Who are the Amazighs of Egypt? – Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East


CAIRO – Visitors to the Siwa oasis quickly notice the friendliness of the people who welcome them. With warm smiles, the residents of the oasis take pride in showing visitors their cultural heritage and traditions.

Unlike many other parts of Egypt, the Siwa Oasis, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of the Libyan border and 560 kilometers (348 miles) from Cairo, is virtually free from attempted theft. , fraud and sexual, physical or verbal harassment. . It seems that the geographic remoteness of the region and the long-standing marginalization of its inhabitants are the main reasons why the oasis is a safe and pleasant neighborhood to live in and visit.

About 30,000 Amazighs (Berbers) live along the Egyptian-Libyan border in what is known as the Siwa Oasis, which is administratively affiliated with the governorate of Marsa Matrouh. The Amazighs have been marginalized for decades and their isolation has prevented them from fully integrating into Egyptian society at large. They have remained a “tribal” community that adheres to tribal customs and traditions, and they have maintained a unique way of life and their own language which they speak in addition to Arabic, the official language of Egypt.

According to Tariq Jahlan, historian and researcher in Amazigh genealogy, in Egypt there are around 12 million people of Amazigh descent, while “the speakers of the Amazigh language are no more than 30,000 – they live in the oasis of Siwa ”.

Imran al-Siwi, a resident who owns a cafe in Siwa Oasis, told Al-Monitor: “People here lead simple and religious lives. We love to help others because that’s how we were brought up. We would like to see cheerful visitors to visit us again.

He said, “The state neglects tourism in Siwa, which is why we promote ourselves by being hospitable and kind to visitors, and trying to make them happy.

Siwi said that since the Amazighs have been excommunicated for years, the inhabitants of the oasis have managed to preserve their own traditions and customs. “We preferred to preserve our culture, our language, our traditions and our customs, because we feared that our heritage would vanish in the clamor of the big cities,” he said.

Since the emergence of Egyptian civilization, Egypt has been known for its cultural pluralism, which became more important when the country’s last constitution was drafted in 2014. The constitution emphasized the need to preserve this cultural diversity, with the slogan “A constitution for all Egyptians”, as many minorities such as Nubians, Bedouins and Amazighs have contributed.

Article 50 of the constitution states that “the state shall pay particular attention to the protection of elements of cultural pluralism in Egypt”.

Amany al-Weshahy, head of the Amazigh community in Egypt and consultant to the president of the Amazigh World Congress, said in a press release on May 16, 2014, that Article 50 “represents an indirect recognition of cultural pluralism”.

Egyptian minorities have been marginalized for many years. The Amazighs of the Siwa Oasis also suffered from such marginalization, which affected their access to education, health care and food, and resulted in a lack of representation in state institutions.

The Amazigh community has been marginalized by successive governments since the creation of the Kingdom of Egypt in 1922, and especially after the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, as it is considered an ethnic minority and lives in a region far from the capital. Egyptian.

However, some see a silver lining in this marginalization. The tribal community of the Siwa oasis has managed to preserve the Amazigh identity.

Fathi al-Kilani, the sheikh of the Zayan tribe, one of the largest tribes in the Siwa oasis, said in a press release on November 27, 2013, “The oasis contains 11 tribes of Amazigh origin, who speak the Amazigh language, which they learn before Arabic. Arabic is taught to children so that they can read the Quran and is then taught at different educational levels.

The Amazighs make a living from agriculture. The oasis contains nearly 300,000 date palms, the fruits of which are harvested and sold or transformed into sweets, 70,000 olive trees and other fruit and vegetable crops.

In addition, the Siwa Oasis is home to “white gold”, or salt, which is produced by the salt marshes and lakes of the oasis. About 60 million tonnes of salt are present in the oasis.

In a statement on November 3, 2013, Kilani said residents of the oasis were anxiously awaiting the resumption of the sale of salt, which was disrupted by the state due to bureaucratic measures. Oasis salt is characterized by the highest concentration in the world, which makes it highly coveted around the world.

The inhabitants of the Siwa Oasis are also known for crafts like jewelry, embroidered clothing, and pottery, with simple and colorful designs that reflect the cultural heritage of the Amazigh community. They also make embroidered rugs, decorative plates, traditional Berber wedding dresses, and musical instruments. Now, they not only produce these items for their own use, but they also make a living selling them.

Some of the inhabitants of the oasis work in tourism or related activities; they work in tourist cafes near lakes or in shops that sell handicrafts in Siwa, or they treat visitors suffering from physical ailments with burial therapy in the sand. Many of them work in the transportation sector, facilitating travel between landmarks in the oasis or its suburbs or organizing day trips to remote areas.

Abu Bakr Abu Abdallah, a taxi driver from Siwa Oasis, told Al-Monitor that he owned a motorcycle rickshaw to lead visitors around the oasis to distant landmarks. He also makes a living taking visitors in his Land Rover on safaris.

For his part, Ali Abdul Rahman, who owns a cafe by the Cleopatra pool, told Al-Monitor: “The oasis is simple and beautiful. It still attracts visitors, but lately the number of tourists has declined ”as tourism has been affected by the security situation in the country in recent years.

He said: “We need the state to pay more attention to our oasis and promote it to attract more tourists. The oasis must have an ancient place on the map of Egyptian tourism. “

The inhabitants of the oasis are keen to teach the Amazigh language to their children and to respect and preserve nature, while adhering to the customs and traditions which are then passed on to the next generation, because it is this cultural heritage that distinguishes the Amazighs. others. Population.

About Wesley V. Finley

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