One of the most interesting points of culture in North Africa is how modern North Africans identify themselves in accordance with the area’s history of conquest and colonialism. This region has seen cultural influence from a plethora of countries and peoples which once had a claim on the area. Even ancient North Africa alone is sometimes referred to as a “melting pot”.
The North African “melting pot” has been accumulating new flavors far longer than the American melting pot that many westerners are so familiar with today.
Northwest Africa’s early settlers were Berber and Libyan peoples. The Phonecians brought ancient near-eastern cultural elements and dominated the area with their city of Carthage (founded in the 9th century BCE in modern-day Tunis, Tunisia). The Romans, in the second century BCE, conquered Carthage and eventually established Catholicism in North Africa. With the decline of the Roman Empire, Vandals and then Greeks (via the Byzantine Empire) took control of the area.
The most culturally influential of any invading group though, was the Arabs, who conquered the area in the 7th century CE. The Arabs brought Islam, the Arabic language, and Arabic culture which still persists to this day. Ottoman control of the area in the early modern period and beyond also helped institutionalize Islamic and Middle-Eastern culture.
North Africans, of course, more recently experienced European colonialism. The most influential of the European powers in North Africa was France (although Britain, Spain, and Italy also participated). There are some elements of French culture that still persist in Francophone North Africa. The language is still widely used for professional circumstances and for education. People watch French entertainment and listen to music in French. Friends and family greet each other with kisses on the cheeks and urban North Africans still occasionally make and enjoy French cuisine.
What is most interesting though is that the majority of modern North Africans identify as Arab and with Arabic culture. This is remarkable because the majority of North Africans are actually of a predominant genetic Berber background. Despite their Berber heritage, countries such as Algeria have only 15% of the population identifying as Berber and the overwhelming majority identifying as Arab.
There are a few reasons for such a strong Arab identity in this part of the world. North Africans have undoubtedly taken part in and contributed to centuries of Islamic and Middle-Eastern history. To North Africans, religion is a dominating cultural aspect in terms of how people live. Muslims in North Africa practice their religion with more focus and intensity than many other Islamic areas of the globe. Islam, of course, is tremendously intertwined with Arabic culture; the birthplace of Islam is, after all, Arabia. Arabic culture, language, and religion are evident on a day-to-day basis for all North Africans. North Africans’ Arab identity is not in any way fabricated, it is, however, emphasized.
Please note that the defining attributes of the Arab ethnic identity vary depending on the circumstance and who is qualifying the identity. The examination as to who calls themselves ethnically “Arab” despite their true genealogical makeup could take a book or two to explain. Occasionally, when one refers to themselves as Arab, they are actually accounting for a genealogy that can be traced to the Arabic peninsula. More often though, especially since the pan-Arab movement of the mid-20th Century, when one refers to their Arab identity, they are merely referring to the fact that their ancestors for some time spoke the Arabic Language.
A large part of the emphasis on their Arabic heritage may stem from resistance against the French in the 19th and 20th centuries. Much like how Americans attempted to forge a separate identity while there was tension with the British, North Africans attempted to forge a separate identity while there was tension with the French. Americans constructed a new identity, while North Africans, to a large extent, simply emphasized an identity that was already present.
Siding with Arabic and Islamic culture allowed them to distinguish themselves from the French, Europeans, and westerners while aligning themselves in solidarity with other Arab countries in the east which they so admired and related to because of their own history of confronting European colonialism.