An identity in danger: the Berbers of Egypt are scrambling to save their language

Youssef Diab drives his truck through the Egyptian oasis of Siwa, singing catchy songs in a local Berber dialect that clings to life despite the dominance of Arabic.

The UN has classified siwi, the easternmost dialect of the Tamazight language spoken across North Africa to Morocco, as “endangered”.

But few adults in the oasis speak Arabic as their main language, and the children playing at the foot of the old local fortress speak and shout in Siwi.

Diab, a 25-year-old tour guide with a colorful Berber flag in his back window, is convinced the language will survive.

“Everyone uses it here,” he said.

The Berbers of Siwa are one of the main linguistic minorities in Egypt, the most populous Arabic-speaking country with some 100 million inhabitants and long the standard-bearer of Arab nationalism.

Located some 560 kilometers from Cairo, their oasis did not come under state control until it was occupied by Mohammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, in 1820.

Its isolation “allowed Siwa and its inhabitants to retain their specific traditions and a language that distinguishes them from the dominant Egyptian culture,” said sociolinguist Valentina Serreli, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the language in the oasis. .

It was not until the 1980s that Arabic became more mainstream, largely thanks to “tourism, mass media and mobility for higher education or for professional purposes”.

The language remains “dominant”

The UN estimated in 2008 that 15,000 people in the oasis, or half of the population, speak Siwi.

But Serreli estimates the real figure to be around 20,000.

“UNESCO considers the language to be ‘certainly endangered’ because ‘children no longer learn the language as a mother tongue at home’,” she said.

But “as far as I know, that is not true”.

“Language is dominant in … conversations, even between young peers.”

Ibrahim Mohamed, an elder of one of the region’s 11 tribes and a respected figure in Siwa, said Siwi was central to the oasis’ “Amazigh identity”.

And despite an influx of tourists in recent decades, the oasis remains relatively isolated, accessible by only one road from the Mediterranean coast.

“Siwa is to the Siwis what water is to fishing – they wouldn’t leave it for the world,” said Mehdi al-Howeiti, the head of the local tourist office.

Son of the oasis, he studied elsewhere but returned to live in Siwa.

Preservation efforts

Despite this dedication to their roots, the people of Siwa face several challenges in protecting their language, including the cultural dominance of Arabic and the fact that the language is only passed on within families.

“In the past, our parents only spoke Siwi, which had nothing in common with Arabic,” said Mohamed, the eldest of the tribe, who wore a black Libyan-style skullcap on his head.

“Today, the language is getting closer and closer to Arabic.”

And while Egyptian curricula feature foreign languages, none of the country’s major minority languages ​​- Siwi and Nubian – are taught in schools.

“The language must be formally taught so that it does not disappear,” Mohamed said.

The local organization “Children of Siwa” has led efforts to preserve the language.

In collaboration with Moroccan and Italian partners, in 2012 she published a collection of songs, poems and proverbs in Siwi and Arabic.

It was the product of two years of working with 60 local youth and elders.

But despite these efforts, the book is now out of print and there is not enough money for another edition, said association vice president Yahya Qenaoui.

“We must do more to preserve our heritage,” he said.

“We cannot do 10 percent of what we would like to do … the association does not receive any funding.”

But Diab remains hopeful that the dialect will survive.

“At school, my son Ibrahim learns Arabic, he reads and writes it,” he says.

“But at home he has to speak siwi.”


About Wesley V. Finley

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