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.

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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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