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Not Good Haters: Libya’s Amazigh Minority



SABRATHA, Libya, August 27th — After a cumulative two months in Libya, I’ve come to believe that the fears of an Iraq-style post-Qaddafi fragmentation are misplaced. Many Libyans express the wish to kill Qaddafi—but not his fighters. This augurs well for the future of this closely knit, small-population country. Even ethnic tensions here are at a lower key, with the Berber minority seeking cultural freedom but not separatism.

From the 14th of August to the 21st and again from the 23rd to the 26th, I was with the Zwara Brigade as they fought in Sabratha and then to free their own town. They are Amazigh, part of the Berber minority here. About 160,000 live in the Nafusa Mountains and Zwara, and a much smaller group of Tuareg in the southern desert. They bitterly resent Qaddafi’s banning of their 2,200-year-old language, much as the Irish resent the English banning of Gaelic. Even giving a child an Amazigh name was forbidden under Qaddafi, though the community still uses such names internally. As soon as their town was freed, the Zwara Brigade raised the yellow, green, and blue Amazigh flag next to the red, black, and green flag of the revolution in their town center. Nearly every Amazigh I met in Jadu, where the Zwara Brigade prepared to retake their city, and in Zwara itself, was quick to point out that they were the indigenous inhabitants of Libya, and that the whole country was once theirs before the Arab invasion. But they are not good haters.

From the 23rd onward—I left on the 26th, as the fight continued—the brigade tried to subdue Qaddafi forces based among their Arab neighbors in Jumayl, just 8 kilometers south of their seaside town. The enemy included remnants of the former Libyan national army, of Qaddafi’s separate “brigades,” commanded by his inner circle, and “volunteers” or untrained young men given weapons and cars after February 17th.

On the 24th, as Zwara was besieged on three sides by Qaddafi forces, I saw just one instance of fury on the part of the Zwara fighters against Jumayl. At a war council in the Scout building that serves as the headquarters for the freedom fighters, a middle aged Zwara commander burst into hoarse, furious accusations and threw his assault rifle at another middle aged man in fatigues across the table. Senussi Mohamed Mahrez, commander of the Zwara brigade, explained that the Zwara man was upset because his friend, a respected 46-year-old commander of about 50 men named Ismail Maghrub, had been killed in a battle at the Zwara airport that morning. The man across the table was from Jumayl, the base for the fighters who killed Ismail. But he had joined the revolutionary forces. The Jumayl commander kept his cool, and Senussi—a former general in the Libyan Army who defected to the revolutionaries in April—calmed the Zwara man.

“We are asking the Jumayl fighters to give up their weapons, to put up the independence flag and to bring the men who did bad things,” Senussi said. The “bad things,” he eventually explained in English polished at Pakistan’s military academy and punctuated with Anglicisms like “young chaps,” included not only the destruction of about a mile of shops at the southern entrance of Zwara, but rapes and other atrocities against civilians. Yet he and everyone else insists that they will imprison and try the accused rather than exercise summary justice. From what I’ve seen, I’m inclined to credit their good will.

It’s unclear how ethnically distinct the Amazigh are now, after centuries of coexistence with their Arab neighbors. While Senussi said that Zwara people do not give their daughters in marriage to Arabs, he casually mentioned that some of his sisters are married to non-Amazigh. Like other Libyans, the citizens of Zwara range from European to African skin tones. I can’t tell the difference visually, but Amazigh claim they can discern who is one of them and who isn’t. (On the other hand, I was also told that I look Amazigh.) Some DNA testing might sort this out.

But whether the people themselves are distinct at this point in time or not, Amazigh culture is subtly different from mainstream Arab Libyan culture. For one thing, their women are freer in the public domain and less constrained by Arab taboos. While no women were at the Zwara Scout headquarters besides me, they were in the streets shopping, driving, and visiting family on the calmer days of the 25th and 26th. They seemed as free in their movements as the women of Benghazi, a city of 800,000, and much more so than the women of smaller eastern Libyan towns.

When I went to the beach in Zwara for a swim on the 25th, I was accompanied by Rihab, an English teacher. (Note for post-war visitors: Zwara’s water is crystalline and tranquil, far cleaner than at the vaunted Tunisian resort of Djerba.) She didn’t go in the water because she was observing the Ramadan fast, but said she would do so after Eid. Senussi said that his mother, who died a month ago at the age of 80, would go swimming after dinner. Because Senussi’s wife and daughters are still in Tunisia, where the family fled in April, his female relatives and neighbors brought him and his three sons food. Unlike Arab women I’ve seen in eastern Libya or the Nafusa Mountains, they took off their headscarves inside the house even when unrelated men were present.

The Amazigh of Zwara and Jadu are themselves distinct cultures, with some differences of culture and vocabulary (in Zwara, few use the Jadu greeting “Azul!,” which is one of the few words I know). Jadu has been free since late February, and the revival of written Amazigh culture is obvious, with many signs in Amazigh and a newspaper that publishes some headlines in the language. In Zwara, I had the impression that fewer people knew how to read Amazigh, though it is universally spoken.

Zwara is a fishing and commercial port, with much commerce with Tunisia, just 65 kilometers west. So it has an openness to the outside world that the mountain stronghold of Jadu lacks. Many men here were educated overseas—I spoke with a US-educated Ph.D. in solid state physics, Hasham Idrisi, near his oceanfront home—and among the fighters there are a scattering of men returned from life in Canada, the US, and the UK. I had the sense that many Zwara residents would rather speak English than Arabic, which they never use amongst each other.

It will be interesting to see what place Amazigh culture is given in the new Libya, and whether Zwara and the Berber towns of the Nafusa Mountains will reinvigorate their long-repressed written language as the Irish have done with Gaelic.

(Photo by the author showing smoke rising from a Zwara factory destroyed by shelling from Qaddafi forces in neighboring Jumayl on August 24th.)

Editor’s note: Below are two more photos from the author:

Homecoming of the Zwara fighters on August 23rd.

Amazigh men in Zwara paint independence flags sewn by local women.

OG Image: 
Iraq