‘We are still here:’ Indigenous Tunisians still fighting for rights 1,300 years after colonization – National | Globalnews.ca
It’s been more than 1,300 years since the Arabs conquered Tunisia. Studies suggest the majority of Tunisians have Indigenous heritage, yet the country’s Indigenous people still struggle for basic recognition of their language and culture. Global News takes a closer look at the modern-day fight for Amazigh rights in a country mired by political and economic crisis.
In a colonized world, there are many complex paths to embracing one’s Indigeneity, but Youssef Hedfi admits to being somewhat abashed by his.
Perched outside a café in the southwestern Tunisia city of Tozeur, cigarette smoke wafting over the table, the 34-year-old describes a similar scene in the capital – Tunis – about a decade ago.
Over a coffee, Hedfi says he and a friend from Greece were discussing Tunisia’s Arab identity, when she pointed out that he was Berber, not Arab.
Hedfi recalls wincing in response; many Indigenous people in Tunisia refer to themselves not as Berber, but as Amazigh, which means ‘free people’ in their Tamazight language.
“We’re not barbars,” he had retorted, referencing the audible, offensive link between Berber – the name used by early settlers to describe Indigenous Tunisians – and the word, ‘barbarian.’
While rejecting the colonial name on principle, Hedfi says he also stated defiantly at the time that he was Muslim and Arab. The conversation, however, stirred him to research his heritage and eventually identify as Amazigh, a descendant of the “original inhabitants of this land.”
“It was a foreigner who pushed me,” Hedfi tells Global News in French from his hometown on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
“It’s something I’m a little ashamed of.”
Hedfi is not alone in having denied his Indigenous roots – even his late grandmother, whose traditional Amazigh tattoos included a Star of David, practiced Islam and identified as Arab.
“Her grandmother said it too, in fear,” says Hedfi. “The Arabs came here for blood. Fear passes through generations and today, we say we’re Arabs.”
It’s been more than 1,300 years since the Arabs conquered Tunisia – a deadly affair for the Amazigh who mounted an armed resistance in the 7th and 8th centuries. More blood would spill during France’s colonization of the North African country, freedom from which was obtained in 1956.
Throughout this history – modern and ancient – a small but unrelenting group of self-identified Amazigh has struggled to be heard through the state’s loud reinforcement of Arab identity. Much has changed, however, in the 12 years since the Arab Spring, and as Indigenous peoples around the world reclaim their rights, the Amazigh are joining them.
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Doors opened by revolution
“It’s not like before 2011,” says Amazigh activist Esseket Mohamed Mohsen, biting into a sandwich at a small restaurant in Tunis near the bank where he works.
“The Tunisian people have experienced so much change.”
Speaking in French, the 45-year-old father of three says the Tunisian Revolution – widely credited with catalyzing the Arab Spring – opened the door for many religious, ethnic and cultural minorities to be heard in Tunisia for the first time.
“I see it in the universities, I see it in the workplace, on the streets, on Facebook pages in Tunisia. In the discussion, when we talk about being Amazigh … there is much pride.”
Under the regime of Tunisia’s former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mohsen says the Amazigh were a “forbidden” topic, acknowledgement of their existence limited to “Berber pizza” on restaurant menus, and the sale of so-called Berber crafts and souvenirs.
Since Ben Ali’s exile, however, about a dozen Amazigh organizations have sprung up across the country, including two founded by Mohsen: the Tamaguit Association for Amazigh Rights, Freedoms and Culture, and the Imtyez Douiret Association.
“We’re just getting started,” says Mohsen, a fluent Tamazight speaker with roots in the southern Governorate of Tataouine.
“We have internal problems of inexperience. We have stayed in associative life. It’s a fault. We need to work in civil society and in politics.”
While the revolution brought the promise of new possibilities for promoting Amazigh culture, without adequate representation in government, activists were dealt a crushing blow in 2014.
After decades of being sidelined, they had hoped Tunisia’s new constitution would acknowledge the country’s Indigenous roots. Instead, the newly-ratified document referred only to foundations of “Islamic-Arab identity,” and reaffirmed Arabic and Islam as Tunisia’s language and religion.
“We were so disappointed,” says Mohsen, who had publicly protested the text, a yellow, green and blue Amazigh flag draped around his shoulders.
Many Indigenous activists concede Tunisia is now an Arabic-speaking country, but steadfastly believe it has never been an Arab nation.
Over the millennia, the Amazigh have shared their land with many settlers, including the Romans, Carthaginians, Ottomans and Spanish. Christianity, Judaism and various polytheistic beliefs were practiced long before Arabisation, and are still observed in small numbers today.
Multiple studies – including one by the National Geographic Genome Project and one published in the U.S.-based National Library of Medicine – further suggest the genetic makeup of most Tunisians is predominantly “Berber” or “North African” rather than Arab, leading activists to describe the Amazigh as an ethnic majority but a linguistic minority.
Ethnic majority, linguistic minority
The United Nations classifies the Tamazight language as being at risk of extinction. Associations estimate less than 10 per cent of Tunisians speak it, although the country’s distinctive Arabic dialect is peppered with Tamazight words.
Unlike in Morocco and Algeria, however, it has no official status and is not taught in any schools.
“People are so afraid of thinking that they may have more than one dimension,” says Dorra Agrebi, an Arabic, French and English translator, and a professor in the University of Kairouan’s Faculty of Literature and Social Sciences, about 160 kilometres south of the capital.
Sitting in a coffee shop not far from the Tunis suburb of Carthage, where she co-owns the Taa Marbouta language school, Agrebi suggests widespread denial of Amazigh identity may be a symptom of a more recent conquest of Tunisia – that of France.
“That religion and identity, being Arab and Muslim, were probably the only thing that united people against colonialism at some point and this is why people cling too much to that part of themselves,” she explains.
Agrebi describes her own ancestors as “English pirates and Turkish merchants” – “definitely colonizers.” Like Mohsen, however, she has noted increased public interest in Amazigh culture and language since the revolution, and last fall, hosted an ‘Amazigh Day’ at Taa Marbouta to promote Indigenous history, language and identity.
The school is also interviewing teachers for its first Tamazight language class.
“Before we opened the school we promised ourselves that we wouldn’t just teach languages. We wanted to be part of the cultural scene as well, and part of the cultural scene is making people aware that there is a variety in themselves and the culture is so rich,” she says.
“While the state is still figuring out so many things in this country … I think the main thing that organizations should really commit to is high visibility, events, classes, advocacy. There is always someone who is going to come and say this is not a priority.”
Progress mired by political crisis
While the 2011 revolution ushered in Tunisia’s first democracy, a decade of political instability has followed. Frustrations that fuelled the uprising – corruption, inflation, unemployment and lack of political freedom – appear to be reaching another boiling point.
In July 2021, Tunisian President Kais Saied led what opponents describe as a self-inflicted coup d’état, sacking the government, freezing Parliament and declaring his own rule by decree. The new constitution he spearheaded last year further tightened his grasp on power, clawing back key powers of Parliament and eliminating several checks and balances.
It’s the worst political crisis since the uprising; only 11 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in the recent legislative election. Meanwhile, inflation in Tunisia is expected to average the same in 2023, exacerbating a cost-of-living crisis that includes shortages of milk, sugar, rice, oil and other staples.
“We need to work harder for the government to hear our voice. We need to be louder,” says Mohsen, recognizing that Amazigh rights are not high on the state’s list of priorities.
It’s been 15 years since Tunisia voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on the world stage – a declaration Canada initially rejected.
Global News reached out to Tunisia’s ministries responsible for human rights and cultural heritage for comment on this story, but did not receive a response.
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Amazigh plight heard in Geneva
In 2017, the UN Human Rights Council recommended Tunisia officially recognize, protect and promote Amazigh language and culture, as well as adopt legislation for its instruction in schools.
In its November report to the council outlining actions to address that recommendation and others, however, Tunisia stated that the Amazigh, “who constitute an important part of the social fabric, enjoy their rights in all areas, without discrimination, exclusion or marginalization.
“Educational and cultural institutions work to promote Amazigh cultural heritage in all areas. School is founded upon the notion of consolidating a sense of belonging and of pride in all aspects of the country’s history and civilization,” it states.
Beginning in 2024, it adds, Amazigh culture will be included as an optional addition to regular school programs, with cultural activities provided by clubs.
It’s far from the firm commitment to Tamazight instruction that activists are seeking.
“It’s written into the history of Tunisia … It’s an Indigenous language. It’s an African language,” Mohsen says over the din of Monday afternoon traffic.
“Once it disappears, it will not come back. We have to work to support it.”
In December, Mohsen appealed to the UN Forum on Minority Issues in Geneva, urging the international community to pressure Tunisia to protect minority rights and cement Tamazight in the public school system. He also asked the UN to consider allocating its own resources to the cause, and to add Tamazight to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Meanwhile, his two associations and half a dozen others in Tunisia continue to protest, host cultural events and forge new relationships with prospective international allies.
“I still have hope. The efforts we’re making give me hope,” Mohsen explains.
“When one path is closed, you have to find another path, another way.”
Culture safeguarded by artists
When the state fails to protect a cultural minority, Ali Ben Talouba and Imen Bousetta agree: the work of passing on the language and traditions often falls to its artisans.
The married couple are proud advocates: Ben Talouba is a traditional jeweller and Bousetta is a Tamazight speaker who never misses a chance to share the stories, language and customs of her people.
“Ali always says in interviews that it’s thanks to Amazigh women that we’ve kept our culture alive,” Bousetta says, sitting beside him in their Tunis apartment on rugs with Amazigh motifs stitched by their mothers.
Traditional gold and silver chain link jewellery cascades over Bousetta’s forehead, neck and shoulders – all Ben Talouba’s pieces, showcasing traditional Amazigh symbols and colours.
Amazigh culture is often described as matriarchal, passed down by women through the food they cook, the robes they wear, the carpets they weave, and the gems that adorn their arms and ankles. Ben Talouba is keeping the jewellery-making traditions alive while working on a book about the role of jewellery in conveying Amazigh stories, symbols and history.
“I love the culture and infusing this culture into my jewellery,” Ben Talouba says in Arabic, translated into French by Bousetta. “I love my work. I don’t want to commercialize it.”
Like many Indigenous artisans, Ben Talouba’s livelihood has taken a hit from the widespread availability of cheaper, inauthentic trinkets that appropriate his culture. He and Bousetta want tourists to learn the difference, and believe the state must bring Amazigh culture “into the light” by embracing Amazigh holidays and funding a centre that trains young Indigenous people in traditional crafts and trades.
“Now is the time,” nods Bousetta, noting the Indigenous rights movement is gaining momentum worldwide.
“We are in favour of different cultures, but we must not forget our roots.”
In 2019, activists formed Tunisia’s first all-Amazigh political party. Even though it filed all the paperwork, AKAL – which means ‘land’ in Tamazight – never received official recognition from the state.
Despite this setback, after a decade of advocacy, activists scored their first major legislative victory the following year: the removal of a 1965 law banning parents from giving their children Amazigh names. The reversal was celebrated by rights groups around the world.
Shortly after the Amazigh ringed in their New Year on Jan. 13, marking 2972 on their agricultural calendar, Hedfi says his people triumphed again. In a televised talk show, a Tunisian researcher of Islamic thought spoke animatedly about the violent truth of Arab colonization, rather than what Hedfi describes as the “whitewashed” version he learned in school.
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It was the first time Hedfi had heard anyone talk about gold, slaves and the eradication of Amazigh culture in mainstream media. Lighting up another cigarette outside the café in Tozeur, he says he felt validated, and if she had seen it, his grandmother would have cried tears of joy.
A graffiti artist and painter, Hedfi now tags much of his work with the symbol at the heart of the Amazigh flag, a red Tamazight letter ‘z’ that represents the blood of the martyrs. He also wears the Amazigh flag over his shoulders at public exhibitions of his work.
“I’m reclaiming it now to tell the truth,” he tells Global News.
“The Arab colonization, the French colonization — all the colonizers could not remove us. We are still here.”
This story was produced with funding from Journalists for Human Rights and Global Affairs Canada as part of the project Canada World: Voice for Women and Girls. Click here for more information.