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"We are not Arabs".

Nowadays, there can't be many Berbers (or Amazigh as they prefer to call themselves) left. Since before recorded time, the Amazigh have lived in North Africa. They are non-Arab people in a predominantly Arab region. They have mingled so much with the other ethnic groups of the region that there is likely only a tiny number of pure-blood Amazigh in existence. So, today, they are identified as a linguistic rather than as an ethnic group.

The Tamazight language is a branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family and has about 300 closely related local dialects. It is primarily a spoken language; its written form is little known and rarely used. And, like many minority languages around the world, the number of people who speak it is declining (see sidebar, page 10). There are estimated to be between 20 and 25 million Tama-zight speakers.

The number is going down because more and more Amazigh are adopting the language and culture of the Arab majority. Like the Arabs among whom they live, the Amazigh are Muslims. However, their expression of Islam is less orthodox and includes many elements that come from early pagan religions.

Most of the Amazigh live in rural areas and follow their traditional occupations of sheep and cattle raising. They were forced away from the coastal regions by Arabs who advanced westwards in the 7th century AD.

After the Arab conquest, there were almost continuous struggles for power in North Africa. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, France and Spain conquered Morocco and Algeria. After World War I (1914-1918), the Amazigh and Arab peoples of North Africa began to seek independence. It was a long and bloody struggle before France yielded Morocco, which became independent in 1956, and Algeria (1962).

Since then, the Amazigh have been trying to resist the swamping of their language and culture by the surrounding Arab majority. The World Amazigh Congress (WAC) claims to speak for all Amazigh people. It leans heavily on Articles 16 and 17 of the Pact for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. This United Nations agreement guarantees that the language and culture of all peoples be protected. The WAC charges that the government of Algeria has a deliberate policy of forcing its people to adopt the Arab culture and language. The WAC says, "In effect, the Algerian Constitution always imposes the Arabic language unilaterally on Amazighophones (berberophones), who demand recognition of their language, Tamazight (Berber), at a national and official level. On their end, the State is running a deliberate policy of forced 'arabization,' considered by the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of UNO (CERD), using its proper terms, as 'linguistic imperialism.'"

The Amazigh, who make up about one-third of Algeria's 30 million population, have a tradition of fierce independence from the central government. In addition to their complaints about cultural domination, the Amazigh suffer from chronic unemployment and overcrowded housing conditions.

The arabization process has led to violence. The worst example occurred in the Kabylia region, where the Amazigh form a majority, in April 2001. The problems started when a teenager in police custody was shot to death. Anti-government riots followed. Security forces fired into crowds, and at least 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded in two weeks of violence.

Commentators denounced the heavy-handed response to what had at first been peaceful demonstrations by young people expressing deep frustration with police brutality.

Ever since, Kabylia has remained very tense. According to one French analysis, "Kabylia is sinking in economic paralysis. The main roads are frequently blocked by demonstrators. While the gendarmes (police) are confined to barracks, the area is taken over by banditry and racketeering."

However, in March 2002, Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika made a surprise announcement. He has agreed to accept the Tamazight language as one of Algeria's official tongues. The initial reaction of the Amazigh was "Too little, too late." They seem intent on gaining greater independence from the central government for their region.

To the south, in Mali and Niger, the Amazigh language is considered a national language. However, the people who speak it, the Tuareg, are subjected to poor living conditions. That's because they have no control of the fabulous mining resources beneath their land. They demanded a share of the mineral wealth, but got repression instead. This has produced thousands of victims since the beginning of the 1990's.

The Tunisian and Libyan governments forbid any form of expression of the Amazigh identity. The Tamazight language is restricted to the domestic circle and no public use of this language is tolerated. Amazigh activists, artists, or poets have the choice of silence, police harassment, prison, exile, or death.

Fortunately, there is one place where the lot of the Amazigh is improving. In Morocco, a royal decree ordered the setting up of state schools to teach the Tamazight language. And, a Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture was created in October 2001. The protection of Amazigh culture is being presented as a responsibility for all Moroccan citizens.

DYING LANGUAGES

Linguists estimate that there are 6,809 "living" languages in the world today, but 90 percent of them are spoken by fewer than 100,000 people. This puts them on the danger list for survival. Professor Bill Sutherland, is a population biologist at the University of East Anglia in England. He says that, "There are 357 languages with under 50 speakers." Some languages are even rarer; in 2003, 46 languages were known to have just a single living speaker left.

The Tamazight language is not in immediate danger of disappearing. According to official statistics compiled in 1994, Morocco has 28 million inhabitants, of which 30 percent speak Tamazight. However, 90 percent of Moroccans speak Arabic, so that language Is overwhelmingly predominant in day-to-day use.

FACT FILE

During the past 500 years, about 4.5 percent of the total number of described languages have disappeared, compared with 1.3 percent of birds, and 1.9 percent of mammals.

FACT FILE

The Mediterranean Coast of North Africa is known as the Barbary Coast; the name comes from the word Berber and became famous as the base of Arab and Berber pirates who preyed on Mediterranean shipping.

FACT FILE

Probably, the most famous person of Amazigh descent is the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane.

Website

Amazigh Links--http://www.tazzla.org/ links.html

World Amazigh Congress (in French)--http://www.congresmondial-amazigh.org/
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Title Annotation:Stateless Peoples--Amazigh (Berbers)
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:60NOR
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:1061
Previous Article:Unpopular outsiders.
Next Article:A troublesome island.
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