Introduction / History The Amazigh, also known as Berbers, are the indigenous people of North Africa. They are a strong and proud people. The very name Amazigh is often translated to mean "free or noble men". There were people from North Africa present in Jerusalem at the day of Pentecost. The church was established among Berbers in the early centuries of Christianity, and some of the great North African church fathers were of Berber heritage.
When Islam swept through North Africa in the 7th century, many pockets of the Amazigh tried to fight the invasion. They resisted Islam's advance ten different times in history, outwardly saying they would become Muslims, but then returning to their villages and refusing to practice the religion. They intentionally built conspicuous white mosques at the top of the mountains to deceive Muslim invaders. As they passed, seeing the mosque in the distance, they would assume the village had already converted and continue on their way.
Early generations kept their Christian heritage in secret and outwardly submitted to Islamic rule. The symbolism of the cross can still be found throughout Amazigh architecture, designs on handmade carpets, and even tattoos on women's faces. Today, however, they have no understanding of their Christian heritage.
Tunisia's first president following French colonization, Habib Bourguiba (1957) worked hard to unify the country. Amazigh villages were traditionally fortified in strong mountain areas. Bourguiba incentivized the Amazigh to abandon their cultural identity in exchange for one "Tunisian Arab" identity. At first, he tried to build cities and communities down in the plains to force integration and to draw the Amazigh out of their strong mountain fortifications. When the Amazigh refused to comply, he burned their books, removed their language from schools, and worked to erase much of the culture.
The 2011 Revolution that ousted the country's second president (Zine El- Abidine Ben Ali) from power sparked a renewal of the Amazigh culture and identity. Renewed pride and freedom to identify as Amazigh has resulted in many clubs, cultural centers, and organizations focused on retaining and building the Amazigh language and culture.
Where are they located? The Amazigh of Djerba are located on the island of Djerba, in the south of Tunisia. There are 15,000 Amazigh in Djerba, divided between four different towns on the island. Guallela (10,000), Tlet (500), Ajim (500), and nearly 4,000 in Sedouikech, including an Amazigh village called Oursighen, where 3,000 Amazigh live.
What are their lives like? In general, many have lost aspects of their traditional Amazigh identity. Amazigh clothing has changed due to integration with the Arabs of Djerba. Many now wear modern clothes making it difficult to distinguish from merely outward appearances the Amazigh from other ethnic groups.
The Amazigh of Guallela and a minority of those from Sedouikech, especially within the village of Oursighen, have held on to their Amazigh identity and are proud of it. The interactions between men and women more closely follow the Bedouin tradition that came with Islam from the Arab peninsula. Men and women do not mix socially, and they continue to wear their traditional clothing.
There is a strong and close relationship between the Amazigh of Djerba and the Jews of Djerba. In the season of Jewish pilgrimage in Djerba the Amazigh ensure the safety of the pilgrims. In return, the Jews consider the Amazigh of Djerba trustworthy people, lending money and doing commercial deals with them.
The Amazigh of Guallela are potters, this profession has been passed on for generations. It is considered the profession of their ancestors which cannot be abandoned. With the passing of time, evolving material needs, and difficulty of the profession, however, the youth have begun to search out work in industrial and commercial locations. The Amazigh in Sedouikech work in commerce. They farm olive trees and produce olive oil. The inhabitants of the village of Oursighen are considered well off. Members of the family may live abroad, often in Europe, sending back money to their families.
All of the Amazigh groups in Djerba speak the Amazigh language (Chilha), but only the Sedouikech learn to write it. The viability of the Chilha language in the villages of Tlat and Ajim is tenuous with each passing generation. Only the elderly among these groups speak Chilha. They have ceased to teach their children Chilha due to its difficulty. These groups also speak Arabic and French. A minority learn other languages in school including some English. The Amazigh of Djerba use audio-visual media like radio and television, and their youth use the Internet.
What are their beliefs? The Amazigh in Ajim are Ibadi Muslims, following the Ibadi school of Islam. Their denomination distinguishes them from the majority of Tunisian Muslims who follow the Maliki school. Ibadi Muslims believe that the real Muslim is the one who practices, not just in word, but also in deed. They are considered peaceful people who generally do not look down on other Muslims. Other Muslim denominations, conversely, may look down on and sometimes persecute Ibadi Muslims. The rest of Tunisian Muslims, of the Maliki school, see the Ibadi Amazigh as outsiders.
Muslims follow the teaching of Muhammad, who lived in the 6-7th centuries in Saudi Arabia. They believe in one God, whom they call Allah (Arabic for "the God"). At judgment day, all people will be judged for their deeds and, if their good works outweigh their bad, then Allah will welcome them into paradise. If not, then they will be sentenced to eternal hell. In order to obtain salvation, they must follow the five pillars of Islam: prayer five times a day, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan, giving to the poor, and, if possible, a pilgrimage to Mecca, to be done at least once in their lifetime (Hajj). Regarding Jesus, they believe that he was a prophet, but that his teachings are inferior to those of Muhammad.
Madanin Governorate, Djerba island, Guellala, Ajim, and Sedouikech; Qafsah Governorate, Matmata, Taoujjout, Tamezret, and Zraoua; some in east Qibili Goverrnorate, Tataouine, Douiret and Chenini; Tunis City. (Source: Ethnologue 2016)