Late at night on January 26, politicians and onlookers celebrated the final passage of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution, proclaimed as a unifying, compromise charter for all Tunisians. One group of Tunisians, however, felt once again left out.
The absence of recognition of Amazigh identity and language in the constitution was heavily criticized by activists and civil society associations supporting the minority ethnic group. One day after the ratification of constitution, we protested in front of the National Constituent Assembly headquarters, but we were told that none of the members were ready to talk with us,said Slim Ben Elhaj Bader, a researcher for the Tunisian association of Amazigh culture, one of many associations established after the revolution to protect and revive Amazigh culture and language.
The Amazigh, commonly and pejoratively referred to as Berbers – a name given by Romans to North Africans west of the Nile River who did not speak Latin – are the indigenous inhabitants of the Maghrib. Tunisian Amazigh are mostly found in the country’s south. “The constitution is a stab in the back. A complete denial to the Tunisian identity,” Bader told Tunisia Live.
The Amazigh have their own language, predating the presence of Arabic in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. Over hundreds of years, much of the community has intermarried into the Arab population, but language, food, and cultural practices have kept them a distinct element within Tunisia. The majority of Tunisians, whether originally Amazigh or Arab, use the Tunisian Arabic dialect as their everyday language, but the Amazigh language, called Tamazight, is one aspect of Amazigh identity that is deeply embedded in Tunisian society.
According to researcher Jihed Mejrissi, hundreds of words commonly used in Tunisian dialect, such as farkes (to search), ghazar (to see), naggez (to jump), and zawweli (poor) are from the Amazigh language.
Mejrissi also writes that the manner in which Tunisians form sentences and pronounce Arabic words in their dialect has roots in Amazigh. In contrast to Arabic phonotactics [rules about what sounds can be combined] solely relying on a consonant-vowel-consonant system, Tunisian phonotactics allow for two consonants to be onset, particularly in the first syllable of a word, which cannot be found at all in Arabic, he writes. This feature is, however, found in Amazigh linguistic varieties.
Past Tunisia’s language, visible parts of the country’s culture has Amazigh roots. “The Amazigh identity is not confined to language, it is a whole civilization,” said Bader. The most famous Tunisian dish, kouskousi,(couscous) is an Amazigh meal. “Special traditional clothes for women like malya and for men like the barnous are Amazigh as well, even the tribal tattoo that we often see on the faces of old women with the letter on the chin, which is a sacred letter for Amazigh,” Bader added.
Social media has played a role in disseminating research about Amazigh language and identity. Websites and Facebook pages created after the 2011 revolution aim to educate Tunisians on their Amazigh cultural heritage, with references to historical figures like Dyhia, the seventh-century Amazigh queen who consolidated the Amazigh tribes to fight Arab expansionist forces.
“Before the revolution, cultural organizations that presented Amazigh causes, like the Douiret association in Djerba, were subjected to pressure from government.Some organizations were forced to change their internal regulations,” Bader said. “The former regimes wanted the Amazigh heritage to be used as a tool to attract tourists only.”
Although disappointed about the constitution, Amazigh activists are still hopeful about reconstructing the self-identity of Tunisian people by raising awareness through campaigns, festivals, and events. We are fighting for youth awakening, Bader said.
The association is working with UNESCO to build schools for teaching Tamazight in an effort to revive the language. Last month, the organization participated in a conference on the rights of indigenous peoples in North Africa organized by the African union and the World Amazigh Congress in Tunis.
“We know that consciousness starts with a shock, then awareness comes,” Bader said.
Safa Ben Said is a former content production manager at Tunisia Live newsroom. She has received her master's degree in English communication from the Higher Institute of Languages of Tunisia. Safa speaks Arabic, English, and French.