Archive for November, 2011

Pop Goes Libya: a little musical rebellion among the Amazigh

Monday, November 21st, 2011

November 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11

Zuwarah, Libya

This is my city and I came back again

I found myself where I was born.

The jam session was stirring, though it took place in the proper bourgeois living room of Khaled el Naggiar, a 55-year-old cultural activist here. Two or three young men played acoustic guitar while one kept beat on the bundeer, a thin drum resembling a tambourine. One, sometimes two, sang—always in the Tamazight language, sometimes originals, sometimes covers such as “My City” (1975) by Zuwarah’s Ismail Jafaz, sometimes favorites from the well-known Algerian Amazigh group Idir (“horizon”), and sometimes musical settings of the poems of the late Libyan Amazigh poet Said Sifaw al Mahrouq (1946-1994), a local cultural icon.

The sound was both familiar—Amazigh music uses half tones, like European classical music, rather than Arab music’s quarter tones—and hard to pin down. There are suggestions of Spanish and Cuban music, which makes sense given Libya’s proximity to the former Muslim kingdoms of Al Andalus and to Niger, Mali, Sudan, and other points of origin for Afro-American music. The bundeer, of course, is African.

And while this music sounds as though it were the fruit of a long tradition, it is not. The guitar arrived in Zuwarah only in the 1970s, as part of a North African Amazigh cultural awakening—“Berber” is the term outsiders use—and all of Zuwarah’s young players are self-taught. While Amazigh have always sung at weddings, the first modern song written in the Tamazight language dates only to 1975, when “My City” was sung. When he heard “My City,” the poet Mahrouq wrote “Amousnaw” and gave it to his disciple Naggiar to sing. Neither song was recorded at the time.

“If I had recorded it, I would have been in jail,” Naggiar tells me.

Zuwarah’s music has never been performed in public, except at weddings, and the performers have never earned any money for it. Even now, when songs are played on one of Libya’s new radio or television stations (Zuwarah now has a radio station of its own), the performers don’t get royalties. The young men are either unaware of the financial rewards of striking it big in the music business, or have no belief they can do it. For them, music is a hobby appropriate to this stage in their lives.

“Our young men play by age groups, until they get married,” explains Naggiar, who makes his living as a commercial pilot. He is just now writing his first song after decades away from performing. He estimates that 40 or 50 young Zuwarah men are now pursuing the guitar. Women don’t play, perhaps because jam sessions occur in private homes, often late at night. When I left at 2:30 the other morning, the young men were heading to another house to work on new songs all night.

The core group is two guitarists, 20-year-old Haj Ibrahim Ftees and 18-year-old Badr Al deen F’ees, and Allah Abudeeb, a tall 17-year-old who plays bundeer. F’ees did most of the singing, although Naggiar performed one song in a rich baritone of professional quality and expressiveness. Naggiar’s son Youliasin, 19, a former revolutionary fighter, sometimes drops in on guitar. He also puts out one of Zuwarah’s first newspapers. After a couple of hours a few more young men came by and sat in.

There were just 15,000 weeloul—inhabitants of Zuwarah—around the time of Libya’s independence, and there may be 45,000 today. Yet Zuwarah has a distinctive local culture, dialect, and music. This is unusual even in Libya, which in many ways resembles 15th-century Italy: a group of loosely allied city-states, whose citizens’ first loyalty is to their locality. There are other Amazigh towns, such as Jadu and Nalut in the Nafusa Mountains, but Zuwarah’s culture is the most distinctive.

“We are like an island,” Naggiar says. Zuwarah is the only coastal Amazigh city from the Egyptian border to Djerba in Tunisia, and then it’s a big jump to Algeria. Before the Algerian revival of Amazigh culture in the 1970s, he explains, “We were really isolated. We didn’t know millions of people were speaking our language in Morocco and Algeria.” Morocco is about two-thirds Amazigh and, with a king who is Amazigh through his mother, has been the most friendly to the culture and language of the North African nations. Algeria may be one-third Amazigh and has the most organized and political Amazigh, with one group seeking regional autonomy for the Kabylia region.

Zuwarah’s guitar culture isn’t an updating of a previous devotion to the oud, an Arab instrument; in fact, the first instrument played by Naggiar, who brought the guitar to Zuwarah, was an oud lent him by a sympathetic Egyptian music teacher who recognized his gifts. He bought his first guitar in Tripoli while on a road trip and began teaching himself to play in the car.

Historically, four major instruments have been used by the Zuwarah Amazigh, three of them varieties of drums made of stretched animal skin, and one, the zakera, resembling a bagpipe, made from the skin of a goat. Today, Zuwarah musicians only use one of the four, the bundeer. Like other drums, it isn’t considered haram—that is, religiously forbidden by Salafi extremists—but the guitar is definitely haram. Naggiar explains that even carrying a guitar case around town used to be thought bizarre. When I asked the young musicians about playing in a café, they looked as though I’d suggested a concert on a loading dock. There is simply no local tradition of playing music in public spaces.

Under Qaddafi, the public expression of Amazigh culture was prohibited. For this reason, and because of the place of music in the Amazigh cultural revival in Algeria, Zuwarah’s music is “counted as politics,” says Naggiar. During the Qaddafi regime, even performing Tamazight songs in public outside Libya was risky: A 24-year-old Zuwarah guitarist, Bunduq Bunduq, had his passport confiscated when he returned from a trip to Morocco, where he had sung a Tamazight song in public. Bunduq, incidentally, is the only young Zuwarah man musing about giving a musical career a shot.

Zuwarah is an insular town in an insular country, and it’s hard to say how far these young guitarists will take their talents. They speak vaguely of writing songs in English to reach people outside Libya. (No one in Zuwarah is very keen on Arabic, the language of their conquerors and oppressors.) For now, the guitar music of Zuwarah remains a secret.

Among Libya’s Liberals (orig. pub. in the Wall Street Journal-Europe, Nov. 16 2011)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

NOVEMBER 16, 2011

Among Libya’s Liberals
Their examples offer hope. But if we expect a seamless transition to modernity, we will be sorely disappointed.


Zwara, Libya

“You are talking about a backwards country, not France or the United States.” Abu Bakr Tallue may sound harsh to admirers of Libya’s exuberant, telegenic revolution. The revolutionaries were adept at getting their message across, and the frankness, warmth and quirky individualism of the Libyan character resonated with foreign journalists and diplomats alike. But the men and women building the new, free Libya adopt a more sober tone in describing the reality of the challenges they now face.

Dr. Tallue’s example suggests hope for Libyan democracy. He’s the only municipal council president in Libya who was elected rather than appointed, and he has appointed perhaps the only woman on a municipal council anywhere in the country. These interim councils are still in a process of formation as the country prepares for nationwide elections in eight months for four-year council terms.

The 63-year-old Tulane Ph.D. in philosophy also runs what might be Libya’s most socially liberal small city. Here in Zwara, families enjoy the long sand beach and clear green water, and women are visibly freer than just about anywhere besides Tripoli and Benghazi. There are more women on the streets here than in many places, and they are less covered up. Women behind the wheels of cars are a common sight. Finally, Dr. Tallue, like almost all of the residents of Zwara, is Berber, proud of his ancient, pre-Islamic roots. The Berbers— Libya’s biggest minority group, with a population of 800,000—aren’t sympathetic to pan-Arabist or jihadi appeals.

But Dr. Tallue articulates an important truth about Libya that the Western world would do well to heed. Though women do better here than in most of the country, they are still an oppressed class. Support among both genders for Shariah law is strong. If we expect Libya to make a seamless transition to modernity, we will be sorely disappointed.

At an Oct. 23 meeting of a committee tasked with cleaning up the trash-strewn city, there were 25 men and just five women, all clustered together at the foot of a long table. One of the larger new civil-society groups, the Libo Berber Cultural Association, has more than 100 members, all male. Organizations like these have grown so far by informal social contacts, which take place in environments like cafes and men’s homes, places forbidden by taboo to women.

Islam is the issue, and even in Zwara, where the moderate Ibadi denomination prevailed before Col. Gadhafi suppressed it, Salafi fundamentalists have gained ground. Libo’s Essa El Hamisi says that Zwara’s Salafis have grown to 300-400 from a handful, taking over a mosque and starting a madrasah where students are punished by beatings on the soles of their feet. Dr. Tallue says he’s not worried, and that Ibadism is making a comeback in Zwara. But Gulf money is behind the Salafis, and in many Arab towns their power is evident.

Neighboring Sabratha, an Arab city of about 70,000, is a case in point. Its U.S.-educated council head is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its military chief fought in Afghanistan and Algeria, and a fair percentage of the clusters of black-robed women on its shopping streets wear the niqab, or face veil. At least a dozen local men fought in Afghanistan, two of whom stayed long enough to bring back Afghan wives. Here there is almost no one on the stunning, craggy beach except fishermen. The men gather in musty, dark cafes, and the women in shuttered rooms.

As Dr. Tallue’s remark suggests, “liberal” is relative in Libya. Many Libyans are forming embryonic political parties, including some that describe themselves as “liberal” rather than “religious.” Yet when asked about the place of Shariah law in Libya’s yet unwritten constitution, “liberal” party members balk. “This is a command from God,” Essa Ali, a Tripoli businessman originally from Sabratha, said about one liberal party’s stance on Islam’s unequal inheritance laws for men and women.

Rebab Haleb, 32, an activist lawyer representing 15 Zwara women who were raped by Gadhafi militia, says she has no problem with Shariah and wouldn’t mind if her husband took a second wife. But Dr. Amal Hamoud, the sole woman on the Zwara municipal council, said she wouldn’t want three other women living with her in the house. She wouldn’t go further in discussing Shariah, however, citing her status as an unmarried woman. Amina Megheirbi, the female head of Benghazi’s big civil society Attawasul Association, is pro-Shariah. “Islam is a way of life, and you either take the whole package or none of it,” she says. But she believes Libyan women can have equality in the public sphere, even under Shariah.

Perhaps the best summary is from Munir Busoud, a Zwara businessman in the 800-strong “liberal” National Solidarity Party who wouldn’t comment on Shariah. But of the U.S., he says, “You are 100 years ahead of us.”

Libya’s Amazigh Debate Their Future (orig. pub. in Weekly Standard blog, Nov. 11)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Libya’s Amazigh Debate Their Future

3:50 PM, Nov 11, 2011 • By ANN MARLOWE

Obari, Libya

“Why are the people in the north getting petroleum when you are living over it and getting nothing?” said Hisham Hamadi. The plump, energetic lawyer was addressing a conference of activists drawn from Libya’s three Amazigh (or Berber) communities—those from the Nafusa mountains, the West Coast city of Zwara, and the Tuareg of the Sahara desert. And it was the Tuareg that the Nafusan Hamadi was appealing to when he spoke of the injustices visited on them here in their de facto capital, Obari.

This dusty city of 50,000 in the Western Sahara, closer to Mali and Algeria than Tripoli or Benghazi, was nearly the last city in Libya to be liberated by the rebels. Many outsiders, including other Amazigh, charge that Obari supported Qaddafi until the end. Several of the speakers countered that the Tuareg never backed the dictator, but the fact is that the Libyan Army and the two Obari-based paramilitary brigades controlled by Qaddafi’s cronies were among the few employment options in this impoverished area. One local Tuareg activist, Abu Bakr Akaty, contended that 138 Tuareg soldiers were killed for refusing orders to fire on civilians. But perhaps as many as 300 Obari men were slain fighting for the old regime, some in Qaddafi’s brutal assault on Misrata and others defending Tripoli from the revolutionaries.

It is telling that all speakers at the conference gave their talks in Arabic; the Amazigh dialects are not mutually intelligible. There are racial and cultural differences as well. The Tuareg, tall, lean, and dark-skinned, don’t appear to be from the same stock as the Amazigh from Zwara and the mountains, with their Mediterranean coloring and more diverse body types. Culturally, the northerners are far more integrated into the modern world, and those at the conference wore Western business suits. Many of the southerners sported traditional floor-length tunics, made in Mali, in a rainbow of colors. Perhaps ten percent covered their faces.

Some of the Saharan activists disavow the idea of national boundaries, pointing out that they are scattered among Algeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and other African countries. But though Amazigh readily display their pan-national flag—often to the chagrin of their Arab neighbors—an Amazigh homeland isn’t geographically feasible. Even in Libya, the two main areas of settlement are separated by almost a thousand kilometers.

Conditions are generally dire in Libya’s south. Qaddafi went to high school 200 kilometers from here in majority-Arab Sebha, a city of 350,000, but if he showered any largesse on the city, it’s hard to find. Sebha is best described as a garbage dump with the basic appurtenances of a city—stores, cafes, hotels, banks. The two-lane road between Sebha and Obari is in rough condition. The better road from Sebha, north to Tripoli, is barely signposted, with no service stations for stretches of over 150 kilometers.

Obari is much cleaner and more attractive than Sebha. But its sparse commercial district resembles Afghanistan more than northern Libya’s decrepit Mediterranean cities. Small boys sell delicious round flatbreads made by their mothers, while withered desert Amazigh women crouch on the sidewalk selling small piles of traditional stick toothbrushes, spices and mysterious powders from further south. A disconsolate crowd of men gathers every morning in front of the only functioning bank, trying to withdraw their direct-deposited salaries (they are limited to taking out 750 dinars or about $600).

The Bangladeshi owner of one of the city’s men’s clothing shops told me that the apparent poverty of the locals is belied by the thriving business in human trafficking. The Tuareg bring African workers from Mali and Niger north in a two-day truck journey through the desert from the Niger border. Some of the traffickers have enough to spend 450 dinars at a throw on traditional clothing at his store, where the basic traditional dress runs 70 dinars or $50. He also insisted that “99 percent of the people” here supported Qaddafi.

The Libyan south doesn’t seem the most likely place for democracy to take root, and one sign of this is the role of women. Very few women are on the street in Sebha or Obari, and even the innocuous women’s charitable organizations thriving in the north are absent here. There are only 22 women in Obari’s 60-person civil society group Taminek (“unity” in Tamazight). Sonia Khamina, 20, said that women “don’t have any rights” in Tuareg culture.

At the conference, the Tuareg, who claim to number 500,000, complained of decades of discrimination. There were no Tuareg ministers or ambassadors under Qaddafi, and one local complained that he knows of only one Tuareg employee in the powerful ministry of foreign affairs. “We must talk about our nationality,” said Mustafa Al Ansari, a young Obari man in the revolutionaries’ khaki uniform. “It is written in the Acacus Mountains,” he said, referring to the world-renowned prehistoric art in the Acacus Mountains a few hours’ drive southwest.

Over the traditional desert meal of iftat —big pieces of lean lamb over a casserole of shredded clay-oven bread—Abu Bakr Akaty said that 69 percent of Libya’s oil reserves were used during the Qaddafi years, making it crucial to allocate the remaining wealth fairly. Even within the Amazigh community, the Tuareg seem to have got the short end of the stick though they far outnumber the 180,000 or so Nafusa Amazigh and Zwara’s 50,000. Akaty claimed that he was the only Tuareg on the Libyan Amazigh Congress for 32 years, and said that now there are only 3 others.

The main order of business on November 1 was mustering Amazigh to demand Libya’s emerging government recognize them as a minority and their Tamazight language as a national language, to receive government financial support, and to be given a place in school curricula. Many activists view the language issue as crucial, because after 42 years of Qaddafi’s repression, few Libyans can read and write the 3,000-year-old Tiffinag script. So far, the National Transitional Council has proven noncommittal, as it has on most other issues. In an August statement, the NTC stopped short of recognizing Tamazight as a “national” language,” and instead declared it an “official” language, which leaves the issue of financial support unresolved.

At the small but exuberant performance of Tuareg “desert blues” that concluded the proceedings, Ben Khalifa Fathi, president of the World Amazigh Congress, explained that official recognition in the as yet unwritten Libyan constitution is the most important issue for the Amazigh right now. “Amazigh identity is a serious thing, a question of life and death for us,” said Fathi, who after returning from an 18-year exile in Morocco was treated like a celebrity. “The Arabs still can’t understand this problem. We have no time to lose. We gave a lot to our country in the revolution and we helped the transitional council with foreign contacts.”

Another attendee from Zwara, Senussi Mahrez, a major general in the Libyan army who led a rebel brigade in the revolution, agrees with Fathi that it is important “to look after our Amazigh culture,” but questions the priorities of some of the other Amazigh. “It is not the time to trouble the government about the oil,” says Mahrez. “Now is the time to build up the country.”

Othman Ben Sasi, who represents Zwara on the NTC, also differs with Fathi’s approach. I reached him after the conference, when he argued that most Libyans are Amazigh, whether they admit it or not; there are very few Libyans of Arab descent. (A quip has it that Libya is “an Arab country without Arabs”.). So he sees the struggle to save the Tamazight language as one of bringing all Libyans to see that it is part of the national heritage, to be offered in all Libyan schools. “Berber must be for all Libyans or not at all.” But he thinks setting up a Tamazight curriculum is going to take a long time.

“We don’t have teachers or books. We need to teach the teachers first, and prepare the curriculum. In Morocco it took 15 years, and it is not finished.”

Mr. Ben Sasi sees a “just and modern constitution” as the best hope of the Amazigh. “We have to be organized as a democracy.” All Libyans, he says, and not just the Tuareg, were deprived of their fair share of the national wealth by Qaddafi.