SaÏd Sifaw al-Mah’rouq (1946 - 1994)
The Libyan Berberist, poet, linguist, and writer SaÏd Sifaw el-Mah’rouq was born on the 18th of April 1946, in the Berber town of Jado, Nafousa Mountain, north-west Libya. His mother died when he was seven years old. His search for his “Tamazight” identity began when he was fifteen, but by the time he reached full maturity he found himself face to face with the “demons of darkness”, the victim of circumstantial absurdities of Libya’s darkest period in history.
His unique, powerful identity and pioneering, daring ideals attracted the enmity of the Libyan monarchy long before the installation of Gaddafi in 1969, when his scholarship to study medicine in Egypt was withdrawn by king Idris’ government; apparently because he was among the first to call for “revolution” against the corrupt monarchy. The kings’s diplomatic staff granted him the choice to denounce his revolutionary activities or else loose his scholarship, and being who he was he refused to bargain, lost his scholarship, and returned home. After the installation of Gaddafi, he continued to speak out the truth, in the open and without fear, since he used his real name to publish his views that even in today’s free Libya not many will dare to think, let alone voice in the open.
Without a doubt Sifaw will be for ever one of Libya’s heroes the real world has ever seen. Berbers around his charming company saw in him a dangerous personality stemming from his alert vision and simple attitude to life. A true legend of Berber history; a powerful and charismatic leader; a genius ahead of his time; a treasure of tales even recorded history miserably failed to see; and a stern activist afraid of absolutely nothing, not even the dark sky and its mythical stars.
The Assassination Attempt on Sifaw’s Life:
Having no other way to buy his loyalty or influence him to sell his soul, he was reportedly “hit-and-run” by a car on the 21st of February 1979, while trying to purchase some medicine for his child from the Najmachemist, nearby where he lived; only to wake up and find himself paralysed from the waist down and with broken bones and limbs. According to his last notes, he was followed by the Libyan intelligence on a number of occasions leading to the assassination attempt. The original report compiled by Hay al-Andulus police in Tripoli, which carried the number (854/1979), listed a “chase” as the cause of the incident and not an “accident” as others had later claimed. In fact the same police report states that the car that hit him had followed him from one side of the dual carriageway to the opposite side of the road, therefore eliminating the accident claim altogether. According to Sifaw himself, reportedly in a latter letter which he intended to send to Gaddafi, the same police report even mentioned the name of the driver of the car that hit him, namely Hasan Alkilani Ahmed Alhmami”, which he said he had no way of knowing if the name was real or “fictitious”. Bound to his wheelchair, he traveled around the world seeking medical help, without any noticeable success. This is not surprising, since all the Libyan departments including the embassies seemingly obstructed his moves for recovery, forged his medical reports, harassed his two children and wife, reduced his wages, refused to pay his insurance claim for so many agonising years, denied him access to medical facilities in Libya, and even was left to starve alone in his flat had it not been for a handful of his devoted friends. He died on the 29th of July 1994 while he was being treated in Tunisia.
The Fictitious “Berber Party”:
The story goes that in 1980 forty Berber citizens from Zuwarah, Jado and Yefren were arrested and accused of forming a Berber political party (see Berberism for more on this and for a list of names). There is no doubt that some Berber activists did visit Algeria, France and many other countries to buy forbidden Berber books and music, but there is no evidence that the party had actually existed in the real world. The suspects were brought before a revolutionary government court, charged with “Berber Activism”, and sent to jail in 1981: three were executed, Said Sifaw was proven innocent (of course, after the attempt that sent him to the wheelchair instead), and the rest were sentenced to between ten years and life imprisonment. However, one learns later that this so called “Berber Party” was no more than an invention by Gaddafi’s government to warrant the arrest of some activists, and according to Sifaw, listing his name among the members of the party was no more than a ploy to “justify” the assassination attempt made on his life on the 21st of February 1979. Sifaw spoke of being persecuted for being a “Berber”, and that it was him who requested to be returned from Germany to Libya to face the allegations. He said enlisting his name in a fictitious organisation had nothing to do with the secret service, since from the outset of the “revolutionary thought symposium” the attack on “Berberism” was very clear under the name of “populism” [or “tribalism”], a word which people do not understand, he said; and openly demanded a re-trial in this case that was started in his absence and in which a decision was made in his absence while he was actually present in Libya.
The Berber Academy (L’Académie berbère):
Sifaw seems to know some secrets about the Berber Academy which he explicitly declined to reveal in his letter (in Arabic) that was intended for Gaddafi. The following is my own translation of what he said, according to this letter:
“I know everything about Ait Ahmed despite the fact that I do not know him personally at all, and I know everything about this “Berber Academy” even though I was not one of its members, but all that is behind us now … Perhaps Ait Ahmed and Bosoud Mohamed Aarab (who is responsible for this Academy) know, to exchange “accusations” as usual, but why now? If it was the Libyan Intelligence that accused me of such charge then it is the stupidest secret service in the world. Why? I will not say why, but it is enough to say that Ait Ahmed was finished as a Berber before I was personally born since he is only a Kabylian; and that the charge that I belonged to Ait Ahmed’s party had enabled me to know the exact identity of this person; this person is complicated by his war with his friend Ben Bella, and he did not include Tamazight in his program and his party’s program only after the attempt on my life [in 1979] — he asked for Tamazight to be listed as an official language after the attempt on my life, and therefore the charge ought to be directed at Ait Ahmed who was influenced by what I write in the open in your newspapers and not at myself. I heard he visited you [Gaddafi] last year and so why didn’t you ask him? Regarding the “Berber Academy” I had no need for any academy because I am myself a Berber academy, but on the 18th of April 1985 you spoke about the academy and you said it was France that created the academy, and here on behalf of the “helpless” Bosoud Mohamed Aarab I will defend him and not defend myself. I came to know about this academy through an article by one of Ben Bella’s friends: Mohamed Harbi, which I have read here in “Jeune Afrique”, in 1978. Mohamed Aarab wanted to secure some financial funding from one of the wealthy Kabyles and this Kabyle was an infiltrator working for the Algerian and the French Intelligence at the same time, and when he intimidated him with a pistol one of the French Intelligence agents was ready to confront him, Mohamed Aarab was arrested, and that was the end of everything; and therefore it was surprising for you to go to Jado [Sifaw’s home town in Nafusa Mountain] and lecture the Berbers about being agents of the French Intelligence when it was the French Intelligence that destroyed the alleged Berber Academy that “lived” on begging and donations from Algerian labourers.” End of translation.
Sifaw’s Literary Work
During the period between 1961 and 1966 he wrote a number of works in which he developed his Tamazight identity. His poems and literary works had similar effects in Libya to those produced by the Berber scholar Mouloud Mammeri in Algeria, whom he met in 1971. Sifaw’s work included a number of studies about Tamazight grammar, language, and Berber mythology, especially his “Midnight Voices”, a collection of fifteen Berber myths; in which he said, as I would translate: “How can I rescue and preserve an oral tradition much hated and considered a kind of superstition by its people?” Sifaw spoke of two kinds of colonialism: “modern colonialism” and “ancient colonialism” - but perhaps to this day most people still seemingly unable to grasp the extent of violence in human patriarchal history. His work was circulated (underground) in Libya across the Nafousa Mountain, Zuwarah and Tripoli, while some of it was published in Libyan official newspapers and cultural periodicals during Gaddafi’s government. Fifteen years after Sifaw’s tragic death, the Libyan Government attempted to put pressure on the Moroccan government to block a lecture about one of Sifaw’s books on the 18th of June 2009. Some of Sifaw’s work was badly represented and distributed full of typing, spelling and grammatical mistakes by some Berberists after his death. Some other changes could also reflect dialectical differences, where people copy phrases and then repeat them (or publish them) in their own Berber dialects or languages without paying attention to details — or maybe they had other reasons in mind; who knows? It was also reported that one of his entire works was borrowed by one of his supposed friends whom later turned out to be an agent of the Dictator himself, allegedly to read and maybe report back with some feedback, but instead published it under his name — probably with some modifications to suit the agenda he had in mind.