[lg policy] After Centuries of Oppression, a Libyan Minority Sees Hope in Qaddafi's Fall

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Nov 29 14:42:47 UTC 2011

After Centuries of Oppression, a Libyan Minority Sees Hope in Qaddafi's Fall
By Sarah A. Topol

Nov 28 2011, 7:41 AM ET 1

The original inhabitants of North Africa, Amazigh (also called
Berbers) may have finally won the freedom to observe their culture --
if they can convince the Arab majority to go along. This article is
the first of three on the fate of Libya's Berber minority after
Qaddafi. Read about the Berber activist movement's struggle on
Wednesday and about the new Berber identity crisis on Friday.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Hasan Abu Sagar was an 18-year-old law student and
occasional poet living in Libya's capital when, in 1999, he saw his
native language written down for the first time. Internet cafés had
just come to the North African country and, like many university
students, Abu Sagar killed time exploring the web. One day, he came
across a website devoted to Tifinar, the ancient script used by the
region's ethnic Berber minority, also known as Amazigh, the original
inhabitants of North Africa. It hit him like a sack of bricks --
though he was Amazigh, he had no idea how to read it.

Abu Sagar's family spoke Tamazight, the Amazigh language, at home, but
Muammar Qaddafi's policies had forbidden teaching the script in
schools or showing any Amazigh symbols in public. That day something
clicked in Abu Sagar, he told me. He decided it was unacceptable for
anyone not to know their own language.

The doe-eyed, soft-spoken performer looks nothing like a covert
revolutionary or rebellious youth, but appearances in Qaddafi's Libya
were often deceiving. Abu Sagar and a few of his friends decided to
teach themselves the script, letter-by-letter and word-by-word. It was
political dissent by alphabet. They swore one other to secrecy,
fearing arrest. They began to hop from one internet café to the next,
changing locations every hour and never signing in with their real
names. "We were very scared," Abu Sagar remembered, "people were
watching everywhere."

Abu Sagar said it took him two years to master the language. Eight
years after that, he would hold clandestine classes for other Amazigh
who wanted to learn it. For one month last summer, 25 students
convened nightly in a cave in the Nafusa Mountains, a scraggly range
west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border where many of Libya's Amazigh
communities still reside. Abu Sagar taught his students what he knew
and he shared the Amazigh poetry he'd composed. Like many before him,
his goal was to keep the language alive, despite the risks.

>>From Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Vandal, Arab-Muslim, and European
conquerors to the policies of modern-day North African leaders, the
Amazigh have been oppressed throughout their millennia-long history.
This year's Arab Spring unleashed a lesser-known social movement:
unprecedented Berber activism and an Amazigh cultural revival. Nowhere
in the region has this new movement been more unique than in Libya,
where after playing a vital role in the fight against Qaddafi, the
Amazigh want their contribution to Libya's revolution acknowledged and
their identity accepted. But despite the relative openness of
post-Qaddafi Libya, the Amazigh face a difficult road ahead and their
fate will become one of the true tests of Free Libya's freedom and its

Centuries of assimilation and decades of outright oppression have left
the minority, which Berber scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman estimates
today make up about 9 percent of Libya's 5.7 million people,
marginalized. The Arab conquests in the seventh century promoted
Arabic as the language of God and created a stigma against using
Tamazight. Amazigh identity took an even harder hit from populist
Arab-national sentiments promoted by the region's leaders against
European colonialism, often denying Berber identity altogether. Past
Amazigh cultural revivals in the region have ended with brutal
repression. In a country whose future looks more and more tumultuous
each day, some worry that history may repeat itself, especially if
Libya's new government is hyper-nationalist.

"In the end, they kept their heads down during all the Qaddafi time. I
just hope that having stuck them over the barricades they don't have
them chopped off," says archaeologist and academic Elizabeth Fentress,
who studies Amazigh communities and co-authored of one of the
definitive books on the group's history, The Berbers. "There's a
tremendous tendency in these countries for the Arab groups to say,
'Thank you very much for your help now would you shut up and start
speaking Arabic again.' They [Arabs] really don't trust them or like
them or want to know them."

Qaddafi was one of the worst propagators of nationalism through
Arabization. To create a country out of disparate tribes that had
lived under Italian occupation only a generation earlier, the Brother
Leader, after taking office in 1969, played up shared Arab history. He
banned texts, names, and symbols of the Amazigh to help solidify his
vision for a unified Libya and help prevent a challenge to his rule.

Next door in Algeria, as Amazigh protests for national recognition in
the 1980s challenged the state, Qaddafi arrested around two dozen
Amazigh to quash any possibilities of a similar movement in Libya.
Many of the older generation have since warned their children to keep
their heads down. "Our fathers lived in fear because they saw
suffering come to Amazighs who spoke up," Abu Sagar tells me. "We
didn't see it, we heard about it."

But it wasn't just Qaddafi's policies that made life difficult for the
Amazigh; it was their effect on the general Libyan population. Many
gave up teaching their children Tamazight, few learned to read and
write it, and no one could promote the culture in public -- then there
was the widespread ignorance regarding Amazigh and, at times,
harassment. Abu Sagar always remembered his first year of university,
when a group of guys from his program stopped him on the street. "Some
students started telling me 'You're Amazigh, you're Jewish -- you're
not Libyan!' I tried to make them understand what is an Amazigh, we
are a part of Libyan history," he told me, still uncomfortable with
the memory.

In 2007, after a short period of openness with Amazigh leaders,
Qaddafi changed his mind and established a counter-narrative to the
Amazigh identity, claiming Libya's population was entirely Arab and
that ancient Amazigh tribes had died out from a drought. Qaddafi
accused colonialists of manufacturing a Berber identity to fragment
the Libyan population. They suffered for his words, but they didn't
forget. This and other attacks on Amazigh culture helped propel the
minority to the forefront of the rebellion against Qaddafi's rule.

Cities and towns in the Nafusa mountain range were among the first to
declare themselves liberated. The Amazigh formed battalions to fight
against the loyalist army, pushing troops out of population centers
and suffering heavy casualties.

Abu Sagar joined the Yafran Martyrs brigade, where most of his fellow
rebel fighters were Amazigh. They marched on Tripoli, as brigades from
the Nafusa Mountains moved west to cut off a major supply route to the
capital, a significant moment in Libya's eventual liberation. Now,
they are expecting a major role in Libya's future -- as well as
official acknowledgement of their language and contribution to the
country's history. So far, it's not looking good. Last week, the
Transition National Council announced a new interim government -- none
of the cabinet positions went to Amazigh.

Berber movements have aided their Arab countrymen before, only to
spurned by the Arab majority. In the Algerian rebellion against French
colonial rule after World War Two, Berber of Algeria's Kabylie
mountains gained a reputation as fierce resistance fighters and played
a critical role in expelling the French. But once the Algerian rebel
movement National Liberation Front (FLN) assumed power in the 1962,
they violently suppressed the Kabylie Berbers, officially banning
their language and refusing to acknowledge their identity for decades.

"However much they [Libya's new government] are really keen on the
Jabil Nafusa being a major part of the rebellion, the historic
parallel that's closest is that the Kabylie [Berber movement] was huge
in the FLN and the victory in '62 over the French," Fentress said.
"The first thing the FLN do in Algeria is to kill off the leaders and
attempt to smash the Berbers that had taken part, because they really
see them as somebody who could be useful but you're never going to

But in Libya, the Amazigh hope their contribution will end
differently. Across North Africa, recent developments have spelled
major gains for the Amazigh identity. In Morocco, Tamazight has
finally been accepted as an official language alongside Arabic, though
whether or not the appropriate measures are implemented to enact its
integration into society remains to be seen. In Algeria, pockets of
fierce resistance against the state, as well as mass arrests and
violence continued from 1981 until 2001. Today, Tamazight has achieved
national language status, though Arabic remains the official language
of the state.

Berbers only make up an estimated 9 percent of the Libyan population,
while they compromise 40 to 45 percent in Morocco and 20 to 25 percent
in Algeria. But so far, with rights movements finally taking center
stage in the region, optimism for the Amazigh struggle in North Africa
is prevailing.

"This is now the new North Africa, the genie is out of the bottle,
what that means is different in each place in terms official state
acknowledgement. They may even get this in Libya as well," said
Maddy-Weitzman, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University, who
has written extensively about Berbers in North Africa. "This may be
the historic moment, galvanizing the community to act as a collective
in a way they never did before in their history."


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of the list as to the veracity of a message's contents.
Members who disagree with a message are encouraged to post a rebuttal,
and to write directly to the original sender of any offensive message.
 A copy of this may be forwarded to this list as well.  (H. Schiffman,

For more information about the lgpolicy-list, go to

This message came to you by way of the lgpolicy-list mailing list
lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu
To manage your subscription unsubscribe, or arrange digest format: https://groups.sas.upenn.edu/mailman/listinfo/lgpolicy-list

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list