Not Arab, and proud of it – Foreign Policy


At first glance, nothing in the 25-year-old Tunisian musician Abdelhak Mahrouk distinguishes him. He has a serious but unkempt demeanor, eyes splayed and downcast, and a messy mop of black hair that reaches the top of a slightly twisted widow. His wispy goatee makes him look young for his age.

Ask Mahrouk to speak in his native language and you will soon notice a difference. Although he speaks Tunisian Arabic perfectly, his native language is Amazigh, the idiom of the indigenous peoples of North Africa (often known in the West as “Berbers”, but members of the group consider the term as pejorative). Until his first year of school, in fact, Mahrouk did not speak Arabic at all. “My teacher didn’t speak Amazigh and she was very tough,” he recalls. “I didn’t even understand her when she spoke to me. She thought I was a bad student and didn’t take her seriously. So she hit me.


At first glance, nothing in the 25-year-old Tunisian musician Abdelhak Mahrouk distinguishes him. He has a serious but unkempt demeanor, eyes splayed and downcast, and a messy mop of black hair that reaches the top of a slightly twisted widow. His wispy goatee makes him look young for his age.

Ask Mahrouk to speak in his native language and you will soon notice a difference. Although he speaks Tunisian Arabic perfectly, his native language is Amazigh, the idiom of the indigenous peoples of North Africa (often known in the West as “Berbers”, but members of the group consider the term as pejorative). Until his first year of school, in fact, Mahrouk did not speak Arabic at all. “My teacher didn’t speak Amazigh and she was very tough,” he recalls. “I didn’t even understand her when she spoke to me. She thought I was a bad student and didn’t take her seriously. So she hit me.

One of the most important gains of the 2011 Tunisian uprising is the voice it gave to the country’s racial, sexual, religious and even ethnic minorities like the Amazighs, who are descended from the people who inhabited North Africa before the Arab invasion. Even today, Amazigh is widely spoken in Algeria and Morocco, where it has recently become an official language alongside Arabic.

Tunisia‘s Amazigh-speaking population, estimated at less than 1 percent of the country’s population of 11 million, is much smaller. Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, both determined to forge national unity around the identity of the majority Arab population, pursued policies that have oppressed and marginalized the group. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Amazighs of Tunisia saw the 2011 revolution as a chance to speak out about their grievances, to revive their heritage and to preserve it from extinction.

Mahrouk, from a small town in the Sahara, formed an Amazigh-language hip-hop group with his brother in 2013, and today they rap together about their life and the issues in their community. One of their songs, “Tamurthiw ” (“My Country”), is a hymn to ancestral pride. “We are Amazighs and this is our country”, they sing. “It was my country before Jesus came down.” The lyrics include a cry to Massinissa, the former leader who united the Amazigh-speaking peoples in the kingdom of Numidia, and whom many Amazighs today consider to be one of their own.

The Mahrouk brothers are not alone in their efforts to celebrate their past. Since 2011, many Amazighs have organized themselves to lobby for more cultural and historical recognition. Houcine Belghith is a member of the Amazigh Culture Club, a civil society that took advantage of post-revolutionary freedoms to overcome long years of silence. “In the past, we have been deprived of our right to be who we are, to protect our identity and to speak our language,” he said. “They have excluded us, marginalized.

Belghith recounted how he was once punished at school for writing a poem in Amazigh and sharing it with his classmates. Its story is not an isolated incident. Many Amazigh-speaking Tunisians I spoke to said they experienced similar mistreatment when they tried to use their language.

Today, at least, Amazighs can speak freely of the days when they fought against a state determined to extinguish their distinct identity. Bourguiba’s strategy to marginalize the Amazighs included resettlement plans aimed at pushing them to integrate with their Arab neighbors – a policy that was largely successful. Despite this, a few isolated communities have survived, such as the town of Zrawa, the hometown of the Marhouk brothers.

“Bourguiba did good things, but he also did bad things,” said Jaloul Ghaki, president of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture. “He sent us to school. He made sure we got an education. But his vision of Tunisia did not leave much room for us to be different. Ben Ali pursued the basic contours of politics, Ghaki says. “He suppressed the Amazigh language to preserve the unity of the country, as if the unity of the country depended solely on a common language.

Despite their relatively small number, the Amazighs have had a huge and enduring influence on Tunisian culture. The traces are everywhere. You can see it in the food, including the typical couscous from Tunisia. You can see it in the tattooed faces of old Tunisian women who sport cross-shaped symbols on their chins. (The mark in question is the letter “T” in Amazigh script, which means femininity.) You can see it in traditional Tunisian clothing – although most Tunisians know the dress-like garments in question as ” Arab clothes ”. Amazigh activists, like Nouha Grine of the Club for Amazigh Culture, scoff at what they see as a blatant labeling error. “It is time for Tunisians to start calling things by their names,” she said. “We have to set the record straight. These are Amazigh clothes, not Arab clothes.

Tunisians don’t just eat and dress in Amazigh. They also speak Amazigh. Modern Tunisian Arabic is full of Amazigh words (especially animal names, such as fakroun for “turtle” or allouche for “sheep”). Many Tunisian place names, such as Tataooine (which lent its name to a planet in Star wars films) and Medenine, are of Amazigh origin. The name of the country itself probably has its roots in Amazigh. Historians trace the word “airs” back to Amazigh inscriptions from the 6th century BC.

However, the Amazigh cultural renaissance also meets resistance. Ghaki said some accused him of leading a separatist movement, while others attack him for advocating for the use of a language other than Arabic, which they say is “the language from heaven and the Koran “. “Many of these accusations are rooted in ignorance,” he said. “A lot of people in Tunisia don’t know that there is an Amazigh community. We once organized a peaceful demonstration in downtown Tunis. A guy came to see us and told us to go protest in our own country. He thought we were Algerians or Moroccans. Other Amazighs have told me about Arab neighbors who accuse them of trying to break up the country, up to and including involvement in so-called Western conspiracies aimed at undermining Arab civilization.

These accusations seem bizarre in light of the notable modesty of Amazigh demands for cultural and historical recognition. To date, for example, their language is not taught in a single school in Tunisia. Although there are some scattered efforts to help those who want to learn it, they remain entirely informal and small-scale. Grine, of the Amzigh club, said she would like to see it taught as an optional language in schools, alongside other foreign languages ​​such as Hebrew, Turkish and Korean.

Because the Amazighs of Tunisia have seen their numbers shrink and their culture shrink over the years, community members have sought to protect and preserve their heritage by marrying within the group. Until the 1970s, marrying a foreigner was taboo in Amazigh communities. However, as more of them moved from their hometowns to the capital and other cities, mixed marriages became more common. Some Amazighs, like Belghith, are still opposed to marriage with people outside the group. For him, this would necessarily entail a loss of culture and language, since the new arrivals will have no familiarity with Amazigh history or traditions. Mahrouk, the rapper, agrees that intermarriage might not be ideal for the survival of an already threatened language. But he also sees diversity as an asset as long as each group has the chance to pass on its heritage.

Today, after surviving centuries of oppression and discrimination, members of the Amazigh minority are experiencing a cultural renewal thanks to the new era of democracy and freedom of expression. As Tunisians embrace their new freedoms, one can only hope that they will also find room for a new appreciation for diversity and for a more open and honest discussion of the past.

Photo credit: FAROUK BATICHE / AFP / Getty Images

Correction, August 10, 2106: Masinissa, the former chief who united the Amazigh-speaking peoples, was not Punic, as the original version of this story suggests.

Read more about Tunisia: In the sun and in the shade:
Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion: The Dawn of Democracy is something to take root – but the forces that plunged other Arab Spring countries into turmoil still threaten to undo its progress.
A verdict on change: This ambitious young judge wants to change the Tunisian judicial system. But he still has to type his own verdicts.
The storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not only a novelist, he is the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Miss the good old days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here is a man who still mourns the old regime.
El Khadra still can’t breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one is listening.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the industry in shock – but its problems are actually much deeper.
Governance Crisis: Local Edition: In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And this is a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.
The dying jazz of Tunisia: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a smuggler’s paradise. The inhabitants would like it to be so.
Conditions of abuse: On paper, the Tunisian revolution strengthened legal protections for women. However, the reality is quite different.
Five years of the new Tunisia: from revolution to disillusion and vice versa: milestones on Tunisia’s rocky road to democracy.
The integration of Tunisian Islamists: the latest maneuvers of the Ennahda party have once again highlighted its political astuteness.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is Overzealous Pursuit of the War on Terrorism Contributing to Radicalization?

About Wesley V. Finley

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