Berbers and Arabs: Morocco has a population of an estimated 32 million. Forty per cent are Berbers who speak a Berber dialect as their mother tongue. The others speak Arabic. The Berber dialects are alike in three respects: they are all related to ancient Egyptian, they have a pure oral tradition with no written language, and are spoken predominantly by people living in or behind the mountains. Berbers from the Rif do not understand Berbers from the south and even over short distances; the dialects can be so different that people have to revert to Arabic to converse. All Berber dialects are interspersed with Arabic words. In 2004, written Berber (Tifinar) was introduced to a number of schools in Morocco. Arabic is a much more complicated language, with its own script – a language extensively used for science and literature, and the language in which the Quran, or Koran, was written. It is spoken in the whole of Northern Africa and the Middle East and inhabitants of Morocco will have no trouble understanding a national of Lebanon or Oman. The opposition Berber-Arab largely coincides with that between simple village dwellers who derive their identity from belonging to a common tribal group, and the more developed inhabitants of the Moroccan cities. Large parts of Morocco up to this day are too remote and inhospitable to reach. Life here is hard and people live a simple and isolated lifestyle within their tribal group. Their lineage often originates from a male ancestor, the marabout. It is in these remote areas that the Berber culture has been best conserved – a specific dialect and traditional costume, a life that is ruled by customary law and a clear tribal identity. The backbone of their religion is not in reciting Quran verses but in venerating a marabout. For centuries, the Berbers have had to defend themselves against each other and against the legions of the ruling Sultans, who often cruelly massacred them, mounting spears with their heads on top on the city walls. The most characteristic aspect of the Berber language may well be the tradition of oral history that is kept alive to this day. A language without a script relies on storytelling to pass down over the generations what is central in their thinking. Today on the Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech, you can see how everyday, listeners crowd together around the storytellers, spell-bound by their fantastic stories. In Berber culture, storytelling carries a lot of weight. To persuade a Berber, it is more important that you are a fluent speaker who can utter a harmonious flow of words, than dishing up a wealth of facts.
Another remarkable group is that of the Haratin, the black inhabitants of the southern oases. They, too, have been brought up speaking a Berber dialect, although they are not part of a Berber clan. The Haratin are placed low in the hierarchy and rarely intermarry with other groups. Probably, they are older residents than the Berbers – however, they could also have descended from black people who accompanied the caravans from the south, as traders or as slaves. Sultan Moulay Ismail imported over ten thousand people from black Africa to bodyguard him, following the example of the Ottoman Sultans. In Marrakech it is the Haratin who you can see performing acrobatics and dances to gnaoua rhythms.