Rahalat fi Al-Maghrib (Travels in Morocco) : Tongues

The first word in the title is Rahalat. It is the inflected form of Rihla, a word I’d first heard of from another wonderful blog on soulful journeys. I remember that in addition to denoting a journey to discover God and self that originated in Al-Maghrib (Morocco to the uninitiated), it was also the name given to the book by the prolific traveler, Ibn Batutta. So, it is a no-brainer that a series of posts on my own journey to the land of Ibn Batutta would be named Rihla. I shall simultaneously compose the same series with pen on paper in Bengali, just because I want to. (Small update, a year on : like so many plans that do not see the light of the day, or for that matter artificial light as well, Bangla remains neglected.)

So, with the following words from someone who does not believe there is a supreme power, let us begin – Bismillah (in the name of God).

This post is titled ‘Tongues’. I like using the word ‘tongues’ instead of languages, though, of course, humans make use of many of  other anatomical features for speech. The word tongue carries a certain poetic flavour which the word language lacks. I think of the Hindi/Urdu/Farsi ‘zubān’ as a more poetic expression for language vis à vis the word ‘bhāshā’ of Sanskrit/Bengali. (The word ‘bhāshā’ has a different significance which I shall talk of at some other time)  As many travel websites proclaim, (which, by the way, I believe, cater chiefly to a Eurocentric clientele) Morocco speaks many tongues. I remember one particular line that caught my attention – that it is quite normal for a Marocain to start off in French or even Spanish, and break off in the middle to a dash of Arabic and nowadays increasingly to a smattering of English. While in practice, I didn’t find that to be completely true, Moroccans indeed were quite multilingual. French was a language spoken by many in Marrakech, though Moroccan Arabic was the language of choice for most. It was the language of the court and of public life. However, since 2011, we have an added language in public life – beside the Arabic in the abjad script (that seems to be born with the sole purpose of immersing one in mesmerising calligraphy), we have the Greek-like letters of the standardised Berber language or Tamazight. French was also there but the script was too common to me for my eyes to register.


The Berbers are the pre-Arabic people of North Africa who mingled with the ancient empires of Carthage, Greece and Rome. The name ‘Berber’ was given to their language by these civilisations. To them, the Berber were the ‘other’ and hence barbaric. The word ‘Amazigh’ however, refers to a free and noble man. Tamazight, with the added ‘Ta-’ making the word feminine, is what the Berber people call their language. The ubiquity of the ‘Ta’ morpheme added to many place names in southern Morocco (Tagounite, Tamegroute, Tarmigte etc etc) show their origins in feminine Berber words. Indeed, the name of the city which was our entry point to Morocco – Marrakech – is spelt as ⴰⵎⵓⵔⴰⴽⵓⵛ in Berber, and its origin is possibly ‘amur (n) akush (ⴰⵎⵓⵔ ⵏ ⴰⴽⵓⵛ)’, where the word ‘Akush’ refers to the God of the pre-Islamic Berber religion.

A glance at the Wikipedia page on the Berber people reveals a long history of their mingling with Rome and Carthage, the rising and ebbing of their prestige and influence, and eventually, their Arabization and their role in wars in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain). Enter the period of colonial Africa, and we see the Berber people reeling under a double hegemony of the French and the Arabic cultures. The article states that there are many more Berber people in North Africa than there are Berber speakers. Indeed, most of the Maghrib (the English/French term Maghrib refers to the whole of North Africa, while in Arabic, Maghrib refers to the kingdom of Morocco) is Berber in origin. However, after independence from France, Morocco and Algeria decided to do something which I believe even India did after independence. The government tried to reduce the influence of the colonial language – French in this case – by pursuing a policy of actively promoting one prestigious language – Arabic – and suppressing others – Berber. It was only during the Arab spring in 2011, amidst protests for constitutional reforms, that Berber was made an official language in Morocco along with Arabic. Algeria followed in 2016.

I learnt all of this during Valentine’s week in Marrakech, after discussion over tea with a Berber family with whom we were staying (and reading up on the internet late into the night). What started this conversation with the young Berber lad of the family was our choice of clothes during the spectacular journey from M’Hamid El Ghizlane to Marrakech (the journey itself deserves another post). We were wearing the blue gandora of the people of the desert and had a black shesh or turban tied on our heads. Many a Moroccan, including our host, would, at first glance, think of us as Berbers! Even our skin complexion matched. Our host was delighted to know of our interest in the Berber culture and would thus, to the best of his knowledge and his mother’s, try to satiate our curiosity. We talked at length about the language and the people, about the government trying to preserve the language and about the music of the Berber people (which again deserves another post!). He showed me his Berber flag with the yaz symbol – ⵣ – that is uncannily like the Bengali swastika.


Our host with the Berber flag in Marrakech. Photograph not to be reproduced.

Armed with a renewed zeal to learn about the Berber language, we spent the next day roaming about the Medina and the souks of the Jamaa El-Fna, looking for a book in the Berber language, or a book to learn Berber from Arabic or French. The Jamaa El-Fna is a magical place with all its fnaquegullies, nooks and crannies, and its legions of shops with people trying to sell us their goods. It felt good that on our first trip there, people understood us to be tourists but the second time around, we were more or less well thought to be part of the local population. But really, the grandeur and the beautiful chaos of the Jamaa El-Fna, at the risk of repeating myself, deserves another post! We looked at the Fnaque Berbere, a renowned bookshop tucked in a norther corner of the Jamaa El-Fna, but it had only French books. Most of the books there were on the art of Morocco (considering cuisine to be an example of art too).

Finally, we chanced upon a small bookstore which sold us a book to learn Arabic and Berber, for children. 15 Dirhams well spent. One can notice that the directionality of writing in Berber is not the same as Arabic, which makes the page numbers interesting in the said book.

ABC of Berber! Marrakech, Morocco.

As luck would have it, book in hand and a smug smile on my face, I chanced upon an exhibition on typographic journeys of the Moroccan people at the Fondation Dar Belharj (featured in the title image) near the Madrasa Ben Youssef in Marrakech! It traced the growth and popularity of the Tifinagh script and the Maghribi Arabic script. There were a number of art installations which presented the importance of the script in the olden days, and represented efforts to promote design and development of all the three prevalent scripts of Morocco. The coucher du soleil was almost over as we entered the exposition, and we were the only people at the place. A beautiful tune was playing in the background and I was surrounded by a celebration of the written language. A number of art installations stood proudly there, inspired by the nomadic lifestyle and the ‘sense of belonging’ that is close to my own heart.

Tifinagh script at the exposition on typographic journeys, Fondation Dar Belharj, Marrakech.

I felt the guilty satisfaction that one feels when enjoying oneself too much. Mashallah, I said to myself quietly, and walked out with wonderful memories of this almost-forgotten language, a fate that she shares with so many other languages all over the world.

21st February marks International Mother Language Day. This coming Tuesday, for some reason, I feel an urge to speak in Berber.


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