The single most noticeable change in Morocco in the years since our last visit has been the sudden appearance of the Berber language, with its exotic ancient alphabet, on all official Moroccan government signs and documents.
The Berbers were the ancient peoples of Morocco who were forcibly converted to Islam by the Arabs who conquered the country over a thousand years ago. Thought to
descend from mixed peoples–including, Saharan, Oriental and European–they are of different tribes and do not make up a homogenous race.
More than 60 % of Moroccans now call themselves Berber, and “Berber Pride” is now mainstream in Morocco.
Many of the Berbers still
live in the Atlas mountains, although others populate urban areas. The southern nomadic Berbers (“blue men”–named because their skin was stained by the indigo dyes of their robes and turbans) live in the deserts.
For centuries up into modern times, the Berber culture has been ignored or sometimes suppressed. The importance, however unspoken, of acknowledging the Berber segment of the population, has led Morocco’s kings to always make sure that one of their wives was a Berber.
Despite this, the ancient non-semitic “Tamazight” language, while spoken in Berber households, was not allowed to be taught in schools or be accepted as an official Moroccan language. In much the same way that Kurdish language was suppressed in Turkey, the Berber language was devalued.
This changed two years ago when Morocco’s young king Mohammed VI correctly perceived that continued ignoring of the contribution of the Berbers to Morocco could risk the rise of the kind of violent discontent that has marked the Kurdish movement in Turkey. At his encouragement, the government did a total about-face in its policy towards the Berbers. Suddenly, Berber, with its ancient alphabet, was recognized as an official Moroccan language. Berber culture began to be taught, along with the language, in schools.
The government began to require that all official documents and even touristic signs be written in Arabic AND Berber. All of this government attention, especially to an ancient language which has six spoken dialects and no commonly agreed upon written form ,was puzzling to many Moroccans, including many Berbers themselves.
Oddly, these new policies have perhaps had just as big an effect internationally as at home. Just this year, in a surprising turnabout, the Turkish government suddenly reversed decades of suppression of the Kurdish language and culture; Morocco’s king reportedly had told the Turkish prime minister that just as speaking Berber didn’t make one less Moroccan, speaking Kurdish shouldn’t make one less Turkish.
Back in the tourist shops of Morocco, however, merchants usually well tuned to tourist interests, had yet to pick up on foreigners’ interest in the exotic Berber language. Our exhaustive 3-week search turned up only one “Teach Yourself Berber” book in French, one shawl with a Berber letter on it, and a single T-shirt with one Berber word nestled amongst the Arabic.
Our shop (in collaboration with our favorite store in Marrakesh) plans to produce t-shirts with “Music for the Eyes” written in Berber.