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Self-awareness and cultural pride are very important. But are they to be centrifugal or centripetal? The ideologization of this issue is probably inevitable. Our columnist tackles the Berber question, and the continuing decline in Moroccan newspaper circulation.
Martin Rose
29 April 2013

Alphabets, synecdoches and PC

I went last week to an evening lecture called Berber and Berbers: Basic Questions, Basic Answers, at NIMAR, the Dutch Institute in Rabat. It was given by Professor Harry Stroomer of Leiden, a descriptive linguist who has spent his life immersed in Berber language, oral history and ethnography. I went along with a sense of quite how little I know, and how much more I certainly should know, about this fundamental aspect of Morocco. So let me begin with the caution that these initial reflections are bound to be ingenuous, and that I shall do my best to learn more.

Prof Stroomer started with a list of the dozen most common questions he is asked about Berbers – and his answers to these revealed some fascinating information. For example, 60% of the population of Casablanca and just under 10% of that of Paris are berbèrophone; 80% of Dutch Moroccans are Berber, and of these 75% are Tarifit-speakers. He sketched out an intriguing history, and spelled out many misunderstandings which he has had gently to correct over the years. My favourite snippet of information was the discovery that although Berber languages are Semitic, and so unvowelled in writing, the Tifinagh alphabet used today has a one-for-one correspondence with the Latin, vowels and all, and you can transliterate with a single (perhaps metaphorical) tap on your keyboard: to and fro, to your heart’s content.

But as I listened, humming along in my head was the question, “Why does he keep referring to Berbers? Aren’t we supposed to use the word Amazigh?” I felt a little as I felt after years in Canada, when people in Britain referred to Eskimos – a sense that this isn’t the word that the Inuit, or in this case Berbers, like to use or hear used of themselves. Both are easily heard as pejorative, but they are also habitual and generally not used with pejorative intent. Just not quite PC.

No, said the good professor, Berber is the word for a people scattered across North Africa, with Berber languages spoken from Siwa to coastal Mauretania, and from Kabylie to Mali. Spoken in a relatively small number of areas, splashed across the map like ink-spots, this rich family of languages has some 20 million speakers, the largest number here in Morocco, where people who might identify themselves as Berbers probably constitute a small majority of the population.

But the professor’s underlying question seemed to me to be whether all these Berbers were really aware of a common identity before the 20th century, or whether Berberness – like Blackness – is an ideological construct created retrospectively: first by the French Protectorat, and then by the Amazigh movement. Which is where the word Amazigh and the name of the language, Tamazight, come in because they refer, really, to the people and tongue of the Middle Atlas, distinct from the Tashilhit of the south and the Tarifit of the north – let alone the languages spoken by Tuareg, Zenada, Kabyles or Beni Nefousa. The use of these Middle Atlas Berber descriptors for the whole kit and caboodle is a synecdoche, a figure of speech whereby a part comes to represent the whole – and it’s a synecdoche that Prof Stroomer clearly resists, in the gentlest possible way, feeling that identity risks being drowned in ideology.

He gave a clear and sympathetic account of the deprecation of Berber identity after Independence – the feeling that Berberness somehow undermined Arabness, and that Arabness was what Morocco was really about both in terms of pan-Arabism and of Islam. He talked of the euphemisms that had to be employed instead of Berber, and the tragic diffidence that was inculcated into Berbers so that many would fudge and obscure their own identities. He also talked of the post-Independence abolition of the chair of Berber at Rabat University, and said that however paradoxically, the Protectorat had been a positive period culturally in many ways for Morocco’s Berbers. It was the French who really began, in their imperialistic and directive way, the collectivisation of Berber language speakers into Berbers; and the conceptualisation of Morocco’s many Berber tongues as a single, albeit variegated, Berber language.

Clearly very sensitive to the real need for self-assertion by Berbers in Morocco, he nonetheless finds himself rather at odds with the ideologizing and myth-making that began among Berber exiles in Paris in the 1960s. He described with wry amusement the retrospective imagining of the history of a once extensive Berber nation overrun by Arabs more than a millennium ago; the invention of a flag; and the confection of a calendar. And he spoke too of the purposeful creation of a new language and an alphabet as tools of identity-building. It was clear that in his view the standard Tamazight that is being created today, avoiding the choice of a single dialect (as Florentine was to modern Italian) and building something novel, with eclectic choices and much resort to very foreign Tuareg vocabulary, is not (yet at least) a great success. “I know only two people in Morocco who can read and write it fluently,” he said sadly, implying that a great chance had been missed.

His enthusiasm for Tifinagh script is less than wholehearted. He described and illustrated the ancient ‘Libico-Berber’ script, noting that no one has ever managed to read a word of it and so there is no actual evidence therefore that it was used to write a Berber language; and the long tradition, particularly but not only in southwest Morocco, of Berber written in Arabic; and how this latter tradition was essentially ignored in the choice of a script which cuts Berber speakers off from the world, and from their own literacy. As a language that is no one’s mother tongue, “it runs the strong risk,” he said, “of reproducing exactly the diglossia that exists in Arabic” – that fatal division between the written and the spoken language that is the enemy of literacy.

It is a fascinating as well as an important discussion, and an interesting moment in Morocco’s cultural history. The foundation of IRCAM in 1992, and the inclusion of Berber/Tamazight in the Moroccan constitution of July 2011 as an official language, are important steps. It’s very clear (as I am constantly reminded) that to think and speak of Morocco simply as an Arab country is wrong: it has immensely strong and deep Berber roots, and acknowledgement of, and pride in, those is essential for a healthy future. In our small way at the British Council, we have tried to recognize this by starting to put up our signage in Tifinagh as well as in Arabic and French. But it also raises concerns. I reported a few months ago a Marrakchi waiter who told me pugnaciously as he delivered my coffee that  ”If that book you’re reading says Morocco is an Arab country, it’s a lie.” The opposite concerns are real too, and there are many non-Berber darija speakers who worry about Tamazight’s becoming a compulsory school subject for their already linguistically over-burdened children. A Rabat taxi-driver bent my ear on this subject for 20 minutes this very morning, to the point of (my) exhaustion.

To my mind this is a big, open question. Self-awareness and cultural pride are very important. But are they to be centrifugal or centripetal? The ideologization of this issue is probably inevitable. In Britain we have seen it in parts of the Welsh and Scottish nationalist movements, for whom the symbolic value of a minority language far outweighs its practical usefulness. It is an interesting contradiction for us in Britain to feel the real intensity of – for example – Scottish nationalism, with its deeply felt history of domination, exploitation and linguistic oppression (albeit sometimes wildly and self-indulgently exaggerated, as in Mel Gibson’s ridiculous Braveheart); and at the same time to note that the last three Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, Blair, Brown and Cameron, are, in some sense at least, all Scots. But none of them (as far as I know) speak a word of Gaelic, and Blair and Cameron have no trace of Scottishness left visibly or audibly about them.

Years ago in Belgium, I asked a Flemish colleague how I should refer to his language. He thought for a moment, and then said “Well, I call it Flemish. But you should call it Dutch, because you’re foreign, and if you call it Flemish, you make it sound like a dialect, and that would be patronising.” And here in Morocco I guess it’s the same kind of situation. I just have to work out now what a foreigner who is not linguist, or ethnologist but a sympathetic observer should call it. Berber or Amazigh?

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in April, 2013.

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 Here come the deontologists

“The good old-fashioned newspaper” says Maroc Hebdo this week, “on the terrace of a crémerie, between café crème and croissant, is finished. From now on, we must arrive with i-pads under our arms …” and there’s truth in this rather sad comment. For one thing I do find myself arriving most mornings at the Café Fine Brioche under my Rabat office for my coffee clutching my i-pad containing the day’s Guardian, and a weekly – the TLS, the London Review of Books, TelQuel or Maroc Hebdo – with not a real daily newspaper in sight.

So what? Well, the comment comes in the course of an interesting cover story in Maroc Hebdo this week about the press. Newspaper circulation bothers me (as regular readers know) because it is a dipstick in the tank of literacy: I quote from time to time the figure of 300,000 for the combined circulation of all Morocco’s dailies, and compare it querulously to the circulation of Algeria’s Al-Khabar (400,000 plus) or Egypt’s Al-Ahram (over a million). Hebdo‘s story allows a rather deeper and more nuanced look at the press’s problems – and they are no less depressing for being nuanced.

Abdellah Mansour, in Hebdo, describes this primary circulation problem as “le couplet analphabétisme-pouvoir d’achat,” and neither element in the couplet is getting better, at least not fast enough for sales alone to save a Moroccan newspaper. Illiteracy is only a part of the problem. The press is certainly trapped by low circulation: broadly speaking, sales account, at the very most, for 20% of income – but there are sobering figures here which put the particularly dire problems facing Morocco’s press in sharp relief. Fewer than 1% of Moroccans buy a newspaper at all, a total sale of “between 300,000 and 350,000 daily.” This compares with almost a million in Algeria, with its population roughly the same size as Morocco’s, and about 400,000 in Tunisia, population 8,000,000, or about a quarter of Morocco’s. Thirteen papers are sold in Morocco for every 1,000 Moroccans – the global average is 95 – and in this table Morocco comes 15th in the Arab world, beating only Mauretania, Yemen and Somalia, by a whisker.

Less familiar are some other rankings: 1.7 kg of newsprint consumed annually per Moroccan, against a world average of 20.3 kg (but where, I find myself asking, does the 1.7 kg actually go? Even that is a great deal of print for the average Moroccan who is said, anecdotally, to spend six minutes a year reading one page of print: it must be more like thick cardboard than paper, and at 1.7 kg per page that’s a GSM for wiping dinosaurs’ bottoms with). The Hebdo articles comment not only on Moroccans’ lack of purchasing power but on their expectation, where they do read, of reading free. Sharing and even renting newspapers is common, and in the street-level window of L’Opinion/Al-Massae below my office there is always the day’s edition taped to the back of the glass and attracting casual readers.

But if readers are the core problem (which stands to reason for reading-material), there are others almost as threatening to the newspaper business. Of these the collapse in advertising revenue is the next. In the twelve months between November 2011 and November 2012 total advertising revenues fell by 14.4%. This leaves the newspaper companies caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: minuscule readership income from kiosk and subscription sales; and plummeting advertising revenue. No wonder that 50% of all newspaper companies are in financial difficulty. Finally on the debit side, the three distribution companies, on whose meagre usefulness I commented recently in the context of book distribution, take 40% of cover-price.

It’s a nightmare. And newspapers generally stay alive through another, quite different, mechanism – state subsidy. This amounts, under the current agreement signed a month ago by the Minister of Communication, M Khalfi, and the owners, to MAD 65,000,000. This is just enough to keep most of the papers tenuously afloat, though there have been many closures. But it does create a dependence on government funding which seems less than entirely healthy. And it’s not all that generous: the subsidy represents only about a third of what the industry pays in tax. Newspapers are awfully vulnerable to the concerted withdrawal of advertising, a means of pressure and even quietus, that has been used against papers in the past. But anyway, to be beholden to the Ministry of Communication and the large commercial advertisers for survival will tend to introduce an element of caution: caution which can all too easily lead to blandness and tedium.

This is where Nadia Lamhaidi takes up the baton in the third article of the week’s ‘En Couverture’ special. She places Morocco’s newspaper problems in a global context – the rapid erosion of hard-copy sales by migration to on-line news is almost universal, and papers cutting and closing across the globe – but notes sadly that “many Moroccan papers have in the last few months had to resign themselves to shutting up shop, because in truth they have failed to find a workable business model.” Morocco’s has long been a press of diverse opinions – “as a matter of practice if not of principle” – and this is being rapidly eroded as newspapers close. She makes very clear that Morocco’s press has been amongst the most ‘plural’ in the region, and that this is very much at risk. But she notes too that many too many journalists are betraying professional standards – she uses that wonderfully opaque French word, déontologie, which has no direct English parallel – by failing to check facts and by letting the sloppier standards of Facebook and Twitter pull down the professional practice and ethics of newspaper journalists.

She prescribes a new emphasis on investigative journalism and a return to high standards of professionalism, a “journalisme soigné, où l’on prend le temps du prendre du recul par rapport à l’information, de la verifier, de la recouper. ” This seems rather a thumb-in-the-dyke approach to a much vaster and more intractable problem – after all, this elaborate regime of fact-checking and po-faced press ethics is very much an American phenomenon (and who would read the New York Times for fun?). But then, in England we too are facing up to the excesses of the gutter press with an approach which risks being reassuringly, or alarmingly (selon gout), deontological. In the end, if papers are to be read they have to be interesting, surprising and irreverent.

Like (said with a sigh of resignation) some of the perfectly ghastly but also perfectly necessary organs of the unruly and often unattractive British press.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in April, 2013.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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