Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Report from Berber Mountains

Anti-Gaddafi Berbers tune in to new freedom

By a Financial Times reporter in Zintan

Fifteen year old stands outside classroom where he teaches ancient and repressed Berber language to children in recently liberated part of Libya.


High in Libya’s western mountains, Walid Sifaw watched in pleasure as his radio station colleague played a song that would have likely landed them both in jail during most of the past four decades.

For Mr Sifaw, a civil engineer-turned-rebel activist, the delight lay not just in the track’s revolutionary thrust, but in its use of the language of his Amazigh – or Berber – people, which Col Muammer Gaddafi’s regime suppressed ruthlessly.

Mr Sifaw said: “Before, we can’t speak, we can’t sing, we can’t write – we can’t do anything. Now when I hear Amazigh songs, I can smell the freedom.”

The Amazigh’s public reanimation of their culture is one of the most striking reminders that the five-month-old uprising against Libya’s dictator of 41 years is drawn from an unusual – and not always historically harmonious - mosaic of regions, ethnicities and interest groups.

They have found common cause in their loathing of their ruler, but the political space that has emerged behind rebel lines is also reminder of the diverse interests and identities likely to be competing if he is toppled.

As Badees Ghazal, another Amazigh engineer-activist, put it: “Gaddafi’s mentality is always about united everything - like united Arab countries, united Africa. Because he doesn’t like variety.”

Amazigh villagers in the Nafusa mountains are fighting alongside their Arab neighbours on the critical western front of Libya’s civil war, where they have carved out an enclave of rebel-held territory in a mostly government-controlled region. Both groups are allied to regime opponents with different historical roots again, in the country’s east and the coastal third city of Misrata.

The new liberty felt by the Amazigh – who, like their counterparts in other north African countries, trace their identity back to the first people to live in the region – is clear in the letters in their language scrawled on buildings all over towns such as Jadu and Kabow.

Jadu, where once residents were forbidden by the Gaddafi regime from giving their children Amazigh names, now hosts lessons in the language and publishes a newspaper that uses both it and Arabic.

While Amazigh seem solidly in support for a united country, they – and Arabs elsewhere in Nafusa – admit to past tensions between the two groups. Many blame this on regime attempts to portray Amazigh as un-Libyan, as part of a divide-and-rule strategy.

Salim Badrani, a member of Jadu’s governing transitional council, said: “Gaddafi wants to make problem so the Arab fights Amazigh.”

Yet, beyond the Gaddafi effect, there are signs on the edges of remarks by both Amazigh and Arabs of a pride that – while understandable against a background of repression and war – seems capable of slipping into something more sinister.

During a candlelit tour of the soon-to-be-revamped cultural museum in Jadu, Fathi Youssef, an Amazigh activist paused among the mud houses and weavings to explain what his ethnicity meant.

He said: “We feel Libyan. We are Libyan. But Libya is not Arab. Libya is Amazigh. We are the first Libyans”.

In a similar vein, graffiti in a main street of the Arab Nafusa mountain town of Zintan proclaimed uncompromisingly, in an echo of Col Gaddafi’s own rhetoric: “God, the Prophet, then Zintan only”.

One Arab fighter said there were sometimes communication problems during combat operations because some Amazigh troops spoke their own language, although Amazigh commanders insisted this was not the case.

Officers from both ethnic groups are keen to scotch reports of tensions and disagreements between them, with some saying these are rumours spread by Gaddafi agents provocateur.
For now, with the rebels in the mountains of Nafusa – an Amazigh word - making steady if slowing territorial gains, the face of unity looks both sincere and convincing.

The test may come if the battlefield pendulum swings sharply in either direction, with the opposition being driven back – or defeating Gaddafi and starting to argue over who should take control.

At the radio station, the personable Mr Sifaw reacted with an unusual sharpness when asked if, as he helped bring his language out of the shadows after so many years, he considered himself Amazigh first and then Libyan after.

“No, no , no, no,” he tutted. “Libyan only. Because all here brothers: from east to west, north to south.”

Ancient language renewed in Libyan rebellion

By Peter Graff


JADU, Libya — In a packed classroom on a cool evening near the front line in Libya’s civil war, 15-year-old Mira is teaching children to spell out the names of animals in the ancient Berber script, an act that once could have landed her in one of Muammar Gaddafi’s jails.

The indigenous people of north Africa, known to others as Berbers and among themselves as Amazigh, were brutally suppressed under Gaddafi, who considered the teaching of their language and culture to be a form of imperialism in his Arab country.

They have become crucial supporters of the rebellion seeking to topple Gaddafi, with their stronghold in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli emerging as one of the main fronts.

Berber was the main language of North Africa before Arabic arrived with the Muslim conquest in the 7th century. It is still spoken in the Sahara and in mountainous parts of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as well as Libya. Activists say most of the Arabs of North Africa are in fact descended from Amazigh peoples who were there before the arrival of Islam.

Today, the rebel-held town of Jadu, normally home to about 20,000 people but now swollen with refugees from areas within shelling range of Gaddafi’s troops, has become the centre for the rebirth of Amazigh culture and language. Shops have painted Amazigh signs above their doors.

For a few weeks, a radio station has been broadcasting from here in both Arabic and Amazigh, in what Berber activists believe are the first conversations in their language over Libyan airwaves in four decades. An Amazigh publishing house has printed four books so far over the past month, billed as Libya’s first publications in the language since Gaddafi seized power.

And there is Mira’s school, where classes are held six evenings a week from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. The children study the Amazigh language at basic and advanced levels, as well as English, and sing songs in the courtyard. Their teachers learned Amazigh in secret from their parents at home.

Nearby is a museum, with local artefacts defiantly labelled in the once-banned script, items bearing the distinctive geometric patterns that Berbers say are part of their heritage.

Early in his rule, Gaddafi declared that anyone studying the Amazigh language was drinking “poisoned milk from their mother’s breast”, explained Fathi Anfusi, a 48-year-old Amazigh activist who escaped Tripoli and arrived in Jadu last month.

Gaddafi accused Amazigh activists of being on the payroll of Western intelligence agencies and seeking to divide the country. Berber activists were rounded up and jailed. The hero of their movement, a poet and journalist named Said Mahrooq, was paralyzed after being run down by a car. Even giving children Amazigh names was forbidden.

Anfusi, an agronomist by profession, wanted to name his daughter Tala, a Berber name meaning “fountain”. He was forced to register her with the Arabic name Hala instead.
Even the Berber name of the Nafusa mountain range was banned. On Gaddafi’s maps, the region is known only as the Western Mountains.

Gaddafi’s government still uses hostility to the Amazigh as part of its propaganda, warning Arabs in nearby towns that Berbers are coming out of the hills to attack them.
Inside rebel-held territory, Arabs and Berbers say they are united. Rebel units from Berber towns like Yefren and Jadu have been fighting side by side with units from Arab towns in the mountains, such as Zintan.

All fly the same pre-Gaddafi flag and profess similar goals of creating a democratic state.

But although they fight side by side, the units are still kept separate. When they captured the village of al-Qawalish last week, one of the first acts of the rival units was to hurriedly spray-paint the names of their Arab or Berber home towns on village walls.

An Arab rebel fighter in Zintan winced when this reporter referred to the Nafusa Mountains.

“Never say the Nafusa Mountains. That’s what the Berbers call it. We call it the Western Mountains,” he said.

But aren’t you all friends?.

“We are friends for now,” the fighter replied, pausing for a moment to consider. “For the revolution.” Anfusi acknowledges that hostility between Arabs and Berbers will probably outlast Gaddafi’s time in power.

“We will discover about each other. This will need time. Maybe we need five years. Maybe ten years to build our country. This is our opportunity,” he said.

But in his own way, Gaddafi had inadvertently helped. The Libyan leader’s crackdown on the rebellion this year had united the Arabs and Berbers of the mountains for the first time, Anfusi said.

“The people, they all hate Gaddafi.”
©Thomson Reuters 2011

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