The Arabic newspaper, "Al Ahdat Al Maghribia" (Moroccan Events) published in its February 18, 2004 edition under the heading "Free Commentary" the following article on the Berber Issue by Hammadi Lahlou.
My friend told me: "How is it possible that a seed that is sown does not bear fruit for a half century, if not more?"
I replied that my knowledge in the area of agriculture is very limited and that I had no idea what type of fruit it could be.
"My remark", he retorted, "has, properly speaking, nothing to do with agriculture. By that I mean this Berber Decree that the advocates of the protectorate promulgated on May 16, 1930 with avowed aim to create a breach in the Moroccan social fabric by dividing the population of Berber origin from that of the Arabs. That was the first step to lead the Berber element to renounce its religion to take on another following the example of what the white priests did with certain Algerian tribes by attempting to first distance the indigenous people from their Islamic credo and then fill the spiritual void by a profession of the Christian faith. The ultimate goal by all these maneuvers was to facilitate the integration of Algerian people into the ethnic amalgam of the French mainland."
"Implementation of the articles of the Berber Decree in Morocco would have consequently contributed to the enslavement of the Amazigh woman. The latter owes her liberation to Islam which opened for her access to inheritance which heretofore was reserved solely for male inheritors in Berber society. With this decree, she would again become a nonentity since the return to customary laws deprived her of the majority of rights that were sanctioned by Islam. Worse yet, the Berber Decree gave jurisdiction to French courts to address crimes committed in Berber territories, thus bringing about a serious attack on the principle of the unity and sovereignty of justice governed by the rules of Islamic law in Morocco. The Moroccan reaction was not long in coming. They went together to the mosques to proclaim the "Latif" prayer, reciting in unison:"
"God, our Savior, we beseech you to save us from the plots being hatched against us and prevent from happening a rift between us and our Berber brethen."
And my friend continued: "The day after independence, the Berber policy left seriously bitter aftereffects. It turns out that certain advocates of the Berber issue wished to revive the Amazigh language with its many facets and revive its alphabet to inculcate the coming generations of Berber origin."
I immediately asked: "Is there a problem with that? Numerous countries had several native languages while all proclaimed they belong to the same country."
However my friend still clung to the concept that a country whose nationals are united by the same religion and the same values but with several native languages, risks being susceptible to serious fissure in its social fabric; and with several languages this fissure would take on proportions that would be difficult to accommodate. I reminded my friend that I did not share his view given that I was a national of Berber origin and moreover I was Amazigh. For several years I was obsessed by the notion of finding my roots so as to learn whether my lineage was Amazigh or whether my forefathers were pure Arabs or Mozarabs. However my research was unsuccessful. I found consolation in a poem composed by Ahmed Abdessalam Bekkali that defined a Moroccan in verses in which he made him say:
"I am a Berber, I am an Arab and Andalusian. I am a Moroccan who belongs to both origins. I am the result of this alliance of gold and silver. If I am not free and if I lack dignity then I can not presume to be the son of either my mother or of my father."
But circumstances were such that I later became aware of my origins and roots by reading the book, " Description of Africa" by Mohammed Ben Hassan Al Wazzan, known under the pseudonym, Leo Africanus. When he dealt with the Wattasid dynasty, the author cited the names of two sultans, Mohammed Lahlou and Ahmed Lahlou, who he said were Wattasid descendants from a branch of Merinids, a dynasty of Amazigh Berbers originating from the Moroccan eastern plateaus who left some of the best urban patrimonial monuments; especially the madrasas (religious schools) in Fez, Salé, Marrakesh and other Moroccan cities. Now that I had found my Amazigh roots, I felt I should show my pride and do all I can to ensure its rightful place under the sun.
In response to what I just said, my friend, hastened to relay to me his deepest thoughts by stating, "You must certainly know, and if not, then you must consult the historical textbooks to be heart fully satisfied, that the Arabic language is regarded in Morocco like a second image of Islam. Moreover one cannot find an educated Arab among Moroccans who provided to the Arabic language the priceless services given to it by men of Amazigh origin."
Then he poured out like a waterfall, numerous examples. He told me that he selected them from three periods, the Almohade, that of the first Alaouites, and from contemporary times.
He began by citing the example of Mohammed Ibn Toumert, nicknamed Al Mehdi, who to spread his faith had written in Arabic the well known book titled "The Best Entreaties." Even his correspondence with the Amazigh tribes, such as the Jazoula tribe, were also written in Arabic and never written in Amazigh language nor in Tifnagh. It is true that on Friday midday prayers one or two sermons were delivered in Amazigh with the aim to bring the faithful closer to their religion. This was a positive thing to do because it serves no purpose to a person who is about to perform his prayer to be forced to listen to a speech which he does not understand. Besides we are aware that preachers address the faithful audience in French, English or all others languages that they are familiar with in countries where Arabic is not widely used as a means of communication.
As for the second example with which he wanted to illustrate his point, he drew it from the behavior of the most illustrious Moroccan scholar of Amazigh origin, the sheik Lahcen El Youssi. My friend expounded at length about this eminent person who was among the top intellectuals of Morocco and yet one who Moroccans do not know much about. He then encouraged me to read the work by Jacques Berque about a certain number of Ulemas including El Youssi that was titled "Ulémas, fondateurs, insurgés du Maghreb au XVIIème siècle" (Ulemas, Patriarchs, and Rebels of Morocco in the Seventeenth Century) in which the author introduced this very cultivated man and the courageous stands he took which my friend eulogized emphasizing each of the qualities he typified. He then told me about his book "Discourse" and made sure to garner my attention on the fluidity of the style of writing of this work which reminded one of the literature of modern writers. He went on to describe an epistolary work titled "Advice" taking time to explain the circumstances under which it was written and which Jacque Berque alluded to in his aforementioned book.
With regards to this account that he let out in one sitting, my friend wanted to emphasize the important contributions of Amazigh scholars in the preservation and propagation of Arabic citing by example, the scholar, Mohammed El Mokhtar Soussi, enumerating his writings and publications that no Moroccan Arab scholar has been able to equal.
The speech my friend provided on Mokhtar Soussi, brought back a lot of memories that I will speak to next. In 1956 the day after I returned to Morocco with a group of comrades who were pursuing their studies in the Middle East, I had suggested to our dearly departed Mehdi Ben Barka as well as to my former teacher the late Abdelkrim El Fellous, to organize a series of conferences across the major cities of Morocco. My proposal received a favorable welcome. Each of us began to draw from the true substance of the university courses that each received in their area of expertise to seek a topic for the conference that was of their own making. When I went to Tetouan to give my lecture at the club called The National Reform, my arrival coincided with that of Mokhtar Soussi and Abdallah Ibrahim. The former at that time was Minister of Habous (Muslim land property legislation) and the latter was Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. I was asked to give my speech at a later date and cede my time to Doctor Mokhtar Soussi which our Tetouan friends had asked to give a speech in the premises of the aforementioned club. I of course nodded given the impromptu invitation was made to one of the most brilliant orators Morocco has known. He acceded very willingly to the wishes of the Tetouan youth and asked them what topic they would like him to speak to. They suggested that he give a talk on Arabic poetry in the Souss region. Our speaker, like a clear spring, began to bring forth and layout a panorama of this poetry, from the most ancient poems to the most recent. The speech that lasted about two hours was complemented with his Soussi accent which provided a bit of charm to his elocution; an accent that was the late scholar's constant companion through out his life. May God be my witness, I have rarely attended a speech as passionate as that given by our Amazigh scholar, may God keep him in His Holy Mercy.
I asked my friend nicely, "What harm would there be for Morocco to try teaching the Amazigh language after having experimented with the Arabization of education during the past half century?"
He replied, annoyed by my insistence, "It is true that Morocco had taken several initiatives with regards to educational curricula ever since our independence. I count more than fifty leaders who tried to form the future of education in our country between Ministers, Secretaries of State and their deputies. All have battered it with blows and kicks. Each of them exposed it to their musical charade after denigrating that of their predecessor. This all took place at a time where we were dealing with a language that was the language of the Koran; a language of a civilization which consists of 300 million souls; a language whose books filled the shelves of thousands of public and private libraries. But what would it have been if the language had books that could not fill one shelf? How can one revive an alphabet that was discovered in caves?"
I interrupted my friend asking him, "Do you not see how Hebrew which was practically dead became a language used to teach literature and the sciences? The last book fair held in Tel Aviv had a collection of more than forty thousand titles all written in Hebrew. This is a sensational illustration of what is possible with an appropriate mobilization of will and of means. As regards to will, that is not lacking at all judging by the number of associations who came to light over that past decade whose efforts were crowned by the establishment of the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, the inclusion of Amazigh as a national language in the National Pact of Education and Development and the decision taken to teach Amazigh in over 300 scholastic institutions across the kingdom. In addition there are other projects that have been announced that are in the process of implementation."
My friend once again took over the dialogue to tell me, "Comparing Hebrew with Amazigh is completely out of order in the sense that the Berber community does not have the thousands of people in the sciences, medicine, and specialists in different disciplines such as is the case with the Jews. Moreover Hebrew is the language of the sacred book, the Torah. Do the Amazigh have a sacred book other than the Koran which was revealed in a most clear Arabic? Even if we suppose that all the human and material conditions were available to facilitate the propagation of Amazigh and let it be the vehicle of studies all the way through to the Baccalaureate, would our young Amazigh be able to find basic literary and scientific texts in this language that he would use to study and learn for years? A young Berber who strives to teach the language of his forefathers will be forced to remain enclosed in an underdeveloped seashell . If instead of spending all those years to study a language that currently those not offer any outlets for personal growth, he could spend his time to learn English, or failing that, German, French or Italian. He then could make up for lost time by mastering the courses on civilization which are readily available. What I say with regards to Amazigh is just as valid for Arabic."
"During this period of globalization, we have no right to remain enclosed in our seashell. Otherwise we will be purely and simply condemning ourselves, our nation and our civilization with it to annihilation. When we think about the fact that the books translated into Arabic represent not even a sixth of the number of books translated into Greek, a language that some consider to be like a dead language, what can we say about Amazigh that we would strive to revive from the ground up? It is necessary, dear friend, that you understand that behind the call to revive the Amazigh language, lies hidden a political objective mixed with private interests, and here is the proof: "
"I have already alluded to the intentions that led to the elaboration of the Berber Decree. These aimed to destroy the fabric of our Moroccan identity by putting into question our national and religious unity, which found no resonance within the Amazigh community during the colonial times. The best illustration of this is that the Independence Manifest that was adopted in 1944 by the nationalists, was approved by a very large number of signatories of Berber descent. But where the French colonialism failed to impose its will on the Moroccan people during the worst moments of the protectorate, its impact persisted from the day after independence onward which surprised even Moroccans. They were preparing for a long term struggle that would be tedious to expound in detail within the framework of this essay on the Berber issue. In our day, certain people said that the portion of the national revenue that went back to the Berber people barely reached the surplus of the Arab cities of Morocco and that the country had replaced the letter "f" by another "f" by substituting the power of France by that of Fez, i.e the latter had monopolized the reins of power for their sole benefit. But what credence should one have for these allegations? That the people of Fez had taken leadership positions in the governmental apparatus of which there is no doubt is explained by historical considerations. To wit the city of Fez was for centuries the capital of knowledge, industry and commerce. Because of their profession, the Fassi merchants had business affairs with European countries and became aware from day one that progress was dependent on knowledge. That incited them to register their offspring into the Franco-Islamic schools that the French had opened in Morocco. One does not need to recall that in the other cities, Moroccans abstained from registering their children in the protectorate schools fearing that they would be misguided with respect to their religion . Hence after independence only the Fassis were in position to take over the reins from the protectorate administration and that required a certain know how coupled with an appreciable university level of education. But the Fassis also demonstrated nepotism by limiting the recruiting opportunities for public office to only friends and family for which they earned the general outcry from the majority of the other cities of Morocco. That said, it would be dishonest to not recognize the positive side of the Fassis on a number of initiatives that they implemented, most notably the opening of free schools that they invited Moroccan youth to attend. These initiatives did not fail to bear fruit and after a few years the Fassis monopoly began little by little to diminish to the benefit of the rest of the nation."
"Meanwhile we would be sidestepping the truth if we attribute to the Fassis all prejudicial treatment that the Amazigh people endured. We must not forget that the protectorate administration opened only a few primary or secondary schools in the Berber territories. These were considered simply as reservoirs of human potential which the protectorate power could draw from at will to form armed forces destined to participate in the colonial wars of France as well as to fight in the world wars. Even the secondary school of Azrou was created only for the mobilization of the Amazigh human resources to be used in the battlefields as cannon fodder. Therefore the appeal launched after 1956 to emphasize the Amazigh identity was aimed for nothing other than to gather electorate supporters who spoke the same ethnic language. Those who had political ambitions but could not point to either an ideological platform or to action plans to justify their movement found this to be a favorable terrain of propaganda in order to rally new followers. This is precisely what happened in Morocco during the first years after independence. The national movement regrouped within its ranks Arab and Amazigh who had never been in confrontation ethnically until the moment that a number among them began to profit from the power of authority they exercised over the governed."
My friend's speech reminded me of the interview that the leader Allal El Fassi gave in Cairo to the Moroccan student mission of which I was a member while I was pursueing my studies in the Middle East. I recall that he did not share the thinking of the Bathist party which was based solely on being part of the Arab world. On the contrary he believed that if the Bathist ideology was implanted in our country it would end up corrupting our national unity. For this Moroccan leader, the Bathist movement only came to being as a counter reaction to the Ottoman supremacy that had attempted to annihilate the Arab identity in the countries that were under the influence of Turkish authority. Morocco on its part had every interest to distance itself from this ideology it if wished to preserve the integrity of its identity. Experience gave impetus for this cautionary stance, because the ills that shook the Eastern Arabs originated in the monopolized power of the Bathist party over the years. It is significant to point out in this regard that none of the Moroccan students studying in the Middle East except for one was attracted to Bathist ideology. The exception among them was Amazigh who was more Bathist than the Bathist.
With the best of intentions my friend never resigned to lay down his guard thinking that we, Berbers, were committing the most serious abuse with respect to our youth by leading them to devote several years of their lives to learn the Amazigh language and to become versed in the 'tafinagh' alphabet. On the contrary he persisted and flavored his arguments with a series of proofs. He reminded me of a reality that was not out of order when he told me that the majority of those who support teaching Amazigh register their children in the French mission schools, emulating the most fervent Arab-speakers. For this allowed them easier access to the levers of command be it in positions in government or those in the economic sector with no concern for those left on the sidelines nor to those who demonstrate without cease in front of the parliament demanding work.
My friend continued by saying, "I believe that the call launched to support teaching Amazigh could be compared to a fever that a number of people get but eventually they recover from, such as communism, nationalist socialism and other ideologies of like nature. Those who responded favorably to aforementioned appeals will sooner or later recognize the error of their ways but in most cases, the verdict by the sword would have been swifter than that by justice. And so a whole generation would have been sacrificed, losing time and energy to learn an alphabet close to the cuneiform or hieroglyph which had their day in the sun before slipping back into the shadows reserved for ancient scripts and mural inscriptions deep inside museums."
"You must have noticed," he added, "that during the 1930's Egypt experienced a similar movement to that we are observing currently in Morocco. An appeal was launched to replace Arabic with the ancient Egyptian language by updating the hieroglyph script whose symbols were deciphered by Champollion when he accompanied Napoleon during his military campaign into Egypt. But the appeal had no impact, like a shout in the middle of wide river or like blowing into a pile of ash."
"The reaction of the Moroccan state to the Amazigh communique with its nine demands was marked by wisdom and due consideration. Several grievances were taken into account. As for me, I have no issues with Amazigh being formally accepted as an official Moroccan language and I believe that it is totally asinine to prevent Berbers from giving Amazigh first names to their children if that is their wish. I also note that there is a need to the first order to designate interpreters in the various gears of the state apparatus especially in the territories that are predominantly Amazigh to facilitate the transactions of Moroccan nationals who do not speak Arabic. But that which you undoubtedly do not know and which you should, is that people who hold onto something too tightly often show signs of blindness. They make no distinction between the recognition of Amazigh constitutionally as a national language and what they expect from this language with its multiple dialects to solve problems encountered on a daily basis. Will courts be equipped overnight or even in the foreseeable future with computers with 'Tafinaugh' characters? Will all the laws that were developed over the past half century be translated from Arabic and French into Amazigh? Which dialect will be taught in the schools? Assuming the State has the means to fund such efforts where are the instructors and staff that are called for to carry out this task as demanded by the preciously mentioned communique, whether it concerns primary schools, middle schools. high schools or universities? Such difficulties will end up convincing the most ardent Amazigh that the problem is not as easy as they imagined and that at most they will find themselves chasing a trail of intangible smoke. The State showed its wisdom by avoiding opposition to the Berber demand to give Amazigh its rightful place in Morocco because nothing encourages a movement to grow even larger than the attempts to thwart it. On the other hand if it consented to tempt fate only the future will tell whether the State would have been successful or if it would have been inevitably doomed to fail."
"Dear friend, know also that the laws of your country were first written in French then translated into Arabic so that they could have the signatures required by law. So what will happen if we need to write these laws in Amazigh? We would not be far from estimating it would take another half century to achieve this noble goal. You are aware of the difficulties encountered by Professor Mohammed Lakhdar Ghazal both materially and moralewise to develop a standardized Arabic alphabet practiced by more than 300 million Arabs in the world. Have the supporters of the Amazigh language considered the question of whether or not 'Tafinagh' lends itself to a standardized configuration? Do they understand that there is no one in the world willing to venture to manufacture computer equipment to support a language that is hardly able to account for tens of thousands of copies to assure a minimum threshold of return on investments that such a production requires of its promoters? We witnessed a few years ago the release into circulation of the magazine titled, Tifnagh. But at the end of the third edition, the intellectual sources of this magazine ran dry. Like the Arabic idiom, 'The sheik's ass stopped midway up the hill' despite the efforts deployed to get it restarted and the important financing available to the initiators of the project. To what purpose does it serve a young Moroccan to learn a language which is not driven by any newspaper or any magazine nor even simple notices and besides, it is a language that does not offer a means to highlight any studies in the sciences and in technology?"
"Let us tackle next an extremely serious topic, notably how will the Amazigh language and its 'Tafinagh' alphabet face up to the challenge of globalization. You must know, as the French researcher, Gérard Leclerc, has said, that in the era of globalization cultural heritages will be forced to confront each other either positively or negatively. In the past, cultures could open themselves to the outside or close their doors when faced with ideologies and currents of thought that did not suit them. However in our times, with the dominance of the internet, satellite telecommunication and other means of electronic communication it is no longer possible to act as in the past. Artificial satellites, the internet, fax, and television readily cross national borders putting into question the norms and social values that were patiently developed by the previous generations. Colonialism taught us that all that we have be it in regards to culture, political system or in technology is of no value when compared to what was achieved in the West. We developed a degrading sense of inferiority. Thanks to its formidable technology globalization is imposing on the upcoming generations the ways of the West and modernity. It brought about the adoption of an American way of life including cinema, music, and fast food. In our efforts to join the caravan all we do is to imitate, sometimes in a caricaturist manner what the West has brought about. The supporters of teaching Amazigh must take these facts into consideration when they face up to the giant of globalization. Other facts must also be in their thinking; these concern the results of a study by the United Nations that was published in February 2001 at the Nairobi Conference. According to this study half of the world's regional languages will disappear which poses a big threat to many cultural legacies. The study which was conducted by a team of experts of the United Nations program on the environment predicts that the hidden wealth of epics, tales, art and handicrafts of so called primitive people will vanish forever as time goes by while globalization gains more ground in various areas of life. The report estimated the number of dialects to be between 5,000 to 7,000 of which about 2,500 are threatened by extinction in the short term. 243 unique languages have completely disappeared. In the opinion of these experts ninety percent of local languages will disappear during the twenty first century."
At this point I interrupted my friend and said, "Perhaps Amazigh will be among the first of the languages threatened."
In response he answered, "Even Arabic would have been threatened were it not for the fact it was the language of the Koran which will preserve and protect it."
When the moment came to part company with my friend after the effort he made to convince me that we, Berbers, are in error to try to revive our language, he told me with a big smile, "I would appreciate it if you would do me a favor by having pity on one of the most respectable scholars, Professor Mohammed Chafik. Please do not add to his worries by asking him to resume working on his impressive dictionary written with the Tifinagh alphabet."
I replied to my friend with the same smile and took my leave of him.
Text in Arabic: Hammadi Lahlou
Translation into French: Abderraouf Hajji
Translation into English : Amine Hajji