Would You Go To Jail To Save Your Language?
By Jess HillJuly 26, 2012
In suburban Sydney, a young boy learned about his Berber history. He’s been through jail and revolution as he fights to revive the Amazigh culture in Libya.
Mazigh Buzakhar paces up and down the café, his voice low and a phone pressed to his ear. After a few minutes, he sits back at the table with a sigh.
"It's the federalists," he says, referring to a separatist group based in Libya's east. "They're threatening one of our facilities. We may have to pull our workers out."
Mazigh, 29, is an operations manager with a company that services Libya's oilfields. He keeps his voice down now to be polite, not secretive. In spectacles, baseball cap and polo shirt tucked into his trousers, he's the very image of a procedural man.
Only last year Buzakhar was in a maximum-security prison, ten minutes' drive from where we are sitting. He and his identical twin, Madghis, were awaiting a show trial that would rubberstamp their life sentences. Then came the revolution.
Their crimes? Fighting to revive a language Colonel Gaddafi had banned. The Buzakhars brothers are Amazigh, otherwise known as Berbers, who are native to North Africa. When Gaddafi, a dedicated pan-Arabist, seized power in 1969, he was determined to grind their culture into the dust. Just as Turkey's founding father, Kemal Atatürk, constitutionally excluded the Kurds, Gaddafi declared Libya a state for just one people: Arabs who spoke Arabic. From then on, communicating in Tamazight, calling children Amazigh names — cleaving to Amazigh heritage in anyway — was forbidden, sometimes on pain of death. Tamazight had been North Africa's predominant spoken language before the Arabs invaded in the seventh century, but to Gaddafi's paranoid mind it was "colonialism's poison". When the twins were arrested in December 2010, Mazigh's library, stacked with Amazigh books he'd smuggled into Libya, was a smoking gun.
"If it wasn't for the revolution, we wouldn't be speaking right now," he says, shaking his head. After being held incommunicado in a black, windowless cell for several weeks, Mazigh and his brother were moved to a prison in Tripoli, where they slept next to each other on the floor. Suddenly in February, after the uprising began in Benghazi, a spontaneous firestorm of protest hit the capital. The prison inmates rioted.
"Somehow, the prisoners got control of the jail," Mazigh recalls. "Then Gaddafi's brigades surrounded the jail and started shooting 14.5s [heavy machine guns]. We were thinking of Abu Salim," he says, referring to a notorious prison massacre that claimed 1,200 lives. "We thought they were going to kill us all."
But they didn't. Shortly afterwards, much to Mazigh's surprise, the prisoners were all released.
Out of jail, he wasted no time pondering what had just happened. The next day he drove west to the Nafusa Mountains, the traditional home of the Amazigh. Here, as Gaddafi's tanks were strafing the foothills below, Mazigh helped to establish a media centre, from where he began communicating with reporters around the world.
It was during this time that I was first introduced to Mazigh over Skype, and was startled to find out that he and his brother had been educated at Narwee High School, a public school in Sydney's south.
In the months that followed, in these besieged but self-governed mountain towns, something extraordinary started happening: the Amazigh started resuscitating their culture. New radio stations broadcast in Tamazight for the first time, and between reporting to the media and collecting information for NATO, Mazigh launched the first Amazigh newspaper to ever be published in Libya. Printed in Arabic and the ancient Tamazight script, Mazigh called it Tilelli, or Freedom. (He is still the newspaper's editor-in-chief, albeit now from where he lives and works in the capital.)
As we sat together in Tripoli, updates from the oilfields lighting up his phone, Mazigh agreed to accompany me for a day into the Nafusa Mountains. We parted ways, planning to meet very early that Sunday, and as he walked away I found myself wondering: how does a culture, defined for so long by resistance, rediscover itself once its oppressor is dead?
THE TWO-HOUR DRIVE FROM TRIPOLI to the Nafusa Mountains is almost featureless, a long stretch of desert punctuated by patches of scrub and the occasional tank left to rot beside the highway. If animals inhabit these areas, they're hiding, and a good idea that is, too; the North African sun has steadied at a fierce 45 degrees.
As we scour the roadside for a functioning coffee machine, Mazigh recalls his time in Australia. He was 11 years old when his family moved suddenly from a small town in the Libyan desert to the south Sydney suburb of Narwee.
"I didn't know what Australia was, what a Western country was," he says. Mazigh was about to start Year 7 and he didn't speak one word of English. After a two-month intensive English course, he started school at Narwee High. "Narwee was great, totally great. When I compare it with the Libyan education system," he trails off, shaking his head.
In Australia, Mazigh had access to two new things that would change his life: a foreign library, with books about the Amazigh, and the internet. "I could see the culture in Libya, but I found about it in Australia," he says.
Online, Mazigh discovered the Amazigh diaspora. "These cultural websites were focused on the political part of the movement, getting people to wake up, and rise again." Then, when Mazigh was in Year 10, his father finished his PhD scholarship and took the family back to Libya.
By the time he returned to his home country in 1998, he was deeply entwined in the activist movement, and soon began travelling to meet other Amazigh 'militants' across North Africa and Europe. When he and his brother were finally arrested in 2010 on charges of spying, news of their detention spread through the global Amazigh community, triggering a wave of protests and campaigns.
Approaching the mountains, we pass a military compound that's been literally bombed into the sand. "NATO," he nods.
"In Libya, everything was a risk," he says pensively. "If you crossed the road, it was a risk. Because there's no law, nothing that protects you. Even now, you think we have freedom? No. If you criticise someone, militia can come and 'handle' the problem," he says, staring at the road ahead. "They can kill you, but, you know, don't complain. Who did it? Nobody knows. But don't complain. We're not really a stable country."
Mazigh boycotted the elections. He wanted nothing to do with them; as Libyans celebrated raucously in the streets outside, Mazigh slept through the entire day. "All the politicians are old," he says angrily. "Who rose up? The young people. If the elders had been given any chance to run the show, we would have been fucked up."
Early in the conflict, elders in a nearby village were so eager to placate Gaddafi's brigades, they were preparing to hand over their revolutionary sons, he says. "If you gave a small chance to the elders, they would have surrendered." As the fighting intensified, most fled to Tunisia. "The younger ones ran the show — military, logistics, media, everything. But once Tripoli was liberated, the elders came back in. And now they want to run the show."
As the car wends its way up from the foothills and into the mountains, Mazigh weighs up which group are more damaging to Libya's future: the elders, or the Islamists who have gained a political foothold. He pauses. "You know, maybe there's a way we can use the elders right now. Because if there's one thing Islamists hate, it's the elders. They're organised, and they have the word. And the elders don't know about this 'Islamists' thing — it's all shit to them," he says. "So we can use them now, at this moment. But later on they'll have to step out, to let young politicians run the country." Were there no young candidates to vote for in the election, I ask? "We have younger ones, but they have no capabilities."
WE DRIVE INTO JADU, THE HILLTOP TOWN where Mazigh spent most of the war. Old adobe houses decorate the sun-bleached hillside, but the only people using them are the goat herders, who take shade beneath their walls while their animals graze. There is barely a soul on the streets: heat and the national holiday have driven most of Jadu's inhabitants indoors. But that's not the only reason it feels deserted. "Most of the people who were here during the revolution have moved back to Tripoli," says Mazigh. It's his first trip back to the mountains since he left for Tripoli last August, when Gaddafi was driven from the capital.
We pull up at an old mud house, and two men in a rust-ravaged sedan arrive to open it. Inside, the museum is designed like a traditional Amazigh house, with low cave-like doorways opening to rooms decorated sparsely with local artefacts and mannequins in quaint traditional dress from the farming and herding days of the pre-Islamic Amazigh. In photos glued onto cardboard are the veiled men of the Tuareg, an Amazigh tribe that's been getting headlines for its bloody takeover of neighbouring northern Mali.
Libyans who identify as Amazigh today make up only around five per cent of the population, though Mazigh insists that most Libyans have merely forgotten their Amazigh roots. He has several times pointed out that he is "not an Arab", though after centuries of Arab-Amazigh interbreeding that distinction is derived more from force of will and culture than of blood. On the day-to-day level, is there really anything that makes the Amazigh so different from the Arabs?
"It's all about the language," Mazigh says, insisting that only those who can speak Tamazight can call themselves 'pure Amazigh'. In 'pure' towns like Jadu and Zuwara, "our Arabic is very bad," laughs Mazigh.
We go behind the museum to see the synagogue, a former place of worship for the once-numerous community of Libyan Jews, and then we give up on Jadu. "Sleepy Libyans," giggles Mazigh as we drive through its vacant streets towards the gravel plains that lead to Yifren, Mazigh's home town, an hour's drive away.
"It's a big mess here," says Mazigh, as we again ascend back into the mountains. "There are three villages near Zintan [a small city in the Nafusa Mountains known for its ferocious militia] that are completely empty," he says, referring to villages that sided with Gaddafi. "They can't come back — they know what will happen to them."
Mazigh is taking me to meet some "true Amazigh militants", who are just about to launch a new radio station. Said Henshir, an audio engineer with the station, shows us in to a sophisticated new studio, festooned with Amazigh and Libyan flags. For a station in the middle of nowhere, they're impressively resourced: 20 journalists have been trained to report from all over Libya in Arabic, Tamazight, English, and soon, French.
"Here is a real Amazigh militant!" exclaims Mazigh as a young, skinny guy walks into the room. Azru Magoura, 17, presents the station's morning program and, together with Henshir, he recently made the first ever film scripted in Tamazight.
"Tamazight was the original language here in North Africa," says Henshir. "But when the Arabs came, they tried to take our language. Now we're fighting to get it back."
"From beginning to end, Libya is Amazigh," adds Magoura.
Jess Hill/The Global Mail
Apart from the language, I ask, what's so different about the Amazigh? "All we share with the Arabs is religion," says Henshir. "Look at us — the skin, everything is totally different." The Amazigh are traditionally light-skinned, but interbreeding across North Africa, makes it hard to distinguish between the two groups. Henshir suggests another distinction. "We have no problem with other religions — Christians, Jews," he says. "But the Arabic-speaking Muslims — they only accept themselves."
Magoura says that while Gaddafi may be gone, the struggle is not over — not by a long shot. "Pure Arabs don't believe in the Amazigh," he says. He says the next big fight is to get the Amazigh and the Tamazigh language recognised in the constitution. And it won't end there. "We will struggle until we become elders," he says, and the determination in his young, chiseled features seems to say that only a fool would disbelieve him.
UNDER GADDAFI, EMBATTLED AMAZIGH COMMUNITIES fought to keep their language alive, even as those who dared to speak it outside their homes were punished. The job of teaching it to the children fell to the mothers, the traditional keepers of the language and its oral traditions.
This may sound romantic, but for Amazigh women, the reality is morbid. Marrying an Arab Libyan man is strictly forbidden, and women who pursue a relationship outside the community can be punished or disowned. It's rare to see a woman in public, and certainly not one out on her own: men keep a close watch over their female relatives, and permit them very little independence.
Though Mazigh counts himself as a secular liberal, he seems to have no issue with these limitations on the love lives of Amazigh women. "If they marry outside, the culture goes with them," he shrugs, suggesting there's little alternative. Amazigh men, on the other hand, do not face the same restrictions, because they are not responsible for passing on the culture. How do Amazigh women feel about this, I ask? Mazigh pauses. "That's a good question. You should ask one." We go to the home of one Amazigh woman, a member of a local women's association, but after a discussion at the gate with her husband, we're sent away. No explanation is given.
Mazigh is no misogynist — far from it. On the back pages of his newspaper are advertisements for women's associations, including one of Libya's most progressive groups, The Voice of Libyan Women. But when we talk about the status of women in these communities, it's like there's no alternative available to the status quo.
For months I've been fascinated by the renaissance of the Amazigh culture. As the world's languages die out at record speed, it's heartening to see one get pulled back from the brink. But it's impossible to ignore the heavy price modern Amazigh women — some of whom would no doubt like to marry outside their community — have to pay to preserve it. In isolated areas, when the conditions are right, it's relatively easy for tribal cultures to maintain their purity. But in areas that are merely two hours' drive from the nation's capital, this isolation has to be enforced. And when a culture is forced into a mode of resistance over several decades, as the Amazigh have been, this tendency towards isolation becomes even stronger, and deviation from the tribe is an even greater betrayal.
If the Amazigh are recognised in the new constitution, they will get the right to pass on their language outside of the family home. But will this cultural freedom translate into greater freedoms for Amazigh women? Like all groups defined by their resistance, the Amazigh are at a critical turning point. Can they truly move toward the free expression of their culture, or will they merely continue the legacy of their oppressor by oppressing their own?