Walk in the streets of Tunis, in the streets of Monastir or Bizerte, and listen to the people: people talk in Arabic, mostly, some in French and if tourists are around, in German, Italian or English. And unlike in the streets of Algeria or Morocco, you will never hear anybody talking in Tamazight (berber language). You might then conclude that unlike Algeria or Morocco, Tunisia is a pure Arab country. You’d be wrong.
Now walk nearby the mountains (Sidi Abdel Rahman mount, for example), wander in the small villages hardly reached by the hectic life of cities, walk in the cities a bit far from the centralized power, in Gasserine, in Tataouine, walk and watch the elder ladies: some wear thistypical square-patterned cloths kept tied by silver ornamental pins (‘Kholla’), and have around their necks ‘Rihanna’ (long chain made of big round silver rings as links) with ‘Khomssa’ pendants (Hand of Fatima), some even have tribal facial tattoos, and all of them, when they talk, use words slightly different from those used in the big towns. They don’t say ‘Ana’ (I, me), they say ‘Yeney’, the ‘Q’ is pronounced ‘G’. It seems Arabic but at least 30-40% of the words are not Arabic. What are they? They are Amazigh.
Go to the weddings, you will see the ancestral Berber costumes, the Berber jewellery (such as the ‘Kholkhal’, massive anklets), the music played strangely seems the same as in Kabilya or Northern Atlas. Amazigh, again. And if you are not yet convinced look out for Tunisia’s History: from Hannibal to Ibn Khaldoun, from Carthago to Djerba, the Amazigh presence is everywhere.
Tunisia has a strong Amazigh heritage. Systematical genetical survey show that 98% of the Tunisian population is of Amazigh origin. Every part of the culture and traditions show that we are in an Amazigh country, at the only striking difference that here, almost nobody talks Tamazight: but then why did the language almost disappear while all the rest stayed quite unchanged?As if the Imazighen where everywhere in Tunisia, only that they are mute.
Like in Algeria, Morocco and Libya, Tamazight was the native language of this country that our ancestors where calling ‘Ifriqya‘ (does it remember you something? Yes, from that word comes ‘Africa’). Like in these other countries, Arabic arrived in Ifriqya together with Islam: but unlike people sometimes say, it was not a massive invasion of Arab populations. Arab population that settled in Tunisia were never more than 2-3%. Arabic and Islam integrated the culture of Tunisia and became part of every Tunisian’s life and identity (after all, Tunisia is an Arabic name, given by Arabs that, when they arrived in Ifriqya found its inhabitants so generous and with such a strong sense of hospitality that they called this land the land that ‘twannass‘, meaning the land where you feel like surrounded by your family/friends), but Tamazight and Amazigh culture stayed also a vital part of this identity, and would not disappear. So to say, Tunisians are Amazigh people, that throughout History constituted a mixed Amazigh-Arab-Islamic identity. Arab-Islamic culture is vital to understand Tunisian identity, but so is Amazigh culture. They are like two sides of the same coin. A peaceful Tunisian would be a person accepting the both sides if their culture and the impregnation of Islam on these both sides.
Amazigh language began to almost disappear from Tunis only in the two last centuries, when the French domination, like in other parts of North Africa, needed a way to constitute populations in nations and blocks rather than in tribes, because it was easier to handle: imposing an uniform identity and language was the easiest way to break regionalism and build nationalism. Amazigh was banned, and Arabic and French were imposed, nomad tribes were forced to settle. After independance, the dictatorial regimes, following the French example to impose its law over the countries, continued the same path and criminalized the use of Tamazight, while leading a huge ‘arabization’ campaign through schools, administration, etc. The unluck of Tunisia compared to Morocco, Algeria and Libya, is that in this small country without big geographical relief, where most of the population was already living in towns near the sea, and with much fewer nomads, the cultural genocide worked much better than in the neighbouring countries. Indeed, one can say that big part of the preservation of the Amazigh culture in Algeria, Morocco and Libya is due to the difficult access to the mountains of Kabilya, Atlas and Nefoussa. And the job began by the French was finished by Bourguiba, certainly the most ‘francophile’ of all Arab dictators, and consolided by Ben Ali brutal dictatorship. Bourguiba and Gaddafi could certainly be ‘awarded’ as the biggest mass eliminators of Amazigh culture; after all didn’t they try shortly in 1973-1974 to form a Tunisian-Libyan Union called ‘Arab Islamic Republic’ (ironic, isn’t it, to refer to Islam for a man like Bourguiba that was not even observing Ramadan and wanted to force Tunisians to follow his example?).
The denial of Amazigh identity of Tunisia policy is so harsh that there isn’t even official statistics of the remaining number of Tamazight speakers in Tunisia: we talk sometimes about less than 100’000 people, sometimes less than 10’000. But the worst part of it certainly arrived through schools: ideological versions of History tought to children make it possible that in an Amazigh country, if you ask to the definition of the word ‘Amazigh‘, many are unable to give it, and many hear that word for the first time. A real national drama, if you consider socio-linguistic studies that show that about 60% of the Tunisian population had within the four preceding generations Amazigh locutors in their family. If nothing is done now, Tamazight will simply disappear from Tunisia.
The New Tunisia, free from dictatorship is still looking for putting the right words on the aspirations of Tunisians: the new constitution has to be written. Preliminary drafts show that Tunisia is defined as a country of “Arab identity”. It would be a big mistake to not include the Amazigh Identity in the Constitution and not recognize Tamazight as an official language together with Arabic. Since the end of Ben Ali regime, we see a whole new activism in Tunisia of young Tunisian Amazigh, that want to follow the Moroccan example, where Tamazight entered in the constitution. Associations begin to form and to protest. Social networks are used as a platform to coordinate actions. Tunisia needs to revive its Amazigh culture. Tunisia needs to recognize what it is: a mixed Amazigh-Arab-Islamic identity.
European journalists think its an Arab Spring, but inside of it, there is a strong Amazigh flavour. After all, didn’t the Tunisian revolution start in Sidi Bouzid, a town named after a local saint, a purely Amazigh tradition?