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Who are Egypt’s Amazighs?

The marginalization of Egypt’s Amazighs throughout history may have come to their advantage, as the community has been able to preserve its traditions and unique identity.
A four wheel drive vehicle crosses the sand dunes in the late afternoon sun near the Egyptian western desert oasis of Siwa.  A four wheel drive vehicle crosses the sand dunes in the late afternoon sun near Egypt's western desert oasis of Siwa on February 3, 2002. HIGH RESOLUTION FILE BLIFE REUTERS/Aladin Abdel Naby REUTERS BOOKS ON THE ROAD BOOK - RTR13V9

CAIRO — Visitors to the Siwa Oasis quickly notice the good nature of the people who welcome them. With warm smiles, oasis residents are proud to show visitors their culture heritage and traditions.

Unlike in many other parts of Egypt, the Siwa Oasis, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of the Libyan border and 560 kilometers (348 miles) from Cairo, is practically free of attempts of theft, fraud and sexual, physical or verbal harassment. It seems that the geographical remoteness of the area and longstanding marginalization of its residents are the main reasons the oasis is a safe and pleasant area to live in and visit.

About 30,000 Amazighs (Berbers) live along the Egyptian-Libyan border in what is known as the Siwa Oasis, which is administratively affiliated with the Marsa Matrouh governorate. The Amazighs have been marginalized for decades and their isolation has prevented them from fully integrating with wider Egypt society. They have remained a “tribal” community that adheres to tribal customs and traditions, and they maintained a unique lifestyle and their own language that they speak in addition to Arabic, Egypt’s official language.

According to Tariq Jahlan, a historian and researcher in Amazigh genealogy, in Egypt there are about 12 million people with Amazigh origins, while “the Amazigh-language speakers do not number more than 30,000 — they live in the Siwa Oasis.”

Imran al-Siwi, a resident who owns a cafe in the Siwa Oasis, told Al-Monitor, “The people here live a simple and religious life. We love to help others because this is how we were brought up. We would like to see visitors joyful so that they will visit us again.”

He said, “The state neglects tourism in Siwa, so therefore we promote ourselves by being hospitable and nice to visitors, and trying to make them happy.”

Siwi said that given the fact that the Amazighs have been excommunicated for years, the people of the oasis have managed to preserve their own traditions and customs. “We preferred to preserve our culture, language, traditions and customs, as we feared that our heritage would vanish in the clamor of the big cities,” he said.

Since the emergence of Egyptian civilization, Egypt has been known for its cultural pluralism, which became more prominent when the country’s latest constitution was drafted in 2014. The constitution stressed the need to preserve this cultural diversity, with the slogan “A Constitution for all Egyptians,” as many minorities such as the Nubians, Bedouin and Amazighs contributed to it.

Article 50 of the constitution stipulates that “the state shall pay special attention to protecting components of cultural pluralism in Egypt.”

Amany al-Weshahy, the head of Egypt's Amazigh community and the consultant to the chair of the World Amazigh Congress, said in a press statement on May 16, 2014, that Article 50 “represents an indirect recognition of cultural pluralism.”

Egyptian minorities have been marginalized for many years. The Amazighs of the Siwa Oasis have also suffered from such marginalization, which affected their access to education, health care and food, and resulted in a lack of representation in state institutions.

The Amazigh community has been marginalized by the successive governments since the Kingdom of Egypt was established in 1922, and especially following the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, as they are considered an ethnic minority and live in a remote area far from the Egyptian capital.

However, some see a silver lining in this marginalization. The tribal community of the Siwa Oasis has managed to preserve the Amazigh identity.

Fathi al-Kilani, the sheikh of the Zayanes tribe, one of the biggest tribes in the Siwa Oasis, said in a press statement on Nov. 27, 2013, “The oasis contains 11 tribes of Amazigh origin, who speak the Amazigh language, which they learn before Arabic. Arabic is taught to children so they can read the Quran and is then taught at various educational levels.”

The Amazighs live off agriculture. The oasis contains nearly 300,000 date palms, whose fruits are collected and sold or manufactured into sweets, 70,000 olive trees and other crops of fruits and vegetables.

In addition, the Siwa Oasis is home to “white gold,” or salt, which is produced by salt pans and lakes in the oasis. About 60 million tons of salt is present in the oasis.

In a statement on Nov. 3, 2013, Kilani said that the people in the oasis are eagerly awaiting the resumption of the sale of salt, which has been disrupted by the state as a result of bureaucratic measures. The oasis salt is characterized by the highest concentration in the world, which makes it much coveted around the world.

The residents of the Siwa Oasis are also known for handicrafts such as jewelry, embroidered clothing and pottery, with simple and colorful designs that reflect the cultural heritage of the Amazigh community. They also manufacture embroidered carpets, decorative plates, traditional Berber wedding gowns and musical instruments. They now not only produce these items for their own use, but they also earn a living from selling them.

Some of the oasis residents work in tourism or related activities; they work in tourist cafes near the lakes or in stores that sell handmade products in Siwa, or they treat visitors with physical illnesses with sand-burying therapy. Many of them work in the transportation sector, facilitating the movement between the landmarks in the oasis or its suburbs or organizing daytrips to remote areas.

Abu Bakr Abu Abdallah, a taxi driver from the Siwa Oasis, told Al-Monitor that he owns a motorcycle-powered rickshaw to drive visitors around the oasis to faraway landmarks. He also makes a living from taking visitors in his Land Rover on safari trips.

For his part, Ali Abdul Rahman, who owns a cafe near the Cleopatra pool, told Al-Monitor, “The oasis is simple and beautiful. It always attracts visitors, but lately the number of tourists has dwindled,” as tourism has been affected by the security situation in the country over the past few years.

He said, “We need the state to pay more attention to our oasis and to promote it to attract larger numbers of tourists. The oasis is to have a former place on Egypt’s tourism map."

The people of the oasis are keen to teach their children the Amazigh language and to respect and preserve nature, while adhering to customs and traditions that are then passed on to the next generation, as it is this cultural heritage that distinguishes the Amazighs from the rest of the population.

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