In Maghreb, struggle over Tamazight script endures

Friday 08/04/2016
Amazigh demonstrators flashing three-finger Amazigh symbol, which stands for land (akal) language (awal) and man (afgan)

TUNIS - Children in Libya’s Nafusa mountains in the weeks before the ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi started studying an almost unknown alphabet.

Their volunteer teachers had learned to read and write Tamazight from the internet as Qaddafi’s crackdown on Amazigh dissidents limited access to books and other learning material on the language.

The Nafusa mountains, 750 metres above sea level, are the Amazigh’s main stronghold where their ancient language survived through waves of culture and civi­lisation cycles across the Maghreb.

The coastal Zuwara area, 60km from the Tunisian border, is anoth­er enclave of the Libyan Amazigh, who number about 600,000, which is approximately 10% of the coun­try’s population.

Amazigh are native inhabitants of North Africa, with an estimated population totalling about 25 mil­lion extending from Morocco’s At­lantic coast to the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. The Touaregs of the Sahara desert share the same an­cient tongue.

Students in Nafusa’s Tamazight classrooms sing: “Nanna a Nan­na, sekker asif n zalla, asif n zalla yeshur s yimtekan d wzemmur“. That translates in English: “My grandmother, my grandmother, you wake the valley of Zalla, the valley of Zalla filled with figs and olives.”

It suggests that Libyan Amazigh’s language was based on Latin while their brethren in Morocco officially opted for the Tifinagh alphabet to underline that Tamazight is the ex­pression of an independent culture and ancient civilisation.

The Moroccan option is based upon findings of linguistic special­ists who say owning and mastering a written language are the main cri­teria for the foundation of a civili­sation.

Islamists had been locked in a tug-of-war with secularists and Amazigh activists about the choice of the alphabets, with Islamists claiming Arabic, as the language of Quran, is the obvious option and secularists mostly embracing Latin as a way of modernisation.

For anti-Islamists, bringing Amazigh symbols from oblivion is a way to belittle fundamentalist Is­lamist view of the world that slams pre-Islamic era as jahiliya — a pe­riod of darkness of ignorance and heresy.

Morocco’s reform-minded King Mohammed VI, whose mother is Amazigh, sided with the group in 2007 in a broad strategy to erect hurdles to Islamist expansion.

In Algeria, where the Amazigh language (Tamazight) was recog­nised in January as an official lan­guage, along with Arabic, in the re­vised constitution, there has been no decision on the selection of al­phabet amid fierce debate between secularists and Islamists backed by conservative Arabists.

Governments in Rabat and Al­giers had feared language plural­ism as threat to national unity as authorities struggled to rebuild the countries after independence.

In 1968, the Algerian government decreed that all civil positions use the Arabic language.

The government ruled in 1990 that Arabic is the only language to be used in institutions and public service.

In 1997, the government passed legislation prohibiting officials from speaking any language other than Arabic publicly. Laws imposed a fine on officials who prepared of­ficial documents in any other lan­guage than Arabic.

“It is better to foster pluralism of the alphabet in the writing of Amazigh to avoid tensions and ri­gidity about language and culture identities and strengthen the pil­lars of a state of democracy and cit­izenship,” said Abderrazak Douray, the head of the Algerian National Centre of Pedagogy and Amazigh Language Teaching.

Amazigh comprises variations across the Maghreb and its Sahara periphery. These include dialects in the Kabilye region in northern Algeria, Mzab in the southern Mzab valley, Chaoui in the eastern moun­tainous areas, Chleu and Chnoui in Morocco’s Atlas areas, Rifia in the Moroccan northern Rif regions and Touareg in the Sahara of southern Algeria and Libya and in Niger, Mali and Mauritania.