The Middle East Eye examines the renewal of Tamazight, the language of North Africa’s Amazigh (also known as Berber) community. Making up the region’s indigenous population, the Amazigh have experienced years of cultural, social, and political exclusion throughout North Africa and the Sahel. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi banned recognition of Amazigh culture and language with his 1973 “Cultural Revolution,” leading to the persecution of Amazigh activists. Since his ouster, the Amazigh community in Libya has attempted to reassert its language in schools and reintergrate Amazigh culture into the national fabric.
“We are currently offering three hours a week of Amazigh language, (Tamazight), between the first and fourth grades of primary education,” said Said Azabi, the school manager in Mezzo, a district of Jadu, a town of 6,000 in the Amazigh enclave. Also called Berbers, the Amazigh are native inhabitants of North Africa, with a population extending from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. The Touareg tribes in the interior of the Sahara desert share the same ancient tongue. However, the arrival of the Arabs in the region in the seventh century was the beginning of a slow yet gradual process of Arabisation. Today, unofficial estimates put the number of Amazighs in Libya up to almost 600,000, about 10 percent of the total population.
“The first lessons in Tamazight, the Amazigh language, started in makeshift schools here, in the mountains, when the war was not even over,” said Azabi during recess, referring to the 2011 civil war that brought down Muammar Gaddafi. The school books and the teachers are “the result of the selfless work of a legion of volunteers”. In 1973, Gaddafi launched a “Cultural Revolution” under which any publications not in accordance with the principles espoused in his “Green Book” were destroyed. That included those mentioning the Amazigh. According to Gaddafi, the Amazigh were of “Arab origin” and their language “a mere dialect”. Registration of non-Arab names was forbidden, Libya’s first Amazigh organization was banned and anyone involved in their cultural revival prosecuted.
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