A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

More on Tamazight ("Berber") in Libya's Conflict

I'm going to be busy much of  today at a Conference at National Defense University, with no real access other than through my phone, which is hard to blog on, so I'm pre-scheduling this post. I may have more by evening if it's an eventful day. The other day I noted that the war in the Jabal Nafusa in Libya has an added dimension, the ethnic/linguistic one, in that this is the most "Berber" (Amazigh, Imazighen) area of Libya, though there are other enclaves as well. That post contains earlier links referring to the Imazighen and the Tamazight language in Libya. I thought I'd add more on the subject.

This YouTube video has the following caption:
Revolutionaries in the Nafoosa Mountains, located south west of Tripoli, sing together around a campfire. This region has been under bombardment by tanks shells and rockets after they rose up against Gaddafi's dictatorship.
The campfire singing is in Tamazight, or "Berber," and the folks are from Jadu. Below the video you'll find translations in English and Arabic. As the Arabic and one of the comments note, it's an existing song with special words.

Translation (Sung in Amazigh):
Where do you want us to go?
Give me your hand
So we can go to Benghazi
The City of Freedom
So we can go to Zawiya
The City of Martyrs
So we can go to Zintan
The City of Knights
And in the end Libya will be free, and we will live in love and tranquility

الثوار في جادو يحرسون البوابات ويغنون أناشيد بالأمازيغية- تاوالت خاص

الثوار في مدينة يجادو يحرسونها ليل نهار وهم كلهم ايمان بعدالة قضيتهم وينتظرون النصر القريب وهم ينشدون أغاني ثورية بالأمازيغية فكما يقولون :
أين تريد أن ندهب ؟
مدّ لي يدك
كي ندهب لمدينة بنغازي
مدينة الحرية
كي نذهب لمدينة الزاوية
مدينة الشهداء
كي ندهب لمدينة الزنتان
مدينة الفرسان
وفي الختام سوف تتحرر ليبيا ونعيش في حب ووئام .

Berber identity and language has had to struggle to survive in much of North Africa, but few countries have been in more profound denial than Libya, where Qadhafi has long insisted that Berber is just a "dialect" of Arabic. A good summary of the problem can be found in a 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Tripoli, released by Wikileaks. Do click through and read it, but here are some of the key parts:

Summary: Despite some evidence in 2007 of a thaw in Libya's decades-long marginalization of its Berber minority, the Government of Libya (GOL) has recently renewed its vigorous denials that any ethno-linguistically distinct Berber communities exist on Libyan territory.  In May, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi made an unprecedented visit to the Berber heartland to praise the "Arab belonging and destiny" of the Libyan people, and to decry "foreign intelligence plots" to fracture Libyans along ethnic or sectarian lines.  Post's efforts to visit areas with significant Berber populations and to meet with government officials to discuss Libya's Berber heritage have met with angry GOL denials and accusations of "unacceptable interference" in Libya's domestic affairs.  The GOL took the unusual step of forbidding all Embassy personnel from visiting the town of Zuwara, a large Berber community.  The GOL's hard line on Libya's Berber minority underscores that sectarian and ethnic identity remains a sensitive issue for influential elements of the regime.  End summary.

. . . In May 2008, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi himself made an unprecedented visit to meet with a number of ostensibly Berber tribes in Jadu; however, in contrast to Saif al-Islam's travels, Qadhafi used his May 17 visit to vigorously deny Libya's Berber history.  According to accounts in state-owned media, representatives of prominent Berber communities, including the Berber centers of Nalut and Kabao, issued a statement on the occasion of Qadhafi's visit praising the "Arab belonging and destiny" of all Libyans and rejecting "claims propagated by the envious agents of the West and its intelligence bodies to divide~ [Libya] under false ethnic, sectarian, and tribal slogans".  A contact of the Embassy whose family hails from the Jadu area said that Qadhafi had privately warned the leaders of the community that, "You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes -- Berbers, Children of Satan, whatever -- but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes."

"Children of Satan?" Well, that's certainly a sign of growing openness.

I would also refer you to this post at Language Log and to Lameen Souag's post I've linked to before, for more on Berber identity in Libya. Also see this background piece at Arab Media and Society from 2009, before the present troubles, and a more recent one from Muftah.

And here's a related Facebook page.

I am not suggesting that Berber/Amazigh nationalism is a major element in the Libyan war, even in the Nafusa, but is one more complaint in the litany of complaints the rebels bring.

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