A month after Muammar Qaddafi’s regime collapsed, Dania Ben Sasi swept onto a makeshift stage in the west Libyan town of Zuwara and filled its streets with songs in a Berber dialect that had been banned for more than 40 years.
“I was shaking and had tears in my eyes,” said 25-year-old Ben Sasi. “The moment was bigger than all of us, it was like I was born again, it was the rebirth of me, my hometown and the whole Amazigh people of Libya.”
The indigenous people of North Africa, known as Berbers or Amazigh, have been oppressed by regimes viewing their language and culture as a threat to Arab-Islamic identity. The 2011 uprisings galvanized the campaign for equal rights, with musicians in the forefront. It’s another test for nations struggling to reconcile the forces, from political Islam to youth activism, unleashed by the Arab Spring.
“The Amazigh have managed to raise serious questions about the nature of the state and the community,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, author of The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States. “These are fundamental issues that speak to the ability of these states to create viable societies that can function in the modern world.”
Arab tribes that swept through North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries tried to convert the Amazigh to Islam from an attachment to ancient polytheism, Christianity and Judaism. While meeting fierce resistance from the warrior Queen Dhyia, who burned fields and orchards to deny fertile lands to the invaders, the Arabs succeeded. The term Amazigh, meaning Free Men, survived as a rare reminder of their past.
Today, there are at least 25 million speakers of dialects of the Amazigh language, which is called Tamazight and until very recently was almost exclusively oral. They are estimated by Maddy-Weitzman and other researchers to represent about 40-45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20-25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and 1 percent in Tunisia. There are communities as far west as the Canary Islands, and in sub-Saharan countries such as Burkino Faso.
Music is at the center of the culture and singers have become more active since 2011 with an explosion of festivals and concerts around the world, according to Jamal Bahmad, a researcher at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
“The growth of protest culture brought more attention to Amazigh singers and encouraged them to sing about the hopes and frustrations of their people,” he said.
Ben Sasi was born in Serbia. Her father left Libya in 1983 after being detained by Qaddafi, who referred to Tamazight as poison. Amazigh can now raise their flag and celebrate their new year but there’s much more to do, she said.
“We want our rights to be guaranteed by the Libyan constitution, and our identity and the language to be included in it,” she said.
“Language is the rallying force behind the whole movement, the core value on which the Amazigh hope to revive their legacy,” according to Mohammed Errihani, who writes about language policy in Morocco.
Morocco, where King Mohammed VI’s mother is Amazigh, is where the movement has scored its biggest gains. In 2011, Morocco became the first North African state to make Tamazight an official language, along with Arabic. It was the cumulation of changes spurred by decades of rallies and pressure from activists, who often faced jail for their efforts.
In Algeria, the heartland of Amazigh activism, its confrontation with the state has been bloodier. The assassination of singer Lounes Matoub in 1998 led to riots, and violent clashes between activists and security forces were common. Another musician, Idir, once said that singing in Berber was a militant act.
While the campaign did lead to the acknowledgment of Amazigh as a component of Algerian identity in 2001, “things are now stuck,” said Maddy-Weitzman.
In Tunisia, rappers Hamada and Abdel Haq Al Zarwi are helping give a voice to the local Amazigh community, who were ignored in the constitution negotiated between Islamists and secularists this year.
“We became strangers in our own country,” they say in their song Tegrawla Revolution.
“The Amazigh advocacy discourse is at different stages of development, depending which country you are talking about -- but it’s evolving and fast,” said Meryam Demnati, a member of Morocco’s Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture. The country to watch is Libya, she says, where efforts are under way to set up a panel to draft a constitution.
Libyan Amazigh, centered near oil installations in the west, say transitional institutions have already rejected them, though they have managed to organize the teaching of Tamazight in schools and set up newspapers.
“When we asked visiting Libyan Amazigh what would they do if the constitution doesn’t recognize the culture, they replied ‘We have weapons,’” Demnati said.
One of the songs Ben Sasi sang that night in Zuwara, Agrawli Itri Nnegh or The Rebel is Our Star, is a homage to Amazigh fighters who helped overthrow Qaddafi. Another, Numidia, is a reference to the ancient Amazigh homeland -- an abstract idea since few seek to redraw national borders despite increasing solidarity, according to Maddy-Weitzman.
“The Amazigh culture was deep inside of my heart, and the words were imprisoned inside me until the revolution,” Ben Sasi said. “We still have a long road to freedom.”