TALSINNT, MOROCCO — In the shadow of a solitary oil rig in the scrub where the High Atlas mountains meet the Sahara, Mohammed Boulkoumi tends his 10 sheep and raises five children.
"That land belongs to my tribe, the Bouchaim," says the turbaned shepherd, pointing at an enclosure where an American flag flaps in the wind. "The oilmen just grabbed it."
Ten months ago, the American oil firm Skidmore Energy pitched camp on the land, where for 30 years Boulkoumi had raised his livestock. In this rocky terrain of eastern Morocco - a land of nomad tents and mud casbahs a mountain range away from running water, electricity, hospitals, and schools - the oilmen erected mobile-phone masts and a roaring derrick. Military police garrisoned the area, beneath which lie what Morocco's energy minister Yousef Taheri has claimed are 15 billion barrels of hydrocarbons.
For the oil company and Morocco, it seemed they had hit the jackpot. Announcing the find last August, King Mohammed called it "God's blessing to Morocco." He promised to use the funds to spur training and agricultural development.
But many of the Atlas area's 5 million people fear they will be stripped of their mineral-rich land. "For generations, we've been marginalized," says Mustafa Aboubou, from the nearby town of Talsinnt, where children run barefoot in winter snows and old men shuffle through the streets wrapped in blankets. "Now that they've found a bonanza, the Americans think we're the Red Indians of Morocco, to be erased from the scene."
The area is inhabited by Berbers, North Africa's native people, who comprise the poorest 60 percent of Morocco's 30 million population. For centuries, they say European and Arab elites have suppressed their language and traditions, and chased them off their tribal lands and into the cities.
Some analysts question whether the rural exodus has marked the defeat of Berber identity, however. "Migration to urban areas has sharpened a Berber consciousness and increased the spread of it," says Paul Silverstein, an anthropology professor at Oregon's Reed College.
Twice, Mr. Aboubou has organized protests to demand that Skidmore offer local inhabitants a percentage of revenue and jobs. After five years of drought, youth unemployment exceeds 60 percent and many are starving. So far, the oil company, whose partners include relations of King Mohammed VI and Morocco's chief of military police, has hired four local drivers and cooks. Local residents are not being offered any share in the oil revenues.
Says Peter Bradley, chief director of the $40,000-a-day oil operation, "Why should the people of Talsinnt get more money in their pockets? It's just by chance they're living atop valuable reserves. The money should go to all of Morocco."
Morrocan human rights lawyers vow to fight what they say is the dispossession of tribal lands by the government.
"The authorities are just perpetuating the colonial rule of the French," says Ahmed Adghini, an attorney in Rabat, 700 kilometers away. "For the past 40 years the
state has claimed all the communal lands of the Berbers and divided them up among the Arab elite."
In recent years, Mr. Adghini has sought to spearhead a Berber movement to counter what he says is a state campaign to erode Berber heritage, language, and land. Since independence in 1956, he says, state-sponsored Arabization has turned the Berber language, Tamazight, from the mother tongue of the majority into an endangered vernacular.
Government officials, however, accuse the Berber movement of spreading ethnic division, and they fear it could spark separatist tendencies. Morocco, they say, is a mosaic of Arab, Berber, Jewish and French cultures, with Arabic the only common denominator.
"Arabic is the official language of our identity, our Koran, and our nation. The Moroccan citizen is duty-bound to speak his national language," says Khalid Shebal of the government's Institute for Arabization, a government department working to reintroduce Arabic into administration and education after 50 years of French colonial rule.
But Berbers say they are the prime victims.
While French still dominates the road signs, the Berber script, Tifinagh, has been banned, and parents are required to give Arab, rather than Berber names to their children. Morocco's history has been rewritten to start with the Arab Islamic conquest of North Africa in the 7th century, not the country's ancient Berber roots. Jews, who once made up 10 percent of the Berber population, have emigrated en masse.
Berber revivalists say they are facing a second Arab conquest.
"Little did we realize that the pan-Arabism based in the Middle East would expand in such fury to North Africa," says Hassan Ouzzat of Agadir University. "This Middle Eastern movement generated a movement of cultural genocidal proportions. It's actually trying to subdue local identity in order to augment the numbers of so-called Arabs."
By law, courts and schooling are in Arabic, although 1 in 3 of Morocco's population are of Berber origin and speak Tamazight. Many Berbers simply drop out of school - in a country where half the population is illiterate.
As the sounds of construction echo through the Atlas, Berber tribesmen sing in their tents to the accompaniment of a rabab, an instrument made with two horse-hair strings: "We are sheep and those who shear are on the lookout. If you have no wool, they'll shear your skin."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society