Reviving Amazigh Language
Featured Image: At the Safir Company in Rabat, I’m standing with Badr, Community Relations Manager, Lalla, language teacher, and Ali, Tamazight language teacher.
By Meghana Mysore
Berber, a variation of the Latin word, “Barbarian,” was a term that was first applied to the Barbary coast in northwest Africa. The term Berber is offensive to many in Morocco, because of its roots in the language of barbarism, and now “Amazigh” is used to refer to Berber populations in Morocco. The word comes from Imazighen, meaning “free.”
An estimated 25 to 30 million speakers of Tamazight and other Berber dialects live throughout the North African countries; the three major regional variants of Amazigh account for 35 to 40 percent of the population in Morocco. Still, the language has not been integrated into nationalist or Islamist political discourse, as many see it as a barrier to cohesive national identity. In the past, giving children Amazigh names was not allowed in the country. Not only has the Amazigh language been ignored historically, but actively suppressed.
In Morocco, the teaching of Tamazight, the language of the Amazigh population, is rare. Researching the linguistic history of Berbers in Morocco, I began to understand the way in which recognition of the language declined over time, and the subsequent push for its revitalization.
In 1994, King Hassan II advocated for the teaching of the Amazigh language, mostly because of the pressure from Amazigh activists to recognize it. In 2003, King Hassan II’s recognition of the Amazigh language translated to a new constitution that declared Tamazight as one of Morocco’s official languages. And yet, members of the Amazigh population still mostly learn Arabic in schools.
The desire for arabization, for uniform national identity, most vividly expresses itself in linguistics. It informs the suppression of the Amazigh language, and explains why Tamazight is rarely found in school curriculums.
Our second day in Marrakech, my friend and I took a taxi to Lessane Arabi Center, a language school that teaches only Arabic (Darija and Modern Standard). We were welcomed by Salim El Jeddaoui, director of the language school, outside the window of our taxi. Green bushes and pink flowers framed the white, rigid walls of the school. Salim showed us the teaching room with Arabic written on the chalkboard. He explained that many Peace Corps volunteers come to learn Tamazight, but that because there is a low demand for the language, they don’t teach it at the school.
El Jeddaoui explained that Arabic is “older, more established,” although the Tiffinagh (Tamazight alphabet) is older. While “the population of Berbers is large, because there are sometimes lower levels of education among Amazighs,” he said, “there is less demand to learn their language.”
Visiting the Lessane Arabi Center offered me perspective on the complexity of the revival of the Amazigh language in schools. I realized that there are many schools that still starkly oppose efforts to incorporate the language into school curriculums, and into the public administration as a whole.
While there are now forms of media in Tamazight,—I noticed lettering on the tops of buildings as we moved past in the tram—courts, hospitals, and other aspects of the public only operate in Arabic. Grandparents and mothers who have grown up speaking Tamazight must learn Arabic to fully integrate into society, or to even pray with the Qu’ran. Children who have grown up only hearing Tamazight spoken in the household also traditionally go to Moroccan language schools to learn Moroccan Arabic (Darija), or Modern Standard Arabic. The price is that their native Amazigh language fades from importance in their lives.
Now, Tamazight is only taught to about 12 percent of Moroccan students, and because of this, thousands of children whose first language is Tamazight flunk out of school. The marginalization of Amazigh language for Amazighs contributes to a larger feeling of cultural erasure.
In the middle of Rue Tanger in Rabat stands The Safir Company, about a block away from the American Language Center. As my friend and I walked quickly down the street, dust quietly settling in our sandals, we almost passed the Moroccan language school. 5 Imm. N18 Rue Tanger, I remember repeating to her. Finally, we found it tucked away into the street, behind a closed black gate. Walking up the meandering stairs led us to the front door.
We were welcomed inside immediately, and sat down on a red couch next to Lalla Amina, a woman who directs finances for the Moroccan language school. “Meet Lalla,” Badr said, gesturing to her. She asked me if I spoke Arabic. I said no. I remember wondering if I could write about the subject of linguistic suppression if I did not speak Arabic or Tamazight.
Allouche explained how The Safir Company started from a collaboration with a Peace Corps volunteer and her husband. He explained that returning Peace Corps Morocco volunteers —his wife is one—often come to the school to learn MSA, Darija, or Amazigh language.
“We don’t have a big demand for teaching the Amazigh language. Those who do come to learn it are married to Moroccans who speak the language, or they travel and want to learn the language,” he said. He explained that Tamazight now is not a language spoken widely, only in certain places, “but hopefully in the future we will be able to teach it to younger people.”
To teach Tamazight, the Safir Company uses the Tashleet Textbook. Teaching Tamazight in schools is a very new concept, Allouche explained, and now Morocco is acknowledging this language, and “now [the Amazigh] can see this language in public, in television, in newspapers; they feel they’re part of this country.”
In total, The Safir Company has about 35 students (all adults). Most learn Moroccan Arabic, few learn Tamazight. The school does not see many families, although Allouche mentioned that the school does have a mother who just moved from Egypt to Morocco, and she often brings her kids to the school as well. He motioned over to Ali, a Tamazight teacher who was sitting at the desk to the left of Allouche’s.
“One more thing,” he said, before I spoke to Ali about his experiences teaching Tamazight, “this school is like a Moroccan household. That’s a sign of welcoming—and that’s why we learn language—so you feel safe, welcomed.”
I began to speak with Ali about his teaching of Tamazight. Ali explained that teaching the language in Morocco takes a lot of time, because of the difficulty of the alphabet. “People in my generation won’t work with Tiffinagh,” he said. The approach he takes to teaching the language is through Amazigh poetry and stories, and using Latin letters as a phonetic way to read, and Arabic to teach how to write Tamazight. “We have a huge memory of Amazigh poetry, but it’s not easy to teach. At the same time, there are stories; Amazigh are very known for storytelling. There are thousands and thousands of stories.”
Ali works with an Amazigh poet and novelist, Mohamed Moustaoi, to translate the stories to lesson plans. Moustaoi comes to Rabat twice a week to work with Ali and to conduct his radio show in Tamazight.
Still, despite efforts toward revitalizing the language within schools, widespread recognition of the language in Morocco still feels like an intangible goal. Dr. Mohamed Chtatou, professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat and author of several articles on Amazigh language and culture in North Africa, admitted that in many ways, the perceived strides toward integration of Amazigh language and culture are just “doing lip service to Berber culture” without “real emphasis on the language and culture.”
The Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), founded in 2001, stands as the main symbol currently in Morocco of Amazigh advocacy and revival. To Chtatou, the IRCAM is an example of “perceived strides” that do not translate to greater recognition of Amazigh language and culture.
Ali, Tamazight language teacher, sits at his desk and smiles.
The outside of the IRCAM in Rabat seems austere. I noticed, at first, the shrubbery surrounding the building, then the Tamazight lettering on the sign. Besides the lettering, the building itself is sharply blank; the paint is completely white and the structure appears precisely geometrical, in a way that is almost uninviting. Entering the building, I witnessed the extensive security system to protect Amazigh literature and artifacts.
We were invited into the office of Dr. Khalid Ansar, language researcher at the IRCAM. He spoke about the history of the Amazigh language and culture, and the mission of the Institute “to promote the Amazigh language and culture, its sociology and its environment.” His office, too, was bare except for a few books and his white desk and chair.
“After the independence,” he explained, “the majority of children in schools studied French or Arabic, but no one taught Tamazight. The language would be extinct around 2050 if there wasn’t an effort to revive the language and culture.”
There are seven research centers in the Institute. An important aspect of the research centers, Ansar said, is the addition of the translation and documentation centers, which tries to undertake research in computer science. This has allowed for the introduction of the Amazigh script in technology and some programs of Microsoft, starting in 2008, which now feature Tiffinagh. “We want to reread the history of Morocco with the Amazigh component, and to have a real and genuine understanding of Amazigh history,” Ansar said.
The Institute is working toward the standardization of the Amazigh language to Tiffinagh in Morocco, as currently there are three different writing systems used: Tiffinagh, the Arabic script, and the Berber Latin alphabet. “We want to unify the bulk of the structure of the language itself, as well as the graphic representation,” Ansar explained. This unification of language occurs at an organizational and grammatical level.
“When you unify a language, you can then use it in different domains, in school, in media…When you are exposed to TV, and you see someone speaking and writing in Amazigh language, this is going to influence you, and then you’re going to make use of the language you hear in media, and you’ll write in Tiffinagh, and this gives power to the language.”
Despite efforts towards revitalizing Amazigh culture and language, until people who walk the streets of Rabat and Marrakech and Fes—cities where the population of Amazighs is not as high—see the relevance of the language, it will not be incorporated into people’s understanding of what it means to be Moroccan.
But public recognition of the language does mean something to Amazigh people: it offers the possibility of connection. “When you hear someone speak your language, you connect with them,” said Allouche.
Throughout the trip, I too had problems with translation, with genuinely connecting to Moroccan people. As I walked one day through the Rabat Medina, I glimpsed a man’s leg, exposing open wounds. I wanted to do something, to say something, but I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say. Conversing with an Amazigh craftsman in the medina, I kept trying to ask about the design of his tapis in French and failing. He could not understand me.
At The Safir Company, Lalla told me that she did not speak English very well and she asked why I wanted to study Arabic. I told her I didn’t speak Arabic or Tamazight. When I interviewed Ali, Allouche had to translate my English to Arabic so that he could understand—so that I could write a story about language and translation.
Lalla asked me how I found Morocco so far, and I replied quickly, I love it. It’s beautiful. But I felt that I had lied; how could I say it was beautiful when I had only been here for a few days? What did I know of its beauty? I could not even speak the language of its people, only an Americanized version of French. I felt ashamed.
In the Salé Medersa, which previously was a boys’ school for the teaching of the Qu’ran, I kept repeating the French verb for “to translate” (traduire) to no avail to Fatiha, the woman inside the medersa. “Je ne comprends pas,” she said. I kept repeating the word, as if that would change the reality. She could not comprehend me, and I could not understand her.
Meghana is a junior in Davenport College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.