Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Third Nalut Cultural and Tourism Festival

Of course, not all Libyans are Arabs. In the south, there are the nomadic Tuareg and the Toubou, who trudge the Saharan plains, often roaming past resented borders into Niger, Algeria and Chad. But small in number, these tribes forge their own path outside the mainstream of Libyan society. Then there are the Berber. Popularly known as Berber, though they prefer the term Amazigh to Berber, which is after all a Latin derivation of barbari, they predate the Arab settlers and their modern day population is spread across Northern Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. Some estimate that the Berber make up as much as five per cent of the Libyan population. Precise figures are impossible. Some are not even sure themselves. Last weekend, Mohammed took me to Nalut for the festival. Mohammed's parents are Berber and I asked him if he was also a Berber. He said that he didn't speak the language and that he identified more with being an Arab, having been schooled in Arabic, though he quickly added that he was proud to be a Berber as well. If that is allowed.
Of course, it has always been allowed to be a Berber, though it has not always been permitted to be too vocal about being one. The first Nalut Cultural and Tourism Festival took place in 1975 in the eponymous mountain town perched in the rocky hills of the Jebel Nafuza, the heartland of Berber Libya. The 1976 festival never took place. Hardliners in the revolutionary government fearful that the festival might prove a covert breeding ground for Berber nationalism pulled the plug and it was not until 2005 that the second festival took place. "Finally, the bastards let us have our festival", as a Nalut inhabitant told me bitterly. "We never wanted a country, or even a flag. We only want to celebrate our culture, to let our children see how their grandparents lived." The gulf between how the young people of Nalut live and their grandparents' lifestyles is indeed great. In the two generations between the camel and the Toyota pick-up truck, things have changed almost beyond recognition for the Berbers, just as they have changed for all Libyans.
In Nalut, an imposing qasr, or castle, perched on top of the mountain used to serve as a store for grain, with the town inhabitants' chambers of sizes directly proportional to their wealth. Ingeniously ventilated, it is not hard to imagine how the cold winds must blow through the holes in the chamber walls on winter nights. Of course, the rocky chambers are now empty, but in days gone by, this was the town's bank vault, with its entrance on the top of sheer rock face in order to seriously restrict access by getaway camel for any would-be qasr robbers. When we got there for the festival, the qasr was mobbed with crowd. There were camel trains, wedding party re-enactments, mock circumcision ceremonies, veiled women weaving lambs wool blankets. They said that it takes four of them a month to finish one, which they then sell for 200 dinars. I asked Mohammed about the meagre economic gains and he shrugged and said that it was better than earning nothing, which is what they would get otherwise. "It gives them something to do", he added.
Elsewhere, there were stands selling ornaments carved out of palm wood and Tuareg had come to town to sell garishly coloured artifacts. I bought a leather mobile phone holder with the letters NOKIA stitched into it. Written proof, if any were needed, of the ceaseless march of globalization. All it needs is for some humourless lawyer to sue the beleaguered Tuareg for this copyright infringement and it will really feel like 2006.
In another part of Nalut, caves which once served troglodyte granaries and living quarters were converted into exhibition rooms for dinosaur bones, fossils, local pottery, glass-caged scorpions, iguanas, Berber furniture and assorted artifacts. And then there was the traditional Berber food, like bazin, a popular one with all Libyans, made of unleavened barley to look like mud but taste so much worse. Bseesa, a sickly sweet paste made from crushed seeds. Samel, something like ghee and not trying to hide the fact that it is in fact 100% saturated fat. The festival of Nalut should never have been stopped, but whoever is making this food should be tried for crimes against humanity.
But there was a rare generosity about the people of Nalut which I suppose will be diluted when or if the Libyan tourist industry expands. When we arrived, a friend of Mohammed's unhesitatingly handed over the keys to his house to us and went to stay with his mother and his wife went to stay with hers. As we toured the festival, curiosity seekers joined our entourage one by one and I found the camcorders and mobile phone cameras were being pointed at me. Next, a local television crew approached for an interview. There was no doubt about it. I had become part of the show.
At the evening concert in the main square, we were embarrassingly ushered into front row seats, against a backdrop of a fifty foot high painting of the leader. This is not the place for the faint-hearted or for the more fundamentalist elements, many of whom would have objected to the musical content anyway. Coming as it did, just days before the festival of Milud, Mohammed's birthday, when it is traditional to celebrate through the medium of fireworks, the boys are packing a seemingly endless supply of gunpowder. The way to dance here is to wave and flap your arms as if you are imitating a bird or as if you arms are two wet fish. The feet do not move much and many people can't move their feet anyway because they are standing on plastic chairs which they have stacked up on top of each other to get a better view. Some people go to dance at the front of the stage, in front of the row of VIPs, which the security do not like. An impromptu competition to see who the unlikeliest dancer is emerges. First, the old man, about 80, is pushed to the front of the stage, where he shuffles from one foot to another with soft abandon. Then two children, about five and six, not dissimilar to the old man, but somehow more self-conscious, with their eyes desperately checking for paternal approval like searchlights. Lastly, the man with the crutch, who caps this display of physical comedy by taking it to its natural conclusion and falling over. A belly dancer emerges onto the stage and the acrid smoke which has been going all night intensifies as all the little bangs seem to merge into one long bang. The only woman here, she is a magnet for the eyes of a thousand young men with the heat of 10,000 fireworks in their pockets. One behind me shows his appreciation with a short burst from a make-shift flame-thrower fashioned from a cigarette lighter and a can of fly-spray, though he is quickly disarmed by the security.
There was one image of Nalut which has burned into my subconscious like a cigarette. Outside the granaries, in the glare of the sun, where a three piece Tunisian band beat out a hypnotic rhythm and their dancer gyrated with a pot on fire on his head, there were photos of more recent Nalut history. Fading photos of young men in camouflage fatigues, with Kalashnikovs strapped around them. There was a particular photo of one with an enormous Afro and a massive grin as he posed on a rocky hillside somewhere. The hairstyle reminded me of someone I used to know somewhere, but I can't quite place. These were the photos of the ones who went to fight the Israelis in the 1970s and never came home. There is a sad little irony at play. While the minority Berber people were struggling to find their voice in Arab Libya, Nalut men were fighting for an Arab minority in Palestine. So what were these men, barely out of childhood, when they died so many miles from home? Were they Berbers? Arabs? Libyans? Maybe Muslim more than anything else. How did it all fit in? I didn't like to ask Mohammed as it is a sensitive subject and after all, he probably wouldn't know. Perhaps it was only the people in the photos who could have told me anyway.


Blogger Molestine said...

Back in Libya...shall I understand you are leaving in 8 weeks? Hope you are going in a nice place next.

6:16 pm  
Blogger cyberdigger said...

Its good to have you back. I trust that you fulfilled your democratic duty while you were in Italy. It seems that Berlusconi will not go quietly.
Yeah, I will be leaving pretty soon. The first place I will be heading is Malta.

6:50 pm  
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