In a villa on Libya’s stunning seaside coast, a sculptor was finishing a war memorial commemorating the 50 men from the western town of Zuwara who perished last year in the battle against Muammar Gaddafi.
The slab, which was destined for Zuwara’s small concrete traffic circle, was engraved in two languages: one was Arabic, the other Tifinagh, the ancient script of North Africa’s Berbers, or Imazighen (the Berbers prefer to be called Imazighen, noting that Berber originally meant “barbarian”).
Before last year’s uprising against the Gaddafi regime, anyone who spoke Tifinagh in public could be arrested. During his 42 years in power, Gaddafi persecuted the country’s minority Berber or Amazigh community, arresting its leaders, banishing its language from schools and beating protesters.
His vision for Libya was a mono-Arab state. Gaddafi insisted that the “traitorous” Imazighen were an ethnolinguistic fiction, even though they make up about a tenth of Libya’s population of six million.
Nearly a year after Gaddafi was turfed out of power and days before the country’s first democratic election on July 7, Amazigh culture is enjoying a revival. Zuwara’s secret police headquarters has been transformed into an Amazigh radio station. A beach mansion belonging to a Gaddafi loyalist is home to an artists’ workshop and a recording studio where banned Tifinagh songs and poems are heard again. Amazigh activists are busy relearning their almost forgotten 2000-year-old Punic alphabet.
But there are darker rumblings too. In March, 17 people were killed after fighting erupted between the Amazigh Zuwara and the neighbouring Arab towns of Riqdaleen and Al-Jamail. The two sides lobbed mortars at each other. The ethnic clashes were triggered by fresh tension over who did what during last year’s revolution – Zuwara accuse its neighbours of siding with Gaddafi – as well as smouldering disputes over land and smuggling routes.
More than 150 people have been killed in fighting between black Toubou tribesmen and their Arab Zuwayy neighbours, leading some to wonder whether the country is already beginning to fall apart.
Zuwara is 102km west of Tripoli, close to the Tunisian border. It was one of the first towns to rise up in February 2011 and the town’s main street still shows signs of heavy fighting: several of the shops have damaged upper storeys and mangled balustrades.
Local anti-Gaddafi fighters seized control of the town for 23 days. The regime sent a long column of tanks to crush resistance. It also allegedly encouraged local Arabs to take revenge. Under government control again, revolutionaries smuggled wounded soldiers and defectors at night on a perilous journey to nearby Tunisia in fishing boats.
Having played a leading role in overthrowing Gaddafi while other Imazighen fought their way down from the mountains, leaders said they now felt let down by the country’s transitional leadership.
And they are nervous about what role the Amazigh people will get in Libya’s new political ascendancy, especially, they said, if Islamist parties – as seems possible, though no one quite knows what will happen on July 7 – sweep to power in Tripoli.
“We helped our brothers overthrow the dictator, but now we feel we are being betrayed,” said Issa Hamissi, an ethnic Amazigh documentary filmmaker.
The government was refusing to allow Amazigh programming on state TV, he complained, and seemed deaf to the community’s legitimate claims for greater political representation. “We want change. We want to be treated equally. We are deprived of a lot of rights.”
Hamissi is gloomy about Libya’s long-term prospects. He fears the country’s new leaders share the same prejudices as the old and have proved incapable of keeping a lid on simmering ethnic conflict. Having been victims of Gaddafi’s megalomanic pan-Arabism, he is now afraid of an Islamist takeover.
“Look at the map. Look to our east and west. The Islamists have taken over in Tunisia and Egypt. They are going to take over Libya too. I don’t think they are going to push the country in the right direction.”
Exclusive language of God
Conservative religious groups saw no role for the Amazigh language, Hamissi argued, and believed that Arabic is the exclusive language of God and the Qu’ran.
Others, however, are more optimistic, noting that extremist Islamist parties had gained little traction among ordinary Libyans.
“If we are to build a new Libya, we need a new school of thought and new minds,” said Ayoob Sufyan, an articulate English-speaking Amazigh activist.
At 25, Sufyan is one of the youngest candidates to take part in Saturday’s election. He believes he has a good chance of winning the Zuwara constituency.
“What we are interested in is recognition for our identity and language,” he said.
After the poll, Libya’s new national congress will elect a government and a committee tasked with drafting a constitution. Sufyan said his community’s key demand was that Tifinagh had to be made an official language – unthinkable under Gaddafi and by no means guaranteed now.
Back at the seaside villa, the war memorial was drying out in the afternoon sun. On the beach, with its palm trees and shade-providing wooden shacks, a few people were splashing about in the turquoise Mediterranean Sea.
What had happened to the villa’s former owner, a high-ranking Gaddafi politician?
“He disappeared,” Sufyan said. “Nobody knows. But he’s probably dead.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012