In Maghreb, struggle over Tamazight script endures
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.