Alphabets, synecdoches and PC

I went last week to an evening lecture called Berber and Berbers: Basic Questions, Basic Answers, at NIMAR, the Dutch Institute in Rabat. It was given by Professor Harry Stroomer of Leiden, a descriptive linguist who has spent his life immersed in Berber language, oral history and ethnography. I went along with a sense of quite how little I know, and how much more I certainly should know, about this fundamental aspect of Morocco. So let me begin with the caution that these initial reflections are bound to be ingenuous, and that I shall do my best to learn more.

Prof Stroomer started with a list of the dozen most common questions he is asked about Berbers – and his answers to these revealed some fascinating information. For example, 60% of the population of Casablanca and just under 10% of that of Paris are berbèrophone; 80% of Dutch Moroccans are Berber, and of these 75% are Tarifit-speakers. He sketched out an intriguing history, and spelled out many misunderstandings which he has had gently to correct over the years. My favourite snippet of information was the discovery that although Berber languages are Semitic, and so unvowelled in writing, the Tifinagh alphabet used today has a one-for-one correspondence with the Latin, vowels and all, and you can transliterate with a single (perhaps metaphorical) tap on your keyboard: to and fro, to your heart’s content.

But as I listened, humming along in my head was the question, “Why does he keep referring to Berbers? Aren’t we supposed to use the word Amazigh?” I felt a little as I felt after years in Canada, when people in Britain referred to Eskimos – a sense that this isn’t the word that the Inuit, or in this case Berbers, like to use or hear used of themselves. Both are easily heard as pejorative, but they are also habitual and generally not used with pejorative intent. Just not quite PC.

No, said the good professor, Berber is the word for a people scattered across North Africa, with Berber languages spoken from Siwa to coastal Mauretania, and from Kabylie to Mali. Spoken in a relatively small number of areas, splashed across the map like ink-spots, this rich family of languages has some 20 million speakers, the largest number here in Morocco, where people who might identify themselves as Berbers probably constitute a small majority of the population.

But the professor’s underlying question seemed to me to be whether all these Berbers were really aware of a common identity before the 20th century, or whether Berberness – like Blackness – is an ideological construct created retrospectively: first by the French Protectorat, and then by the Amazigh movement. Which is where the word Amazigh and the name of the language, Tamazight, come in because they refer, really, to the people and tongue of the Middle Atlas, distinct from the Tashilhit of the south and the Tarifit of the north – let alone the languages spoken by Tuareg, Zenada, Kabyles or Beni Nefousa. The use of these Middle Atlas Berber descriptors for the whole kit and caboodle is a synecdoche, a figure of speech whereby a part comes to represent the whole – and it’s a synecdoche that Prof Stroomer clearly resists, in the gentlest possible way, feeling that identity risks being drowned in ideology.

He gave a clear and sympathetic account of the deprecation of Berber identity after Independence – the feeling that Berberness somehow undermined Arabness, and that Arabness was what Morocco was really about both in terms of pan-Arabism and of Islam. He talked of the euphemisms that had to be employed instead of Berber, and the tragic diffidence that was inculcated into Berbers so that many would fudge and obscure their own identities. He also talked of the post-Independence abolition of the chair of Berber at Rabat University, and said that however paradoxically, the Protectorat had been a positive period culturally in many ways for Morocco’s Berbers. It was the French who really began, in their imperialistic and directive way, the collectivisation of Berber language speakers into Berbers; and the conceptualisation of Morocco’s many Berber tongues as a single, albeit variegated, Berber language.

Clearly very sensitive to the real need for self-assertion by Berbers in Morocco, he nonetheless finds himself rather at odds with the ideologizing and myth-making that began among Berber exiles in Paris in the 1960s. He described with wry amusement the retrospective imagining of the history of a once extensive Berber nation overrun by Arabs more than a millennium ago; the invention of a flag; and the confection of a calendar. And he spoke too of the purposeful creation of a new language and an alphabet as tools of identity-building. It was clear that in his view the standard Tamazight that is being created today, avoiding the choice of a single dialect (as Florentine was to modern Italian) and building something novel, with eclectic choices and much resort to very foreign Tuareg vocabulary, is not (yet at least) a great success. “I know only two people in Morocco who can read and write it fluently,” he said sadly, implying that a great chance had been missed.

His enthusiasm for Tifinagh script is less than wholehearted. He described and illustrated the ancient ‘Libico-Berber’ script, noting that no one has ever managed to read a word of it and so there is no actual evidence therefore that it was used to write a Berber language; and the long tradition, particularly but not only in southwest Morocco, of Berber written in Arabic; and how this latter tradition was essentially ignored in the choice of a script which cuts Berber speakers off from the world, and from their own literacy. As a language that is no one’s mother tongue, “it runs the strong risk,” he said, “of reproducing exactly the diglossia that exists in Arabic” – that fatal division between the written and the spoken language that is the enemy of literacy.

It is a fascinating as well as an important discussion, and an interesting moment in Morocco’s cultural history. The foundation of IRCAM in 1992, and the inclusion of Berber/Tamazight in the Moroccan constitution of July 2011 as an official language, are important steps. It’s very clear (as I am constantly reminded) that to think and speak of Morocco simply as an Arab country is wrong: it has immensely strong and deep Berber roots, and acknowledgement of, and pride in, those is essential for a healthy future. In our small way at the British Council, we have tried to recognize this by starting to put up our signage in Tifinagh as well as in Arabic and French. But it also raises concerns. I reported a few months ago a Marrakchi waiter who told me pugnaciously as he delivered my coffee that  “If that book you’re reading says Morocco is an Arab country, it’s a lie.” The opposite concerns are real too, and there are many non-Berber darija speakers who worry about Tamazight’s becoming a compulsory school subject for their already linguistically over-burdened children. A Rabat taxi-driver bent my ear on this subject for 20 minutes this very morning, to the point of (my) exhaustion.

To my mind this is a big, open question. Self-awareness and cultural pride are very important. But are they to be centrifugal or centripetal? The ideologization of this issue is probably inevitable. In Britain we have seen it in parts of the Welsh and Scottish nationalist movements, for whom the symbolic value of a minority language far outweighs its practical usefulness. It is an interesting contradiction for us in Britain to feel the real intensity of – for example – Scottish nationalism, with its deeply felt history of domination, exploitation and linguistic oppression (albeit sometimes wildly and self-indulgently exaggerated, as in Mel Gibson’s ridiculous Braveheart); and at the same time to note that the last three Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Blair, Brown and Cameron, are, in some sense at least, all Scots. But none of them (as far as I know) speak a word of Gaelic, and Blair and Cameron have no trace of Scottishness left visibly or audibly about them.

Years ago in Belgium, I asked a Flemish colleague how I should refer to his language. He thought for a moment, and then said “Well, I call it Flemish. But you should call it Dutch, because you’re foreign, and if you call it Flemish, you make it sound like a dialect, and that would be patronising.” And here in Morocco I guess it’s the same kind of situation. I just have to work out now what a foreigner who is not linguist, or ethnologist but a sympathetic observer should call it. Berber or Amazigh?


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