An Atlas of African Affairs

By Andrew Boyd; Patrick Van Rensburg | Go to book overview
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1. The Maghreb

The Arabic word for 'west', Maghreb, is applied to the whole of Africa north of the Sahara, except Egypt - that is, to the western part of the Arab world. An old name used for the region was Barbary, derived from the Berber peoples who were predominant there until the 7th century Moslem Arab conquest. Most of the Berber stock has now been absorbed into the Arabic-speaking majority, but a quarter of the 28 million people of the Maghreb, although now Moslem, still speak Berber languages, mostly in mountain and desert areas; the Kabyles and Zouaves (Suafa) of Algeria are among these. Nearly all the Maghreb's inhabitants live in the relatively fertile coastal belt, 2,600 miles long and, except in Morocco, seldom more than 100 miles wide. This coastal belt is more Mediterranean than 'African' in the usual sense of the word. It is linked by history with Spain, Italy, Turkey and the Levant (whence came the Phoenicians who founded Carthage in 822 B.C.), and cut off from the rest of Africa by the Sahara desert (E, F).

The Tuareg and other nomadic Berber and Arab tribes of the Sahara are few in numbers, depending on scattered oases. Ancient camel trade routes cross the desert, and a few routes now carry motor traffic, but since the 16th century there has not been the major intercourse that formerly carried Islam into West Africa south of the Sahara and created empires stretching from Spain to Senegal (E, 2). The frontier lines that now divide the Sahara are artificial relics of colonial rule.

Ottoman Turkish rule extended westward to Algeria in the 16th century, but never to Morocco. European 19th century expansion brought the French into Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the Spaniards into Morocco and the Italians into Libya (2-4). The fellow feeling of the Maghreb peoples, which marks them off from the eastern Arabs and makes them disinclined to accept Egyptian leadership, is particularly strong between Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which have shared both French cultural influences and the struggle for independence from France. Morocco and Tunisia, after gaining their own independence in 1956, supported the Algerian rebels, whose government-in-exile was set up in Tunis (3). The interdependence of the three was proclaimed at a conference for Maghreb unity held in Tangier in 1958, and various plans for a future federation have been put forward.


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An Atlas of African Affairs


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