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Libya's Amazigh Debate Their Future

Ann Marlowe

Obari, Libya—“Why are the people in the north getting petroleum when you are living over it and getting nothing?“ said Hisham Hamadi. The plump, energetic lawyer was addressing a conference of activists drawn from Libya’s three Amazigh (or Berber) communitiesthose from the Nafusa mountains, the West Coast city of Zwara, and the Tuareg of the Sahara desert. And it was the Tuareg that the Nafusan Hamadi was appealing to when he spoke of the injustices visited on them here in their de facto capital, Obari.

This dusty city of 50,000 in the Western Sahara, closer to Mali and Algeria than Tripoli or Benghazi, was nearly the last city in Libya to be liberated by the rebels. Many outsiders, including other Amazigh, charge that Obari supported Qaddafi until the end. Several of the speakers countered that the Tuareg never backed the dictator, but the fact is that the Libyan Army and the two Obari-based paramilitary brigades controlled by Qaddafi’s cronies were among the few employment options in this impoverished area. One local Tuareg activist, Abu Bakr Akaty, contended that 138 Tuareg soldiers were killed for refusing orders to fire on civilians. But perhaps as many as 300 Obari men were slain fighting for the old regime, some in Qaddafi’s brutal assault on Misrata and others defending Tripoli from the revolutionaries.

It is telling that all speakers at the conference gave their talks in Arabic; the Amazigh dialects are not mutually intelligible. There are racial and cultural differences as well. The Tuareg, tall, lean, and dark-skinned, don’t appear to be from the same stock as the Amazigh from Zwara and the mountains, with their Mediterranean coloring and more diverse body types. Culturally, the northerners are far more integrated into the modern world, and those at the conference wore Western business suits. Many of the southerners sported traditional floor-length tunics, made in Mali, in a rainbow of colors. Perhaps ten percent covered their faces.

Some of the Saharan activists disavow the idea of national boundaries, pointing out that they are scattered among Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and other African countries. But though Amazigh readily display their pan-national flagoften to the chagrin of their Arab neighborsan Amazigh homeland isn’t geographically feasible. Even in Libya, the two main areas of settlement are separated by almost a thousand kilometers.

Conditions are generally dire in Libya’s south. Qaddafi went to high school 200 kilometers from here in majority-Arab Sebha, a city of 350,000, but if he showered any largesse on the city, it’s hard to find. Sebha is best described as a garbage dump with the basic appurtenances of a citystores, cafes, hotels, banks. The two-lane road between Sebha and Obari is in rough condition. The better road from Sebha, north to Tripoli, is barely signposted, with no service stations for stretches of over 150 kilometers.

Obari is much cleaner and more attractive than Sebha. But its sparse commercial district resembles Afghanistan more than northern Libya’s decrepit Mediterranean cities. Small boys sell delicious round flatbreads made by their mothers, while withered desert Amazigh women crouch on the sidewalk selling small piles of traditional stick toothbrushes, spices and mysterious powders from further south. A disconsolate crowd of men gathers every morning in front of the only functioning bank, trying to withdraw their direct-deposited salaries (they are limited to taking out 750 dinars or about $600).

The Bangladeshi owner of one of the city’s men’s clothing shops told me that the apparent poverty of the locals is belied by the thriving business in human trafficking. The Tuareg bring African workers from Mali and Niger north in a two-day truck journey through the desert from the Niger border. Some of the traffickers have enough to spend 450 dinars at a throw on traditional clothing at his store, where the basic traditional dress runs 70 dinars or $50. He also insisted that “99 percent of the people” here supported Qaddafi.

The Libyan south doesn’t seem the most likely place for democracy to take root, and one sign of this is the role of women. Very few women are on the street in Sebha or Obari, and even the innocuous women’s charitable organizations thriving in the north are absent here. There are only 22 women in Obari’s 60-person civil society group Taminek (“unity” in Tamazight). Sonia Khamina, 20, said that women “don’t have any rights” in Tuareg culture.

At the conference, the Tuareg, who claim to number 500,000, complained of decades of discrimination. There were no Tuareg ministers or ambassadors under Qaddafi, and one local complained that he knows of only one Tuareg employee in the powerful ministry of foreign affairs. “We must talk about our nationality,” said Mustafa Al Ansari, a young Obari man in the revolutionaries’ khaki uniform. “It is written in the Acacus Mountains,” he said, referring to the world-renowned prehistoric art in the Acacus Mountains a few hours’ drive southwest.

Over the traditional desert meal of iftat big pieces of lean lamb over a casserole of shredded clay-oven breadAbu Bakr Akaty said that 69 percent of Libya’s oil reserves were used during the Qaddafi years, making it crucial to allocate the remaining wealth fairly. Even within the Amazigh community, the Tuareg seem to have got the short end of the stick though they far outnumber the 180,000 or so Nafusa Amazigh and Zwara’s 50,000. Akaty claimed that he was the only Tuareg on the Libyan Amazigh Congress for 32 years, and said that now there are only 3 others.

The main order of business on November 1 was mustering Amazigh to demand Libya’s emerging government recognize them as a minority and their Tamazight language as a national language, to receive government financial support, and to be given a place in school curricula. Many activists view the language issue as crucial, because after 42 years of Qaddafi’s repression, few Libyans can read and write the 3,000-year-old Tiffinag script. So far, the National Transitional Council has proven noncommittal, as it has on most other issues. In an August statement, the NTC stopped short of recognizing Tamazight as a “national” language,” and instead declared it an “official” language, which leaves the issue of financial support unresolved.

At the small but exuberant performance of Tuareg “desert blues” that concluded the proceedings, Ben Khalifa Fathi, president of the World Amazigh Congress, explained that official recognition in the as yet unwritten Libyan constitution is the most important issue for the Amazigh right now. “Amazigh identity is a serious thing, a question of life and death for us,” said Fathi, who after returning from an 18-year exile in Morocco was treated like a celebrity. “The Arabs still can’t understand this problem. We have no time to lose. We gave a lot to our country in the revolution and we helped the transitional council with foreign contacts.”

Another attendee from Zwara, Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, agrees with Fathi that it is important “to look after our Amazigh culture,” but questions the priorities of some of the other Amazigh. “It is not the time to trouble the government about the oil,” says Mahrez. “Now is the time to build up the country.”

Othman Ben Sasi, who represents Zwara on the NTC, also differs with Fathi’s approach. I reached him after the conference, when he argued that most Libyans are Amazigh, whether they admit it or not; there are very few Libyans of Arab descent. (A quip has it that Libya is “an Arab country without Arabs”.). So he sees the struggle to save the Tamazight language as one of bringing all Libyans to see that it is part of the national heritage, to be offered in all Libyan schools. “Berber must be for all Libyans or not at all.” But he thinks setting up a Tamazight curriculum is going to take a long time.

“We don’t have teachers or books. We need to teach the teachers first, and prepare the curriculum. In Morocco it took 15 years, and it is not finished.”

Mr. Ben Sasi sees a “just and modern constitution” as the best hope of the Amazigh. “We have to be organized as a democracy.” All Libyans, he says, and not just the Tuareg, were deprived of their fair share of the national wealth by Qaddafi. 

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