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The Current State of Tamazight in Morocco
BY ABDELLAH BOUNFOUR (1)
dimanche 18 janvier 2004
par Hsen
Organized by the association Tamazgha on June 28, 2003 in Paris, the talk by Abdellah Bounfour on the Amazigh issue in Morocco helped raise public awareness in regards to the political position of the Moroccan monarchy towards Tamazight. Reproduced below is a transcript of the talk, as well as a summary of the discussion that ensued.

The best way to approach this subject, it seems to me, is to relate the events in their chronology and, eventually, draw some provisional conclusions from this placement in a chronological perspective. For that I will consider three events : the publication of the Amazigh Manifesto by Mohamed Chafik, the creation of the Institut Royal pour la Culture Amazighe (IRCAM(2)), and the Monarchy’s choice of Tifinagh as the official script for Tamazight.

The Amazigh Manifesto

I will not go over the content of this Manifesto ; I had done it when it first came out. What is important to point out is that this Manifesto appeared to many observers and actors of the Amazigh cultural movement as the foundation for the Amazigh identity claims. This vision of things was supported by the second argument discussed below. However, there are two other arguments that escaped their attention :

1. Mohamed Chafik is a nationalist who lived through the war for independence. He is totally impregnated with nationalism, including in the language that he uses today. This is an established fact. Perhaps the day will come when researchers will be interested in studying this language from the lexicon and rhetoric standpoints in order to better understand this period of Morocco’s history. It is, therefore, not surprising that he entitled this text "Amazigh Manifesto," for the birth of the national movement is also a text whose title is "Manifesto for Independence." This similitude in the names of the two events is not fortuitous ; It is determined by a political culture, even if Chafik’s objective has not been accepted by many nationalists. In any case, it was not part of the nationalist claims. On the contrary ! In addition, the structure and the content of the two manifestos are comparable in the sense that they are both drawn from historical and sociological considerations. Of course, one may believe this is the only possible form. Certainly not for us who know, today, that any new content implies a special form of speech, except when it is diluted in an old one. In any case, the orthodox nationalists have perceived the Manifesto as a manifesto for autonomy of the Amazighs. Even the companions of the author of the Manifesto were surprised by the tone and the content of the text.
A third similitude that deserves to be mentioned is the call for signatures of this Manifesto. We know that this is exactly the same operation that was used for the Manifesto for independence. As far as public opinion is concerned, personally I signed this Manifesto because it contained just claims, though I had some reservations about the analysis that preceded these claims. What I retained from the formal analysis of this text was that the claims made were rooted in the culture and the language of nationalism. Now, the Amazigh claim rejects the dogma of the orthodox nationalism founded exclusively on the Arabo-Islamic ideology. It, at least, includes the long time concealed, indeed fought, Amazighness by the tenors of the Arabo-Islamic nationalism. I am not certain this does justice to the Amazigh struggle. But, after all, one can see in the Manifesto an important breach in the nationalist discourse from within.

2. The most important characteristic of the Manifesto is the fact that its content makes no reference to the different events that have punctuated the history of the Amazigh cultural movement since the sixties. This omission or occultation did not go unnoticed by certain actors of this movement. I will quote a very important text, which, in my opinion, is the founding text : the Agadir Charter. This is a text that contains a number of minimal claims that the big associations of the Amazigh cultural movement of that time agreed upon, and which served as a common platform of action for these associations. One will note, therefore, the difference in the name. The fact that the Agadir Charter was a text commonly negotiated by legal institutions, and not an individual text, is something completely new in the history of the Amazigh movement. This is, therefore, an important event, to which probably the promoters did not give its just value.

In fact, the Agadir Charter marked the birth of a movement that risked becoming a mass movement, as someone has said recently. Additionally, it has spawned the creation of a multitude of associations in small towns and the countryside while, so far, the claim had been exclusively a big-city claim, of concern only to the Amazigh elite. From this standpoint, one can consider the Amazigh Manifesto a catalyst of this mass orientation towards a more restricted framework : that of a cultural claim, which was the first inspiration of the Amazigh movement at its beginnings. This has been the case for AMREC since its foundation.

The Creation of the IRCAM

Here again, I will not dwell on the content of the Dahir (law) instituting the IRCAM. However, I will summarize two points, which, I think, are interesting to meditate on. These are the public ceremony of the creation of IRCAM and the basic structures of the latter, particularly the board of directors.

1. I had noted that this ceremony was exceptional in its choice of venue and progression of events, as well as in the number and the quality of the guests. The place is the town of the maternal family of the king. To my knowledge, no Dahir has ever had a proclamation place of this kind. The natural place to proclaim a law, in Morocco, is the parliament and the official newspaper. To proclaim a law in the open air is unusual in the history of this country. This meant that the event deserved this unusual and exceptional proclamation. It does, indeed, for it put a symbolic and legal end to the identity monism inherited from the triumphant nationalism. And it was necessary to manage it in this manner so that it would not be perceived as a "deviation" or a disavowal of this nationalism, but rather a simple omission, a necessary complement, it seems, promised by Hassan II since independence. A delivered promise therefore !

2. The number and the quality of the guests of this ceremony are very significant. In fact, all the state institutions were represented, including political parties, labor unions, the civil society, including Amazigh associations that did or did not support the Amazigh Manifesto. Therefore one must conclude that the Amazigh issue went from being a concern of one group of the population to symbolically become the matter of the state and that of all Moroccans.

3. The board of directors posed a more delicate problem. The discussion focused on who will sit on the board. In a nutshell, two positions confronted each other. Being of an academic nature, the first one proposed that only Amazigh language and culture experts would be members, given that the basic mission of the IRCAM is to introduce the language in the educational system and to promote the Amazigh culture in the media and society at large. The second, the activists’ position, demanded that the associative movement be represented. The first one forgets that the IRCAM, given its judicial statute, cannot be only academic, for if its nature were such, there would not be any reason for it to be tied to the monarchy ; it would have sufficed to tie it to the university. The too-close proximity to the center of political decisions imposes that it be not exclusively scientific. The second forgets that the IRCAM is not a framework for activism. How could it be when the institution itself is linked to the central power ? The two positions are therefore conflicting. Nevertheless, the current board of directors is composed of scientists and activists. Some will see this as a contradiction. The IRCAM is not only a place for scientific research but also a place where the Amazigh issue can be managed.

The Tifinagh Script

Here I will summarize the analysis I published in a monthly Moroccan journal. Note that the choice of Tifinagh is the first public decision made by the institute. The process that led to this decision is twofold : internal and external to the IRCAM. 

1. The Institute’s Center for Linguistic Development ─the only one to have recruited university language experts─ was in charge of preparing a scientific analysis of the three competing alphabets to be used as the basis for the choice of the official script. The Center did its work following an explicit methodology described in its documents. Thus, the problem is not to discuss the relevance of this methodology but to determine how it weighed on the decision, for the latter does not depend only on the scientific aspect. There is certainly the political aspect to consider ; that is when the external process comes into play.

2. Before the board meeting, a number of associations met in Meknès claiming the Latin script as their choice. The press gave a big coverage to this position and, thus, put pressure upon the IRCAM’s board of directors. Later, associations of Islamic tendencies met and demanded that the Arabic script be selected. But to my knowledge, no association claimed the Tifinagh script. It is therefore clear that Arabic-Latin antagonism became a political issue, one that would weigh heavily on the choice to make to the point that the scientific opinion was completely ignored. The Tifinagh script was selected in order to "referee" this antagonism. And it was argued that this alphabet was not only adequate but it was also the original Amazigh alphabet. This, for a language expert, is very far from reality. Recall that the Tifinagh script, known to experts in Amazigh linguistics as the neo-Tifinagh, is not the same thing as the Libyan script, the original Amazigh alphabet, which is still hard to decipher. Neo-Tifinagh is a slight variation of the alphabet disseminated by the former Paris-based Amazigh academy, and which was specifically developed to transcribe the Kabyl idiom. This historic reminder is necessary, for the layperson truly believes that the neo-Tifinagh is the actual old Amazigh alphabet.

One will retain, therefore, that the hybrid constituency of the board of directors, in this particular case, was not in favor of the scientific and historic truth of the language. I will conclude with these two important points :

1. Having examined the events from 1967 to this day, I have no doubt that the Amazigh movement succeeded in carrying out many important actions. These include visibility of Amazigh associations, publishing in Tamazight and about Tamazight, Amazigh artistic production, which is in net explosion, the fact that Tamazight is becoming the means of communication of city-dwellers, and the return to their roots of Amazighs who were ashamed of their language and origin to the point of self-hate, a condition well described by Tunisian writer Albert Memmi in Le complex du colonisé (The Complex of the Colonized) and by Algerian philosopher Frantz Fanon in his writings.

2. Nevertheless, there still remains a lot to do. Though Amazighness has taught pluralism to Moroccans, not all of them have accepted it as a tangible part of the Moroccan identity and a factor to reckon with from now on. Since they, at least a non-negligible fringe, claim universal democratic values, credit should be given to the Amazigh cultural movement for not yielding on this linguistic and cultural plurality of the country, plurality already underlined in the Agadir Charter. Therefore, it is necessary to add another task that is more difficult and more complex : the claim of a resolutely modern Amazighness. But that is another issue.

Summary of the Discussion

The main questions revolved around the Tifinagh alphabet, comparison with the Algerian position, and the relationships between the Amazigh movement and the Islamic movement. On the Tifinagh subject, the lecturer referred the audience to an article he published on the subject and gave a copy to the representative of the association Tamazgha who will get permission from its magazine to distribute it and, eventually, to post it on-line. On the comparison with the Algerian position, he specially insisted on this false idea that the Amazigh movement is antagonist to Islamism. He reminded the audience that the history of North Africa teaches us that the Amazighs have widely contributed to the islamicization and Arabicization of the region. Islamism, as a political movement, is indeed a concern to the Amazigh movement. But it has also mobilized all those who claim to be modern. The problem is to define the content of this modernity.

According to the lecturer, the Kabyl specificity resides in a historic process that is different from the Moroccan case. Despite all that has been said on this subject, Kabylia, as all Algeria, lived a colonization that tried to destroy the structures and culture of Kabyl society. An important fact to mention is the establishment of the republican school as early as the 19th century in this region. The length of colonization and massive acculturation of Kabyls is different from the situation of Moroccan Amazighs. The lecturer ended the talk by recalling that nationalism incarnated by the states is a tangible fact. One can pretend to think of the Amazigh world as a whole, but the behaviors are more revealing. He recalled the manner in which the members of the World Amazigh Congress were designated. It was done by nationality, he said, and that is more than revealing, for these are the realities.


1- Abdellah Bounfour is a professor of Amazigh literature at the INALCO (National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations). He is one of the founders of the AMREC, the first Amazigh association created in Morocco in 1967.
2- French acronym for royal institute for the Amazigh culture.

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  • > The Current State of Tamazight in Morocco 22 mai 2004 22:17, par Abdelwahed Driouche - Morocco
    I do believe sincerly that Mr. Abdellah Bounfour whom I had the opportunity to meet several times here in Morocco needs to go ahead with courage and devotion in his analysis of the actual situation of Amazighness in Morocco. We actually live a sort of contradictory situations since the last decision of the "honorable" members of the directory board of the IRCAM to teach berber dialects in some limited schools ; a decision which was applauded largerly by the symbols of the "baathist" polical parties especially the USFP to which belongs the actual minister of national education and youth Lahbib Malki. I think that today we all need as amazigh mouvement members to make some serious critical approach to the whole pattern we have undertaken since the Amazigh Manifesto. Mr. Chafiq has established a certain negotiating line between the mouvement and the head of state ( the king ) but still the makhzen remains strictly indifferent to the royal decisions ! The two official TVs still refuse any serious programs in tamazight ; the ministry of culture continues to folklorize all sort of amazigh arts ; the ministry of interior still maintains the shamefull list of forbidden names ; and recently some officials have declared dangerous for national unity the recognition of tamazight as the second official language for Morocco ( Hassan Aourid, the Speaker of the Royal Palace ). Still, we, Imazighen, continue to believe that under His Majesty King Mohammed VI, tamazight has some chances to fulfill some of its meer rights upon its motherland.