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Libyan Berbers revive their language in class and on air

A pupil shyly approached the whiteboard, picked up a marker and carefully traced a letter from the Berber alphabet as the teacher watched — a scene unimaginable under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Tamazight has been the native language of indigenous people across North Africa since pre-Roman times. It has survived despite centuries of Arab domination and has undergone a revival in Libya since Kadhafi’s four-decade rule ended in a 2011 revolution.

In the city of Zuwara, a majority-Berber community near the border with Tunisia, teacher Assirem Shawashi encourages her nine-year-old pupils to approach the board, one by one, to draw out symbols. “Children love this subject because they find their identity and their culture in books,” said Shawashi, dressed in a black dress and grey hijab. “It’s not just about the alphabet and vocabulary, but it’s a whole culture we’re passing on to them.” Around 10 percent of Libya’s seven million people are ethnically Berber.

Kadhafi worked to crush their culture while promoting Arab identity. But some, especially in the remote western mountains, continued to speak their language at home, out of earshot of the feared secret police. They include residents of Zuwara, 120 kilometres (75 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, who have held onto their culture throughout Greek, Roman, Arab, Ottoman and Italian rule. ‘Natural Right’ Libya has seen a decade of complex and often violent power struggles since Kadhafi’s fall in a NATO-backed uprising, but authorities in Tripoli have been accommodating towards Berber culture, even providing textbooks — although they have not given the language official status.

Shawashi is a member of the first-ever class to graduate with degrees in Tamazight last year from the University of Zuwara. Her younger pupils never knew life under Kadhafi, she notes. “It’s just a natural right to learn their mother tongue, and they can’t imagine that anyone would ever ban that.” She said that Tamazight textbooks arrived immediately after the revolution, from Morocco where the language is constitutionally recognised. Since then, the community has made “enormous advances”, Shawashi added.

“We ourselves are surprised.” School director Sondoss Saki said the first classes in 2012 had “difficult beginnings” due to a lack of trained teachers and confusion about which curriculum to follow. Some parents feared the children would be overloaded, arguing that Arabic and English were a higher priority. “But the children come here to learn, and their minds are wide open to knowledge,” Saki said confidently, sitting behind her desk where the Libyan and Amazigh (Berber) flags stood side by side.

When classes are over, Shawashi heads off to the studio of Kasas FM, founded in 2012 as Libya’s first local radio station to broadcast in Tamazight. Shawashi, who works as a presenter in her spare time, meets programme director Ismail Abudib to discuss his upcoming shows on Amazigh literature. Abudib, a 28-year-old architect in a white shirt and grey blazer, says he sees it as his duty to defend his community’s rights. Kasas FM is one way of doing that, he said, sitting in front of a small mixing desk in the station’s control booth.

The station covers social issues, culture, religion, entertainment and sport, he said, “all the subjects that interest listeners, in the language they know best”. “Respecting your language and being proud of your identity doesn’t stop you living with other communities,” Abudib said. “We’re walking forward and not looking back to the times of repression and marginalisation. The whole world is full of diversity, and as Libyans we should be able to live together in peace.”—AFP

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