Friday, September 4, 2009

Reading and Writing Berber in Morocco

Here is an article from the BBC about the Berber language in higher education in Morocco. I have a few problems with the premise of the article(as usual). I am not so quick to draw a line between Berbers and Arabs when so much of Moroccan history has been about the mixture of these two " identities," and also because i feel as if secular and Christian missionary motives (which both tend to be Islamophobic) like sticking their finger in this cultural and religious "rift."


Trail-blazing for Morocco's Berber speakers

Aischa Bardoun

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Agadir

Aischa Bardoun sees herself as a trail-blazer. She is one of the first Moroccans to get a masters degree in the Amazigh language, spoken by the country's Berber majority.

"We are very excited," she says.

"We studied the older texts that were passed down orally, but we are also writing new literature to reflect the current situation for Berbers in Morocco. It's really ground-breaking."

Although Berbers were Morocco's first inhabitants and account for some 60% of Morocco's population, they faced widespread discrimination and it is only now that the language is required to be taught in public school.

Some students feel having a degree in the language will help get a job. Unfortunately that is not necessarily the case
Ahmed Sabir
University of Ibn Zohr

Their academic qualifications may not help them much on the jobs market, but the availability of a further degree in a subject that was once virtually outlawed in their North African country underscores Berber success in gaining official acceptance of the language.

As well as the University of Ibn Zohr offering degrees in Amazigh, an umbrella term for the three dialects of Berber that are spoken in Morocco, the previously oral-only language has moved further into the mainstream with the creation of a Royal Institute of Amazigh language and culture.


Ms Bardoun and her classmates are all big fans of the doyenne of Moroccan Amazigh singers Raissa Talbensirt.

In her late 50s, Ms Talbensirt speaks only Tashelheit, the local dialect, but was a huge hit at the annual Berber festival, Timitar, attended by tens of thousands of young people.

She can neither read nor write but composes traditional music with local musicians.

"I am glad that the music is being carried forward by the new generation," she says.

"They listen on iPods and watch video clips on their computers, but it all helps our cause."

New alphabet

Although many Amazigh are illiterate, the government has put in place measures to assist schools to teach the written form of the language.

The Royal Institute of Amazigh has overseen the creation of an alphabet based partly on the mystical signs and symbols of the Tuareg found inscribed on tombs and monuments.

This written form is expected to have a unifying effect.

It is essentially a new form of the language which, it is hoped, all Moroccan Berbers will speak and understand.

It has also raised unrealistic hopes according to Ahmed Sabir, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ibn Zohr.

"We were very oversubscribed when we started accepting applications for our Amazigh courses," he explains.

"Some students feel having a degree in the language will help get a job. Unfortunately that is not necessarily the case."

Fears of extremism

But while many Berbers, until recently excluded from jobs in education and government, make up Morocco's underclass, there are also the super-rich who have made fortunes in business.

Many live in the commercial capital, Casablanca, and in the past funded Berber activist groups.

According to Gerd Becker, a German cultural consultant living just outside Agadir, the main reason for the recent change of heart over Berber status stems from the government's desire to provide an alternative model to the radical Wahabi form of Islam.

"There was a danger of the country being taken over by fundamentalism," he says.

"The Amazigh culture offers a ready-made, more liberal identity that many Moroccans already identify with."

Although most Berbers are Muslim, some are Jewish or even Christian and with Amazigh stretching across northern Africa from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger and Mali to Morocco, it is language that holds the rather disparate elements together.

And while Arabic remains the official language of the country, when it comes to music, young Moroccans either listen to Western music, or to rap in Amazigh.

Foreign language

Fatman, lead singer with the Agdir-based hip-hop band rap2bled says that the Berber language is being used to pass on messages about drug use and unemployment.

"My parents couldn't read a newspaper or understand the television because they were in Arabic," he says.

"Now we have our own television channel and magazines in Berber. We feel much closer now to people in the Rif and Atlas Mountains."

But for intellectuals and activists, this is just the beginning.

Abullah Aourik, an artist and publisher of a magazine in Amazigh, wants to see Berber replace Arabic as the official language of the country.

"We think it would be appropriate to change part of our constitution so that Arabic is no longer required for legal documents or for any official communication," he insists.

"Most Moroccans grow up speaking Berber - why should they be at a disadvantage in having to use classical Arabic which is a foreign language whenever they brush up against bureaucracy?"

The government may not be ready yet to entertain this idea which seems far-fetched to even the majority of the Amazigh themselves, but the teaching of Amazigh in public schools and at university level could in the future lead to it being recognised as a national language - as it already is in Algeria, Mali and Niger.


  1. While I'm with you on the finger-sticking, so to speak, I do see a need for inclusion of the languages in the Moroccan curriculum. Why should the 40% (or more) of students who speak Amazigh languages at home have to suffer in schools (particularly when much of the curriculum is in French anyway, a third and unnecessary language?) Better to do away with French, teach Arabic and Amazigh when necessary, and make sure kids learn English to keep up with the rest of the region.

  2. Ahlan Jillian -

    It seems to me as if there is so much more to this discussion that is beyond language , but that language (Berber vs. Arabic) is the chosen field for the battle. I am just astounded that French stands un-accused by the Berber movement.

    And as someone who is into Morocco's Islamic history, I know that many of the great scholars of the Arabic language in Morocco were of Berber background. Look at ibn Ajjur from Sefrou whose classic text is still taught today centuries after it was written.

    No one should be made to feel inferior or be hated because of the language they were taught as a child( or that they learned to love as an adult)be it Amazigh OR Arabic.

    Years ago before the Amazigh movement became "fanatical," I was a strong supporter. Now that it seems to have turned anti-Arab and anti-Arabic, all I can do is wait for the movement to mature a bit more.


  3. I am always astonished how my arabophone countrymen and women dance around the amazigh issue. No one argue that there is indeed a cultural diversity in the country. Trying to confuse the issue and further complicate it by adding Islam to the equation, doesn't help either. The issue is the marginalization of the culture, language, and the people. The fact is that since the independence of Morocco, the adalussian elite led by the istiqlal party made sure to exclude Amazigh from all segments of the country (legal, education, and media). And no matter how the Arabophones view Amazigh as a language (is it useful, can it be taught...ect), Imazighen are indeed very determined to restore this heritage by including it in schools, media and make it an official language of the country, of course beside Arabic. I am also a firm believer that if some fractions of the Amazigh movement became fanatical, it is a simple response to a long ignorance of the government and the elite to the movement's demands. I also believe that the longer these demands are ignored, the more fanatical the movement will become. Yours, Hicham/Moroccan Amazigh

  4. Sumayya,

    A fair point - I would like to see proper Arabic given its due in schools too - I'm not an expert on the Moroccan educational system, but the friends of mine who've completed public schooling there mostly feel as though their Arabic is not up to international snuff. Of course, ditching French isn't an option, but the absurdity of leaving school without a complete language still baffles me.