Berber Revival's First Big Sell: Convince Libyans They're All Berbers

Finally free from Qaddafi's rule, Libyan Amazighs (also called Berbers) want to rebuild an ancient identity that was almost driven to extinction

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Berber protesters gather at the Prime Minister's office in Tripoli on November 27 to demand for greater representation / Reuters

This article is the second 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 new Berber identity crisis on Friday.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- In a one-room office in downtown Tripoli, Mazigh Buzakhar, his twin brother, and four of his friends write, edit, and design Libya's first-ever Berber newspaper: Tilelli, which means Freedom. The small monthly publishes articles in three languages: English, Arabic and Tamazight, the language of the original Berber inhabitants of North Africa, who call themselves Amazigh, or the free people.

The script looks ancient, almost rune-like, because it is -- the first examples of the language stretch back to the third century BC. But for Tilelli's first issue off the press this November, most of the Tamazight section looks more like something you'd find in a children's book than a newspaper: a primer of the alphabet and definitions of key words. Even among the minority of Libyans who speak the language, most can't actually read or write it.

After the Arab conquests in the seventh century and Arabization policies promoted by populist, modern-day Middle Eastern leaders, Berber culture has been slowly driven nearer and nearer to extinction. In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi championed the country's Arab heritage and even its African roots, but would never acknowledge the country's original inhabitants, savagely suppressing their language and culture.

Qaddafi banned Libyans from writing or owning books in Tamazight and arrested Amazigh activists -- including Buzakhar and his twin brother -- to suppress the group and keep them from organizing against his rule. It was little surprise, then, when Amazighs became some of the fiercest fighters in Libya's revolt against Qaddafi's rule. Brigades from the Amazigh-heavy Nafusa mountains helped lead the final assault on Tripoli in August.

Now with Qaddafi gone, the Amazigh are taking advantage of their newfound freedom and trying to reclaim their long-suppressed heritage. Cultural organizations, spearheaded by eager young people in the Nafusa mountains and Tripoli, are working hard to spark a cultural revival. Women's groups, arts societies, and education centers are teaching Tamazight script and trying to preserve Amazigh cultural sites.

But Libya's Amazigh want more than to revive their language and culture. Some Amazigh activists also want to radically change the nature of the Libyan identity itself. They are ramping up what is so far a fragmented national campaign to convince their countrymen that they -- Arab, black African -- are actually Berber too. But it's not a grand plan from Berber high command -- many of the new Berber activist groups, though acting independently, all seem to share this common goal. Most Libyans, they say, are Berbers. In a country fed a steady diet of Arab nationalism for over four decades, the idea of rewriting Libya's understanding of its own history and identity would seem almost impossible. Yet, less than a month after the country's liberation, these groups are hard at work.

"The majority of people in Libya are Amazigh," Buzakhar told me earnestly sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Tripoli, echoing a common Berber sentiment. "The difference is some people kept the traditions, and others lost the language over time. Religion played a major role in Arabizing society, because they told people Arabic was the language of God."

Buzakhar's organization, the Tira Association for Tamazight Culture and Language, is taking the first step to teach Libyans about their Amazigh heritage by sending blanket text messages to Libya cell phone networks with Tamazight phrases. They started with three or four words and commonly used expressions, such as "hello," "thank you," and "good morning." Buzakhar's hope is to eventually give each cell-carrying Libyan a small portable dictionary composed of these text messages. "It's important because the Amazigh language is a Libyan concern. It's their language and they have a right to learn and explore it," the 29-year-old telecom engineer said.

Buzakhar's family is originally from Yafran, a small city nestled deep in the Nafusa mountain range, where many of Libya's Amazigh still reside. Among the ancient fortified Amazigh granaries, groups in Yafran are launching their own cultural initiatives, with the intention of eventually branching out to the rest of Libya.

The Freedom Mountain group, headed by Mohanned Altaash, is restoring old Amazigh houses in Yafran's historic quarter in order to preserve their way of life. Altaash led me through a compound set around an earthen courtyard. We started the tour underneath the complex, in a cavern for storing food, where it stays cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There was still mold all over the cavern's walls, which the 18-year-old medical student excitedly pointed to as proof of how old the remains are.

Around the courtyard are rooms for each male member of the family. Wives marry into the paternal line and live with their husband's family, raising their children in the compound. In each room, parents sleep on a slightly raised platform while children sleep on mats on the ground.

The group began renovating this compound a month and a half ago, removing debris and repainted walls to show what Amazigh life was like long ago. Showing me around, Altaash was so excited he could barely walk and talk at the same time. He expects Libyans to come visit the houses, he said, and learn about Amazigh culture.

We walked behind the lone semi-restored house to see at least a dozen more, half collapsed, half moss-covered remains of stone structures. Freedom Mountain plans to restore them all. "We have to teach people about their own history, because they have forgotten about it," Altaash told me, picking his way through the rocks. He estimates the houses are a few hundred years old, though no one in the group is an expert on the matter -- they've had to ask their grandparents to rediscover family lore and learn about the old traditions.

Libya's Amazigh revival is not just about looking to the past, but creating something new with the language. The Poet's Society, headed by Hassan Abu Sag, is looking toward the future, seeking to get young people writing Amazigh poetry and songs. Amazigh culture is one of oral traditions and poetry has always been part of the community's identity, even if for the most part it was never written down.

The Democracy ReportNow, writing in Tifinagh has gone from an act of defiance to an act of cultural preservation. Abu Sag is also working on developing children's songbooks. He's produced a music video of himself strumming a freedom song on top of a tank following Yafran's liberation from Qaddafi's forces. It's become something of a local hit.

Abu Sag's organization, a loose association of Amazigh from across the Nafusa Mountains and Tripoli, meet once a month for jam sessions. His deep brown eyes light up when he explains how the group, since the revolution, has been able to go from meeting covertly on the internet to meeting in person and as regularly as they can.

So far, all the associations I've spoken to to are paying for their initiatives out of pocket, though they all hope for government funding in the future.

The older generation of Amazigh seems content to let the youngsters run these groups. Abu Sag, who shyly admits he's 30, is the oldest of the association heads that I encountered. Older men I spoke to weren't as interested in learning their written language. "We will try a little, but we want our children to learn it," Begassem Kraar, the media coordinator of Al Gela local council, another town in the Nafusa Mountains, told me. "We will leave it to you," he said, gesturing to the flock of Amazigh teenagers that had gathered around us as we spoke.

Some of the more senior Amazighs are beginning to focus on broader political trends. Under Qaddafi, Fathi Abouzakhar wrote Tamazight poetry in secret but he discouraged his sons from Amazigh activism (he is the father of the Buzakhar twins, so he wasn't very successful), telling them it would never end well. Today, he is the chairman of the National Amazigh Libyan Conference. The NALC is launching on public campaign to get Amazigh rights and language enshrined in Libya's new constitution. He seems content to rewrite history a bit more slowly than the younger generation.

So far, he tells me, the response has been muted and a few high-level Transitional National Council (TNC) officials have openly ridiculed his cause, but Abouzakhar remains convinced that they will triumph. Yet last week the TNC announced a new interim government -- and none of the cabinet positions went to Amazigh, prompting Abouzakhar's group to announce they were suspending relations with the TNC.

Over the weekend, several small Amazigh demonstrations in the capital demanded better representation. On Sunday, several hundred Amazigh protesters marched into the Libyan prime minister's courtyard to vent their frustration. Reuters reported that Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib came out with a megaphone and attempted to address the crowd, but was drowned out by chants of "Go home!"

"For us, resources of Libya shouldn't be spent only on Arabic," Abouzakhar told me. "It will be gradual, in four to five years they will start teaching it as a language in parts of Libya that speak Tamazight. Further on, they will teach it across Libya, then maybe we will have schools in Tamazight only, that could be 20, 30, or 40 years from now.