7 Ethnic groups that highlight the ethno-cultural diversity across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region)

By Elizabeth Arif-Fear

As someone who used to be married to an Amazigh man – and has worked, lived and travelled across North Africa – I can’t tell you how annoying it when people dismiss Amazigh identity, language and culture.

People would automatically presume that because my ex-husband was from the Maghreb (annoyingly lumped together with the Middle East in what’s known as the MENA region – the Middle East and North Africa), that he was Arab.

It wasn’t true! There are people in the Maghreb who identify as Arab but there are also many who don’t!

However, many people unfamiliar with the region don’t know who Amazigh people (Berbers) are. And that’s why I’m writing this blog!

It’s important not to homogenise a geographical group of people and to understand the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of the region.

So, read on to find out more about the Amazigh population and six other ethnic groups that highlight the ethno-cultural diversity of the MENA region.

1.  Kurds: A proud people

A Kurdish child wearing traditional Kurdish clothing (Image: Diyar se, CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Kurdish community is perhaps one of the better known ethnic minorities of the Middle East. They’re actually the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, with between 30 and 40 million Kurds living in the region of “Kurdistan”.

The community shares a united strong sense of culture and language. However, there is no single standardised form of Kurdish. There are two main dialects: Kurmanji (‘Northern’ Kurdish spoken in Turkey, Syria, Armenia and northern Iraq), Sorani (‘South’/’South-Eastern’ Kurdish spoken in central Iraq and Iran).

The region of Kurdistan (not officially its own State), covers the area of south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia.

Here, the Kurds have faced ongoing discrimination across the region (variable by country), including bans on property inheritance, property confiscation, a ban of minority languages in school and bullying of Kurdish children in schools.

In addition to the Middle East, around 850,000 Kurds live in Western Europe as part of a wider diaspora community. In terms of religion, most Kurds identify as Sunni Muslim.

2.  Persians: A historical empire

A Persian woman in Tehran province, Iran.

The founders of an empire spreading the area of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, Persians are now the majority population of modern-day Iran.

There are around 52.5 million Persians worldwide, with around 94% living in Iran.

The Persian language Farsi is spoken by over 30 million people, with variants also spoken in Afghanistan (Dari), Pakistan (Dari), Uzbekistan (Uzbek) and Tajikistan (Tajiki). Farsi derives from Old Persian, which dates back to the Achaemenid dynasty (559 to 331 BC).

Words in English of Farsi origin include: ‘pyjama’, ‘lilac’, ‘jasmine’, ‘caravan’, ‘bazaar’, ‘jackal’, ‘shawl’, ‘taffeta’, ‘khaki’, ‘kiosk’, ‘divan’, ‘julep’, ‘jackal’, ‘checkmate’ and ‘dervish’.

In terms of religion, Iran is predominantly Shia Muslim, however some Persians identify as non-religious, whilst there are also a range of ethnic-Persian religious minorities including the Bahá’í community, Zoroastrians, Christians and Sufi Muslims, as well as Sunni Muslims within the Lari (ethnically-Persian) community. As a country, Iran also has a longstanding Jewish community (see point number three!).

In addition to widespread human rights abuses across Iran, religious minorities such as the Bahá’í, Christians, Sufis and Sunni Muslims face ongoing discrimination and persecution.

3. Jews (Mizrahi): In the homeland

An Israeli man of mixed Yemenite-Ashkenazi origin on a boat off the shore of Herzliya, Israel.

Whilst all Jews originate from what is now modern-day Israel, Mizrahi Jews consist of the Jewish communities which remained in the Middle East and North Africa, including: Iraq (Babylonia), Iran (Persia) and Yemen.

The word “Mizrahi” means “Eastern” or “Oriental” in Hebrew and is a blanket term which refers to all Jewish communities from the region. Beyond this, communities can more specifically identify their origins e.g. Yemenite (of Yemen), Iraqi, Persian (of Iran) etc.

Nowadays, most Mizrahi Jews live in either Israel or the USA and retain strong historical and modern cultural traditions such as music, culinary traditions and social and religious practices.

Most importantly to note however: there is no “Mizrahi” language. Whilst Hebrew is the national language of modern-day Israel, Mizrahi Jews traditionally spoke various languages. Mizrahi Jews typically spoke/speak the local language and traditionally various Judeo-dialects, merging the local language and Hebrew. This includes various forms of Judeo-Arabic.

4. Amazigh: Mothers of the Maghreb

An Amazigh grandmother in Morocco with traditional Amazigh facial tattoos (Image: Terry Straehley, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The Amazigh people (plural: Imazighen) are approximately 22 – 40 million strong. They are the original native population of the Maghreb – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

Historically, there is evidence to show Amazigh habitation in the region dating back to 3000 BC. Most famously, the region was later conquered by Arabs from the Middle East, who brought Islam to the region between the years 647 and 709 CE.  

Now predominantly Sunni Muslim, pre-Islam the Amazigh community practised animism, Christianity and Judaism. Today however, there are still Mizrahi Jews who identity as Amazigh (Berber) – Jews.

The Amazigh community speak Tamazight. There are between 18 and 30 million speakers who speak regional dialects of Tamazight. A standardised alphabet script (Tifinagh) was later introduced in the 20th century. Governmental recognition of the language has slowly grown, despite setbacks and variance among different countries.

“Amazigh” itself means “free people” in Tamazight. However, Imazighen are often known as “Berbers”. The origin/usage of the term is debated.

The term is believed to be an insult meaning “barbarian”, deriving from Greek. Arabs likely used the term, creating “El-Barbar”, but without intended negative connotation. Nowadays, usage of the term “Berber” by Amazigh people themselves varies, but is generally disliked/seen as inaccurate.

Today, Tamazight is mostly a spoken language. Many Amazigh-speakers do not write in Tifinagh script. There has however been a recent revival of the written language in Tifinah, in particular in Morocco through national press.

5. Nubians: At the heart of the Nile

Nubian men at a food stand in Egypt (Image: Nubian Image Archive, CC BY 2.0).

If you go to southern Egypt, you may meet some Nubian brothers and sisters! But how much do we know about this community?

An ethno-linguistic group based in southern Egypt and also northern Sudan, the Kingdom of Nubia (today’s Upper Egypt) in fact dates back to 800 BCE, with their ancestors pre-date 5000 BCE.

It’s estimated that around three million Egyptians are Nubian who speak a combination of Nubian and Arabic. In terms of faith, Nubians are generally adherents of Islam and often combine this with traditional folk beliefs.

Prior to the arrival of Islam in the region, a large number of Nubians were Christian. In ancient times, Nubians practiced a combination of the Egyptian religion and traditional religion.

With a unique identity and culture, the Nubians have however sadly faced ongoing discrimination and marginalisation in Egypt.

Ongoing racism prevails in Egyptian society, whilst the state of Nubian minority rights remain a concern. For example, the Nubian language is not taught in any school or university in Egypt, whilst limits to freedom of expression and peaceful protest around prior displacement have resulted in arrest for multiple Nubian activists.

However, things may be slowly changing. For the second year in a row, Egypt held the Guardians of the Nile festival (in 2019 and 2020), celebrating and preserving Nubian heritage.

6. Yazidis: An ancient community

A young Yazidi refugee from Iraq with her family at Newroz Camp (Syria) after fleeing ISIS militants (Image: Department for International Development (DfID, UK), CC BY 2.0).

Sadly nowadays, when we hear the word “Yazidi” we often think of “genocide”.

With the rise of Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, this historical community were deemed “devil worshippers” and persecuted by these militants.

Speakers of Kurmanji (Kurdish), Yazidis follow a monotheistic faith known as Yazidism or Sharfadin dating back to the Mesopotamian era. Yazidism combines elements of ancient Persian religions (Zoroastrianism), as well as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

An ethno-religious minority, the Yazidis historically lived in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and parts of Armenia and Georgia. Today, they are based primarily in Iraq, with Yazidi migrant and refugee populations in Western Europe and North America. In total, there are less than one million Yazidis worldwide.

Around 550,000 Yazidis lived in Iraq before Isis invaded the area in 2014. Around 360,000 escaped and another 50,000 were trapped in the mountains of north-west Iraq without food or water.

An estimated 6,383 Yazidis were enslaved and transported to ISIS prisons, military training camps and fighters’ homes in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Most of these were women and children who were subjected to sexual and physical violence and sold into slavery.

Yazidi men were murdered during the same period, with 104 men just last month (February 2021) buried in their homeland after their bodies were exhumed from mass graves and identified.

7. Druze: Celebrating diversity

A Druze man in northern Israel (Image: mantiochus, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you’re not familiar with the Middle East, you may not have heard of the Druze community. I certainly hadn’t for many years!

A unique ethno-religious group, the Druze speak Arabic yet have a unique ethnic and religious identity (although technically Arab).

Druze traditions date back to the 11th century, blending elements of Islam, Hinduism and Greek philosophy. Believing in a single God, their faith derives from the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. However, the community do not consider themselves to be Muslim.

Today, there are around one million Druze, living across the Middle East. Druze live predominantly in Syria (40-50% of Druze), Lebanon (30-40%), Israel (6-7%)and Jordan (1-2%), as well as in diaspora communities in Australia, Canada, the USA, Europe, West Africa and Latin America.

In terms of safety and integration, since the outbreak of conflict in Syria in 2011, the Druze have found themselves under attack by Islamist militant groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra.

In Israel, concerns have also been raised over land shortages and smaller infrastructure and development budgets, along with the Nation State Law as the Druze remain active citizens, engaging in widespread public service.

Well, so there you have it: the Middle East and North Africa is much more diverse than many of us may have known. While no one would expect everyone to be an expert on the region, it’s important to remember such diversity and not falsely label people.

Let’s take this as an opportunity to commit to learning more about the world and the varying cultural and religious beliefs out there, as well as the rich ethnic diversity around us!

Salam!

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