A reborn Libya must endow the Berbers with a new status

Elaine Byrne, Sunday Times, 4 September 2011

My photos of Morocco

‘Power is like being with a woman for the first time. You always want more.” Over our third pot of Berber herbal tea, the male elders of a small village in central Morocco are doing their best to explain the nature of political power to me.

The liberation of Libya has reawakened a political consciousness of events beyond its borders in a people that had grown accustomed to assuming nothing would ever change. “Gadaffi is gone because the people did not want a person who thought he was the country, they decided they wanted just a country instead,” was the verdict of Mohammed, a Berber farmer who said he was 50. Harsh mountain life has aged him by another 20 years.

Personality politics and terms of office being notched on bed posts are characteristics of Middle Eastern as well as northside Dublin politics. The unintended consequences of Gadaffi’s collapse have yet to be fully appreciated, but they may be consequences which Ireland can legitimately support, given our shared historical experiences with North Africa’s Berber people.

It was the Berbers in the Jebel Nafusa region of the western mountains in Libya who were among the first to rise against Gadaffi’s 42-year reign of terror. They helped created the second front that secured the strategic supply route to Tunisia. They captured the oil refinery at Zawiyah, 50km from Tripoli, which marked the beginning of the end for the permanent Libyan government.

Movies will eventually be made to show how the better-equipped Gadaffi forces succumbed to a rag-tag army equipped with basic weaponry complemented only by a knowledge of the desert’s mountainous terrain. The Berbers ultimately claimed hero status in Libya’s liberation when they became the first of the rebel groups to take Tripoli. The distinctive blue, green and yellow flag with the red insert of the Amazigh nation has been a familiar sight in Libya’s celebrations over the past week.

Gadaffi had attempted to Arabise the Berbers by banning their language and forbidding any recognition of their culture. The parallels with the Anglicisation of Ireland in the 19th century are many. Arabic became the language of social mobility and those who refused to speak anything other than their native language were marginalised, sometimes to improvised western regions. An African version of to hell or to Connaught.

Gadaffi’s attempt to divide the Arabs and the Berbers failed. Although this ethnic group comprises just 10%-15% of Libya’s population, the Berbers played a crucial role in the uprising and can claim similar bragging rights to the Benghazi and Misurata rebels who form the Arab majority.

The litmus test of a new Libya, and of the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) commitment to democracy, will be official recognition of the Berber minority. Some moves have been made in that direction. The NTC made an official statement last week in the Berber language of Tamazight to mark the end of the Ramadan festival known as Eid-Al-Fitr.

The international community is playing a key part in the future of Libya through the Paris conference and the unblocking in billions of aid. But where is Ireland’s voice in all of this? To date, the only response from Eamon Gilmore, the Labour leader and tanaiste, is a press release from the Department of Foreign Affairs which stated: “The Arab peoples have shown us that they have the same desire for freedom and democracy as we do.” There was no mention of the Berber people. If Ireland does not identify with a suppressed ethnic people in their own land, one which rose up and fought for freedom, who will? “No one knows about the Amazigh nation,” Mohammed tells me. “We are not Arab, though we are Muslim. We have different languages, cultures, traditions, histories and music. We are the indigenous people of North Africa and have always suffered because of this.”

Amazigh means “free man” and denotes the territory over which the Berber people live. Stretching across North Africa from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Spanish Canary Islands, they number about 15m-20m people. About one in five Algerians claim Berber ethnicity, while Tunisia and Mali comprise less than 1%. Famous Berbers include Fidel Castro’s mother and Zinedine Zidane, the former French footballer.

Morocco has the greatest concentration, with 60% of its population speaking the Berber dialect of Tamazight. History was made earlier this year when King Mohammed VI granted it official status alongside Arabic.

The Libyan revolution may yet lead to further demands for Amazigh rights across North Africa. Despite the obvious poverty in some of the Berber regions I visited, many homes have satellite dishes and are well plugged into the outside world. Al Jazeera, the news network, has helped to make even the most isolated regions of Morocco politically aware.

Legislative change may bring a greater measures of equality for the Berbers, but cultural change for women has a long way to go. Berber women tend to dress less conservatively than Arabs. Their faces remain uncovered so that the tattoo marks on their forehead and chin, denoting marital status and fertility, are visible.

But Arab or Berber, it is the women who often do the literal donkey work. In many of the villages in the High Atlas mountains, there are no roads. Instead, haphazard goat paths are ground into the earth on the edge of steep inclines. If a family is not lucky enough to own a donkey, the women walk for miles, bent over under the weight of sticks or animal feed tied to their backs. Sometimes I met the men, walking upright, a couple of steps ahead, carrying a sickle.

Despite travelling through Morocco and living with families for the month, it was difficult to engage and speak with women, especially in rural areas. When a male friend took me to an outdoor public swimming pool, I quickly realised that I had the right only to watch the men swim. The women stood on the edge of the pool looking on. If they accompanied their children into the water, they did so fully clothed.

North Africa has witnessed an electrifying process of reform and regime changes over the past year. But for the women, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Getting rid of a dictator is one thing, changing traditions is quite another.

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