TUNIS – Berber students from the mountainous Kabylia region of Algeria have left school to protest the government’s neglect of their mother tongue, Tamazight.
The protests began on October 22 at a high school in Beni-Zmenzer, 15 km south of Tizi Ouzou, the main town of Kabylia, and spread to schools in the provinces of Tizi Ouzou, Bejaia and Bouira. The students came out of the classroom and chanted slogans demanding Tamazight lessons, which are not offered in all parts of the country.
“If there is no Tamazight everywhere, no to the other language here,” chanted the students, referring to Arabic.
The pro-Tamazight protests came after parents in the Arabic-speaking province of Jijel pulled their children out of schools in protest against required Tamazight lessons.
Their frustration was fueled by Islamist member of parliament Naima Salhi, who posted a video on social media lamenting the spread of the language.
“My daughter is a student at a private school where most of the students are (from) Kabylie,” Salhi said. “Out of innocence, she started to learn Tamazight. I have not objected to it since language teaching became compulsory in school but I said to him: ‘If I hear you say a word in Tamazight at home, I will kill you.’ “
In Algeria, Islamists defend Arabic as the dominant language, stressing that it is the language of the Koran. Reformists, however, say the promotion of Tamazight is key to preserving the country’s Berber identity and fostering multiculturalism, individual rights and decentralization. The heads of government have given credit to this point of view, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika accusing colonization of having destroyed Algerian culture, identity, language and traditions.
In 2002, three years after Bouteflika took office, Algeria amended its constitution to name Tamazight as the “official and national” language alongside Arabic. The government is committed to “promoting and developing the language in all its linguistic varieties” and has created “the Algerian Academy of the Tamazight language”.
However, analysts said that the Algerian government’s official measures to promote Tamazight have not translated into change at the local level and that quality Tamazight textbooks and teachers are lacking.
They noted that recent protests have shown that more needs to be done to reduce tensions between ethnic groups and encourage tolerance and multiculturalism.
“This is a worrying development as the protests challenge the principle of pluralism, including linguistic plurality and tolerance and acceptance of others despite their differences,” said Algerian political writer Samir Leslous, adding that there was a level of outrage “not seen since the ‘Berber Spring’ in April 1980.
That year, Berber protesters demanded an end to what they called “Arab-Islamic apartheid,” which they said threatened their language and identity. At least 116 people have died in the protests.
Boualem Messoudi, a Tamazight math and writing teacher, said the language protests “stemmed from a feeling of injustice among young Berbers.”
“Arabic has been imposed on all Algerians while Tamazight is not promoted and generalized throughout Algeria,” he said.
The moderate Berber movement Rassemblement pour la Kabylie, however, warned the Berbers against attempts to impose Tamazight on all Algerians.
“It is healthy and salutary to say loud and clear that this is enough with the provocations, insults and denigrations of the Berber identity and the Tamazight language, but it is urgent and crucial to avoid being drawn into a war of languages, ”the group said in a statement. declaration.
Algeria’s approach to Tamazight could be a test for Morocco and Libya, which have their own sizable Berber communities.
In 2011, the Tamazight language made a revival in Morocco and Libya. Morocco recognized Tamazight as an official language and Berber activists in Libya presented textbooks, dictionaries, magazines and radio stations in Tamazight.
However, a national Libyan constitution drafting committee ignored calls to officially recognize the language, which had been suppressed during Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.