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Last Updated: Monday, 19 December 2005, 00:22 GMT
Moroccans learn to write Berber
By Martha Dixon
BBC News, Morocco

In a village school perched on a hill on the edge of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, Amazigh children are learning in their own language.

Girl learning Berber script
The Berber script - Tifinagh - is related to Egyptian hieroglyphics
Morocco has been dominated by Arabic culture since the seventh century when the Arabs swept across the Middle East and North Africa in the name of Islam.

Now the original inhabitants of this country are reasserting their influence.

The word Amazigh means free or noble, but the Arabs called the Amazigh people Berbers - or barbarians. Their language, however, is still called Berber.

The six-year-olds at the school are part of a scheme to make Berber teaching compulsory in all schools in Morocco within the next 10 years - a major step forward in recognising Amazigh rights.

Oral language

Arabic is the official language in Morocco - with French also widely used - even though 60% of Morocco's population, some 18m people, is Amazigh.

Berber is an ancient language - some historians place it at 5,000 years old. It was spoken across a huge swathe of North Africa before the Arabs came.

Berber script
We are proud that our children can read and learn in our own language
Sadia Bussta
Six-year-old Oussayn is proud of his new reading skills.

"I like learning in Berber because it's easier - it's what I speak at home," he says.

Traditional North African communities converted to Islam when the Arabs came and so were assimilated into Arab culture.

Despite the dominance of Arabic, the original language has not died out.

Berber dialects are still spoken from Morocco right across Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt and further south in countries around the Sahara desert.

But in most areas, the language has essentially become an oral tradition.

'Wiped out'

To resurrect the writing means bringing back an ancient script called Tifinagh, which originated around the same time as Egyptian hieroglyphics.

"The language and writing of the Amazighs is a sister of ancient Egyptian," says Professor Mohamed Oujama, a Moroccan historian.

Children in school
The children find it easier to learn in their own language than Arabic
"The Tifinagh script was lost because the Amazigh elite were wiped out three times with successive invasions of Morocco. Now the Amazighs want to write again using their own alphabet - not the Latin or Arabic alphabet."

High in the Atlas Mountains, you can still see rocks with clearly engraved markings and crude pictures of animals and people, which were made before Morocco became part of the Arab world.

These ancestors of today's Amazighs would have written with the ancient Tifinagh alphabet.

In a village nearby, Sadia Bussta serves vegetable soup and dates to her family.

Like most Amazighs in Morocco, her family all speak Berber but they can't write it because all their schooling was in Arabic.

"Now that the ministry of education here in Morocco has integrated our language into public schools, we, as Amazighs will find our identity again. We are proud that our children can read and learn in our own language," says Sadia.

Amazigh oral traditions - songs and poetry - have been vital for keeping their language alive.

Now these people are once again learning to read and write in their own tongue.

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