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 Matmata are located in the governorate of Gabes, located in the south of Tunisia. There are nearly 5,500 Amazigh in Matmata. This group is found primarily across three different villages; the Zraoua (4,000), the Tamezret (800), and the Taoujout (800). There are also two families that can be found in Old Zraoua.
What are their lives like?
The Amazigh of Zraoua, Tamezret, and Taoujout are harmoniously united. They are very similar to one another in their customs and traditions. One thing that makes the Amazigh of Matmata different from the rest of the Amazigh in Tunisia, is the degree to which men and women mix socially. The men of the city view women as equal coworkers with men in life, and that it is their right to work as men do. The Amazigh of Matmata do not have problems with their Arab neighbors. They live closely to them, but the Arabs prefer not to work with the Amazigh due to their differing religious perspectives on Islam.
The Amazigh inhabitants of Zraoua are well off financially. Amazigh in Zraoua hold employment in government jobs, private professions, and in privately owned projects in neighboring cities. The Amazigh of Tamezret economically rely heavily on tourism. This has resulted in poverty since tourism has dropped following the 2011 revolution and subsequent terrorist attacks against foreign tourists. Taoujout is 7 kilometers away from Tamezret. All of the inhabitants of Taoujout are Amazigh and there are no Arabs among them. Their city contains one of the Amazigh castles of old, so the inhabitants rely on tourism, farming, and cattle herding. The Amazigh of Taoujout would also be described as extremely poor.
The Amazigh of Matmata speak the Amazigh language (Chilha) from childhood and also learn to write it. There is an association in their town that exists to encourage people to learn to write the language. In addition they speak Arabic and French. They use audio-visual media such as radio and TV, and some use the Internet.
What are their beliefs?
The Amazigh in Matmata 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.
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