The Berber blondes of Morocco that have sparked Madeleine sightings Last updated at 00:20am on 27th September 2007
A girl thought to be Madeleine, in a tourist's photo, turned out to be the daughter a Moroccan olive farmer.
The Daily Mail reports that the girl, Bouchra Benaissa, lives in an area so remote that her parents had not heard of Madeleine's disappearance.
Bouchra's colouring is, says the Mail, typical of the local Berber people.
Five-year-old Bushra Binhisa pictured this afternoon being carried by her mother Hafida
The quality of the original photo (left) made it difficult to tell whether it really was Madeleine
Blondes: Bouchra's colouring is typical of the Berber people who live in Morocco - sparking sightings of Madeleine (right) in the country
Bouchra Benaissa's unusual colouring is typical of the Berber people who dwell in the area where her family have lived for generations.
They are unusual among African people for having a strong blonde gene.
Berbers: Ahmed and Hafida Benaissa cuddle their daughter, Bouchra, who was mistaken for Madeleine because of her colouring
About 19million Berbers live in Morocco, where they make up almost a third of the population.
Many of their ancient ancestors were Europeans - some of whom were brought to North Africa as slaves.
They also have lighter skin than many other Moroccans.
The predominance of blondes in this African desert region might explain why so many tourists claim to have seen Madeleine.
Abdul Jamoussi, a spokesman at the Moroccan embassy in London, said: "The people of northern Morocco are often blonde-haired.
"Because it is so close to Europe, it is a melting pot of cultures."
Footballer Zinedine Zidane is a Berber, and while he is not quite blonde he could easily be mistaken for a European.
Berber: Footballer Zinedine Zidane
Bushra comes from a village in the Rif mountains in northern Morocco where her family have lived and farmed several generations.
She was captured on film by a tourist on 31 August - and the image of her bore a striking resemblance to Madeleine. "It sent shivers down my spine. Either it's Madeleine or she's got a twin," said Spanish tourist Clara Torres.
British experts who identify victims of sex abuse by face-mapping techniques had been called in to study the image.
But today Bushra was revealed as the girl in the photo.
Speaking through an interpreter, her father Hamid, an olive farmer with a smallholding, said: "Bushra is my little girl.
"She is not Madeleine. I do feel sorry for her parents, I hope they find Madeleine. But Bushra is definitely my daughter."
Clarence Mitchell, the McCanns' spokesman, phoned Madeleine's parents at their home in Rothley, Leicestershire, to tell them. "It is obviously a terrible blow."
Bushra's mother Hafida said she was surprised the photograph - which showed her carrying Bushra on her back - had sparked a major search.
"Even in this remote backwater people have heard of Madeleine McCann," she said.
Family friend Mustafa Hadid said "We are all shocked that people could think that Bushra was Madeleine. She does have a resemblance but blonde and red-haired children are not that rare in this part of Morocco.
"The people are Berbers and they come from a different stock than people in the south of the country.
"Bushra's father is just a farmer so he would not have read the newspapers."
Mr Hadid said the local Darijb Tamazigh tribe travel to work through northern Africa and southern Spain.
The other figures in the photo are Bushra's older sister Mariam, her father and aunts. They are pictured in traditional Berber dress and distinctive wide-brimmed hat.
The town of Zinat has only around 2,000 inhabitants who speak a dialect distinct from the Arabic and French spoken in the majority of Morocco.
It is a rest stop for trucks and tourists although there are few amenities.
Ms Torres and her boyfriend were passing through: "I didn't think too much of it at the time because although it is uncommon it is not unusual to get blonde people in that part of the world. Also, I didn't think Madeleine could be in Morocco.
"It was only when I got home and saw the news on Monday about two possible sightings of Madeleine in Morocco that I remembered the picture and went through my photos.
"When I saw it for the second time and focused in on the child's face, I realised it could be her."
Although the locals in Zinat keep in touch with the outside world through mobile phones, the isolated coastal region is a far cry from the bustling metropolis of Tangier about 40 miles to the north.
But despite the isolation, they knew all about the search for Madeleine and how it has gripped the world.
A petrol station attendant in the town said: "We've heard of Madeleine. But we don't get many British people coming through here.
"If she was here then everybody would have known about it and it would have been impossible to keep it a secret.
"We have seen her parents on the news and we feel upset for them. We hope she is found soon. I don't think any people here would have taken her."
The town was quiet today as most of the locals were observing the fast of Ramadan.
Dr George Joffe, a Cambridge University research fellow and specialist in North Africa, said today: "In Northern Morocco people with blonde hair and blue eyes are not so uncommon.
"It is a characteristic of the Rifi mountains [where the photo was taken]. These are poor people who would not have the money to go to Portugal and carry out a child abduction."
The McCanns, both 39, travelled to Morocco in June to appeal for help in the hunt to find Madeleine. Mrs McCann has told friends she believes there is a strong chance her daughter could have been taken into Africa, which is easily reached from Portugal and Spain.
The first reported sighting of missing Madeleine in Morocco was by Norwegian tourist Mari Pollard, who said she saw a girl who looked like Madeleine with a man at petrol station in Marrakesh on May 9.
Later the same day a British holidaymaker later believed they saw a youngster with a strong likeness outside the Ibis Hotel in Marrakesh, which is virtually opposite the garage.
The third sighting came around three weeks later when a Spanish woman contacted Portuguese police to say she had seen someone she thought looked like the missing girl in Zaio, in the north of Morocco.
Mr Mitchell said: "Kate and Gerry know all too well through bitter experience that all of the sightings up until now have come to nothing unfortunately. So you can imagine the sort of emotional rollercoaster each time that sort of information comes in."
John McCann, Gerry's brother, said: "We are just glad people are still continuing to search for Madeleine and the focus is shifting from Kate and Gerry back onto her again."
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^ 'Berber' is a linguistic-cultural group that consist of diverse peoples. While Berbers along the North African coast are 'white' with such features as blonde hair and blue eyes, many are not. In fact, most Berbers overall look black like the Tamashek (Tuareg), Haratin, Djerba, etc.
In fact, most scholars now agree that the Berber language originated in Africa as part of Afrasian and closely related to the ancient Egyptian language. Which means that the original Berbers were black people and still are black in many areas.
The reason why some Berbers in the North African coast look white is because of ancient ancestry from Europe, specifically Iberia. But even then, these people are actually mixed with native African ancestry also. You can read moer here.
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