Haratin (also transliterated Haratins, Harratins or Haratine, etc., singular Hartani) are oasis-dwellers in the Sahara, especially in southern Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara, who make up a socially and ethnically distinct group of largely settled, non-nomadic workers, with relatively dark complexions, speaking either Berber or Arabic. Some researchers describe the group as a social caste spanning the countries listed, and made up of descendants of southern Berber tribes.
The name Haratin is of obscure origin and has been variously traced to Arabic roots meaning cultivator or Berber roots meaning "black". It may be the Arabized version of ahardan, a Berber word meaning "dark color".
Haratin in Mauritania
In Mauritania, the Haratin form one of the largest ethnic groups and account for as much as 40% of the Mauritanians. They are sometimes referred to as "Black Moors", in contrast to Beidane, or "White Moors". The Haratin are Arabic-speakers and generally claim a Berber or Arab origin. This is unlike the sub-Saharan African peoples in southern Mauritania (such as the Wolof and the Fulɓe). The Haratine, in contrast, consider themselves part of the Moorish community. Their origin is unclear: some are thought to be the descendants of traded slaves from other regions of Africa (Central and Eastern Africa Sahel region) while others are thought to be descendants of a sedentary population of who have lived in the location since the Neolithic period when the Sahara was occupied by black skinned people.
Most Haratine are descended from Bambara, Fulani, Soninké and Wolof people, groups that fled south beyond the Senegal River valley when the Berbers, and later the Moors, settled in the region during the 3rd century CE. Those who remained intermarried with the Berbers and Arabs. They were historically the rulers of kingdoms spread all over North Africa. Although the Mauritanian government has issued emancipation declarations, discrimination against Haratin is still widespread, and some continue to be, for all practical purposes, enslaved, while large numbers live in other forms of informal dependence on their former masters. Amnesty International reported that in 1994 90,000 Haratine still lived as "property" of their master, with the report indicating that "slavery in Mauritania is most dominant within the traditional upper class of the Moors."
The report also observed that "[s]ocial attitudes have changed among most urban Moors, but in rural areas, the ancient divide is still very alive." There have been many attempts to assess the real extension of slavery in modern Mauritania, but these have mostly been frustrated by the Nouakchott government's official stance that the practice has been eliminated. Amnesty further estimated that some 300,000 freed slaves continued to serve their former masters because of psychological or economic dependence.
Haratin in Morocco
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In most of Morocco, the word has a somewhat different meaning. "Haratin" tends to be applied to the dark-skinned agriculturalists of the southern oases. In some Moroccan oral history traditions, the Haratin of the south eastern oases near the Algerian frontier were the former slaves; in addition, the term is applied to a somewhat distinct cultural and religious movement composed of sufi ṭuruq ("orders/brotherhoods") and music groups that has begun to include different ethnicities. As Moroccan society has modernised and urbanised, the categories have broken down with intermarriage and rural to urban migration.
Haratin (Hartani or Aherdan (which means black in Tashelhit), speak Tashelhit or Central Atlas Tamazight, they traditionally worked in agriculture in the desert oases. They should not be confused with other black-skinned Moroccans living in other areas (such the Gnawas for example). With the country's modernization they increasingly became active in other jobs and many of them immigrated to modern metropolitan areas of Morocco.
Haratine in Western Sahara
The situation of Haratine in Western Sahara as their actual number is little known, and complicated by the fact that the Western Saharan population has been split into several segments by the Western Sahara conflict, which pits the government of Morocco (which controls most of the territory) against the Polisario Front (based in Tindouf, Algeria). The Haratines' situation historically resembled that of Mauritanian Haratine, since the Sahrawi population is very closely related to the Moorish population of Mauritania. The number of Haratine is, however, thought to have been considerably smaller in Western Sahara, perhaps due to the almost wholly nomadic lifestyle of Sahrawi tribes.
Mauritania generally enjoyed more mixed conditions than the all-desert Western Sahara region, with agriculture playing a far larger role in economic life. However, regardless of the size of the Haratine minority, slavery existed on the same terms as in Mauritania. This practice persisted until the 1970s, de facto tolerated by the Spanish colonial authorities. In the 1970s, the Polisario Front have publicly opposed the practice, and criminalized all forms of slavery, whilst slavery was abolished in Morocco since the beginning of the 20th century.
However, reports persist of continuing social discrimination, although the extent is disputed, and has entered into the political conflict. Morocco alleges that slavery is widespread in the Tindouf refugee camps run by the Polisario Front in south-western Algeria; POLISARIO denies this and claims to have eradicated slavery through awareness campaigns. A 2009 investigative report by Human Rights Watch interviewed some dark-skinned Sahrawis, who are a small minority in the camps; they stated that some "blacks" are "owned" by "whites" but this ownership manifested only in "granting" marriage rights to girls. In other words a dark-skinned girl must have an approval from her "white master", not from her biological father as it is stipulated by the Maliki school of Islam. Without this the marriage can not be performed by a Qadi (Islamic Judge).
The report notes that POLISARIO claims to oppose any such discrimination, but raises questions about possible official collusion in, or indifference to, the practice. In addition, a case of an official document that grants freedom to a group of enslaved families has been found by HRW. The document in question dates as recently as 2007. The document was signed by a local judge or an official civil servant. Slavery is still engraved in memories due to historical and traditional reasons, and such cases are not as shocking as one might think to the society of the Sahrawi refugee camps.
HRW found out about another case of a dark-skinned Sahrawi girl, aged 9, who was sent to spend her vacation in Spain with a host family. The little girl refused to return to the Sahrawi refugee camps in Tindouf and said that her family there will only subjugate her to house-keeping labor. She further added that she was asked to get up early and perform various tasks whilst the other children of the family went to school. A Spanish court granted custody of this girl to her host family in Spain in order to allegedly protect her from abuse.
Further, it was found out that the girl's biological family resides in Mauritania and that they sent her to the camps. SOS Esclaves a Mauritanian non-governmental organization who investigated the case concludes that "they had no proof of slavery in this case but said the facts were consistent with either slavery or with trafficking in child labor". HRW concludes that some forms of discrimination seem to persist, and that the question merits further investigation. The HRW concludes its chapter on slavery as follows: "In sum, credible sources testified to Human Rights Watch about vestiges of slavery that continue to affect the lives of a portion of the black minority in the Tindouf camps. The practices involve historical ties between families that involve certain rights and obligations that are not always clear. Being a slave does not necessarily preclude enjoying freedom of movement."
Responding to questions about slavery, the POLISARIO has acknowledged the survival "to a limited extent, of certain practices related to antiquated thinking" and said it was "determined to combat and eradicate them whenever they emerge and no matter what shape they take." We welcome this statement and urge the POLISARIO to be vigilant in pursuing this objective."
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