The Amazigh are the indigenous people of North Africa and Saharan Africa who predated the Arab conquest of Africa from the seventh century onwards. The word Amazigh means free people. It comes from the Amazigh languages that are grouped together under the term Tamazight and Berber, which is the usual traditional term for referring to these people. It’s today often considered a foreign term and a rather derogatory term because it’s associated with the idea of barbarians. The total population– Amazigh population in Africa is estimated today between– to be between 30 and 50 million people. And it stretches from Morocco, to Western Egypt, down to Niger, and a further two million people in the Berber diaspora, particularly in France.
Morocco has probably the largest Berber Amazigh population. It is estimated that between 30% and 40% of the population speak one of the three Amazigh dialects in the three main areas of Morocco. And they are the Rif Mountains in the north, the middle Atlas region in central Morocco, and the plains in low– high atlas in the south of the country. On top of that, you had from the 1950s onwards mass rural to urban migration. So today, the large cities such as Rabat and Casablanca have very large Amazigh-speaking populations. It’s important to state that since its independence in 1956, the new independent nation state of Morocco was built around the idea of Pan-Arabism, around Islam.
And the official languages were modern standard Arabic and French, whereas the Amazigh languages were considered mainly rural languages spoken in the public in rural villages or were the languages of the domestic sphere. For a long period after Moroccan independence, claims to Amazigh cultural and linguistic difference were often treated with suspicion by the Moroccan state. During the 1960s, a very strong Amazigh cultural movement grew up which was also very politicised. And many of its activists were imprisoned during the ’70s and ’80s. Over the last 20 years, the situation has shifted quite markedly.
You now have the Moroccan state particularly under the current reign of King Mohammed the sixth actively acknowledging and promoting its cultural diversity, first and foremost the whole Amazigh question. So you now have a Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, which was set up in the city of Rabat. You now have Tamazight language being taught in schools. You even have a new alphabet based on an ancient Tuareg alphabet being used publicly for the first time. Now, we need to ask ourselves, why has this happened? And there are a number of reasons. And I just want to highlight a number of them.
First of all, it reflects very much a process of democratisation of Moroccan society that has occurred over the last 20 years, very much supported by the King in attempt to improve its human rights and its social rights record along the lines of a Moroccan traditional route to democracy. It is also a tactical decision of actually trying to placate the Amazigh community– or at least part of it– and therefore neutralise quite a vociferous protagonist within Moroccan society at that time when there are increasing tensions, particularly as a result of the rise of Islamist politics in Morocco.
And also finally, to a certain extent, it reflects a shift– a geopolitical shift– in Morocco as it turns, increasingly, its attention to Africa, and therefore, to celebrate, to acknowledge an indigenous people, an African– an indigenous African alphabet for the first time reflects to a certain extent a growing interest to build rapport at a political and cultural and economic level with Africa. And this is reflected in the fact that in early 2017, Morocco rejoined the African Union after more than 30 years of having been excluded from this organisation. It is important to underline first of all that Amazigh culture was not previously invisible.
What you had after independence was a particular expression– or rather official promotion of Amazigh culture, often in very folklorists terms– so contained within things like music and traditional dress, which were often displayed at Morocco’s various famous traditional arts festivals– the famous one in Marrakesh, for instance, which is still going to date, has been going since the 1960s. What you have now is an official recognition at an administrative and political level of Amazigh culture, which has had an impact also on the cityscape of Rabat, but also, importantly, the linguistic landscape of the city.
That means that since 2011, with the official recognition of the Amazigh language as an official language of the Moroccan state, you have now Tifinagh alphabet being placed between Arabic and French on numerous public buildings. And so in certain parts of Rabat, will see a lot of Tifinagh as you walk around the streets– on schools, on university buildings, on ministries, army barracks, police stations, and so forth– on museums. So for instance, the Archaeological Museum of Rabat was recently refurbished and renamed the Museum of Civilizations. And when they reopened it, they added the Tifinagh script in between the Arabic and the French. It’s a very interesting situation because the vast majority of Moroccans, including Amazigh speakers, do not read Tifinagh script.
And there was a very vibrant debate over which alphabet should be used. And many Amazigh activists actually opted for either Arabic or Latin script in order to allow for the dissemination of the Amazigh language.