"Morocco's Berbers Reclaim Their Language & Indigenous Culture"
dzo at bisharat.net
Tue Mar 18 01:23:57 UTC 2008
The following item from the American newsweekly, U.S. News & World Report,
was seen thanks to a pointer on ILAT.
The article doesn't mention a key factor - the traditional Tifinagh script
in which the language (known locally as Tamazight) is being taught. The
inclusion of Tifinagh in the Unicode standard in 2004 has made it possible
to do more with the language on computers and the internet. It would be
interesting to know how it has affected preparation of school materials in
There are some interesting mentions of language policy and its application
Morocco's Berbers Reclaim Their Language and Their Indigenous Culture
By Emma Schwartz
Posted March 13, 2008
AIT OURIR, MOROCCO-From the day Omar Boutmouzzar began teaching more than
two decades ago, he could address students only in a language other than his
own. A Moroccan Berber, Boutmouzzar was barred by law from using his native
tongue-the one spoken by the country's sizable indigenous population-inside
But the 46-year-old teacher doesn't have to hold his tongue any longer. Once
banned in schools across Morocco, his language, Tamazight, is making a
comeback as the result of an initiative by King Mohammed VI to integrate the
country's widely spoken language, and its speakers, into the education
system. The shift is part of a larger push toward pluralism and openness by
the 44-year-old ruler who, since taking power in 1999, has moved away from
some of the heavy-handed tactics of his father. He has liberalized laws
affecting women (such as on divorce), forged stronger economic ties with the
West, and created a commission to examine past human-rights violations.
Tamazight is another aspect of this trend. Teaching began in 2003, and by
last year nearly 300,000 students-native Arabic speakers as well as
Tamazight speakers-were enrolled in Tamazight courses, according to the
Ministry of Education. The payoff has been broader: The official support for
Tamazight has helped fuel a larger revival of Berber culture and life in the
kingdom, where the country's native people have long been shunned, and
sometimes imprisoned, for public expressions of their heritage. Now, summer
arts festivals are common-place, Tamazight newspapers are thriving, and a
long-blocked translation of the Koran into Tamazight finally made it into
print. "It's a symbol of tolerance," says Ahmed Boukouss, director of the
national institution for the teaching of Tamazight, known by its French
Struggle. Of course, the transformations have been far from uniform, and
there are signs that the slow pace of change is beginning to alienate
Berbers from the king's initiative. Yet the story of the Tamazight project
and the challenges it has faced from politicians, parents, and Berbers is in
many ways symbolic of the broader struggle Morocco faces as it tries to
balance the competing interests of a multicultural country of almost 34
Berbers have long dominated the population in North Africa, and even today,
most Moroccans trace their roots to the Berber tribes. Though most are
Muslim, many Berbers still practice local festivals and follow a separate
calendar. But this heritage hasn't always been recognized by the state.
After Morocco won independence in 1956, King Hassan II embarked on a program
of Arabization. Seeking to solidify a unified national identity and rid the
country of French colonialism, he banned Tamazight in schools and public
places. This forced a whole generation of children to enter school in a
language they had never spoken before, contributing to a higher dropout rate
among Berber children. Trouble for Tamazight-only speakers didn't stop in
the education system. Many continued to face other difficulties
communicating in hospitals and the court system, where Arabic and French
The king's mother. The frustration led to two major Berber revolts-one in
1973 and a second a decade later-both of which the Moroccan government
suppressed. People who continued to assert their identity were jailed. For
instance, Hassan Id Balkassm, a longtime Berber activist who now sits on the
United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, spent a week behind
bars in 1981 for simply hanging up a sign to his law firm in Tamazight. (It
was also in French and Arabic.)
But by 1994 the Berber movement was strong enough to catch the attention of
Hassan II, who publicly vowed to integrate the indigenous tongue into the
education system. In fact, though, there was little progress until Mohammed
VI, whose mother is Berber, took over. In 2001, he announced a program to
teach all schoolchildren Tamazight and bankrolled a research institute,
IRCAM, to develop a curriculum and promote study of the language.
For Boutmouzzar, the initiative gave him the chance to spend three hours a
week teaching first graders Tamazight at Agadir Naet Lesson school, located
in a village about 20 miles outside Marrakech. Most of the school's nearly
500 students come from poor families, who often eke out a living picking
olives or doing other day labor. Though classes are taught in Arabic and, in
the higher grades, French, most students speak only Tamazight when they
begin. "It's a catastrophe the first year," says Moulay Hamad, the school
This is precisely what happened to Hind Bari, a 10-year-old third grader at
the school. Hind was excited about starting classes four years ago, but the
Arabic-only classes quickly curbed her interest. Her father, Hajib, a
construction worker, could do little to help because he had no formal
schooling, aside from a yearlong literacy course for adults. Unable to keep
pace, Hind failed first grade twice.
Worried about a repeat with his second daughter, Bari enrolled Fatiha, four
years younger, in a newly opened preschool near the family's home. The
classes exposed Fatiha to Arabic, but she had an additional advantage
beginning school: three hours of classes in Tamazight, her native tongue.
Now, 6-year-old Fatiha is on track to complete first grade in time.
On a recent Friday morning, Fatiha joined 22 students during Boutmouzzar's
Tamazight class, where students performed skits and sang songs during the
hour-long class. "It's a bridge between the reality and the institution,"
But Fatiha's luck may be short lived. Though the government initiative calls
for adding a new level of Tamazight each year, the school in Ait Ourir has
offered only the first level for the past three years.
It's a similar problem in schools across the country. Many still have no
Tamazight teachers, and the Ministry of Education won't allocate money to
recruit new ones-a position that many Berbers see as a sign that the
Arab-dominated government hasn't fully accepted the initiative. Textbooks
aren't always sent to rural areas, where Berbers are often the majority,
because they don't sell as well. Other promises, such as plans to launch an
all-Tamazight television station and develop university-level programs on
Berbers, have not materialized, either.
As roadblock after roadblock stalls the pace of change, many Berber
activists are beginning to criticize and distance themselves from the king's
effort. In 2005, for instance, seven of the 30 board members of IRCAM quit
because of the constant pushback from the ministry. "If the government
doesn't go fast and the mentality stays as is, there won't be progress,"
says Abdellah Hitous, head of Tamaynut, the country's leading human-rights
organization for Berbers. "In fact, I think there will be a regression."
Copyright C 2008 U.S. News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved.
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