to which the members invite one another.
Warfare is confined almost exclusively to districts of opposite lef. When a Shluh district is attacked, messengers fire recognized gunshot signals at each border of an allied district, and shortly the forces of the lef allies pour in from every quarter and the aggressors are overwhelmed. Since lef are primarily defensive rather than offensive alliances, they operate strongly to preserve peace in a region where warfare is endemic. The Rif illustrate the mode of operation where several districts are involved in an act of aggression. An ad hoc council of all the districts of the victimized lef is called and assesses a heavy fine against each aggressor district. If this is not paid, the forces of the entire lef assemble and attack the aggressor districts one at a time. As each district is defeated, the fine is collected and divided among the victors, and the vanquished are compelled to join in the attack on the next district, sharing in the division of its fine. Understandably enough, submission usually occurs well in advance of the conquest of the last offending district.
Substantial traces of the lef system still survive even among many Arabized Berbers, including the Jebala of Morocco and practically all the peoples of Tunisia. It seems to have prevailed for millennia as the major adjustment for the preservation of peace in a war-ridden land. Though distinctive, it is by no means unique in human culture. The Creek confederacy of the American Southeast, for example, was based on a comparable moiety-like division into rivalrous Red and White towns. And the alert reader may already have noted the striking resemblance between the Berber lef and the balance-of-power alignment of modern European states. Perhaps some may even derive a shred of comfort from the fact that the Berber balance of power, though it by no means prevented war, nevertheless survived as a peace-enforcing mechanism for thousands of years. The Berbers seem, indeed, to have found it clearly preferable to total despotic power under an authoritarian state.

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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