Berber scholar Chafik wins Prince Claus Award and demands official recognition for Amazigh language and culture

[From Eurolang.net]

Utrecht 16/12/02, by Onno P. Falkena

Last Friday the Dutch crown prince Willem Alexander gave the prestigious Prince Claus Award worth 100.000 euros to the Berber scholar and language activist Mohammed Chafik for his relentless work on behalf of the Amazigh (Berber) language and culture in Morocco.

Chafik is the author of the Amazigh - Arab dictionary and one of the authors of the Berber Manifesto, which asked for official recognition of the Amazigh language and culture two years ago. The 76 year old prefers the word Amazigh to Berber, which was an invention of the Romans, who called them 'barbarus' (barbarian). Chafik currently heads the Royal Institute for Amazigh Language and Culture in Rabat, which was established in October last year by Morocco's King Mohammed. Already officially retired, he performs this task free of charge. Chafik has therefore now been honoured by two royal families, much to his own surprise.

The Prince Claus Award is a moment of great hope for the Imazighen [plural of Amazigh], the 'free people', as the Berbers call themselves, both in Morocco and the Diaspora. Young Berbers from The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany organised a special conference to celebrate the award and to discuss with Chafik about Amazigh language, history and philosophy. "This is a great moment for us. No Berber has ever received such a worthy prize before", said language activist Mohammed Boukiour.

The Royal Institute for Amazigh Language and Culture is currently preparing the introduction of the language in primary education in Morocco, compiling school dictionaries, children's books and school grammar books. The introduction of Amazigh in Moroccan schools should start in the autumn of next year, but until now the sensitive question as to which alphabet to use has still not been solved.

There are three options: Arabic, Latin and Tifinagh, the historic Amazigh alphabet, which was banned from the streets in Morocco after its independence in 1954. Most Berbers prefer either the Latin alphabet or Tifinagh, but Islamic organisations in Morocco have already claimed that they will only accept Amazigh teaching in the Arabic alphabet. This however is unacceptable to Amazigh activists, tired of fighting against the process of Arabisation in Morocco that started with its independence.

"At the institute we will standardise the language in the three alphabets", Chafik explains. "The language has already been standardised in Tifinagh, but for communication with the outside world we need both the Arabic and the Latin alphabet as well. One should not be surprised about the variety in alphabets, we are not the only country in the world with various alphabets. At the institute we are responsible for all preparations necessary for the introduction of Amazigh at school. The introduction itself is up to the politicians. Yet unfortunately the Amazigh language and culture does not only have friends among Moroccan politicians."

Chafik expects the decision on the alphabet no later than January next year. Personally he prefers Tifinagh, although he acknowledges that it is still not possible to use Tifinagh on the computer.

Chafik stressed in his lecture that the Amazigh struggle is not just about language. "It is about culture, history, identity and equal opportunities. The development of the Amazigh speaking Rif-mountains in north-eastern Morocco have been neglected by the government." Many Moroccans, if not most, in Europe are from this area. In their new countries they are often seen as Arabs, a language and identity, which is alien to many of them.

Moroccan emigrants of the second generation are quite interested in their Amazigh roots and often have an uneasy relation with the Moroccan embassies. Apart from the fact that most civil servants of the embassies are not able to communicate in Amazigh, they also refuse to register Amazigh names of new-born babies. Sticking to the Amazigh name means renouncing Moroccan nationality. In order to solve this and many other discriminatory problems Chafik repeated his demand to recognise Amazigh in the constitution of the Moroccan Kingdom.

"It is the justified demand of all Amazigh organisations. The Moroccan government should not postpone this decision too long. The goal of our institute is to inform the Berbers about their culture and history. This is far from enough to balance 48 years of Arabisation. If the language is not recognised in the constitution some people and some organisations will continue to say that Amazigh is not a real language."

The struggle of the Berbers of Morocco is more difficult that the struggle of the linguistic minorities in Western Europe, according to Chafik. "Our main problem is that the Arab language is linked to the religion. When a Berber goes to the mosque he leaves his language with his shoes at the entrance. The pressure has been so big that quite a few Berbers have begun to see themselves as Arabs. If they see their Moroccan identity as half Berber/half Arab, I fully agree. But if they say I am 100 percent Arab, my reply is always 'and I am one hundred percent Berber'," adds the language activist.

According to Chafik at least eighty percent of the inhabitants of Morocco are of Berber origin and therefore more African than Arab. Chafik hopes that the publicity created by the Prince Claus Award will enhance the awareness of the Europeans that most Moroccan immigrants are Berber and not Arab, let alone that they sympathise with terrorist networks like Al Qaida or Arab fundamentalism. (EL)