All eyes -and ears- on television for Morocco's Berbers

RABAT, Herve Guilbaud- "Watch more television" may become the order of the day in Morocco's Berber households after the first TV channel in their ancient but marginalised tongue, Amazigh, was launched after a decades-long struggle.
Tamazight, the name of the station, broadcasts in the lingua franca of North Africa's indigenous residents, the Berbers, before the 7th-century Arab conquest of the region. Today it is spoken mainly in rural pockets in Morocco.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI
Moroccan King Mohammed VI
"We are relying a lot on television," said Ahmed Boukous, director of IRCAM, the Royal Institute of Amazigh (Berber) Culture, one of the drivers in the fight to have their language recognised alongside the official Arabic.
"Our language is threatened and the young generations master it less and less."
The channel, state-funded and controlled, went on air this month. Seventy percent of its content will be in one of the three dialects of the Amazigh language, which UNESCO has classified as "endangered".
When the launch date was set last month, Communication Minister Khalid Naciri upheld Amazigh culture as "an integral part of the identity of Morocco, a country united in its diversity".
And when it went live, he said some programs will be in Arabic "to avoid making it an Amazigh ghetto" -- all telling comments pointing to change in Morocco.
Berber vs. Arab identity has been a touchy, often taboo, topic since time long past, with attempts to nudge Amazigh back into the mainstream snubbed as a challenge to the supremacy of the Arabic language and culture.
This saw Amazigh censored as a threat to national unity and Berber speakers often feeling like an underclass, squeezed between Arabic and French, the former colonial language still widely used in business and government.
"Amazigh culture has been a victim of politics," said Rachid Raha, a founding member of the World Amazigh Congress, an independent group created in 1995 to defend Berbers' rights, and director of the "Amazigh World" magazine.
"Morocco's traditional parties want to impose the Arabisation of education," he told AFP, "when Amazigh culture is a richness, a proof of democracy."
Banned in schools, the Berber language was finally introduced in elementary classes in the 1990s. Further progress came when King Mohammed VI took over the throne in 1999.
A moderniser, he has sought to put forth Muslim Morocco -- a NATO ally in the US-led war on terror with aspirations to join the European Union -- as a tolerant, stable nation in a volatile region, and distance it from the human rights abuses during the rule of his father, Hassan II.
Mohammed VI has pushed through a program of economic and social reforms, including a landmark change in family law that boosted women's rights, and in 2001 created IRCAM to promote Berber language and culture.
"With Hassan II, we could do nothing," said IRCAM researcher Ahmed Assid. "He saw it as a threat to the cohesion of the country; Berber words were taboo."
"With the new king, things have changed," he said, "but much time was lost."
For some it wasn't changing enough. In 2005, several irate IRCAM council members said Amazigh had been given a "humiliating role" in elementary education as merely a "prop for teaching Arabic".
They also blasted the absence of Amazigh from Moroccan universities -- a situation that has since changed -- and television. IRCAM director Boukous, a linguistics professor, noted ironically at the time: "We readily teach Turkish, Persian, Japanese, Hebrew but not Amazigh".
Court rulings bore out some of their anger. As late as 2008, a judge blocked a family from giving their adopted daughter a Berber first name.
Boukous, whose IRCAM had an advisory role in Tamazight's programming, called the channel "the culmination of social expectations and demands made by the Amazighs" -- a battle not confined to Morocco.
A similar drive by Berbers in neighboring Algeria won recognition of Amazigh as a national tongue in 2002, and the creation of an Academy of the Amazigh language in 2007.
With an annual budget of 60 million dirhams (five million euros/7.6 million dollars), Tamazight broadcasts news, documentaries, variety shows, plays and films six hours each weekday and 10 hours on weekend days.
It aims at Morocco's 8.4 million Berber speakers, or 28 percent of the country's 31.5 million residents, according to the last census in 2004 -- a number disputed by Boukous who criticised the census as "badly done", noting that "85 percent of Moroccans were Berber-speaking at independence" from France in 1956.
For some Berbers, however, the small screen victory is just one step towards another goal: having Amazigh, now a national language, upgraded to a full "official" tongue alongside Arabic.

Sunday, January 17th 2010
Herve Guilbaud

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