Book Review: The Berbers

The Berbers (The Peoples Of Africa), by Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress

The Berbers, to the extent that people tend to think of them at all, are not often thought of as a people of Africa.  Despite the fact that a large part of Saharan Africa is inhabited by Berber-speaking people and even more than that by people who have at least some Berber background or ancestry who have been acculturated to the Arabic culture, there are no Berber nations, even if some 40% of the Moroccan population and large amounts of the population of Algeria, Mali, and Niger, for example, are Berber-speaking people.  This book did a good job at dealing with a subject that is both sprawling in its scope but also difficult to deal with because the written Berber languages are relatively obscure and because the Berbers are most often seen in the perspective of the sources of others, be they Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, European imperialists, and post-colonial nation states in Northern Africa.  In few of the places and times that are considered historical have the Berbers been able to speak for themselves and share their own perspective, and the authors have a great deal of pessimism about the viability of the Berbers as a separate culture in the future.

This book is nearly 300 pages long and is divided into 8 chapters of very unequal size.  The book begins with a list of plates, figures, maps, a preface from the series as a whole, as well as for the book in particular and then an introduction.  This is followed by a large chapter that discusses the Berbers in antiquity, beginning in prehistory and continuing up to the eclipse of the Berber kingdoms in the face of Mediterranean imperialism (1).  This is followed by a discussion of the relationship between Berbers and Romans up to the period of Byzantine rule (2).  The authors follow this with a discussion about the political unification of North Africa under Islamic rule (3), as well as the Arabization of North Africa that followed after that (4), and then the relationship between the Berbers and the various states that have existed in the region from Ottoman conquest to their contemporary fight for survival in the face of hostile governments (5) and acculturation.  The book then ends with a discussion of pastoral Berbers (6), the society and its habitat (7), and the prospects for the future of Berberism (8), as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index.

I have to admit that in reading this book I was struck by a strong feeling of ambivalence.  On the one hand, it is easy to celebrate the sort of nomadic freedom that the Berbers have experienced far from the control of overly centralized and tyrannical states that have tended (with some reason) to view mobile populations as a high risk to safety and security for sedentary populations.  That said, the Berbers have not always or recently been a positive force for history with their long profit off of the slave trade and the fact that in some nations (like Niger) they still to this day participate in the exploitation of native black populations as has been the case likely for a very long time.  While I am certainly someone who would celebrate and appreciate the proliferation of Berber-language texts and better understanding of the various Berber languages, my fondness for underdogs does not blind me to the fact that the Berbers have long survived and thrived because of their role in serving as middlemen between the wealthy coastal North of Africa and the much poorer lands in the Sahel, and that role has not always been one that has been for the benefit of Africa as a whole it must be admitted.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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