After Centuries of Oppression, a Libyan Minority Sees Hope in Qaddafi's Fall

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The original inhabitants of North Africa, Amazigh (also called Berbers) may have finally won the freedom to observe their culture -- if they can convince the Arab majority to go along

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Graffiti reading "Freedom fighters of Dahra District of Tripoli", at right, and a Berber logo at left, are seen in a street in Tripoli / AP

This article is the first of three on the fate of Libya's Berber minority after Qaddafi. Read about the Berber activist movement's struggle on Wednesday and about the new Berber identity crisis on Friday.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Hasan Abu Sagar was an 18-year-old law student and occasional poet living in Libya's capital when, in 1999, he saw his native language written down for the first time. Internet cafés had just come to the North African country and, like many university students, Abu Sagar killed time exploring the web. One day, he came across a website devoted to Tifinar, the ancient script used by the region's ethnic Berber minority, also known as Amazigh, the original inhabitants of North Africa. It hit him like a sack of bricks -- though he was Amazigh, he had no idea how to read it.

Abu Sagar's family spoke Tamazight, the Amazigh language, at home, but Muammar Qaddafi's policies had forbidden teaching the script in schools or showing any Amazigh symbols in public. That day something clicked in Abu Sagar, he told me. He decided it was unacceptable for anyone not to know their own language.

The doe-eyed, soft-spoken performer looks nothing like a covert revolutionary or rebellious youth, but appearances in Qaddafi's Libya were often deceiving. Abu Sagar and a few of his friends decided to teach themselves the script, letter-by-letter and word-by-word. It was political dissent by alphabet. They swore one other to secrecy, fearing arrest. They began to hop from one internet café to the next, changing locations every hour and never signing in with their real names. "We were very scared," Abu Sagar remembered, "people were watching everywhere."

Abu Sagar said it took him two years to master the language. Eight years after that, he would hold clandestine classes for other Amazigh who wanted to learn it. For one month last summer, 25 students convened nightly in a cave in the Nafusa Mountains, a scraggly range west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border where many of Libya's Amazigh communities still reside. Abu Sagar taught his students what he knew and he shared the Amazigh poetry he'd composed. Like many before him, his goal was to keep the language alive, despite the risks.

From Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Vandal, Arab-Muslim, and European conquerors to the policies of modern-day North African leaders, the Amazigh have been oppressed throughout their millennia-long history. This year's Arab Spring unleashed a lesser-known social movement: unprecedented Berber activism and an Amazigh cultural revival. Nowhere in the region has this new movement been more unique than in Libya, where after playing a vital role in the fight against Qaddafi, the Amazigh want their contribution to Libya's revolution acknowledged and their identity accepted. But despite the relative openness of post-Qaddafi Libya, the Amazigh face a difficult road ahead and their fate will become one of the true tests of Free Libya's freedom and its future.

Centuries of assimilation and decades of outright oppression have left the minority, which Berber scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman estimates today make up about 9 percent of Libya's 5.7 million people, marginalized. The Arab conquests in the seventh century promoted Arabic as the language of God and created a stigma against using Tamazight. Amazigh identity took an even harder hit from populist Arab-national sentiments promoted by the region's leaders against European colonialism, often denying Berber identity altogether. Past Amazigh cultural revivals in the region have ended with brutal repression. In a country whose future looks more and more tumultuous each day, some worry that history may repeat itself, especially if Libya's new government is hyper-nationalist.

"In the end, they kept their heads down during all the Qaddafi time. I just hope that having stuck them over the barricades they don't have them chopped off," says archaeologist and academic Elizabeth Fentress, who studies Amazigh communities and co-authored of one of the definitive books on the group's history, The Berbers. "There's a tremendous tendency in these countries for the Arab groups to say, 'Thank you very much for your help now would you shut up and start speaking Arabic again.' They [Arabs] really don't trust them or like them or want to know them."

Qaddafi was one of the worst propagators of nationalism through Arabization. To create a country out of disparate tribes that had lived under Italian occupation only a generation earlier, the Brother Leader, after taking office in 1969, played up shared Arab history. He banned texts, names, and symbols of the Amazigh to help solidify his vision for a unified Libya and help prevent a challenge to his rule.

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Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, GQ, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Slate, among others.

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