Morocco's Berbers Reclaim Their Language and Their Indigenous Culture

The shift is part of a broader push toward pluralism and openness by King Mohammed VI.

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A young Berber boy in the village of Tisgui Ntknt on July 25, 2007 in Imlil district, Morocco.

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AIT OURIR, MOROCCO—From the day Omar Boutmouzzar began teaching more than two decades ago, he could address students only in a language other than his own. A Moroccan Berber, Boutmouzzar was barred by law from using his native tongue—the one spoken by the country's sizable indigenous population—inside the classroom.

But the 46-year-old teacher doesn't have to hold his tongue any longer. Once banned in schools across Morocco, his language, Tamazight, is making a comeback as the result of an initiative by King Mohammed VI to integrate the country's widely spoken language, and its speakers, into the education system. The shift is part of a larger push toward pluralism and openness by the 44-year-old ruler who, since taking power in 1999, has moved away from some of the heavy-handed tactics of his father. He has liberalized laws affecting women (such as on divorce), forged stronger economic ties with the West, and created a commission to examine past human-rights violations.

Tamazight is another aspect of this trend. Teaching began in 2003, and by last year nearly 300,000 students—native Arabic speakers as well as Tamazight speakers—were enrolled in Tamazight courses, according to the Ministry of Education. The payoff has been broader: The official support for Tamazight has helped fuel a larger revival of Berber culture and life in the kingdom, where the country's native people have long been shunned, and sometimes imprisoned, for public expressions of their heritage. Now, summer arts festivals are common-place, Tamazight newspapers are thriving, and a long-blocked translation of the Koran into Tamazight finally made it into print. "It's a symbol of tolerance," says Ahmed Boukouss, director of the national institution for the teaching of Tamazight, known by its French acronym IRCAM.

Struggle. Of course, the transformations have been far from uniform, and there are signs that the slow pace of change is beginning to alienate Berbers from the king's initiative. Yet the story of the Tamazight project and the challenges it has faced from politicians, parents, and Berbers is in many ways symbolic of the broader struggle Morocco faces as it tries to balance the competing interests of a multicultural country of almost 34 million.

Berbers have long dominated the population in North Africa, and even today, most Moroccans trace their roots to the Berber tribes. Though most are Muslim, many Berbers still practice local festivals and follow a separate calendar. But this heritage hasn't always been recognized by the state. After Morocco won independence in 1956, King Hassan II embarked on a program of Arabization. Seeking to solidify a unified national identity and rid the country of French colonialism, he banned Tamazight in schools and public places. This forced a whole generation of children to enter school in a language they had never spoken before, contributing to a higher dropout rate among Berber children. Trouble for Tamazight-only speakers didn't stop in the education system. Many continued to face other difficulties communicating in hospitals and the court system, where Arabic and French dominate.

The king's mother. The frustration led to two major Berber revolts—one in 1973 and a second a decade later—both of which the Moroccan government suppressed. People who continued to assert their identity were jailed. For instance, Hassan Id Balkassm, a longtime Berber activist who now sits on the United Nations' Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, spent a week behind bars in 1981 for simply hanging up a sign to his law firm in Tamazight. (It was also in French and Arabic.)

But by 1994 the Berber movement was strong enough to catch the attention of Hassan II, who publicly vowed to integrate the indigenous tongue into the education system. In fact, though, there was little progress until Mohammed VI, whose mother is Berber, took over. In 2001, he announced a program to teach all schoolchildren Tamazight and bankrolled a research institute, IRCAM, to develop a curriculum and promote study of the language.