Re-discovering the alphabet after the revolution

Today, a good number of Tunisian associations have begun to teach the Amazigh alphabet – Tifinagh – without fear of repercussion. From December 2012, the Association for Amazigh Culture (AZROU) based in Zrawa started offering free lessons to local youth who wanted to learn how to write Amazigh.

AZROUʹs president, Arafat Mahroug, says that the people of the region speak their language from infancy, before they learn Arabic at school. But no-one knew how to write it and that was, in his view, the natural outcome of the policies introduced by Bourguiba.

Mahroug says that his family used to live in the ʹmountainsʹ, but Bourguiba sought to "create new structures to encourage assimilation, with Tunisia the primary link between them." He adds that "the pretext was to improve services, such as electricity, water, street lighting, health and education, but the real aim was to strike at the ties of the clan, the tribe and the community, Arab or Amazigh".

In Mahrougʹs view, it was a policy that "shook you to the core", because "you were bound to forget your own language when all the services and education were in Arabic and when the people living around you were Arabic speakers who wouldnʹt understand you if you spoke Amazigh, thus forcing you to communicate with them in Arabic. In this way, Amazigh gradually disappeared, as it did in the village of Tamezret, where less than 20% still speak Amazigh".

Long decades notwithstanding, Mahroug asserts: "We stayed firm. We kept our identity despite everything and we have worked on our own development in the eight years since the revolution."

After Tunisians ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, campaigners (including from AZROU) established contact with activists in other countries in North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria and Libya, whom Mahroug contends were ahead in the field of Amazigh rights. They gained much from the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture in Morocco, which was established in 2002 with a view to preserving that culture. Among symbols recently displayed in the AZROU headquarters in southern Tunisia “which are found in traditional tapestry and in indigenous tattooing, we discovered they were in fact letters of the Amazigh alphabet!”

Amazigh not merely a ʹcurioʹ

One of AZROUʹs activists, Ali Azadeh, has taken upon himself the job of teaching Amazigh "to anyone who believes himself to be Amazigh", wherever he may be, as the opportunity is better today than for decades to be more than just a curio for the tourists.

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