A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, July 15, 2011

It Isn't Just an "Arab" Spring: The Amazigh Awakening

I've been tied up all day so I hope this will provide you with some delayed reading.

On several occasions I've noted the role of Amazigh ("Berber") activism in Libya (here and here for example). While throughout the Maghreb, there is an attempt to revive Tamazight (the Moroccan King's constitutional reforms make it a national language alongside Arabic; Algeria has also made concessions in recent years after years of suppression, and here's a piece on the revival in Tunisia), the real news is in Libya.
In recent weeks the main frontline in the war has shifted to the west, in the Jabal Nafusa south of Tripoli, and that is the country's Amazigh heartland. The flags in the banner above  are, respectively, the Amazigh flag with a character ("Z") from the ancient Tifinagh script (also shown above left), while the second combines it with the rebel Libyan flag, the pre-1969 national flag (right)
 A similar "Berberized" version of the Tunisian flag has also been created, below left.

While I've been beating this drum for some time, the rest of the world is starting to notice since the Nafusa has become the key front. Here's a good Reuters piece that paints the picture quite well.

As it notes, the Tamazight language and Amazigh identity were suppressed in Libya, with Qadhafi claiming variously that it was in "imperialist" language or merely a "dialect of Arabic," and the language openly suppressed. Now, newspapers have sprung up, as have websites (libyatadreft.com is essential) and radio stations. Also, here's a link to a Dutch news video with an English translation in the text.

There is also a YouTube channel called ImazighenLibya,  which has this delightful title:

ⵣ امازيغ ⵣ ليبيا ⵣ ⵍⵉⴱⵢⴰ
ImazighenLibya's Channel

I love it when you get three writing systems in a couple of lines.

And now for some videos:

First, some  Nafusi fighters singing, in Tamazight:

Second, a video about not being able to name your kids non-Arabic  names. There are English captions. the first guy wants to name his son "Massinissa." (But Qadhafi  named one of his sons "Hannibal," which isn't Arabic either. Is there a double standard? Oh, wait, I think I know the answer to that.)

The Imazighen, and particularly the Tamazight languages (it is a family, not a single language), have suffered much from the post-colonial era. In all four Maghreb countries (the Siwi-speakers of Egypt are perhaps too tiny to generalize), nationalism was Arab nationalism, and persuading people to speak Arabic and learn the literary language was a priority. In Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria, the priority was to eradicate French, but the emphasis on Arabic at the expense of French also restricted the use of the various Tamazight languages. In Libya, Italian and to some extent English were in widespread use among the elites, though not to the extent of French to the west.

The irony is that the effort to eradicate French was far more effective at eradicating Tamazight. To this day in Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria, French is still the language of the elites and of commerce and high culture, and permeates even the colloquial Arabic.


idit said...

Don't forget the Kurds.

David Mack said...

Do I also detect a sneaky trilingual Arabic-Berber-English pun? "Amazing Libya"

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I've often posted on the Kurds,who don't let you forget. Nor do I ignoe other minority languages. But most people know more about Kurds than Imazighen.