In the far northwest of Egypt, just 59 kilometers east of the Libyan border and some 350 miles (560 kilometers) from the Nile Valley, the Siwa Oasis is one of the regions the most remote in the country.
An agricultural land famous for its dates and olives, the oasis has become more recognized for its tourism potential over the past decade. It is the easternmost gateway to the land of the Berbers, an indigenous people of North Africa whose presence stretches from the Canary Islands to Siwa. Medieval Arab geographers mention their presence in the oasis in their written accounts dating back to the 12th century. At present, they are around 25,000.
For centuries, the Berber population of the oasis was concentrated in the walled towns of Aghurmi, Gara and Shali, but began to move to the surrounding lands long ago. Today, the oasis is sparsely populated even after it was annexed to Egypt in 1819, in part because its first paved road connecting another city, Marsa Matrouh, was not built until 1984.
The insular nature of Siwa has played a major role in allowing the local Berbers to preserve their culture, one of the main expressions of which is their language, Siwi. Known generically as Tamazight – the Berber word for Berber – the language is said to be spoken by 10,000 to 15,000 people, although there has been no official census.
“Siwa is really isolated, and that’s why the language has been maintained,” said a local who lives in Siwa and has attended some events of the Amazigh World Congress, a non-governmental group that protects and promotes the Berber identity. He asked that his name not be used – like others interviewed by Al-Monitor – explaining that the language issue is sensitive and can cause problems with Egyptian authorities.
“If Siwa had been near Cairo, the language would have long since disappeared. … Siwa had little influence from outside, and that was positive, ”he told Al-Monitor.
The language, known locally as Siwi, belongs to the Berber subgroup of the Afro-Asian language family. The Berber language spoken in the neighboring Libyan oasis of Awjila is geographically the closest, but Siwi is most similar to the language that was spoken in central Libya and in the Nafusa mountains in the west of the country. .
In the Siwa Oasis, all local Berbers speak Siwi as their mother tongue and most of them added Arabic as a second language decades ago. The Bedouin of the oasis, however, speak Arabic as their mother tongue and sometimes also speak Siwi. The Egyptians living there outside the oasis very rarely speak Siwi, so most communication between these three groups is in Arabic.
This contact between the two languages has influenced Siwi over the centuries, mainly in terms of vocabulary. “We have to distinguish between the different layers of Arab influence,” Lameen Souag, linguist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, told Al-Monitor. “There are very old loans; then there’s a bunch of fairly well-integrated borrowings and grammatical structures, which seem to date from before 1800.
He said there was also a bunch of borrowings from modern Egyptian Arabic, as a result of contact with the rest of Egypt through education, media or migration.
This contact between Siwa and the rest of Egypt has accelerated considerably in recent decades due to modern means of communication and transport, which have increased immigration and tourism. This combination became a catalyst for demographic and social change in the oasis, and some residents began to fear the local language.
Their fears are not unfounded. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Siwi’s vitality is considered “definitely threatened”. In contrast, Ethnologue, another organization that provides information about the language, considers its status “vigorous”, which means that the language is not endangered but is limited to face-to-face communication. Others argue that the truth lies somewhere in between, given that the language is used at all ages in everyday communication but at the same time there are factors that endanger it, such as lack of research on the language, the fact that it is not taught at all in schools and no dictionary has been produced.
The Egyptian Constitution recognizes Arabic as the only official language of the country, but it stipulates that the state “will pay particular attention to the protection of elements of cultural pluralism in Egypt” and “will make available all types of cultural material … without discrimination based on… geography. location. ”The charter encourages the state to“ pay special attention to remote areas ”and promote“ translation from and into Arabic ”.
This part of the constitution was initially praised by some local Berbers, but the reality on the ground is much less encouraging. In Siwa, the education system follows the same model as the rest of Egypt and uses Arabic as the exclusive language. There is no cultural center in the oasis where it is possible to study Siwi, leaving houses the only way to learn it, which means that non-local Arabs, a growing segment of its population, cannot learn it even if they want to.
“The father and the mother [of a family] speak the same language, so everyone speaks Siwi at home. This is how the language is preserved, ”Sheikh Omar of the Awlad Musa tribe told Al-Monitor. “Young people sometimes prepare little books and dictionaries with vocabulary but there is no official and strong [initiatives to document the language],” he added.
One of the most notable consequences of the absence of institutions dedicated to the study of Siwi is that the language is not documented, which is all the more critical since Siwi has no written tradition. . It has a long tradition of poetry and folk tales, as well as riddles and proverbs, but since they are not written, they are in danger of gradually getting lost.
Many in the oasis believe that because Siwi is their mother tongue, there is no reason to study it. They therefore prefer to devote their time and energy to other languages, such as Arabic.
“The Siwans generally care about Arabic because it is the official language in Egypt and it gives them the opportunity to go to university or join the army,” a resident of Siwa who works in one of the few cultural institutions in the country. oasis told Al-Monitor. He also requested that his name not be used.
Those trying to start small projects to document the language – publishing a dictionary or grammar study – find no support. “The language needs a dictionary because it is slowly being lost and now it is a cocktail between Arabic and Amazigh,” said the local from Siwi who has links with the Amazigh World Congress. “Some time ago I tried to [put together] a dictionary, but it is not an easy task because it takes money and time and I gradually gave up, ”he said.
Another major obstacle is the distrust with which the central government views peripheral communities and other minorities in Egypt. “The Siwis believe the subject is politically sensitive and probably something they would be better off avoiding if they want to be on good terms with the government,” Souag said.
This situation has led to a paradoxical situation in which the only research carried out on Siwi is carried out by foreign academics, while the locals tend to shy away from it and even avoid talking about it.
“It is possible for [foreign] universities to send students to do research on Siwi, and that might help us prevent it from disappearing, but [in Egypt] it’s difficult [because] nobody cares, and even less encourages it, ”said the local working in a cultural institution in the oasis.
For Souag, the Egyptian government could boost Siwi by using the language in schools and on local broadcasts as well as by funding research on the language, but so far there has been no step in this direction. direction. He added that if such steps were taken, the language could recover and be saved from extinction.
But given Egypt’s reluctance to act, the local Amazigh World Congress so far has far less ambitious aspirations. Its manager in Egypt, Amany Al-Weshahy, told Al-Monitor that the organization was drafting a plan to teach siwi at the House of Culture, a local cultural center in Siwa, but that it needs to receive a logistical support and funding from the Ministry of Culture. .