cultural awakening of the Tebu: “We may not be Arabs, but we are Libyans” | Arts and culture

Living in the inhospitable area crisscrossed by the borders of Libya, Chad, Niger and Sudan, the Tébou – a non-Arab indigenous peoples – experience an unprecedented cultural awakening, thanks to their very first alphabet and to a cultural center.

“It is something that does not compare to anything else,” said Ahmed Koki, a Libyan Toebu-speaking activist, of the feeling of writing in his mother tongue.

It was in the fall of 2013 when Koki’s hometown of Murzuk in Libya’s remote Fezzan province was littered with the first publications ever written in the Toebu language – also known as Tudaga – in Libya.

The Tebu were victims of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal assimilation campaigns seeking to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages.

Many Tebu in Libya have been deprived of their citizenship, preventing them from accessing health care, education and employment. It was only after the fall of Gaddafi that Koki and his people were able to defend their rights.

I came across a book written in Tudaga. A friend had brought it across the Chadian border. It was at the end of the 90s and we had to keep it a secret because we surely would have gone to jail if Gaddafi’s police had found out.

Younis Tobway, former Minister of Culture

Seven years after Gaddafi’s death, cultural manifestations of non-Arab indigenous peoples of Libya, such as Amazighs or Tebu, are no longer prohibited, but instability is fostered by two rival legislatures – the internationally recognized GNA and the House representatives based in the East (HOR) – does not help support their language.

Despite the continuing chaos in Libya, the Toubous have managed to reorganize themselves into the so-called “National Assembly of the Toubous”, their main organization in the country.

From a hotel in Tunis, Adam Rami Kerki, head of the NTA, called “widespread racism” in Libya.

“Many in Libya insist on rooting their identity in Arab culture, but we had not heard of it until Gaddafi came to power in 1969,” Kerki said.

“We may not be Arabs but we are without a doubt Libyans,” he added, referring to the lack of institutional support since the end of Gaddafi’s mandate.

As the former Minister of Culture of the National Salvation Government – the executive overthrown by the GNA in March 2016, Younis Tobway agreed with Kerki’s assessment of his people’s neglect.

Ahmed Koki helps younger generations navigate the world in Murzuk, Libya [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]

“We only get paper promises and endless speeches stressing the importance of diversity in Libya from whoever comes to power, but nothing ever happens after that,” Tobway told Al Jazeera by phone. .

What the Libyan Tébou have achieved so far is through their own efforts, he said, explaining that they had already started work long before the 2011 uprising that toppled the former Libyan leader. .

“I still remember the first time I came across a book written in Tudaga. A friend had brought it across the Chadian border. It was at the end of the 90s and we had to keep the secret because we would surely have gone to prison if the police of Gaddafi had discovered it ”, recalled the only Libyan minister of Tebu.

A house of words

Along with the Tuaregs – another indigenous non-Arab people – and the former Gaddafi loyalist tribe of Awad Suleyman, the Toubou dominated Libya’s Fezzan region.

It is a large area located at a regional crossroads, connecting southern Libya to the Sahel and the routes of sub-Saharan migrants through northern Libya and to Europe.

The lack of central authority is more visible here than anywhere else in the country, with porous borders paving the way for smuggling of all kinds: people, oil, gold, weapons, drugs and even books when it comes. of the Tébou.

Located deep in the Tibesti massif, a rocky mountain range in the far north of Chad which also spills over into southern Libya, Bardai has been the “capital” of Toebu culture for over a century.

In Chad, they are considered a prestigious community and their culture has never been threatened as in Libya.

In 1993, Mark and Sheryl Ortman reached this border area with their four children – the fifth is believed to be born in Chad.

The American couple worked in a minority language program run by SIL (originally the Summer Institute of Linguistics), an NGO focused on language standardization in developing countries.

Tibesti was their home until 1999, when a rebellion forced them to leave the area. By this time, the Ortmans had already helped develop an alphabet for the Toebu language and they would return to Chad in 2001.

“We opted for a Latin alphabet because the national language in Chad is French; it serves as a bridge between Tebu and literacy in the national language, ”Sheryl Ortman said over the phone from the Tibesti Mountains.

It’s actually not that strange for a philanthropic organization to set up an alphabet for a people whose existence is almost ignored by the rest of the world.

Ortman’s most immediate precedent might have been that of Wolfgang Feuerstein, a German linguist who did the same in the 1980s with the Laz – a Caucasian people living between the borders of Turkey and Georgia. While Feuerstein was forced to complete his work from his village in the Black Forest of Germany, the Ortmans managed to stay and ultimately become part of the community.

“Our children grew up among the Tebu and, every day, I am more and more aware of all that we have come to share”, underlined the American linguist.

In the meantime, Edji Mahmoud, a local Tébou who had worked hand in hand with Ortman since the mid-1990s, had the idea of ​​establishing a cultural center in Bardai.

“After the fall of Gaddafi, then seeing the Tebu in Libya using all our work to publish newspapers and magazines in our language, I thought that we should once again step up and make Bardai the basis for the further development of language, ”recalls the 45-year-old, who was also involved in the birth of the alphabet.

His cousin owned a small cement brick building that was not in use and he agreed not only to share the premises, but also to rearrange it, adding terraces, buying tables and shelves.

In July 2012, the cultural center opened its doors. While everyone works on a voluntary basis, funds and books from private donors are also essential.

“The focal point is a six-week Tebu language course leading to a high-profile writing competition and ending with an awards ceremony attended by all government officials, including the governor,” Mahmoud said. before adding that all the activities of the center allow its people to see that the Tebu language “does not have to take precedence over another language”.

According to Mahmoud, prioritizing Tebu also has the added benefit of giving Tebu’s children a greater chance of succeeding in French-language public school.

“Once they know how to read in their own language, the letters of the French alphabet have meaning for them,” he said.

According to a report published by Amnesty International in July 2018, the Chadian authorities reduced education spending by 21% between 2014 and 2016, compromising the access of many people to schools and universities.

Banned in Gaddafi's Era, Tubu-Language Books Now Available to Everyone in Remote South Libya [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]Banned in Gaddafi’s Era, Tubu-Language Books Now Available to Everyone in Remote South Libya [Karlos Zurutuza/Al Jazeera]

In many ways, the Bardai center is also trying to fill this gap and much of what happens there wouldn’t be possible without Anja and Simon Neuhaus.

This Swiss couple in their thirties, eager to see for themselves the wild and isolated massif of Tibesti, agreed in 2011 to visit Bardaï with Mahmoud and Ortman. Once there, they decided to join hands for six months to launch the center in 2012.

They now spend half of the year in Bardai and the other half at home in Switzerland, where they develop applications, enrich the dictionary and produce educational videos and cartoons.

Dictionary work is done in collaboration with Hassan Bedeimi, a Tebu linguist and publicist from Gatroun, Libya, who worked for years in secret during Gaddafi’s years and now shares his 15,000-word collection with Simon.

“Along with many other efforts, our goal is to give the Tebu language a status, to assert that it has the same value as any other by publishing books, mainly the dictionary,” explained Simon Neuhaus.

The Swiss linguist is also involved in the management of the centre’s website where all publications in Tudaga are available, as well as videos and photos of their activities.

“You can accomplish a lot if you have the will”

Even their fellow Libyans are contributing to this process.

In November 2017, a delegation of Libyan Tebus was invited to a workshop in Tripoli where Libyan Amazigh speakers briefed them on their own process of linguistic normalization.

The Amazighs also share the same history of repression under the Gaddafi regime and they have been a source of inspiration for tebu activists since the beginning of their activities.

Over the past seven years, Amazigh textbooks have gradually been released and their language is taught in their schools.

There is even an Amazigh language department on the university campus of Zuwara, an Amazigh coastal enclave.

Osman Hamid, one of 10 Tébou who attended the course, said he was “very impressed” by the tremendous progress their hosts have made over the past few years.

One of the first ideas he and his friends adopted from their Amazigh friends was a dictionary app.

The first Tudaga-Arabic-English-French dictionary, published in 2015, is now available wherever there is Internet. Borders, says Hamid, are now more porous than ever.

“Even in a ruined country like ours, these people have proven that a lot can be done if you have the will to do things,” said the 54-year-old chemistry professor, who would “smuggle” them. Tebu books around the world. border at the time of Gaddafi.

About Wesley V. Finley

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