As far back as I can remember, I have always felt attracted by the art, language, beauty and delicacy of the products on which the Tunisian daily life is based, to which the Arabic word berber has been stuck but which is called Amazigh, ⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖ.

My father always told me about the origins of Tunisians, I always listened and understood through the years why he was telling me all that. In fact, our family originated from the Zenetes tribe of Tlemcen who had taken refuge in the Benou Salama fort to escape persecution, and had taken the name Ben Slama. However my information stops there. This is why I am more and more curious as I get older about my origins.

Until I get there, I will first talk about the origins of the Tunisian people, the Amazigh indigenous identity, and the struggle to be recognised. In a second part, next month, Amazigh women and their place in Amazigh society, and in the third part, Amazigh symbols and their meaning, and the revival of the tattoo, which is still considered blasphemous by conservatives, but attracting more and more young and old people.

A little look back to understand where these free people came from

The Amazigh diaspora is made up of about 38 million people in 15 countries, especially in North Africa. Even if their origins remain unknown and uncertain, the Amazigh people combine Mediterranean, African, European and even Oriental influences and are distinguished, whatever the country in which they live, by their unbreakable link to the land, their sense of conviviality and hospitality, attachmentment to the community and their relationship to the sacred.

Some historians claim that they come from east of Egypt, referring to any foreigner who does not speak Greek and Latin as a Berber, while others claim that they are heterogeneous ethnic groups united by similar practices in their daily lives and in the management of the community. Many ancient Greek, Phoenician and Roman texts attest to the existence of the Berber people as the first occupants of North Africa. Amazigh means ‘noble and free man’. It is the natives who gave themselves this endonym, which we found from antiquity with Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century BC, when he evokes the Mazices. Ibn Khaldoun considered them as descendants of Mazigh, son of Canaan, son of Cham, son of Noah. Even the aristocrats among the Tuareg, a highly structured society, call themselves "Amajegh".

With the arrival of the Phoenicians at the site of Carthage, passing through the kingdom of Numidia which later became a province of Rome, the Berber people are described, much later, by the Arabs, as a very proud people who resisted the various Roman and Arab powers for a very long time.

Even if the Amazigh language and culture are common to all the Maghreb countries, the mobilisations and demands linked to them have long been able to openly flourish only in Morocco and Algeria.

In Tunisia and Libya, even though Amazigh civil society militancy challenged the authoritarian regimes, any social or political demands were stifled by the powers in place. In these two countries, it was not until the revolutionary breakthrough of 2011 that the path towards political plurality was opened up and Amazigh activism acquired a certain political visibility in the Maghreb, particularly in Tunisia. After the revolution, many citizens became involved in associations to work on safeguarding this disappearing heritage, the enhancement of traditions and the recognition of their linguistic and cultural specificity.

This mobilization is part of the long struggle of Amazighs in North Africa

In Tunisia, the Amazigh cultural dimension are very weak compared to neighbouring countries, as it may seem secondary and doomed to failure: the Amazigh-speaking regions are very small (essentially Djerba, Matmata and Tataouine), the number of people speaking Chelah is decreasing (estimated at 1% of the population), the current challenges of building democracy (terrorism, economy, etc.) make any other cause, even a noble one, impossible. Finally, the national history of cultural diversity makes the Amazigh cause difficult to politicize. The Amazigh question thus seems to be thwarted from the outset by the linguistic, historical and political context; nevertheless, it has the virtue of offering another viewpoint for understanding post-2011 Tunisia.

However, long before 2011, the struggle of Tunisian Amazighs to be recognised by the Tunisian state had led the committee of the Elimination of All Forms of Racism and Racial Discrimination to note in its conclusions in 2003 that 'the state party has not provided information on the Berber (or Amazigh) population or on the measures taken for the protection and promotion of the Berber culture and language. Given the absence of any mention of this group in the report, the committee wishes to receive concrete information on this subject and recommends that more information be provided on the situation of the Berber population as a specific component of the Tunisian population (CERD/C/62/CO/10, du 2/06/2003)

After the fall of the Ben Ali regime, the first Tunisian association for Amazigh culture (ATCA) took shape in the wings of a preparatory meeting for the Amazigh World Congress held symbolically in Tataouine (south-east Tunisia) in April 2011.

In three years, several associations were created in the Amazigh-speaking regions. At the beginning of 2015, there were nearly ten Amazigh associations throughout Tunisia, spread between Tunis, Djerba, Douiret, Chnini, Tamerzet, Taoujout and Zraoua.

Thus, long marginalised and ignored by the Tunisian government, which is committed to Arab-Muslim ideology, the Amazighs of Tunisia, who represent only 1% of the population, are now trying to give substance to their history and identity within Tunisian society, to take back their place and their name since they are already an integral part of the national character, unfortunately assimilated to the Arab identity, which is however foreign to them. The only place of choice where the authentic Amazigh reference has been able to assert itself and endure is tourism. The elements labeled Amazigh are like bait for western tourists looking for exoticism: Matmata and its troglodyte houses, the Berber carpet, Berber couscous, the Berber tent, all items used to enhance the southern regions (Tozeur, Douz) where, paradoxically, there are no Amazigh speakers.

Despite the 1% declared by the state and associations, from a strictly historical and scientific point of view, the non-Arabicity of Tunisians is well established. Genetic studies conducted by National Geographic in Tunisia have shown quite clearly that the population is 88% Amazigh (Berber), 5% European, 4% Arab and 2% Subsharian.

In post-revolution Tunisia, the state cannot consider this issue without re inserting it in the context of democratization

No public policy has been aimed directly at Amazigh culture, and no constitutional or symbolic recognition has been offered to it. But locally, under the banner of the depoliticised terms 'heritage' or 'festival', the message is clear: the state considers diversity, whatever its origin, as an aspect of the enrichment of national culture. Some municipalities have been developing initiatives such as the ‘Festival of Mountain Villages’ since 2012 (by decision of the Minister of Culture) in the Zraoua region. Since 2014, the state has developed an ‘Intangible Heritage’ project that includes Amazigh heritage. The municipality of Gabes has been collaborating with the Tamezret cultural days since before the revolution. These local cultural initiatives offer, for example, financial support and also try to dialogue with Amazigh activists on the ground. The Amazigh dimension is thus diluted in the category of ‘cultural diversity’ recognised and supported by the state as a factor in the development of national culture.

The Amazigh identity in Tunisia: denied, obscured and rejected

It is in this very particular Tunisian framework of depoliticisation of cultural diversity that Tunisian Amazigh activism was structured, starting from the Maghreb context of the Amazigh struggle.

Tunisia is a country of contradictions. Although the Amazigh question in Tunisia may seem weak in relation to the challenges the country has faced since the popular uprising, it is nonetheless indicative of the current stakes. It was one of the places where the political struggle against the Islamist majority government formed in the wake of the revolution was expressed. For this, the defence of minorities and belonging to a Mediterranean area supported an anti-Islamist project.

Supposedly representing the regions of the South, resistant to dictatorships and with a predominantly Islamist tradition, the Amazigh cause considers the Tunisian nation in all its diversity, and not of imported Arab-Islamic culture. The ‘globalising’ trend failed to achieve constitutional recognition of the Amazigh language but reiterates its commitment to the transnational Amazigh identity; for their part, local associations continue their negotiations and cooperation with the municipalities for the organisation of cultural events that enhance one of the aspects of ‘Tunisian heritage'.

But the claims are deeper, legitimate and achievable if political will would join in. Reiterated and relaunched during the World Social Forum of 2013 and that of 2015 in Tunisia, among the demands of the Amazighs of Tunisia, I would highlight the most important:

  • Restore the legitimate place of Amazigh identity (history, language and culture) and introduce it in the fields of education, research and public media

  • Legally protect the Amazigh component (history, language and culture) of the country by means of appropriate legislation, language and culture of this country

The struggle of the Amazighs of Tunisia for the recognition and protection of the enriching diversity of their culture will continue. Free people, the struggle continues. People without memory are a people without a future.