Kra Isallen : In an official statement King Mohamed VI announced the decision of IRCAM (French acronym for Royal Institute for Amazigh Culture) to adopt the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet as the only writing system for Tamazight in Morocco. As an Amazigh linguist, what is your reaction to this decision ?
Salem Chaker : I consider that it is at the same time a hasty and badly founded decision, and certainly a dangerous one for the future and development of Tamazight in Morocco. It also shows very clearly the confusion among those who are in charge of the Amazigh language in the North African countries. While no serious scientific debate on the question of the alphabet to use ever took place in Morocco or Algeria, the political leaders decided on an option that is totally disconnected from the current practice, both in Morocco and in the rest of the Amazigh world. Currently, as you know, the most functional Amazigh writing system is Latin character based. In Morocco, it is seconded by the Arabic character based alphabet.
K.I. : Isn’t this a pernicious move aiming at the domestication of Tamazight by imposing a graphical tool while the language to be transcribed is not even recognized constitutionally ?
S. C : Indeed, it’s the carriage before the horse ! The question of the legal status and, subsequently, the cultural and educational objectives of the teaching of Tamazight were neither clarified nor discussed. And graphic choices are imposed ! The goal can only be an attempt by the dominant spheres and their auxiliaries to take over the Amazigh field by driving this transitional period of Amazigh writing and teaching into a sure dead end.
K.I. : Do you think that in its current state, and taking into account the means available for research, that the choice of Tifinagh is the solution to the transcription of Tamazight ?
S. C : As you know, for all noted Amazigh experts who have dealt with this question, there is no doubt as to what the answer is. For my part, and I have explained my position during the past 20 years, the Tifinagh script is the historical writing system of Tamazight, but it has not been in effective use for centuries (certainly more than one millennium) in all of North Africa. Thus, it can only play an identity or emblematic role and cannot be used as a basis for a functional writing system that can easily be disseminated. Furthermore, no serious work has been done to bring it up to date and adapt it to the current needs, on the basis of a phonological study. The version currently in use, which is prevalent in certain Amazigh activist circles, is purely and simply aberrant since it is actually a phonetic notation of Kabyl based on Tifinagh characters. This was developed in 1970 in the Berber Academy circles by amateurs full of goodwill, but nonetheless without any linguistic training. The result is that the alphabet which is currently presented to us as the Amazigh alphabet is not an authentic one. It was strongly altered in order to transcribe the phonetic characteristics of Kabyl. It cannot thus be an Amazigh-wide alphabet.
K.I. : As the director of the Berber Research Center and as someone who has organized many meetings on the subject of standardization of the Amazigh transcription, don’t you think that this decision undermines the advances made with the Latin writing system ?
S. C : The result of nearly 50 years of research on Tamazight is a phonological system derived from the Latin characters which has shown significant progress in the Kabyl area. As far as Kabyl is concerned and more generally as far as Algerian Tamazight is concerned, the transition to the Latin based system is sufficiently advanced so that one may not fear either an obstruction or regression. There are many publications, a press, literature, associations’ newsletters and magazines which have gradually used the Latin based system. Started 40 to 50 years ago, it has seen some improvements and simplifications based on our recommendations during the past 20 years. In Morocco, however, where Tamazight writing is less extensive and unstable, and where competition between the Arabic and Latin based scripts exists, the decision to favor the Tifinagh script could have serious negative consequences. It may slow down or block the process of dissemination of the Amazigh written expression. The outcome will depend a lot on the users and in particular on the ability of the Moroccan Amazigh associations’ movement to persevere in the direction it has formerly taken.
K.I. : The two speeches in which King Mohamed VI referred to the Amazigh language took place right after Kabylia’s "Black Spring." Does this signal fear of seeing the Moroccan Amazigh raise the same questions as those raised by the Kabyls, and put pressure on the monarchy to attempt integration ?
S.C : I believe that this parameter is always present and can be used to answer this question, and this can be said about Morocco since 1980. It is clear that in this country, the monarchy, like all the established political forces, lives in fear of an evolution "Algerian style" as far as the Amazigh issue is concerned. In other words, they are afraid the Amazigh would become socially autonomous. This is made explicit in the political discourse of those close to the palace : "In this country, things do not happen the way they do in Kabylia because we do not typically address these issues through radical departures from past practice. The monarchy integrates and takes into account all of its subjects…" It is clear that the Moroccan authorities skillfully "anticipate" and take advantage of the fact that the Amazigh issue in Morocco does not have the same acuity and social anchoring as in Algeria. The goal is to try to defuse possible tensions by taking some preventive measures that would allow the government to control and take advantage of the situation. The creation of the IRCAM, as well as the adoption of the Tifinagh script are part of a strategy which aims at reducing the Amazigh social and political factor to nothing or close to nothing.
K.I. : Aren’t the approaches taken by Algeria and Morocco similar as far as their handling of the Amazigh issue ?
S. C : Yes, obviously, even if the chronology and, especially, the balance of power are not the same in the two countries. In Algeria, the Amazigh socio-political struggle is a reality that is solidly anchored, which is not the case in Morocco. But the authorities of the two countries often use the same ways and means of neutralization. These include disqualification of the social actors, manipulation, administrative obstruction, direct involvement of the political authority in the management of all aspects, and especially, the absolute refusal to recognize the Amazigh linguistic and cultural rights. The two countries have engaged in perpetual juggling acts and shams in order to avoid posing clearly and answering the question of the legal status of the Amazigh language. These two countries, in fact, simply refuse to admit the social-linguistic reality, i.e., Tamazight is the language of the Amazigh and the legal consequences this implies. In other words, the Amazigh people have the right to their language and culture and Tamazight must be recognized and granted a legal status identical to that of Arabic.
K.I. : What are your recommendations to the Amazigh movement as to what alphabet to use ?
S. C : Contrary to appearances, even in a country as centralized as France, in terms of language and script, it has always been the users and producers (writers, journalists, publishers, editors...) who have determined the graphical and orthographical standard, not the government or administrations. Thus, I hope that the Amazigh producers in Morocco, and the associations will continue their work, with determination and tenacity, following the same path they have already taken.