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An exuberant awakening for Libya’s Berbers

By Alice Fordham,

KABAW, Libya — Perched on a peak in the heart of Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, the ancient town of Kabaw was bathed in floodlight, rocked by music blaring from gigantic speakers and overwhelmed by thousands of people dancing in its steep streets.

As the party ebbed and flowed up the steps of a castle, around a mosque with a steeple and down the sides of the mountain, the revelers waved the red, black and green flag of Libya’s revolutionaries. But they also flaunted another flag, with green, blue and yellow stripes and a curious red symbol.

“Azoul!” they shouted, greeting each other before bursting into song in a language that is not Arabic. Kabaw is home to about 10,000 Amazigh people, also known as Berbers, who speak their own language, have their own customs and were intensely repressed by Libyan autocrat Moammar Gaddafi.

The town was among the first to join the western arm of the revolution, and last week’s festivities were held to laud its war dead and mark glory in victory. They also celebrated the chance for the Ama­zigh to again express their culture after 42 years, as minorities across Libya call on the new government for recognition denied by Gaddafi.

“We never had freedom,” said Mustafa Ayoub, a doctor who addressed the crowds. “Every time we tried to rise up, we got squashed. Now we smell freedom, and we have to touch it and taste it.”

Jubilant men and women echoed his sentiments, delighted to speak Tama­zight, a language illegal under Gaddafi, and to see a flag that is flown by Amazigh people all over northwest Africa but that many in Kabaw had never seen before the revolution.

“This is not just a flag,” said Khaled Sedaa, a biochemistry professor and native of the town. “This is a symbol of heritage.” The blue represents the sea, the green represents the mountains, and the yellow represents the desert, Ayoub explained. The symbol is a letter of the Tamazight alphabet.

Vestiges of Christianity

More than 15 million Ama­zigh live in North Africa, and they generally refer to themselves as such, regarding Berber as a faintly disparaging term related to “barbarian.” Many consider themselves descendants of the original inhabitants of North Africa, a people who settled thousands of years ago and practiced Judaism and Christianity before Islam.

“This mosque used to be a church,” said Morad Makhlouf, a Kabaw businessman who fought with the revolutionaries. He led the way into a thick-walled building sunk into the side of the mountain, where young Muslim men were praying in a room with cross symbols scratched on the walls.

“Under Gaddafi, it was not allowed to pray in here,” said Makhlouf, explaining that local customs are still influenced by Christianity — harvested wheat is marked with a cross, and circumcisions and weddings take place on Sundays. Banning the use of the old church for prayer was, he said, a way of obliterating a distinctive culture.

Under Gaddafi, it was forbidden to speak, write or sing Tamazight, on pain of arrest or beating by security forces, who would also smash up shops displaying Tamazight script. Now, the first article of an interim constitution guarantees “the cultural rights for all components of the Libyan society” and deems all of Libya’s languages national ones.

“I guess Gaddafi wanted to demolish the Amazigh people and erase them from history,” Khaled Ibrahim, a local official, said at a bazaar selling traditional woven Amazigh crafts. “We had scientists and good people in prison. Gaddafi was afraid of them making a political party.”

As Gaddafi was growing up in the 1950s, the dominant ideology in North Africa was the Arab nationalism promoted by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. “In Gaddafi’s pan-Arab Libya, there was no room for ethnic minorities,” said historian Ronald Bruce St John, author of “Libya: From Colony to Revolution.”

Other minorities, most residing far from the coastal population centers, also were denied full rights under Gaddafi’s government. The Tabu people in the country’s south, who also speak their own language, were reported by Amnesty International in 2009 to have been evicted from their homes, refused official documentation and arrested in the hundreds.

Reviving an alphabet

The prospect of an end to such discrimination was a powerful motivating factor for the young men in Kabaw who joined the revolt in the spring, plunging the town into months of limited water, electricity and food supplies while loyalist forces fired Grad missiles into residential areas.

Many are seeking explicit recognition of the group and its language when an elected government writes Libya’s new constitution, some even saying that they would take up arms again to achieve this, if necessary.

“I think they will get what they ask for in the new constitution,” said Jamal Issa, a member of the interim government and native of Kabaw, adding that politicians had discussed the issue in Tripoli. “But we are going to practice democracy,” he said, “and we will have to vote on the constitution and abide by the final version.”

Joha Abu Ashkiwat, 23, watched his friends die in the fighting and wants to make the war worthwhile by learning to write a language that has survived orally. “We had a rule at home not to speak Arabic,” he said. “If my mother hears me speaking Arabic, she would hit me — she doesn’t want me to forget the language.”

“We were put in a bottle and sealed up,” said Fadia Suleiman, a teacher who has begun teaching the Tamazight alphabet to her students but is hampered because few people remain who know how to write the language.

Amid this frenzy to learn, Tira, one of hundreds of nongovernmental organizations that have sprung up in Tripoli, hopes to teach reading and writing. But director Madghis Bouzakhar points out that because the language traditionally was passed down orally, there are few Ama­zigh texts. Nevertheless, he plans to collate stories and poems.

He is considering inviting Amazigh teachers from elsewhere in North Africa to instruct Libyans in reading and writing. “But it is better for us to rise up from our own selves,” he said. “These people struggled and reached for what they wanted to do.”

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