TUNIS – Tunisian Berbers welcomed Yennayer, the Amazigh New Year, with celebrations of their cultural heritage, which is deeply rooted in the country. From the caves of Matmata to the delicious couscous to the colorful rugs found in southern Tunisia, the Amazigh culture has made a significant contribution to the history of Tunisia and the country.
Despite the celebrations, however, the Tunisian Berber community has expressed concern over the lack of official recognition of its identity and culture, saying the government has not done enough to preserve its heritage.
âOther North African countries are officially celebrating the Amazigh New Year,â said Esseket Mohsen, member of the Tamaguit Association for Amazigh Rights, Freedoms and Culture in Tunisia. “We had celebrations in the Berber village of Tamezret in the south which were organized by local groups but nothing official.”
“This occasion could have been a cultural celebration that sets Tunisia apart from the rest of the world,” he added. âThe Amazigh calendar is an agricultural calendar that makes it different from others. It should be celebrated as a cultural feature of Tunisia.
Yennayer, which refers to the first day and month of the Amazigh New Year, was marked on January 14 of this year.
The Berbers, indigenous to North Africa, are found mainly in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Algeria and Morocco have official celebrations for Yennayer. The Tunisian Berbers organized small gatherings in the Berber villages and in Tunis.
âIt is often said that Tunisia is a 3,000-year-old civilization to emphasize that our country has a long and rich history, but the question here is: what about the history of the country before? What about the inhabitants of the country before the arrival of the Phoenicians? Mohsen asked.
âUnfortunately, all information linking the history of Tunisia to Amazigh culture has been erased from the history books we read. In schools, the story in textbooks does not begin until 814 BC, âhe added.
The Berbers made up a large part of the Tunisian population but their culture is rarely recognized in the country and their presence is diminishing. This, despite the fact that many Tunisians have Amazigh origins and much of traditional Tunisian clothing and cuisine dates back to the Amazighs.
âIt is true that the language is not very widespread and that Amazigh speakers are a minority, but we all have Amazigh origins,â Mohsen explained.
The Amazigh language has become less common in Tunisia, raising fears that it will die out.
“The first cause of Amazigh Tunisians is to improve the situation of the Amazigh language as the number of speakers becomes alarming,” said Mohsen. “This is because it is not taught in schools, used in the media, or considered one of the languages ââof the country.”
He added: âIt’s a shame because the Tunisian dialect uses many Berber words. Many Tunisians don’t even know that the words they use are Berber. It is only taught in families who still speak the language today. The priority now is to teach the language and the culture.
The Tamaguit association and other Amazigh cultural clubs and organizations have collaborated in language sessions for people interested in learning Amazigh.
âWe are trying to encourage people to learn the Amazigh language, but we need help,â Mohsen said. âWe are trying with the modest funds we have. We also organize round tables to promote the Amazigh culture and language. Hopefully this situation improves. We must preserve the language and its transcription system.
In addition to protecting the linguistic heritage of the Amazighs, there are attempts to preserve the cultural and material heritage of the people. In Tamezret, Monji Bouras, the curator of Dar Tamezret, recovered Berber outfits and jewelry and exhibited them in a traditional house transformed into a museum.
“I wanted to dedicate a place to the preservation and promotion of the cultural and material heritage of Amazigh culture,” Bouras said. âTamezret, which is the birthplace of my parents, is a beautiful Berber village which has so much wealth and beauty that it is necessary to highlight. We must be proud of our cultural origins and we must protect them from disappearing. “
He added: âIt’s not just about protecting and saving the physical heritage, but also the traditions that help us understand the culture of our ancestors. The Berbers had different customs for marriage, daily life which is also explained in scenes from their life at the museum. The symbols of tattoos are also part of this culture.
Increasingly, civil society organizations dedicated to the Amazigh cause have sought to shed light on the urgency with which Amazigh culture is threatened.
“We organized protests in front of the assembly to demand the inclusion of Amazigh culture in the constitution but (received) no response,” Mohsen said. “Today, we are investing more power and time in civil society as a tool for promoting language and culture.”
“We have to recognize our origins in order to be able to evolve,” he added. “(Tunisian culture) is a mixture and we must be proud of it in order to progress as a nation.”