Part of what was once the dominant ethnic group throughout North Africa, the Berbers of Libya today live principally in remote mountain areas or in desert localities where successive waves of Arab migration failed to reach or to which they retreated to escape the invaders. In the 1980s Berbers, or native speakers of Berber dialects, constituted about 5 percent, or 135,000, of the total population, although a substantially larger proportion is bilingual in Arabic and Berber. Berber place-names are still common in some areas where Berber is no longer spoken. The language survives most notably in the Jabal Nafusah highlands of Tripolitania and in the Cyrenaican town of Awjilah. In the latter, the customs of seclusion and concealment of women have been largely responsible for the persistence of the Berber tongue. Because it is used largely in public life, most men have acquired Arabic, but it has become a functional language for only a handful of modernized young women.
By and large, cultural and linguistic, rather than physical, distinctions separate Berber from Arab. The touchstone of Berberhood is the use of the Berber language. A continuum of related but not always mutually intelligible dialects, Berber is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is distantly related to Arabic, but unlike Arabic it has not developed a written form and as a consequence has no written literature.
Unlike the Arabs, who see themselves as a single nation, Berbers do not conceive of a united Berberdom and have no name for themselves as a people. The name Berber has been attributed to them by outsiders and is thought to derive from barbari, the term the ancient Romans applied to them. Berbers identify with their families, clans, and tribe. Only when dealing with outsiders do they identify with other groupings such as the Tuareg. Traditionally, Berbers recognized private property, and the poor often worked the lands of the rich. Otherwise, they were remarkably egalitarian. A majority of the surviving Berbers belong to the Khariji sect of Islam, which emphasizes the equality of believers to a greater extent than does the Maliki rite of Sunni Islam, which is followed by the Arab population. A young Berber sometimes visits Tunisia or Algeria to find a Khariji bride when none is available in his own community.
Most of the remaining Berbers live in Tripolitania, and many Arabs of the region still show traces of their mixed Berber ancestry. Their dwellings are clustered in groups made up of related families; households consist of nuclear families, however, and the land is individually held. Berber enclaves also are scattered along the coast and in a few desert oases. The traditional Berber economy has struck a balance between farming and pastoralism, the majority of the village or tribe remaining in one place throughout the year while a minority accompanies the flock on its circuit of seasonal pastures.
Berbers and Arabs in Libya live together in general amicability, but quarrels between the two peoples occasionally erupted until recent times. A short-lived Berber state existed in Cyrenaica during 1911 and 1912. Elsewhere in the Maghrib during the 1980s, substantial Berber minorities continued to play important economic and political roles. In Libya their number was too small for them to enjoy corresponding distinction as a group. Berber leaders, however, were in the forefront of the independence movement in Tripolitania.
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