Tunisia’s Amazigh Seek to Preserve Unique Identity

A traditional Amazigh residence in the mountainous Jebel Dahar region, (date of photo unknown). Photo Credit: The Tunisian Federation for Authentic Tourism - Dahar Destination

For those visiting Tunisia, the influence of Amazigh traditions on the culture may not be immediately apparent. But the signs are everywhere. From food, to clothing, to architecture, to rituals, many of the things that seem uniquely Tunisian today have roots in ancient Amazigh cultural practices.

While some elements of Amazigh culture and identity permeate modern Tunisian society seamlessly and almost invisibly, Tunisia’s southern regions near the beginning of the Sahara are home to Amazigh communities that are distinct in identity. Yet the residents of Chénini, an Amazigh hilltop village located in the southernmost province of Tataouine, are worried they are losing some of this distinctiveness, saying they have watched their culture and identity fade away over the years.

“Our children have become less protective of our Amazigh food and cultural heritage since the spread of mixed marriages,” Lotfi al-Missaoui, a Chénini resident, told Meshkal.

Al-Missaoui and other resident say they’ve seen dwindling numbers among Tunisia’s Amazigh community while their ancestors’ and parents’ habits and traditions abandoned by newer generations.

“Until the 1980s, extramarital marriages were taboo in Amazigh communities. But as more of them left for the towns and emigrated to the capital and other cities, mixed marriages became more common. Some Amazigh still oppose marrying someone outside of the community,” al-Missaoui explained. “They argue that [mixed marriage] would inevitably be followed by the loss of culture and language as the newcomers would have no familiarity with Amazigh history and traditions.”

Yet the village of Chénini itself has withstood the encroachment of time, retaining unique features that appear just as they might have appeared centuries ago. Some of the structures in Chénini are said to date back to around the 12th century C.E.

Photo of an ancient mosque in Chénini. Photo by Belgacem al-Guemri, republished by Meshkal with his permission.

Reaching the village is not easy, even with a guide like Raouf Talbi, who runs a guest house in the neighboring Douirat region. The mountainous paths are rugged, with many steep and dangerous curves. A half-hour hike, that begins from the foot of the hill and wraps around it as it ascends, opens onto a sort of vast village courtyard surrounded by houses built into the hillside.

Talbi, my guide, said that some Amazigh families prevent their daughters from marrying Arab men as a way to preserve their language, unique traditions, and culture, as well as keeping them unknown to outsiders. Part of this is also an effort to ensure that strangers don’t learn their language. Some Amazigh even consider an Amazigh woman marrying a “tabit”—a stranger—a crime against their language.

Several Chénini residents, who say they speak Arabic with “strangers,” said they are preserving the language of their ancestors. Children are taught the Amazigh language, which is called “Chelha”, before Arabic. Residents say they mostly speak Chelha among themselves.

Tunisians in southern regions speaking Arabic often use a “G” sound for the letter “Qaf,” in contrast to Tunisians in northern regions who pronounce the “Qaf” with a “Q” sound. However, apart from this difference, the local Arabic dialect spoken in Chénini sounded surprisingly close to northern dialects to this journalist.

Tattoos, rains, and a goddess

Amazigh peoples are generally considered to have developed the particular style of tattooing that is common to North Africa. Tattoos were one of the distinguishing characteristics of Amazigh women in earlier times signifying puberty and womanhood.

Mohamed, a local who works as a tour guide, explained that the tattoos inscribed on Amazigh women’s faces, hands, and legs represent a ritual linked to the cultural and value system of the community. According to Mohamed, they are one important manifestation of a world of symbols, signs, and laws meant to tie an individual’s belonging to an identity rooted in history. On a spiritual level, the tattoos are also meant to ward off evil spirits and the evil eye and bring good luck, he says. The tattoos also signify that a woman has matured and is ready for marriage, as a woman who has suffered the pain of the tattoo needles is ready to bear the burdens of marriage. In recent times, however, many Amazigh women bear these traditional tattoos have tried to remove them, especially on those on their faces. They consider it as a mark of divergence from religious obligations, as some believe that Islam prohibits tattoos.

Talbi told us that according to Amazigh tradition, tattoos “through their very precise placement [on the body] and their manipulation of symbols, remove evil spirits and neutralize black magic, and keep poverty and misery away.”

“Each symbol carries a [specific] connotation or purpose,” Talbi told Meshkal.

Amazigh inscriptions one the side of a hilltop fort in the mountainous Jebel Dahar region (date of photo unknown). Photo Credit: The Tunisian Federation for Authentic Tourism – Dahar Destination

Fathi Ben Maamar, a cultural anthropologist specializing in Amazigh issues, explained to Meshkal other aspects of Amazigh traditions, such as rituals meant to call for rain, known in many regions as “Ommek Tanbou”—which also refers to a wooden doll shaped from a cross made of sticks that is used in the ritual. Children decorate the doll with pieces of cloth and run around the village singing for rain.

Another Amazigh ritual is a marriage one where the bride’s traditional dress is encrusted with Amazigh jewelry and during the ceremony she alternates between covering and hiding her face with her hands. In this way, she mimics representations of the goddess «Tanit», goddess of fertility and breastfeeding worshiped by the Amazigh in the past. The ritual signifies that the bride will be physically able to breastfeed.

State neglect

Although ethnic, linguistic and identity differences are mixed and fluid, according to unofficial statistics the Amazigh population of Tunisia is around 500,000, or five percent of the total population. But on the political scene, Amazigh are almost non-existent and the state has so far not responded to any demands to include their language in the national curriculum.

Law professor Rabeh Khraifi told Meshkal that successive Tunisian governments have been keen to prevent the promotion of the Amazigh language so as to consolidate a supposed “homogeneous ethnic identity” among Tunisians.

Khraifi was a legislator in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, which drafted the new constitution from 2011 to 2014. He noted that the new constitution does make any reference to the Amazigh, and it only emphasizes “the Arabness and Islam of Tunisia.”

“The issue of the Amazigh has not received much attention and has not been considered a problem in itself in the corridors of parliament,” said Khraifi.

Djelloul Ghaki is the president of the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture. Founded in July 2011, the Tunis-based NGO aims to “preserve authentic Tunisian Amazigh customs and traditions.”

“Before the revolution, Tunisian presidents suppressed the Amazigh language claiming that preserving the country’s unity depends on a common language,” Ghaki told Meshkal.

Other activists have also been critical of the way that Tunisia’s official institutions have treated Amazigh issues.

Tunisian activist Maha Jouini, one of the most prominent defenders of Amazigh rights in the Maghreb, said the way that there is no transparency about the way the Tunisian government is treating Amazigh issues.

“Whenever we meet with an official, he promises to resolve the Amazigh issue and admit that we are the origin of the country and the spirit of its land,” Jouini told Meshkal. “But when we look at concrete changes we find nothing, even though our demands are for pluralism and recognition of Amazigh as a cultural component in Tunisia.”

Recently, some of Tunisia’s Amazigh have expressed a desire to enter politics in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections through a political entity representing this Tunisian minority, but the movement failed to obtain the necessary licenses to register formal political groups.

The Amazigh movement, “Akal”, announced the transition from a cultural movement to a political movement that could speak on behalf of Amazigh. Representatives of the movement said that it “would be a progressive, social democratic party, defend human and cultural diversity in Tunisia, and make Amazigh North Africa its primary reference in its approach.”

Despite the fact that Akal announced in May that it would participate in the legislative elections in October this year, the final list of candidates participating in the elections according to the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE) does not appear to contain any electoral lists participating under the name “Akal.”