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"Azul (hello). I'm going to teach you the language of your forefathers," Sara Abud tells the children of Yafran,

Learning the language of his ancestors

Freedom boosts Berber in Nafusa mountains after speaking it could land people in jail under Gathafi’s rule...


By Deborah Pasmantier - YAFRAN

 assembled around her for their first lesson in Berber, once the native tongue of western Libya's mountain folk.

Speaking Berber could land people in jail under Libyan leader Moamer Gathafi's rule, but since the rebels now control the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli, it now represents the language of freedom.

As such, Berber culture has flowered anew. It is on the radio, in newspapers and museums, in songs and in language courses.

Not to mention the graffiti, which are everywhere.

Colourful geometric designs feature opposing semi-circles linked by a line, illustrating how the soul bridges heaven and earth. It is the symbol of the Amazigh, as the Berbers call themselves.

"We used to be treated as second-class citizens. We are at the root of this country, but now we can stand tall," said 22-year-old Taghrid Abud.

Under Gathafi, it was forbidden to speak or write Berber in public, even to read or print Amazigh-language material.

He was deeply suspicious of this people who have lived in the country since before the Arab conquest of the seventh century and whose military resistance to the Italian occupation in the early twentieth century has been well chronicled.

Over the years, people spoke the language only in secret if they were to avoid being sent to prison, and the alphabet was never learned because it was never printed. The culture was buried, almost lost.

"Many people do not know their own history," said Abud, a 27-year-old historian.

But come the revolution, Berber villagers wasted no time in reviving their cultural identity.

In Jado and Yafran, children now take lessons in Amazigh several times a week. "Today, the most important thing is that they learn the language" to keep it alive, says Abud, who runs the classes.

Salah Kafu, 14, has been a diligent student since day one. "For me, this means building the future. We will learn our language and our children will learn it in turn."

It is not only the young who are immersing themselves in the culture.

Adults are dusting off their old school exercise books, and in a museum -- converted from an old building previously used by regime spies -- a Yafran artist adds Amazigh inscriptions to frescoes depicting Gathafi as a rat or vampire.

"I can't stop myself writing. I feel reborn," said the artist, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The artist's reluctance to be identified is understandable, given what has happened to others in the past.

Mazigh Buzukhar is one example. He paid the price for his Berber activism, spending three years in jail before being freed by the rebels.

Now, he transcribes tales that have been passed down the years orally, stories of princes and princesses blessed with wisdom told by the elderly guardians of tradition.

"It is important to collate the Amazigh tales and legends. For 1,400 years our literature was oral. We need to preserve it for future generations," said the 29-year-old.

In Yafran, all documents are now written in Arabic and Berber, and the hope is that Amazigh will be recognised as an official language in post-Gathafi Libya.

Arabs and Berbers alike were set free in this revolution, side by side in the mountains, far from the divisions Gathafi contrived to create during his 42 years in power.

"Arab and Berber blood has been mixed on the battlefield fighting this tyrant. We fight the same fight, we are brothers. These things will bind us for the next 50 years," said Salim Ahmed, a radio presenter from Jado who broadcasts in both languages.

But years of propaganda are not erased overnight.

A certain rivalry still exists between Arab and Berber villages, and the subject of racism is never far away. Arab residents of nearby Zintan accuse the Berbers of not doing enough on the front line.

"They are good people," said Ibrahim al-Zentani, a 30-year-old engineer. "But they like to put themselves first. They are not good fighters. They don't give enough blood for the revolution."



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