North African countries have an identity crisis because of their genetic make-up. Through thousands of years, North African people have been influenced (albeit forced) by centuries of colonization from the Roman Empire, the German Vandals, the Italian Empire, the Greek Empire, and most importantly, the Arabian Empire.
Consequently, they have the most diverse ranges of phenotypes of any place in Africa or the Middle East as citizens have a range of skin tones, genetic makeup, and cultural differences. When I refer to North Africa, it is a wide berth of countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan are to name a few.
So, when traveling from country to country in North Africa, in one country you may feel like you are in the Middle East while in another you may feel as if you are in the Horn of Africa!
This is caused by the genetic fluctuations of the Indigenous people in the country, the Berbers who identify as Amazighs (free people). They are the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa and have unknown origins.
Consequently, ever since people from neighbouring continents started to inhabit the region roughly 45,000 years ago, most of the gene pool is closely related to the population of Arabia, and the Levant. They crossed over the Arabian Peninsula through the modern-day Suez Canal of Egypt.
The Arabian Peninsula is close to North Africa, which allowed this region to get annexed by countless colonizers, especially the Arabian colonizers that eradicated the immense gene pool of other foreign settlers.
The Suez Canal is an important route. It is a man-made waterway for ships, and it cuts through Egypt to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The canal is made for moving goods between countries as said in a report by Bloomberg.
Moreover, in terms of their linguistic and ethnic similarity between Arabia and modern-day Amazighs, they speak Afroasiatic which is a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and languages from the Horn of Africa.
Other parts of Africa do not have this predominant gene diversity because the Sahara Desert serves as an effective barrier between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although there was some contact between the regions, it does not largely reflect in their gene pool.
In terms of how their colonization became Arab dominant, here is the back history:
The colonization started with the Roman Empire who created the modern Maghrebis. They were known as Roman Africans who came and settled into North African countries. Thus, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia are referred to as Maghrebi countries since many of the inhabitants live there.
The Italian colonizers alongside the Roman Empire assimilated, established their language and culture in the Maghreb. Thus, this influence is greatly seen in countries like Tunisia where 5-10% of the gene pool is of Latin origin.
Furthermore, came the colonization from the German Vandals who have a connection with modern Maghrebis. They traveled from Germany to establish their colonies in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
Although there is little influence of Greek culture in the Maghreb, their historical monuments are similar in their creations, especially seen in Egypt. Greek’s have made an important contribution to the art society of these countries which can be seen today.
The most powerful conquest is the Arabian conquest as it wiped out much of the gene pool of other colonizers.
This occurred due to the expansion of Islam between the 7th-8th century. They forced themselves into the region and consequently diversified the region’s gene pool to predominantly become Arab-Amazigh.
To conclude, Arab Amazighs make up the largest population of North Africa.
Arab Amazighs vary in colour and facial features across North Africa, southern parts of the region have a darker and more Sub-Saharan African look, and the northern regions with more of an Arab look.
Genetic environments play a factor because the southern North African countries are hotter, and darker skin protects them from harsh UV light, whereas in the northern part, lighter skin is prominent, due to the environment, and with Middle East countries being closer to the northern North African countries.
After all of this, we come to the question of, Are North Africans Arab?
Well, there is controversy because some North Africans may identify themselves as Arab Amazighs, while others will deny this and say they have their own Maghrebi Amazigh identity.
The Maghrebi Amazigh say that although they have integrated some Arabian traditions and cultural practices into some parts of the region, they are their own identity.
“Amazigh have not significantly ‘mixed’ with Arab populations. The vast majority of North Africans are of Amazigh descent, with little Arab genetic contributions. While North Africans may claim that they are ‘mixed’ or that there are no ‘pure’ Amazigh people, the reality is different: Amazigh are not Arab and have their Indigenous culture and language for which they have been persecuted.”
Thus, it depends on the country a person will visit in the region because all the people have differing views.
For example, North African countries like Tunisia have the highest Arab blood, so they will not hesitate to identify as Amazigh-Arab.
Other countries like Morocco are conflicted about this, and it is better to not ask this question because it creates barriers between people and the community.
Nidal Chebbak, a Moroccan Journalist for Morocco World News says,
“Are you an Arab or an Amazigh? I really don’t like this question that I’ve been asked countless times by many people in direct and indirect ways. Does it really matter which one I am? If I’m an Arab or an Amazigh, what difference would that make? Would you treat me any different? Better or worse?”
Chebbak’s words help us understand that there is a lack of unity amongst the North African region because of the impacts of colonization.
Therefore, some people are Arab-Amazighs that identify as Arab, and there are Maghrebi Amazighs who say that they are not Arab.
Alas, are they Arab?
The answer is it will depend on the person.