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In post-Kadafi Libya, Berber minority faces identity crisis

Moammar Kadafi forced Libya's Berbers, or Amazigh, to see themselves as Arabs. But in a new Libya, some seek greater autonomy and question Islamic strictures.

March 22, 2012|By Glen Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • A Berber girl in a traditional outfit takes part in a festival in Tripoli, the Libyan capital. Berber, or Amazigh, culture has experienced a renaissance since Moammar Kadafi's ouster last year.
A Berber girl in a traditional outfit takes part in a festival in Tripoli,… (Karim Sahib, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Zuwarah, Libya —  

Amal Zuhair's hijab is pushed back, revealing a strip of hair that to her traditionalist elders is a provocation, much like her fondness for rock music. She says she feels like two people: "I leave myself at home whenever I go outside. I am this other thing, this pretend person they want me to be."

Zuhair's struggle with her identity mirrors a broader quest in Libya as the country tries to recover from the four-decade rule of Moammar Kadafi, whose Arab nationalist regime long repressed minority cultures.

The 21-year-old is a member of the Amazigh, more commonly known as Berbers, who are experiencing a resurgence of their ancient culture. But the renaissance highlights contrasting aspirations in a post-Kadafi Libya where globalized youths such as Zuhair dream of greater autonomy while traditionalists and religious conservatives find comfort in more familiar strictures.

"We don't know who we are," says 23-year-old Ayoub Sufyan. "Am I a Libyan or Amazigh or a Muslim?"

Part of the problem stems from Kadafi's oppressive identity politics. There was no reading, writing or singing in the Amazigh language, Tamazight. Attempts to organize festivals were met with intimidation. Amazigh activists stood accused of militant Islamist activity and were imprisoned. Torture was common.

The Amazigh, once constituting about 5% of Libya's population, were unrecognized and repressed, forced to see themselves as Arabs.

Zuwarah sits 37 miles from the Tunisian frontier in western Libya. It is a sleepy town, where life revolves around the port. Its roads sprawl dusty and downtrodden from the central square. Old men, turbans wrapped around their heads, while away the day in coffee shops. It is rare to see women outside; public space belongs to men.

"Most people think a woman should go to school, then get married, take care of the babies and then die," Zuhair says.

She talks about how, after graduation and before starting work as a secretary, she went 20 days without leaving her parents' house. In conservative Zuwarah, if a woman is seen outside and unaccompanied, rumors proliferate.

"I feel like I am in prison," she says. "I want something different."

The new Libyan flag adorns every lamppost or is stenciled on walls, sitting beside graffiti mythologizing Libya's rebels. Another flag, the Amazigh flag, also hangs. It is a tricolor of yellow, green and blue stripes linked by a blood-red Tamazight letter stretched across all three.

A short while ago, such a brazen display of identity would have been impossible.

To Younis Shaybob, a 50-year-old Amazigh activist who publishes Tamazight teaching materials, language is the essence of identity.

"If we know our language, then we know ourselves," Shaybob says. "If we do not respect our language, then we do not respect our identity; we become second-class citizens."

Shaybob sits in a former military intelligence headquarters, leaning back in a plush chair. The tip of a cigarette glows hot and red as he draws smoke. The headquarters is in transition, morphing into a fledgling radio station broadcast in Tamazight.

Previously practitioners of Christianity, Judaism and polytheism, the Amazigh converted to Islam after the 7th century Arab Islamic conquests of North Africa.

The austere Salafi strand of Islam has penetrated Zuwarah's society, perhaps threatening more moderate threads of thought.

For Waleed Mohammed, a Salafi adherent, scripture is his backbone.

"People are free to do as they like, as long as they do not go outside from Islam," he says. "The woman's role is to take care of the house but it is not wrong for her to work, as long as this does not affect the house. She can communicate with men, but not outside of what her work requires."

In a local college, teenage boys and girls walk apart, or sit segregated in the school's cafe. An aura of surveillance hangs heavy over cautious demeanors.

"There is a tension in the air. It is part of a bigger problem: No one understands each other," says Soltan Tweini, dean of the college.

"We need to recognize the diversity in Libyan society and encourage this; no one should force any ideas on other people."

Yet for Zuhair, the mix of religion and tradition is an oppressive force as she and a small group of friends look more to Europe and the United States for identity.

She gives the example of some teenage girls who began listening to Western heavy metal and "emo" music two years ago. They were accused of witchcraft, and when pressure was exerted to have them removed from school, they began to dress more modestly.

She talks of women who have lost their virginity before marriage sneaking across to Tunisia for hymen reconstructive surgery. In Libya, if a woman has sex outside marriage, she is a nonperson.

She laments tradition dictating that she can marry only an Amazigh man, preferably from Zuwarah. That she cannot walk along Zuwarah's long beaches without a relative present. That there are no women's associations in the town.

Facebook offers the only respite from the competing and smothering pressures. She says many women maintain multiple Facebook accounts under Arabic pseudonyms.

Her account is named after the female lead from a popular Hollywood film.

Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.

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