[Marxism] A rebirth of Berber culture in post-Gadhafi Libya
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 3 17:02:31 MDT 2012
A rebirth of Berber culture in post-Gadhafi Libya
By Tim Hume
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Mon September 3, 2012
(CNN) -- The overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi has had a messy and often
confused aftermath, as rival groups jostle for a stake in the new Libya
after four decades of dictatorship.
But while the realities of Libya's new order remain murky, for the
country's Berber minority, the task ahead is clear. The removal of the
old regime has cleared the way for a renaissance of their ancient
language and culture that were brutally suppressed under Gadhafi's
Known in their native tongue as Amazigh, or "free man," the Berbers are
the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, whose culture predominated
in the region prior to the 7th century Arab invasion.
But Gadhafi's ideology stressed the unity of all Libyans under an Arab
identity, and any efforts at Amazigh cultural expression during his rule
were effectively forbidden.
Those among the country's Berber minority -- there is no reliable census
data, but most estimates place it at about 10% of the population -- who
attempted to promote their rights or cultural heritage would find
themselves persecuted, sometimes even killed.
Berbers were unable to publicly speak or publish books in their
language, Tamazight, or display symbols such as the Amazigh flag.
"You couldn't teach it in schools, you didn't have university
departments for Amazigh research, or have Amazigh TV stations or radio,"
said Mazigh Buzakhar, a Tripoli-based Berber activist.
"Even children's names -- there was a law which banned any names that
were not Arabic or Islamic. They (the Gadhafi regime) forced you to
change your child's name."
Buzakhar has personally felt the brunt of the regime's hostility to
Berber culture. In December 2010, prior to the revolution, he and his
twin brother were arrested in their Tripoli home, on suspicion of
"working and collaborating with foreign intelligence."
Their real crime, according to Buzakhar and Amnesty International, was
advocating for Berber cultural rights, evidence of which was found by
police in the form of banned Amazigh texts, smuggled from abroad, in
The pair was held for months in a cell designated for prisoners facing
life sentences or execution, where Buzakhar said his brother was
blindfolded and kicked by guards, when in February the revolution began.
A riot erupted at the prison and, along with other prisoners, the
brothers escaped. "We were very lucky," said Buzakhar.
Having escaped from prison, Buzakhar headed for the Nafusa Mountains, a
traditional Amazigh stronghold where the Berber population would become
heavily engaged in fighting with Gadhafi's forces, gaining the upper
hand more swiftly than their counterparts in the east of the country.
Buzakhar started a media communications center, and set about producing
the first ever journal published in Tamazight.
Initially a crudely produced newsletter, printed on sheets of A4,
"Tilelli" ("Freedom" in Tamazight) became a more professional
publication when Buzakhar relocated to the capital following the fall of
Written in Tamazight, Arabic and English, it has a print run of 3,000,
and a focus on promoting Amazigh culture and language, by reprinting
ancient works of poetry, as well as more modern works by writers such as
Said Sifaw al-Mahrouk.
"Tilelli" is just one element of the flowering of Amazigh culture to
have taken place in the wake of Gadhafi's downfall. Tamazight is being
taught by cultural associations, can be heard on radio stations, and
read on signs written in the Tifinagh alphabet at shops and other public
The Berber flag -- comprised of blue, green and yellow horizontal
stripes, superimposed with a red Tifinagh character symbolizing a "free
man" -- is displayed proudly, and Amazigh music is performed at
festivals around the country.
"After 40 years of having a complete lack of this kind of expression,
there's a real enthusiasm for it," said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty
International's North Africa researcher.
"What we see is the Amazigh gathering together and celebrating their
culture, having various festivals, making links between towns. They're
filling up the space they were denied for several decades."
But despite their new-found freedom of cultural expression, some Berber
activists remain anxious about their community's position in the new Libya.
When an interim government was announced in November without a single
Amazigh minister, Berbers reacted with disappointment. Fearing their
community was being marginalized, a group calling itself the Libyan
Amazigh Congress announced it was suspending all relations with the
National Transitional Council (NTC).
Many Berbers were frustrated by the sense that their strong military
contributions in overthrowing Gadhafi -- Juan Cole, a history professor
at the University of Michigan, labeled them "among the central Libyan
heroes of the revolution" -- had gone unrewarded, said Buzakhar.
"They used us to progress and make a progress in advance to get Libya
liberated," Buzakhar said.
"But once things were liberated, the message has been: 'Thank you so
much, we used you and that's it.' To us, it's like a betrayal by the NTC."
In this climate, some Berbers fear their cultural rights may not receive
the constitutional protections they seek.
Libya's interim "constitutional declaration," drawn up by the NTC to
provide a framework for the transition to an elected government, pledged
that the state would protect the linguistic and cultural rights of "all
components" of Libyan society.
But while upholding Arabic as the official language, the declaration
stated that Libya's other languages "shall be deemed national ones" --
falling short of the level of recognition sought by Berber activists.
Buzakhar said Tamazight's "deep-rooted" history as a native language --
which significantly predated Arabic's arrival in North Africa -- meant
that regarding it as anything less than an official language was illogical.
Berbers wanted Libya's new leaders to accord Tamazight a similar status
to that which it held in Morocco, where it is estimated more than half
of the country's 32 million people speak Berber dialects. In 2011,
Tamazight became an official language in Morocco, taught alongside
Arabic in schools.
But it remains to be seen what provisions would be contained in the new
constitution, to be drafted by a committee chosen by the newly elected
congress, said Eltahawy.
Any broader recognition of Libyan Amazigh cultural rights would require
overcoming greater barriers than the legacy of Gadhafi's suppression and
scapegoating, said Buzakhar.
"Our problem is not only the 42 years of the former regime. Our problem
is 1,400 years of Arab or Islamist mentality that has been brought to
North Africa itself. It's a mentality problem, not only with the common
people but in the heads of the politicians."
He said although there were generally good relations between Libyan
Arabs and Berbers, their rejection of pan-Arabist ideology and
insistence on a distinct Amazigh identity made them a continued target
for criticism. Some political leaders were still inclined to emulate
Gaddafi by casting suspicion on the Berber community for personal gain.
But Buzakhar said although Libya's Amazigh renaissance did not enjoy the
state support exhibited in Morocco and Algeria, he was optimistic the
Berber culture would continue to flourish.
"What's different from Algeria and Morocco is that the consciousness of
the Amazigh people is stronger in Libya, because we've paid the price,"
he said. "We have had martyrs who gave their lives to preserve their
language, and ensure they are part of the political environment of the
new Libya for generations to come."
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