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August 20, 2004

Woohoo! D'oh!

For the first time, Moroccan primary schools are teaching Tifinagh (Berber) to children. (hat tip: Mirabilis.ca)


Kent Davis-Packard, "At last, an ancient tongue will be taught", The Christian Science Monitor, 2004 August 17.

The letter "yaz," shaped like a joyful human being, is the symbol of the Imazighen people. It's one of the 39 letters of Tifinagh, the ancient language all children in Morocco will be required to learn - in addition to classical Arabic and French - by 2008.

"It's our maternal language," says Amina Ibnou-Cheikh Raha, director of Le Monde Amazigh, a newspaper dedicated to Imazighen, or Berber, cultural issues. "It's the first language that existed here in Morocco. What's abnormal is that it has never been taught."

Berbers - the name given to the Imazighen people because they were viewed as "barbarians" who at first did not accept Islam - have inhabited North Africa since 7,000 BC. Their ranks have included St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and they have managed to preserve their languages despite French, Roman, and Arab conquests. [You missed the Phoenicians/Carthaginians, Kent.]
Tamazight [the term used to designate all Imazighen languages] speakers constitute 40 percent of Morocco's population, 20 percent of Algeria's, and 1 percent of Tunisia's. This year, Morocco's Ministry of Education and the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) have introduced the 9,000-year-old language into some 300 primary schools throughout Morocco for the first time.


Some Moroccan educators also hope the use of the language in schools will lower the Imazighen dropout rate.

"Many Imazighen students do not follow the educational system and they do not succeed, and this is in part because they don't study in their own language," says Fatima Agnaou, a researcher at IRCAM.
Some worry that the initiative will stumble due to a government decision to begin teaching Tamazight in three separate dialogues, phasing in standardized Tamazight over the course of a decade. It's a decision some critics suggest was influenced by government fears of too much Imazighen unity.
In neighboring Algeria, for instance, the Imazighen were harshly repressed after independence from France. It was even illegal for a child to be given a Imazighen name, and such cultural repression sparked violent reactions.

The King of Morocco, whose mother happens to be a Berber, is cautiously pursuing a politic of incorporation. "I don't think we will have the same kinds of problems that Algeria went through," says civil activist Jamila Hassoune. Use of Tifinagh, she insists, is "a cultural richness that, instead of dividing Morocco, unifies it."

Those of you familiar with my writings (alright, bloggings *sigh*) will know that I have reservations about the second half of that article. I'm extremely pleased that an Islamic country has made it official public policy to teach its children to cherish their pre-Islamic heritage from a very young age, you know, instead of denouncing any pre-Islamic cultural identity as jahil, the vernacular Arabic for pre-Islamic, literally "ignorant", and trying to wipe it out. And I take more than a little ironic pleasure at the notion of an Islamic country implementing what looks suspiciously like a multiculturalist educational philosophy.

However, given the experience of Western schools with Afrocentrism and similar approaches in American schools for Hispanic students, Moroccan educators who hope that the use of Tifinagh will lower the Imazighen dropout rate are likely to be disappointed.

As for the assertion that the use of Tifinagh will unify Morocco instead of dividing it, well, the results of the similar policies in the West, the same ones I mentioned before, suggest precisely the opposite. If anything, the use of Tifinagh will further entrench and deepen the divisions between Imazighen and Arab.

The suggestion that the slow phase-in of Tamazight into schools is due to concerns about Imazighen unity implies that the government is aware (and afraid) of precisely that possibility. I'm surprised to find myself a little relieved that the government's enthusiasm for teaching Tifinagh is not unbridled. That suggests that the government is being more realistic than those educators who expect Imazighen dropout rates to fall or that civil activist who insists that the effect will be centripetal rather than centrifugal. Were it not, Tifinagh education's likely failure (in the case of reducing dropout rates) and outright counterproductivity (in the case of Moroccan unity) might cause a backlash on the celebration of pre-Islamic heritage not just in Morocco, but across the Islamic world.

I believe that the war on terror cannot be won without a sea change in how the global Muslim mainstream sees non-Muslim peoples and cultures. Teaching Muslim children to celebrate their pre-Islamic heritage is a step in that direction.

Posted by jeet at 02:37 AM