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Morocco Berbers struggle to be heard

02 December 2013, 14:40

Rabat - Morocco's indigenous Berber people, descendants of North Africa's pre-Arab inhabitants, are struggling to make their voices heard despite their ancient Amazigh-language winning official recognition in 2011 after decades of campaigning.

The sweeping Arab Spring protests that erupted that year brought hopes of empowerment for the region's traditionally marginalised Berber communities.

Morocco's King Mohamed VI introduced a new constitution in response to the social unrest, which acknowledged Amazigh as an official language of the state alongside Arabic, a major achievement for a tongue that was once banned in schools.

The constitution, which requires "organic" legislation to implement its proposals, calls for the language's integration in teaching and other "priority areas".

"But what has been done since then?" asks Ahmed Boukous, director of IRCAM, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, which was founded in 2001 and spearheaded the campaign to have the language recognised.

Morocco's coalition government, led by the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD), "announced in its political programme that organic laws relating to Amazigh would be enacted. But we're still waiting," Boukous lamented.

Morocco hosts the largest population of Berbers, who live in scattered communities across North Africa, with a census taken 10 years ago showing that 8.4 million Moroccans spoke an Amazigh dialect daily, or around a quarter of the population.

Election campaign

But the language is for the most part spoken only in rural pockets of the country, even though a good majority of Moroccans are thought to have Berber ethnic origins.

Some accuse the ruling Islamist party of resisting any challenges to the supremacy of Arabic, the language of the Koran.

"Unfortunately, we're dealing with a party which had already stated during its election campaign that it was very lukewarm [about promoting Amazigh]," said Ahmed Arehmouch, who co-ordinates the National Federation of Amazigh Associations.

"So we're not particularly surprised about the current situation."

Parties like the PJD "have a religious reference" and "Arabic remains for them the only official language," Arehmouch said.

Government spokesperson Mustapha Khalfi, himself a member of the Islamist party, denied those claims when contacted by AFP.

He said a ministerial commission chaired by the prime minister would begin work on elaborating the organic law for Berbers from next month.

Tifinagh, the distinctive Amazigh alphabet, is now a familiar sight on Moroccan public buildings and official documents, usually alongside Arabic and French.

In June, politicians and activists welcomed a government minister's unprecedented decision to speak the indigenous tongue in parliament, in response to a question asked by an opposition MP in Amazigh.

Morocco’s ruling elite

And back in January 2010, Morocco's state broadcaster launched Tamazight, a Berber-language television channel.

But IRCAM's Ahmed Boukous says that nearly three years after the TV station started up, the quality of its programmes is poor, while the teaching of Amazigh in public schools "has paradoxically regressed."

"We have to be realistic and deal with this progressively. There are certain key sectors, such as education, the media, culture, local government, the judiciary, where we need action."

Mounir Kejii, another Berber activist, says the problem is in the minds of Morocco's ruling elite.

"We still have a political establishment that is Amazighophobic," he charged.

The ongoing difficulty Berber parents face in giving their children traditional names is cited as a clear example of this alleged suppression of Amazigh culture.

Such names include Anir, meaning star of the morning in Amazigh, Tilila, meaning joy, or Sifaw, meaning flame.

"Those who want to give Amazigh first names to their children are welcome to do so," said Abdelouahad Ourzik, who heads the legal affairs department at the interior ministry.

A list of names drawn up in the 1990s banning Berber names was scrapped 10 years ago.

But since January 2012, Arehmouch says there have been at least 22 disputes over the naming of Berber children, in Morocco and in consulates abroad.

Abuse of power

Ourzik says there can be "difficulties of interpretation" in the thousands of public offices around the country tasked with registering children's names, but he insisted there were public procedures that "protect against the abuse of power".

The parents can take their case to an independent commission, and then to court, if necessary.

But Arehmouch says they must be "really determined."

In the Rabat suburb of Tamara, Mohamed Idrissi explained how he struggled with officialdom over the name of his son, born in 2007, whom he decided to call Anir.

"When I went to the registry office ... they got out a list and told me: 'Sorry, but we can't register that name.' It ruined our celebrations," he recalled.

The family got their way in the end, but only after three months of campaigning. They called their second son Anas, which is used in both Arabic and Amazigh.



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