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Libya - People

Libya has a small population of about 6,500,000 in a large land area of 1,760,000 sq. km.. Population density is about 50 persons per sq. km. (80/sq. mi.) in the two northern regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, but falls to less than one person per sq. km. (1.6/sq. mi.) elsewhere. Ninety percent of the people live in less than 10% of the area, primarily along the coast. More than half the population is urban, mostly concentrated in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. Thirty-three percent of the population is estimated to be under age 15. Native Libyans are primarily a mixture of Arabs and Berbers. Small Tebou and Tuareg tribal groups in southern Libya are nomadic or semi-nomadic. Among foreign residents, the largest groups are citizens of other African nations, including North Africans (primarily Egyptians and Tunisians), West Africans, and other Sub-Saharan Africans.

The successive waves of Arabs who arrived beginning in the seventh century imposed Islam and the Arabic language along with their political domination. Conversion to Islam was largely complete by 1300, but Arabic replaced the indigenous Berber dialects more slowly. Initially, many Berbers fled into the desert, resisting Islam and viewing it as a urban religion. In the eleventh century, however, tribes of the beduin Bani Hilal and Bani Salim invaded first Cyrenaica and later Tripolitania and were generally effective in imposing their Islamic faith and nomadic way of life. This beduin influx disrupted existing settlements and living patterns; in many areas tribal life and organization were introduced or strengthened. A further influx of Arabic-speaking peoples occurred in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as a result of the upheavals accompanying the fall to the Christians of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

It is estimated that the total number of Arabs who arrived in North Africa during the first two migrations did not exceed 700,000 and that in the twelfth-century population of 6 or 7 million they did not constitute more than 10 percent of the total. Arab blood later received some reinforcement from Spain, but throughout North Africa Berber background heavily outweighed Arab origin. Arabization of the Berbers advanced more rapidly and completely in Libya than elsewhere in the Maghrib and by the mid-twentieth century relatively few Berber speakers remained. By contrast, in Morocco and Algeria, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia, Berbers who had yet to become Arabized continued to form substantial ethnic minorities.

In the countryside traditional Arab life, including customary dress, was still predominant at the time of Libyan independence in 1951. The subsequent discovery of petroleum and the new wealth that resulted, the continuing urban migration, and the sometimes extreme social changes of the revolutionary era, however, made progressive inroads in traditional ways. For example, in the cities, already to some extent Europeanized at the time of the revolution in 1969, men and some younger women frequently wore Western clothing, but older women still dressed in the customary manner.

Arab influence permeates the culture, among both the common people and the social, political, economic, and intellectual elite. The cultural impact of the Italian colonial regime was superficial, and Libya--unlike other North African countries, with their legacy of French cultural domination--suffered no conflict of cultural identity. As a rule, those few Libyans achieving higher education obtained it not in Europe but in neighboring Arab countries.

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 about 300,000, 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.

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Page last modified: 23-10-2013 19:12:59 ZULU