Amazigh languish in underserved pockets of southeast Tunisia

Post-revolutionary Tunisia has been friendlier to its indigenous Amazigh, but the concentration of wealth and power in the north continues to marginalize the remote communities.

al-monitor An abandoned Berber village sits in dunes in the vicinity of Zaafarane, near the southern Tunisian town of Douz, Dec. 24, 2006. Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images.

Jul 8, 2020

Near the village of Taoujout, a road of packed dirt leads up a steep hill toward the settlement of stone houses perched at its top. In the low spots below the road, palms sprout among green gardens. While only six miles from the regional administration center and tourist sights, Taoujout appears totally disconnected from the outside world.

Beside the road, a small outbuilding decorated with traditional ornamentation serves as the cultural center and language school for the Amazigh, the name North Africa’s indigenous pre-Arab inhabitants use to refer to themselves. At a desk in the building, Ahmed Gwirah, president of the Taoujout Association for the Preservation of the Amazigh Villages, discussed the history of the Amazigh community’s marginalization and underdevelopment with Al-Monitor.

“The situation for us in Taoujout was better under the French. They built a lot for us, including two wells. They also built the roads connecting us [to the outside]. That’s development.”

Gwirah said that after Tunisia’s independence, the mountain villages like his — many of them Amazigh-speaking — were seen as supporters of Salah Ben Yousef, former President Habib Bouguiba’s arch political rival who was assassinated. They were also home to the Fellagha, pro-independence fighters who attacked outposts of the French colonizers, with whom Bourguiba had a warm relationship even after independence.

“The real marginalization started after independence,” said Gwirah, pointing out that the government built new settlements in the lowlands for each of the handful of remaining Amazigh-speaking villages. He noted the case of Zraoua, a small stone village on another hilltop nearby.

“Old Zraoua is now empty of inhabitants. Amazigh buildings and architecture with no one living there. The authorities interfered with them after independence. They cut off their water, their electricity and forced them to move down to New Zraoua in the plains below.”

Gwirah said moving the rebellious Amazigh down to the newly created villages and taking their arms was a way of keeping an eye on them, integrating them into the Arabic-speaking majority and consolidating the power of the post-independence state — as well as Bourguiba’s rule.

He noted that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution in 2014 waved in legislation to distribute power to municipalities from a highly centralized state. He expressed doubt about the laws' ability to bring real positive change to the southeast of Tunisia, where the last Amazigh communities live, because of the concentration of wealth and power in the north.

“The north and coast areas are nothing like here in the south. The administration, the money and development are all in Tunis.”

In New Zraoua, Ali Zieda, one of the founders of the Azro Association for Amazigh Culture, sat at a closed shopfront on the main street. The village looked abandoned, almost all residents hiding in their houses from the midday sun. He said the villagers had been protesting and getting some attention from the state: “After the revolution we began to take action. We formed this association, which would have been illegal before. In the village we had no high school. All the children had to study in other towns. So we held a big sit-in in Matmata, and finally the government built us a high school.”

Protests have brought other modest improvements to the village. Doctors who used to come work at the local clinic once a week now come three times as often. New Zraoua once had no streetlights, but now the state has installed some.

Ali believes the most progress, however, has been made in cultural preservation. He said his villagers were the first to produce Amazigh rap music. His association Azro introduced the use of the Tifinagh, the once-banned Amazigh alphabet, teaching children to read and write in it. Even Zieda’s small smartphone keyboard is Tifinagh lettering — a recent and rare innovation. 

Further, he noted that since villagers moved into New Zraoua decades ago, Arabic-speaking families from the surrounding plains moved in, raising their children among the Amazigh speakers. The Amazigh villagers, though, maintained their identity strongly.

“Now even the Arab children speak Amazigh,” Zieda said.

Only a few miles away, in Matmata, the municipal center of the Amazigh villages, the infrastructure is in better condition, boasting a health center, paved roads and well-built schools. Yet the town’s district has the lowest development indicators of all of southeastern Tunisia.

Matmata is pocked by carved pits in the desert that served as homes to the Amazigh's ancestors and as the backdrop for the planet Tatooine in "Star Wars." However, no Amazigh speakers remain. Matmata, an Arabic tribal name, used to be called Āthweb — “Good earth” — by locals.

Rebab Benkraiem, head of the Matmata Municipality, says that despite the newfound freedoms of expression after Tunisia’s revolution, there’s still a sense of cultural marginalization for some Amazigh after decades of oppression. Writing or speaking their language in public invited arrest or even physical violence.

“Even students who come from the Amazigh villages to school in Matmata — you can sense they feel less than others. They stick with each other, and when they’re speaking with each other in the Amazigh language and you ask them what they’re speaking, they say, ‘It’s nothing,’” she said.

Sitting beside her, Ghaki Jalul, vice president of the Amazigh World Congress, said, “They’re being careful with those that don’t speak their language. If it’s a fear that they’ve inherited over 100 years, it won’t be easy to get rid of it."

They said that since the outbreak of the revolution nearly 10 years ago, when various marginalized groups demanded employment and development, there’s been little change. Benkraiem said, “It’s true — after the revolution, citizens can express themselves. They can make demands of the government. They can protest. But in development, there’s nothing new. No new jobs for us.”

Jalul noted that the region’s marginalization by Tunisia’s rulers goes much farther back than Bourguiba.

“Since the time of the [local Ottoman rulers called] beys, Matmata was marginalized. The state only sent tax collectors to Matmata in order to collect taxes from the surrounding tribes, and left once they had collected.”

Riadh Bechir is the president of the Development and Strategic Studies Association of Medenine, a city in southeast Tunisia. He explained the failures of the state that left the country’s south impoverished and underdeveloped, saying, “In the 1970s, the state built factories in Gafsa and Gabès [a city near Matmata], but they didn’t succeed in bringing enough employment” for the regions to prosper.

Neglect has left the Amazigh villages doubly marginalized, causing emigration from their ancestral towns and villages in search of employment, Bechir said, referring to the now-empty Amazigh villages of Chenini and Douiret and those near Tataouine. “Most have fled to Tunis for work. Most of the newspaper sellers in the capital are Amazigh from there.”

He said that since the 2011 revolution, the situation in the south has not improved, largely because a lack of competent governance, political conflict that impedes implementation of reforms and international loans the government has taken to pay salaries instead of using the resources to develop the south.

Soubeika Bahri, a Tunisian professor of linguistics at the University of Coloroado, Denver, specializes in Tunisian Amazigh. She said that while acceptance of and even interest in Amazigh culture among ordinary Tunisians have improved greatly, geography keeps them in a precarious position.

“The Amazigh are the most vulnerable community affected by the geographic divide in the Tunisian economy and the distribution of wealth,” she said.

And though Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali are gone, said Soubeika, their Arab nationalist ideology that sidelined cultural pluralism has remained central to national politics.

“Among politicians, even those deemed progressive, there’s a tendency to folklorize the Amazigh instead of acknowledging and teaching their language and culture, lest they be deemed separatists,” she said. “But the Islamists have been the biggest change. They deny ethnic pluralism. Their concept of the Muslim nation has played a crucial role in suppressing Amazigh identity.”

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