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Heritage language maintenance among the berbers of Zrawa (southern Tunisia). An exploratory study

par Mohamed Elhedi Bouhdima
Faculté des Lettres, Arts et Humanités de Manouba, Tunisia - Mastère de recherche en linguistique anglaise 2017

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1.2. Context of the Study

The current study was conducted in the Amazigh village of Zrawa. This village is officially a part of New Matmata which itself is a district of Gabes, a governorate in the south-east of Tunisia (see Appendix K). Zrawa is located approximately 47 kilometers from

Gabes City and 24 kilometers from New Matmata. It is isolated from the Arabic-speaking neighboring communities. Zrawa is divided into Old Zrawa and New Zrawa. Old Zrawa is a cluster of abandoned old buildings located on top of the mountain with a population reduced to one Amazigh family. New Zrawa, on the other hand, is a small modern village where modern commodities are available, namely running water, electricity, telephones, and the internet. According to Said (a pseudonym), a teacher, New Zrawa was created in the 1978. According to local informants, the road that links Zrawa to New Matmata divides New Zrawa into two territories. Thus, the one to the north-west of the road is part of El-Hamma (Gabes) district and is officially called «Farhat Hachad». The one to the south-east of the road, on the other hand, is part of New Matmata (Gabes) district and is officially designated «Zrawa».

Having given some details about the place where the present research was carried out, it is necessary to provide details about the Amazigh population in Zrawa. Based on the Municipal Vote Register of May 2016 issued by the Ministry of Local Affairs, the population of Zrawa has reached 1328 inhabitants. This number does not include Zrawi (adjective from Zrawa) people who live in «Farhat Hached» and those who have migrated to other Tunisian regions or abroad. There are no statistics concerning the number of Zrawi Amazighophones who have migrated to other regions or abroad. Mohamed (a pseudonym), a member of an Amazigh cultural association, claimed that there are about 5000 Imazighen residing in Zrawa, with its two parts mentioned earlier, and thousands of Zrawi Imazighen families and individuals living in Tunis and abroad.

According to Mohamed and other participants, Imazighen represent the majority of the population in Zrawa and the remainder of the inhabitants consists of Arabic-speaking families and individuals from other regions. Indeed, Mohamed informed me that there were about 50 Arab-speaking inhabitants made up of families and individuals from Dhiba (the governorate of Tataouine) and a six-member family from El-Hamma. In the same vein, Arij (a


pseudonym), a university graduate, told me that the number of Arabic-speaking families settled in Zrawa exceeds that of Arabic-speaking individuals. As a consequence, Amazigh is predominantly spoken in Zrawa. Actually, what is interesting about Zrawa is the impact that the contact between Amazighophones and Arabophones has on Arabic-speaking children and adults. Indeed, Arabophone children learn Amazigh in the neighborhoods when mixing with Amazighophone children. In fact, I witnessed the use of Amazigh by two Arabic-speaking children from El-Hamma when they were conversing with their Amazighophone peers. For adults, as three of my informants told me, can speak Amazigh while others can only understand it. For those who can speak Amazigh they do not use it. Indeed, Mahdi (a pseudonym) told me that his employee can speak Amazigh; however, I noticed that they do converse in TA. For those who can only understand Amazigh they reply in TA whenever addressed in Amazigh.

The Zrawa Amazigh community has some linguistic, economic, social, and religious characteristics.

· Linguistically speaking, bilingualism, as suggested from the findings of the present study, is the norm among the Zrawi Imazighen whose linguistic behavior consists in alternating between AL and TA. Indeed, the majority of them are sequential bilinguals. Sequential bilingualism refers to those who acquire one language from birth and a second language later (Baker, 2001). As such, they acquire Amazigh within the family and acquire TA as a result of schooling, migration, and contact with the media (e.g. watching Tunisian-Arabic-speaking series on TV), all of which involve contact, whether direct or indirect, with Arabic-speaking people. Monolingual Zrawi Amazighophones, on the other hand, consist of those aging women who have had little or no contact with Arabic-speaking people and of young children who are not of school age yet. Once they attend school, Amazighophone children follow the national education curriculum and as a result learn Modern Standard Arabic, French, and


English. Arij , a university graduate, informed me that the majority of teachers at the primary school of Zrawa are Arabophone and only four among these, including the headmaster, are Zrawi Amazighophones. Illiteracy in Amazigh is widespread among Imazighen due to the fact that Amazigh is essentially a spoken language acquired within the Amazigh families. In fact, among the many Imazighen I communicated with (more than 20 individuals), only three claimed that they can write AL.

· From an economic point of view, Zrawi Imazighen are famous for being bakers. They own many bakeries not only in Tunisia but also in France. Indeed, Mohamed informed me that there are 25 bakeries in France owned by Zarwi Imazighen. He also gave me the example of a Zrawi Amazigh family which owns five bakeries in Tunis. Some of Zrawi bakers move out of Zrawa without their families. This is the case of the father of one informant. Other bakers move out of Zrawa with their families. This is the case of Tarik (a pseudonym), a Zrawi man who lives in Gabes City and owns a bakery there. As Arij informed me, because of the lack of job opportunities in Zrawa, young people move to big cities such as Tunis in search for a better life. She said that there are only two job opportunities available to Zrawi youth, which themselves are scarce: to work in bakeries or in construction fields and these opportunities are themselves scarce.

· Socially speaking, members of the Amazigh population in Zrawa are inter-related by means of endogamy, by sharing the same economic activities mentioned earlier, and by being geographically concentrated. Zrawi Imazighen, especially men, have frequent contact with each other. The typical places where Amazigh men meet are the street, the cafés, the souk (rural market), and the mosque.

· As to religious affiliations, Zrawi Imazighen, as Mohamed asserted, are Maliki Moslems. That is, they are followers of the Maliki school. It should be mentioned that the Friday sermon (khotbat al-joumou'a) is delivered in Arabic.


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