Ups and Downs of an Endangered Alphabet

Tifinagh, the script of the Berber people
Just because I’m working with endangered alphabets doesn’t mean they are static relics, dry as desert sand. In fact, many are being tugged one way or the other every day: some are being studied by academics, some are the subject of efforts at revival, some are the targets of political repression. Some are all three at once.

Such is the case with Tifinagh, the remarkable script, possibly based on ancient Phoenician, that is used by some Berbers to write their language of Tamazight. The language and its name vary slightly all the way across North Africa, but the situation is generally similar everywhere: though they once were the principal nomadic nation of the desert wastes, they eventually found themselves stateless, and like many stateless people (the Hmong in Southeast Asia being another such example) wherever they went they found themselves marginalized, oppressed, even imprisoned or tortured.

The recent events in Libya have thrown this confusion into even greater upheaval, as the following article from the Times illustrates:


Amid a Berber Reawakening in Libya, Fears of Revenge

YAFRAN, Libya — In the evening, as the searing desert temperatures
subside, the residents who have returned to this rebel-held city near
the front lines appear on the streets. Some of them carry cans of
paint, and begin to decorate murals with the characters of an ancient
language that had been forbidden by the government of Col. Muammar

The language is Tamazight, the tongue of the Amazigh, or Berbers, who,
after decades of oppression in Libya are re-emerging as a political

As rebels have chased the Qaddafi military from much of the arid
highlands in Libya’s west this spring and summer, Yafran has become
the easternmost outpost of a cultural and linguistic reawakening that
has expanded across the map, and it is expected to expand more.

Overlooking the Libyan desert plain, the city shows signs of a nascent
sense of self-determination — a step, the Amazigh hope, toward full
national and regional recognition.

“Before we were in darkness — we were invisible,” said Osama Graber,
36, an Amazigh mechanical engineer who is now an opposition fighter.
“And now we can be seen, and are tasting freedom.”

No sooner had the Qaddafi forces pulled back from this city than its
residents began reasserting their standing, even as the Qaddafi
military lingered just beyond rocket range.

They followed a model seen in other traditionally Amazigh cities —
including Nalut and Jadu — that have already broken free of the
government’s grip. And they hope to build on gains realized by Amazigh
people elsewhere, including in Morocco, which gave official standing
to the language in June.

Classes in Tamazight are being held. An Amazigh security force has
been formed. A local weekly newspaper, called Tamusna, for “wisdom,”
has started to circulate in three languages — Tamazight, Arabic and

And Amazigh cultural and political leaders have framed a set of public
demands for a postconflict Libya. As part of their vision, Tamazight
will have an equal standing with Arabic, and Libya will become a
parliamentary democracy based on a constitution grounded in tolerance
and respect for human rights.

But with these high official aspirations, made possible by force, have
come whiffs of revenge, which raise questions about whether the swift
social reorganization gathering momentum in Libya risks fueling
tensions that could undercut stability in the years ahead, or even
lead to intractable internecine war.

After the Qaddafi military withdrew in early June, the houses in
Yafran of the Mashaashia, a tribe whose members supported the Qaddafi
government, were set upon and burned. Their occupants vanished from
these mountains, apparently having fled. Many Amazigh residents say
the Mashaashia are not welcome back.

The number of houses burned here is in dispute. Some say perhaps 15 or
20, others say more. The Mashaashia had a small presence in the city,
which had a full-time prewar population of about 25,000, and the
remaining residents say perhaps 150 of them were chased away.

The arson followed patterns seen in more densely populated Mashaashia
areas, including the towns of Awaniya and Qawalish. Many Yafran
residents say it was justified.

“These people, they were bad,” said a fighter, who gave only his first
name, Hatam. “When the Amazigh families moved away from the fighting,
they stayed and broke into homes, took things and killed our sheep.”

The Mashaashia households, other residents said, also provided sons
who fought in pro-Qaddafi forces or offered intelligence and
logistical support to government troops that besieged the mountains.

The attacks on the Mashaashia, however, seemed not to be directed only
against the homes of those known to have sons in the military. Among
the ruined houses were those once occupied by families whose
connections to the government would seem of little consequence,
including that of a widow and her children, who neighbors said were 13
and 16 years old.

Reprisals have been a source of embarrassment for the Transitional
National Council, the de facto rebel authority, which has relied on
Western support to survive. Officially, after prodding from Western
diplomats, rebel leaders said that they would investigate the crimes
and try to redress the grievances later.

“They are welcome back to their homes after the war, after we defeat
the Qaddafi forces,” Jalal el-Digheily, the new rebel defense
minister, said in an interview on Thursday.

But such declarations are not often echoed on the lands the Amazigh
consider theirs. Years of oppression and months of bloodshed have
hardened sentiments.

Even public officials are comfortable declaring that driving away
pro-Qaddafi tribes aligns with a popular mood. One prominent Amazigh
official, Gen. Ahmed Ismail el-Gul, who is Yafran’s police chief, was

“We don’t want them,” he said of the Mashaashia. “The government says
they can come back. But the people don’t want them.”

With their enemies now gone from the city, the Amazigh have been
slowly restoring life to Yafran. One resident, Yousef Grada, 35, has
been cleaning the city, block by block.

Mr. Grada ran a small shop before the war. During the two-month
guerrilla effort to chase the Qaddafi soldiers from the city, he was a
fighter. He first went to combat, he said, with a meat cleaver, but
eventually obtained a captured assault rifle.

Once the Qaddafi forces pulled back, he said, he set aside the blade
and the rifle and formed a volunteer cleaning crew. First, he carried
away the accumulated garbage and the city’s carpet of spent
machine-gun cartridges.

Lately, he has been painting the city’s walls, street by street, which
are then decorated with revolutionary and Amazigh murals. He said he
was waiting for the end of the war, and full legal recognition. “I am
expecting good things,” Mr. Grada said.

A few blocks away, at a former government building that has become a
revolutionary exhibit, the main artist, Abdul Ghassem, said the
Amazigh revival should not harm other Libyans or be seen as a yearning
for separatism.

“We are not looking for our own country,” he said. “We are all
Libyans. All we want is our rights.”

A doctor at the Yafran hospital said that kind of feeling has made the
Amazigh sense that the currents of war and history are now making
long-suppressed dreams feel possible. But his own fears — he declined
to give his name because, he said, he was worried for the safety of
relatives in Tripoli — underscored how treacherous life in Libya

He said he was concerned that tensions between tribes and ethnic
groups, long exploited by the Qaddafi government’s patronage system
and now one of the dividing lines in this war, could create cycles of
resentment and violence that could be hard to calm after an ouster of
the Qaddafi clan.

“Absolutely we are worried. People have to learn that getting our
rights does not mean threatening other people’s rights,” the doctor
said in an interview at the hospital, which is not far from some
charred remains of what, until June, had been Mashaashia homes.