Not Arab, and Proud of It
Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
At first glance, there’s nothing about the 25-year-old Tunisian musician Abdelhak Mahrouk that makes him stand out. He has an earnest but unkempt air, wide-set, downturned eyes, and a messy mop of black hair that comes to a slightly crooked widow’s peak. His wispy goatee makes him look young for his age.
Ask Mahrouk to speak in his native tongue, and you’ll soon notice a difference. Though entirely fluent in Tunisian Arabic, his home language is Amazigh, the idiom of the indigenous people of North Africa (often known in the West as “Berbers,” but members of the group regard the term as derogatory). Until his first year in school, indeed, Mahrouk spoke no Arabic at all. “My teacher didn’t speak any Amazigh, and she was very tough,” he recalls. “I didn’t even understand her when she talked to me. She thought I was a bad student and that I wasn’t taking her seriously. So she hit me.”
One of the most important gains of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising is the voice it gave to the country’s racial, sexual, religious, and even ethnic minorities like the Amazigh, who are descended from the people who inhabited North Africa before the Arab invasion. Even today Amazigh is widely spoken in Algeria and Morocco, where it has recently become an official language alongside Arabic.
Tunisia’s Amazigh-speaking population, estimated to be less than 1 percent of the country’s population of 11 million, is much smaller. Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, both intent on forging national unity around the identity of the majority Arab population, pursued policies that oppressed and marginalized the group. So it should come as little surprise that Tunisia’s Amazigh saw the 2011 revolution as a chance to speak up about their grievances, revive their heritage, and preserve it from extinction.
Mahrouk, who hails from a small town in the Sahara, formed an Amazigh-language hip-hop band with his brother in 2013, and today they rap together about their lives and the problems of their community. One of their songs, “Tamurthiw” (“My Country”), is a hymn to ancestral pride. “We’re Amazigh and this is our country,” they sing. “This was my country before Jesus came down.” The lyrics include a shout-out to Masinissa, the ancient leader who united the Amazigh-speaking peoples into the kingdom of Numidia, and whom many modern-day Amazigh regard as one of their own.
The Mahrouk brothers are not alone in their efforts to celebrate their past. Since 2011, many Amazigh have organized to push for more cultural and historical recognition. Houcine Belghith is a member of the Club of Amazigh Culture, a civil society that has taken advantage of post-revolutionary freedoms to overcome the long years of silence. “In the past, we were stripped of our right to be who we are, to protect our identity, and to speak our language,” he said. “They excluded us, marginalized us.”
Belghith recounted how he was once punished in school because he wrote a poem in Amazigh and shared it with his fellow students. His story is hardly an isolated incident. Many of the Amazigh-speaking Tunisians I talked to reported encountering similar ill treatment when they tried to use their language.
Today, at least, the Amazigh can speak freely of the times when they struggled against a state intent on extinguishing their distinct identity. Bourguiba’s strategy for marginalizing the Amazigh included resettlement plans aimed at pushing them to integrate with their Arab neighbors — a policy that succeeded to a considerable degree. Even so, though, a few isolated communities survived — such as the town of Zrawa, the Marhouk brothers’ hometown.
“Bourguiba did good things, but he also did some bad things,” said Jaloul Ghaki, president of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture. “He sent us to school. He made sure we got an education. But his vision of Tunisia didn’t leave much room for our difference.” Ben Ali continued the basic contours of the policy, Ghaki says. “He suppressed the Amazigh language to preserve the unity of the country, as if the unity of the country depended solely on a common language.”
Despite their relatively small numbers, the Amazigh have had a huge and lingering influence on Tunisian culture. The traces are everywhere. You can see it in the food, including Tunisia’s trademark dish of couscous. You can see it in the tattooed faces of old Tunisian women who sport cross-like symbols on their chins. (The mark in question is the letter “T” in Amazigh script, which stands for femininity.) You can see it in traditional Tunisian clothing — even though most Tunisians know the robe-like garments in question as “Arab clothes.” Amazigh activists, like Nouha Grine of the Club for Amazigh Culture, sneer at what they consider an egregious mislabeling. “It’s time for Tunisians to start calling things by their names,” she says. “We need to set the record straight. Those are Amazigh clothes, not Arab clothes.”
Tunisians don’t just eat and dress Amazigh. They also speak Amazigh. Modern Tunisian Arabic is full of Amazigh words (especially names for animals, such as fakroun for “turtle” or allouche for “sheep”). Many Tunisian place names, like Tataooine (which lent its name to a planet in the Star Wars movies) and Medenine, are of Amazigh origin. The name of the very country probably has its roots in Amazigh. Historians trace the word “tunes” to Amazigh inscriptions of the sixth century B.C., though it’s still unclear what the original word meant.
Yet the Amazigh cultural rebirth is also meeting with resistance. Ghaki said some accuse him of leading a separatist movement, while others attack him for advocating for the use of a language other than Arabic, which, they say, is “the language of heaven and the Quran.” “A lot of these accusations are rooted in ignorance,” he said. “Many people in Tunisia do not know that there is an Amazigh community. We once organized a peaceful protest in downtown Tunis. Some guy came to us told us to go protest in our own country. He thought we were Algerians or Moroccans.” Other Amazigh told me of Arab neighbors who accuse them of trying to break up the country, up to and including involvement in alleged Western conspiracies to undermine Arab civilization.
Those accusations seem bizarre in light of the notable modesty of Amazigh demands for cultural and historical recognition. To this day, for example, their language is not taught in a single school in Tunisia. Though there are some scattered efforts to help those who want to learn it, they remain entirely informal and small-scale. Grine, of the Amzigh club, said she would like to see it taught as an optional language in schools, alongside other foreign tongues such as Hebrew, Turkish, and Korean.
Because the Amazigh of Tunisia have watched their numbers dwindle and their culture diminish over the years, members of the community have sought to protect and preserve their heritage by marrying within the group. Until the 1970s, marrying an outsider was taboo in Amazigh communities. However, as more of them left their hometowns for the capital and other cities, intermarriage became more common. Some Amazigh, like Belghith, are still opposed to marrying people from outside the group. For him, this would necessarily entail a loss of culture and language, since newcomers will have no familiarity with Amazigh history or traditions. Mahrouk, the rapper, agrees that intermarriage might not be ideal for the survival of an already endangered language. But he also sees diversity as a source of richness as long as every group has the chance to pass along its heritage.
Today, having survived centuries of oppression and discrimination, members of the Amazigh minority are enjoying a cultural resurgence thanks to the new era of democracy and free expression. As Tunisians embrace their newfound freedoms, one can only hope that they will also find room for a fresh appreciation of diversity, and for a more open and honest discussion about the past.
Photo credit: FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, August 10, 2106: Masinissa, the ancient leader who united the Amazigh-speaking peoples, was not Punic, as the original version of this story implied.
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