For Long-Suppressed Libyan Minority, New Freedom Brings an Identity Crisis

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After centuries of being told their culture is forbidden, can Berbers figure out what it means to be Amazigh today?

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A girl sits in a classroom in the Zurfan Women Association for Berber Women's Rights in Libya's Western Mountain / Reuters

This article is the final of three on the fate of Libya's Berber minority after Qaddafi. Read about how Qaddafi's fall changed Berber society here and about the Berber activist movement's struggle here.

YAFRAN, Libya -- Najwa Alazabi has another first name, Tiarina, but under Muammar Qaddafi's rule she could never use it. Tiarina is a traditional name of Amazighs, a North African ethnic minority also known as Berber, and expressions of the Amazigh culture and script were forbidden in Qaddafi's Libya. When we met in early November, the dark eyed, 22-year-old solemnly told me I can call her either one.

Alazabi was nervous when we first sat down. She'd never spoken to a journalist before, she said -- much less a Western one -- and the topic we were discussing is so important to her, she doesn't want to get it wrong. She shuffled with her papers looking for the right words and pointed to the Amazigh necklace she's wearing -- an emblem on a blue, green, and yellow background. She couldn't wear this before, either. Now, she wears it everyday.

"Everyone has a culture, I'm Amazigh," Alazabi said. "Before, just to speak about my culture was wrong. He'd [Qaddafi] put you in jail -- accuse you of trying to overthrow him. But my culture is an ancient culture; it's an important culture. And now, I can tell people about my culture."

Yet when I asked Alazabi what exactly Amazigh culture is, she couldn't really explain it. She talked about history. "When you say Hannibal, to you it's a name. For me, it's the leader who entered Rome and fought a war. Alexander the Great, his mother was Amazigh," she said, listing other historical figures. Academics I spoke to later said the people that Alazabi named were almost certainly not Amazigh, but that's not the point. After centuries of having their culture suppressed and their history erased by European invaders and the Arab majority, many Amazigh yearn for a tradition to cherish and to connect to. But when I pushed Alzabi to explain what it really means to be Amazigh, she wasn't so sure.

Alazabi is not the only one who has trouble answering this question. Pretty much every Amazigh I spoke to struggled. But if Libyan Amazighs are going to play a greater role in the country -- and educate their compatriots about themselves -- they're going to have to figure out their identity.

The Amazigh are the original inhabitants of North Africa. Generations of conquerors have slowly eroded the Berber culture and language, while conversion to Islam and the promotion of Arabic as the language of God encouraged assimilation. Qaddafi's policy of strict Arabization struck a final blow to their identity. Under his rule, Amazigh names, cultural symbols, and their written language were all forbidden. Amazigh activists were routinely harassed and, often, imprisoned. The Amazigh make up approximately eight or nine percent of Libya's 5.7 million, according to Berber scholars, although after centuries of mixing between Arabs and Amazigh, no one can be sure.

During the Libyan revolution, many Amazigh joined the rebel advance on Tripoli and were instrumental in the victory over the Qaddafi regime. Today, their organizations -- many of them brand new -- are attempting to spark a cultural revival by holding language classes and restoring historic sites, among many other things. The activists say they want Libya's new government to use Tamazight as a national language and are reaching out to the broader Libyan community for acceptance. Some Amazigh are also openly challenging the accepted Libyan identity as an Arab-majority-nation -- they say most Libyans are actually Berber, but have forgotten their original language and culture.

Berbers may want to educate the rest of the country about Berber heritage and identity, but after 42 years of repression and centuries of assimilation, they are not quite sure what that means, even within their own communities. Today, their conception of the own identity can carry some contradictions. Many view their culture as both different and not so different from that of Arabs. Defining themselves in opposition to the dominant Arab identity of Libya could bring them trouble in a country known for strident Arab nationalism. Then again, so could arguing that Berbers and Arabs in Libya are in many ways the same thing.

"The fact that they are a distinct minority that has been marginalized is going to make it enormously difficult for them to have an impact," said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University, who has written extensively about Berbers in North Africa.

For now, it seems Amazigh culture is being defined not so much by what it is as what it isn't: anything Qaddafi stood for. They can pick and choose from the rest: liberalism, religious tolerance, feminism, you name it. Amazigh people I spoke to seem lay claim to what they like in their culture and to forget the rest.

"The Amazigh, to me, is a free thinker," said Mazigh Buzakhar, a 29-year-old telecom engineer jailed for Amazigh activism last year. He had been researching the community's culture and language for ten years, using books smuggled in from abroad. "A lot of Libyans know the Amazigh are more liberal and secular. We don't have restrictions, especially on religion. I respect any religion, I have friends Jews, Christians, and atheists."

Buzakhar is not the only Amazigh I met who defined their culture as more liberal than that of Arabs. Enes Miloud, an activist who I met in the office of the Berber women's association she started in Yafran with her brother, also thinks that Amazigh are characteristically more liberal than Arabs.

"To me, Amazigh is not a language. You don't have to speak Amazigh to be Amazigh, but you ask yourself, will I act civilized and educated? When I have a culture and identity, then I am Amazigh," Miloud said when I ask her how she'd define Amazigh culture. I asked, if I'm educated and cultured and from New York, does that mean I'm Amazigh? "Of course, why not?" she asked. "We accept variety. Arabs only think about Arabs."

Miloud's brother called her racist for her comments about Arabs, but she insisted that it's not cultural superiority, just a fact. For centuries, an Arab identity has been forced on the Amazigh population. "From the moment they go to school they are changing their minds, not just by speaking, but also the culture," she said. "If you force another culture on you, you hate it. If when you were small, your mother forced you to eat pasta, you would hate it."

Miloud is convinced that there is something distinctly feminist in Amazigh culture, that women have been the guardians of Berber history throughout its centuries of history, and as a result Amazighs respect women. "A woman gives language and culture and this is the way we learn. Women give all these things to children. She keeps the Amazigh culture, not men," Miloud said, going on to list heroines from Amazigh history.

But Miloud admits that her experience has not always lived up to her vision of Amazigh equality. When she approached the local council to ask for funding for the center to teach women basic working skills and literacy, she says they dismissed her offhand.

"They said 'we don't have money, there are other priorities,' they don't understand how important a center like this is," she said sadly. Miloud believes the council told her "no" because her organization is run by and solely for women.

"Men help men, you know," she told me frankly. "They all know each other and have money, women don't." Still, if Amazigh are as feminist and progressive as she believes, how can she also believe that the all-Amazigh council rejected her NGO because of gender politics? Miloud isn't the only Berber activist to bump up against this -- the gulf between liberal, high-minded Amazigh culture as they conceive it and more conventionally North African Amazigh culture as they encounter it.

The Democracy ReportLike Buzakhar, Miloud told me that the Amazigh accept every religion. Yet, on our visit to a local synagogue preserved by the Amazigh, she said she wasn't sure how she would feel if Jews returned to pray there. Though she explained that she differentiates between Zionists and Jews, she's not sure how she would be able to tell the difference between the two if they came to visit.

As more young men and women like Miloud and Buzakhar try to build a new, free, post-Qaddafi Amazigh society, they will have to deal with this contradiction. Not only will they have to confront a Libyan population saturated with Arab nationalism, they will also have to negotiate with Amazigh identity as it really is -- whatever that means -- rather than an idealized alternative to the Arab majority.

Archaeologist and academic Elizabeth Fentress, who studies Amazigh communities, told me she isn't surprised that so many Amazigh can't seem to figure themselves out. "It would be nice to be more specific about them, they've had their culture trashed not for 50 years, but the last 500, it's hard to put your finger on what makes them different," she said. And that's exactly what the younger generation of Amazigh in Libya are trying to do.

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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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