Activists seek recognition of Amazigh culture in Tunisia

Berber carpets on display at the Berber Museum of Tamezret

TUNIS - Tunisian Berbers welcomed Yennayer, the Amazigh new year, with celebrations of their cultural heritage, which is deeply rooted in the country. From the caves of Matmata to the delicious couscous to the colourful carpets found in southern Tunisia, Amazigh culture has made significant contributions to Tunisia’s own and the country’s history.
Despite the celebrations, however, Tunisia’s Berber community expressed concern over the absence of official recognition of their identity and culture, saying the government has not done enough to preserve their heritage.
“Other North African countries have official celebrations of the Amazigh new year,” said Esseket Mohsen, a member of the Tamaguit Association for Amazigh Rights, Freedoms and Culture in Tunisia. “We had some celebrations in the Berber village of Tamezret in the south that were organised by local groups but nothing official.”
“This occasion could have been a cultural celebration that marks Tunisia from the rest of the world,” he added. “The Amazigh calendar is an agricultural one that makes it different from others. It should be celebrated as a cultural characteristic of Tunisia.”
Yennayer, which refers to the first day and the first month of the Amazigh new year, was marked on January 14 this year.
Berbers, who are indigenous to North Africa, are mainly found in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Algeria and Morocco have official celebrations for Yennayer. Tunisian Berbers organised modest gatherings in Berber villages and Tunis.
“It is often said that Tunisia is a civilisation of 3,000 years to stress that our country has a long, rich history but the question here is: What about the history of the country before? What about the inhabitants of the land before the Phoenicians came?” Mohsen asked.
“Unfortunately, any information linking the history of Tunisia to Amazigh culture has been obliterated from the history books that we read. In schools, history in the textbooks only starts at 814BC,” he added.
Berbers used to make up a large part of Tunisia’s population but their culture is rarely recognised in the country and their presence is shrinking. This, despite many Tunisians having Amazigh origins and much of traditional Tunisian dress and cuisine being traced to the Amazigh.
“It is true that the language is not widely used and that Amazigh speakers are a minority but we all have Amazigh origins,” Mohsen explained.
The Amazigh language has become less common in Tunisia, prompting concerns that it could die out.
“The first cause of Amazigh Tunisians is to improve the situation of the Amazigh language as the number of speakers is becoming alarmingly small,” Mohsen said. “That is because it is not being taught in schools, used in media or considered as one of the languages of the country.”
He added: “This is unfortunate since the Tunisian dialect uses many Berber words. Many Tunisians do not even know that the words they use are Berber. It is only taught within families that still speak the language today. The priority now is to teach the language and the culture.”
The Tamaguit association and other Amazigh cultural clubs and organisations have collaborated on language sessions for people interested in learning Amazigh.
“We are trying to encourage people to learn the Amazigh language but we need help,” Mohsen said. “We are trying with the modest funds we have. We are also organising roundtables to promote Amazigh culture and language. Hopefully, this situation improves. We need to preserve the language and its transcript system.”
In addition to protecting the linguistic heritage of the Amazigh, there are attempts to preserve the people’s cultural and material heritage. In Tamezret, Monji Bouras, the curator of Dar Tamezret, has salvaged Berber outfits and jewellery and displayed them in a traditional house-turned-museum.
“I wanted to dedicate a place to preserving and promoting both the cultural and material heritage of the Amazigh culture,” Bouras said. “Tamezret, which is the hometown of my parents, is a beautiful Berber village that has so much richness and beauty that must be put on display. We must be proud of our cultural origins and we need to protect them from disappearing.”
He added: “It is not only about protecting and saving the physical heritage but also the traditions that help us understand the culture of our ancestors. The Berbers had different customs for marriage, daily life that is also explained in scenes from their lives in the museum. The symbols of tattoos are also part of this culture.”
More and more, civil society organisations dedicated to the Amazigh cause have sought to shed light on how urgently Amazigh culture is under threat.
“We organised protests in front of the assembly to call for the inclusion of the Amazigh culture in the constitution but (received) no response,” said Mohsen. “Today, we are investing more power and time in civil society as a tool to promote the language and culture.”
“We need to acknowledge our origins to be able to evolve,” he added. “(Tunisian culture) is a mixture and we need to be proud of that to progress as a nation.”
Roua Khlifi
a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.