Near the village of Taoujout, a dirt road climbs a steep hill towards the establishment of stone houses perched at the top. In the low places below the road, palm trees grow among the green gardens. While only 10 kilometers from the regional administrative center and tourist sites, Taoujout appears totally disconnected from the outside world.
Next to the road, a small outbuilding decorated with traditional ornaments serves as a cultural center and language school for the Amazighs, the name that the native pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa use to refer to themselves. At a desk in the building, Ahmed Gwirah, president of the Taoujout Association for the Preservation of Amazigh Villages, discussed with Al-Monitor the history of the marginalization and underdevelopment of the Amazigh community.
“The situation for us at Taoujout was better under the French. They built a lot for us, including two wells. They also built the roads that connect us [to the outside]. It is development.
Gwirah said that after Tunisia‘s independence, mountain villages like his – many of which speak Amazigh – were seen as supporters of Salah Ben Yousef, the great political rival of former President Habib Bouguiba who been murdered. They also housed the Fellagha, independence fighters who attacked the outposts of the French colonizers, with whom Bourguiba maintained a warm relationship even after independence.
“The real marginalization started after independence,” Gwirah said, noting that the government had built new settlements in the lowlands for each of the few remaining Amazigh-speaking villages. He noted the case of Zraoua, a small stone village on another nearby hill.
“Old Zraoua is now empty of inhabitants. Amazigh buildings and architecture without anyone living there. The authorities got involved after independence. They cut off their water, their electricity and forced them to descend to New Zraoua in the plains below. “
Gwirah said moving the Amazigh rebels to the newly created villages and taking up arms from them was a way to monitor them, integrate them into the Arab-speaking majority and consolidate the power of the post-independence state – as well as the rule of Bourguiba. .
He noted that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution in 2014 introduced legislation to distribute power to municipalities in a highly centralized state. He expressed doubts about the ability of the laws to bring real positive change in south-eastern Tunisia, where the last Amazigh communities live, due to the concentration of wealth and power in the north.
“The regions of the north and the coast are nothing like those of the south. Administration, money and development are in Tunis.
In New Zraoua, Ali Zieda, one of the founders of the Azro Association for Amazigh Culture, was seated in front of a closed storefront in the main street. The village seemed abandoned, almost all the inhabitants were hiding in their houses, sheltered from the midday sun. He said the villagers protested and called the state’s attention: “After the revolution, we started to act. We formed this association, which would have been illegal before. In the village, we did not have a high school. All the children had to study in other cities. So we organized a big sit-in in Matmata, and finally the government built us a high school.
The protests brought other modest improvements to the village. Doctors who came to work at the local clinic once a week now come three times as often. In the past, New Zraoua did not have public lighting, but now the state has installed it.
Ali believes that the most progress, however, has been made in cultural preservation. He said his villagers were the first to produce Amazigh rap music. His association Azro introduced the use of tifinagh, the once banned Amazigh alphabet, teaching children to read and write. Even the small keyboard of Zieda’s smartphone is in Tifinagh lettering, a recent and rare innovation.
Further, he noted that since the villagers moved to New Zraoua decades ago, Arabic-speaking families from the surrounding plains have settled down, raising their children among Amazigh speakers. Amazigh villagers, however, have strongly maintained their identity.
“Now even Arab children speak Amazigh,” Zieda said.
Only a few kilometers away, in Matmata, the municipal center of the Amazigh villages, the infrastructure is in better condition, with a health center, paved roads and well-built schools. Yet the city district has the lowest development indicators in all of south-eastern Tunisia.
Matmata is dug from pits dug in the desert that served as a home for the ancestors of the Amazighs and as a backdrop for the planet Tatooine in “Star Wars”. However, there are no Amazigh speakers left. Matmata, an Arabic tribal name, was once called Āthweb – “Good Land” – by the locals.
Rebab Benkraiem, head of the municipality of Matmata, says that despite the new freedoms of expression after the Tunisian revolution, there is still a sense of cultural marginalization for some Amazighs after decades of oppression. Writing or speaking their language in public incites arrest or even physical violence.
“Even the students who come from Amazigh villages to go to school in Matmata – you can feel that they feel worse than the others. They stay with each other, and when they talk to each other in the Amazigh language and you ask them what they are talking about, they say, “It’s nothing,” she said.
Sitting next to her, Ghaki Jalul, vice president of the Amazigh World Congress, said: “They pay attention to those who do not speak their language. If it’s a fear they’ve inherited over 100 years, it won’t be easy to get rid of. “
They said that since the outbreak of the revolution almost 10 years ago, when various marginalized groups demanded jobs and development, there has been little change. Benkraiem said: “It’s true, after the revolution, citizens can speak out. They can make demands on the government. They can protest. But in development, there is nothing new. No new jobs for us.
Jalul noted that the marginalization of the region by Tunisian leaders goes back much further than Bourguiba.
“Since the time of the [local Ottoman rulers called] beys, Matmata was marginalized. The state only sent tax collectors to Matmata to collect taxes from surrounding tribes, and left once they collected it.
Riadh Bechir is the president of the Association for Development and Strategic Studies of Medenine, a city in south-eastern Tunisia. He explained the failures of the state which left the south of the country impoverished and underdeveloped, saying: “In the 1970s the state built factories in Gafsa and Gabès. [a city near Matmata], but they failed to create enough jobs ”for the regions to prosper.
Neglect has left Amazigh villages doubly marginalized, causing them to emigrate from their ancestral towns and villages in search of jobs, Bechir said, referring to the now empty Amazigh villages of Chenini and Douiret and those near Tataouine. “Most have fled to Tunis to work. Most of the newspaper vendors in the capital are Amazigh from there.
He said that since the 2011 revolution, the situation in the south has not improved, largely due to a lack of competent governance, political conflict that hinders the implementation of reforms and international loans that the government contracted to pay wages instead of using resources to develop the South.
Soubeika Bahri, Tunisian professor of linguistics at the University of Coloroado, Denver, specializes in Tunisian Amazigh. She said that while acceptance and even interest in Amazigh culture among ordinary Tunisians has improved dramatically, geography keeps them in a precarious position.
“The Amazighs are the most vulnerable community affected by the geographical divide of the Tunisian economy and the distribution of wealth,” she said.
And although Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali are gone, Soubeika said, their Arab nationalist ideology that sidelined cultural pluralism has remained at the heart of national politics.
“Among politicians, even those considered progressive, there is a tendency to folklorize the Amazighs instead of recognizing and teaching their language and their culture, lest they be considered as separatists,” he said. she declared. “But the Islamists have been the biggest change. They deny ethnic pluralism. Their conception of the Muslim nation played a crucial role in suppressing Amazigh identity.