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You are here: Home » Culture » Tunisian Amazigh and the Fight for Recognition
Tunisian Amazigh and the Fight for Recognition
Myriam Ben Ghazi | 13 October 2011 | 1 Comment
Located in southern Tunisia, the village of Chenini has a majority Amazigh population
The Amazigh (Berber) community in Tunisia is a minority that has been never recognized either by the government or by a majority of the people. Although Tunisian history is actually based on the Amazigh presence in the country, this minority that comprises nearly 1000 persons from all over the Tunisian south was never given the chance to distinguish their identity or to mark their presence.
In a village called Chenini, not far from the city of Tataouine, nearly 200 families of Imazighen (plural of Amazigh) are living a very humble traditional life. The word Amazigh might seem strange in a country known for its Arab-Islamic background like Tunisia but in fact, it is not. Tunisia was first inhabited by Imazighen, a very unique race.
Although past authorities and conquerors devoted no efforts to preserving this distinct culture, Imazighen culture remained present in the southern regions of Tunisia and in many neighboring countries. The Amazigh people are actually working on preserving the traditional aspects of their life. They speak Tamazight (their own language, with their own alphabet) and they pass to their children the same old houses that they inherited from previous generations. Women are dressed in the traditional “Taref” (a colorful body wrap equipped with various metal jewelry). It appears that this village, Chenini, has been kept away from civilization.
An Amazigh woman peeks out from her home in the mountains of Chenini as her dog looks on
“Tunisia is an Arabic, Islamic and Amazigh country,” according to Mohamed Nafee, the manager of the Kenza Restaurant and Hotel, and with whom we met during our visit to Chenini.  He also stated that this culture is severely threatened with vanishing; already some of the Imazighen families no longer speak the Tamazight language. “We need a better way to preserve this culture, and maybe if the government inserts a section on the Amazigh history in the school books we can guarantee the transmission of the culture to the next generations,” stated Mohamed.
This small community would like to be better represented in government, and perhaps to even acquire some seats in the Constituent Assembly. “If one of us can get into the Constituent Assembly, it will be easier for us to get heard,”  Mohamed said.
The Amazigh community started the fight to save their identity a long time ago, and they have been promoting their thoughts and demands through online activism and on social networks. Recently the Tunisian government recognized them and granted them the permission to start the Tunisian Amazigh Foundation.
Ines Fezzani
Ines Fezzani, an Amazigh activist and administrator for the “Reviving the Amazigh Identity” page on facebook,  refused to refer to the Amazigh community as “isolated” and said that reason behind this general impression is that Tunisian society “misunderstands” them. “We are misunderstood. The majority of Tunisians are barely even aware there is an Amazigh community in Tunisia,” said Ines

Tunisians’ awareness of the diversity of their country is quite mixed up. The majority of the Tunisians believe that they are the descendants of a single Arabic race. According to Ines, this lack of awareness is due to “a massive cultural suppression.” “It is the result of a policy not only located in the post-colonial era, but also in the colonial era, itself,” she added.
Ines also explained to us how difficult it is to be different and to admit your difference publicly: “As individuals, as long as we don’t say we are Amazigh — there is no difference between us and any other person, but when we say it, generally people are surprised and sometimes hostile.”   According to Fezzani, people keep accusing anyone who admits to being of Amazigh origins of spreading division among Tunisians: “For example, the Tunisian TV presenter Rim Saaidi received death threats just for saying on TV during a debate that she was proud to be Amazigh.”
As for the involvement in the political scene Ines said, “The main political parties of the countries don’t even mention the Amazigh community.”
The Amazigh Flag
Ines believes that political parties show no interest in the inland regions where the Amazigh exist. She added, “The parties are not interested in rural areas,” echoing a common concern of all Tunisians within interior regions.

According to Ines, “The current Constitution states that Tunisia is  ‘Arab-Islamic.’  But she, as an Amazigh, believes that this description is incomplete.
It might be surprising to know that recent genetic surveys show that more than 90% of Tunisians are from Amazigh origins, and that more than 60% are descendants of Amazigh families that were still speaking Tamazight only a few generations ago. Therefore, for Ines, as well as the majority of the Amazigh community, Tunisia is an ‘Amazigh-Arab-Islamic’ country.
An inside view of an Amazigh woman's home in Chenini
“We think that if Amazigh is recognized as one essential part of Tunisia’s identity, we could implement the needed practical solutions: teaching in schools, opening of research departments in Tunisian Universities (linguistics, sociology, other humanities), organizing cultural events, cooperating with other North African countries’ cultural institutes. We believe that this would benefit the entire country, not only the Tamazight-speaking minority.”
A conflict seemingly exists on various pro-Amazigh facebook groups. Many critics of an Amazigh identity state that being Amazigh clashes with being Muslim. For Ines, and for many others like her, this conflict does not exist, as she feels comfortable being both Amazigh and Muslim.
The battle for Amazigh recognition requires many tools, and according to Ines the first steps are education and documentation.  Activist for the Amazigh cause are working hard via social media. On the international scale, the activists succeeded to hold the sixth edition of the Amazigh World Congress for the first time in Tunisia.
Mohamed Nafee, the manager of the Kenza Restaurant and Hotel has modeled his hotel in traditional Amazigh fashion
“We are very active in social media to raise awareness about the original North African culture. We also have to look actively to cooperate with Imazighen of other countries. We communicate a lot with Imazighen from Morocco, Algeria and Libya. We share our concerns and views,” commented Fezzani.

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Faouzi Mahbouli and his Continuing Fight Against Corruption in Tunisia and Abroad
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Tags: activism, Amazigh, Berber, Chenini, culture, featured, minority, tataouine
Category: Culture, Local
About the Author (Author Profile)
Myriam Ben Ghazi, Graduated in Business English from the Higher Institute for Applied Studies in Humanitarian Sciences, She joined TunisiaLive in Mid May
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