The original inhabitants of North Africa, the Amazighs (also known as Berbers) may have finally won the freedom to observe their culture – if they can convince the Arab majority to follow them.
Graffiti reading “Freedom fighters from Dahra district in Tripoli”, on the right, and a Berber logo on the left, are seen on a street in Tripoli / AP
This article is the first of three on the fate of Libya’s Berber minority after Gaddafi. Read about the struggle of the Berber militant movement on Wednesday and the new Berber identity crisis on Friday.
TRIPOLI, Libya – Hasan Abu Sagar was an 18-year-old law student and occasional poet living in the Libyan capital when, in 1999, he saw his mother tongue written for the first time. Internet cafes had just arrived in this North African country and, like many university students, Abu Sagar killed time while exploring the web. One day, he stumbled across a website devoted to tifinar, the ancient script used by the region’s Berber ethnic minority, also known as Amazigh, the original inhabitants of North Africa. It hit him like a bag of bricks – although he was Amazigh, he didn’t know how to read it.
Abu Sagar’s family spoke Tamazight, the Amazigh language, at home, but Muammar Gaddafi’s policy had prohibited teaching writing in schools or showing Amazigh symbols in public. Something clicked on Abu Sagar that day, he told me. He decided it was unacceptable for anyone not to know their own language.
The doe-eyed, soft-spoken artist bears no resemblance to a young revolutionary or hidden rebel, but Gaddafi’s appearances in Libya were often deceptive. Abu Sagar and some of his friends decided to learn the script themselves, letter by letter and word by word. It was political dissent by alphabet. They have sworn to secrecy, fearing that they will be arrested. They started jumping from internet cafe to internet cafe, changing locations every hour and never logging in with their real names. âWe were very scared,â Abu Sagar recalls, âpeople were looking everywhereâ.
Abu Sagar said it took him two years to master the language. Eight years later, he will hold clandestine courses for other Amazighs who wish to learn it. For a month last summer, 25 students gathered each night in a cave in the Nafusa Mountains, a mountain range west of Tripoli, near the Tunisian border, where many Amazigh communities in Libya still reside. Abu Sagar taught his students what he knew and he shared the Amazigh poetry he had composed. Like many before him, his goal was to keep the language alive, despite the risks.
From the Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Vandal, Arab-Muslim and European conquerors to the policies of modern North African rulers, the Amazighs have been oppressed throughout their millennial history. This year’s Arab Spring sparked a lesser-known social movement: unprecedented Berber activism and Amazigh cultural revival. Nowhere in the region has this new movement been more unique than in Libya, where after having played an essential role in the fight against Gaddafi, the Amazighs want their contribution to the Libyan revolution to be recognized and their identity accepted. But despite the relative openness of post-Gaddafi Libya, the Amazighs face a difficult path and their fate will become one of the real tests of the freedom of free Libya and its future.
Centuries of assimilation and decades of outright oppression have left the minority, which Berber scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman now estimates makes up about 9% of Libya’s 5.7 million people. , marginalized. The Arab conquests in the 7th century promoted Arabic as the language of God and created a stigma against the use of Tamazight. Amazigh identity has been hit even harder by Arab-national populist sentiments promoted by leaders in the region against European colonialism, often completely denying Berber identity. Past Amazigh cultural revivals in the region ended in brutal repression. In a country whose future looks more and more tumultuous every day, some fear that history will repeat itself, especially if the new Libyan government is hyper-nationalist.
âIn the end, they kept their heads down during Gaddafi’s entire time. I just hope that after gluing them to the barricades, they haven’t cut them,â says archaeologist and scholar Elizabeth Fentress, who studies Amazigh communities and co-author of one of the definitive books on the history of the group, Berber. âThere is a huge tendency in these countries for Arab groups to say, ‘Thank you very much for your help now, would you shut up and start speaking Arabic again.’ They [Arabs] don’t really trust, love or want to know them. “
Gaddafi was one of the worst propagators of nationalism through Arabization. To create a country from disparate tribes who had lived under Italian occupation only a generation earlier, Brother Leader, after taking office in 1969, played on common Arab history. He banned Amazigh texts, names and symbols to help solidify his vision of a unified Libya and help prevent a challenge to his regime.
Next door in Algeria, as Amazigh protests for national recognition in the 1980s defied the state, Gaddafi arrested around two dozen Amazighs to quash any possibility of a similar move in Libya. Many of the older generation have since warned their children to keep their heads down. âOur fathers lived in fear because they saw the suffering coming from the Amazighs who spoke,â Abu Sagar told me. “We didn’t see it, we heard about it.”
But it was not only Gaddafi’s policies that made life difficult for the Amazighs; it was their effect on the Libyan population in general. Many gave up teaching their children Tamazight, few learned to read and write it, and no one could promote the culture in public. Abu Sagar always remembered his first year of college, when a group of guys from his program stopped him on the street. âSome students started to tell me ‘You are Amazigh, you are Jewish, you are not Libyan!’ I tried to make them understand what an Amazigh is, we are part of Libyan history “, he confided to me, still uncomfortable with the memory.
In 2007, after a short period of openness with Amazigh rulers, Gaddafi changed his mind and established a counter-narrative of Amazigh identity, claiming that the Libyan population was entirely Arab and that the ancient Amazigh tribes were were extinct due to the drought. Gaddafi accused the colonialists of fabricating a Berber identity to fragment the Libyan population. They suffered for his words, but they did not forget. This and other attack on Amazigh culture helped propel the minority to the forefront of the rebellion against the Gaddafi regime.
The towns and villages of the Nafusa mountain range were among the first to declare themselves liberated. The Amazighs formed battalions to fight against the loyalist army, pushing troops out of population centers and suffering heavy losses.
Abu Sagar joined the Yafran Martyrs Brigade, where most of his fellow rebel fighters were Amazighs. They marched on Tripoli, as brigades from the Nafusa Mountains moved west to cut off a major supply route to the capital, an important moment in the eventual liberation of Libya. Now they expect a major role in Libya’s future, as well as official recognition of their language and their contribution to the country’s history. So far, it doesn’t look good. Last week, the National Transitional Council announced a new interim government – none of the ministerial posts went to Amazigh.
The Berber movements have already helped their Arab compatriots before being rejected by the Arab majority. In the Algerian rebellion against French colonial rule after World War II, the Berbers of the Kabylian mountains in Algeria gained a reputation as fierce resistance fighters and played a pivotal role in the expulsion of the French. But once the Algerian rebel movement Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) took power in 1962, they violently suppressed the Berbers of Kabylia, officially banning their language and refusing to recognize their identity for decades.
“However, they [Libya’s new government] really want Jabil Nafusa to be a major part of the rebellion, the closest historical parallel is that Kabylia [Berber movement] was huge in the FLN and the victory in 62 over the French, âsaid Fentress. âThe first thing the FLN does in Algeria is to kill the leaders and try to crush the Berbers who had participated, because they really see them as someone who could be useful but whom you will never like. . “
Berbers make up only about 9 percent of the Libyan population, while they make up 40 to 45 percent in Morocco and 20 to 25 percent in Algeria. But so far, with rights movements finally taking center stage in the region, optimism for the Amazigh struggle in North Africa prevails.
“This is now the new North Africa, the genie is out of the bottle, what that means is different in each place in terms of official state recognition. They might even get it in Libya as well,” a said Maddy-Weitzman, principal investigator. scholar at Tel Aviv University, who has written extensively on the Berbers in North Africa. “Perhaps this is the historic moment, galvanizing the community to act as a collective in a way that it has never done before in its history.”