FEZ, MOROCCO — "What is it?" asks first-grade teacher Malki Abderrahmane, as he points to a hieroglyphic letter in pink chalk on the wall.
"It's the free man!" exclaims the classroom full of six-year-olds.
The letter "yaz," shaped like a joyful human being, is the symbol of the Imazighen people. It's one of the 39 letters of Tifinagh, the ancient language all children in Morocco will be required to learn - in addition to classical Arabic and French - by 2008.
"It's our maternal language," says Amina Ibnou-Cheikh Raha, director of Le Monde Amazigh, a newspaper dedicated to Imazighen, or Berber, cultural issues. "It's the first language that existed here in Morocco. What's abnormal is that it has never been taught."
Berbers - the name given to the Imazighen people because they were viewed as "barbarians" who at first did not accept Islam - have inhabited North Africa since 7,000 BC. Their ranks have included St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, and they have managed to preserve their languages despite French, Roman, and Arab conquests.
"Thanks to our mothers, and our grandmothers, 'Tamazight' [the term used to designate all Imazighen languages] is still alive," says Lahcen Ouberka, a high school teacher in Marakech.
Tamazight speakers constitute 40 percent of Morocco's population, 20 percent of Algeria's, and 1 percent of Tunisia's. This year, Morocco's Ministry of Education and the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture (IRCAM) have introduced the 9,000-year-old language into some 300 primary schools throughout Morocco for the first time.
"It's very important to learn so we can speak with our brothers in the north and in the south," says first-grader Zineb Sakale excitedly.
Some Moroccan educators also hope the use of the language in schools will lower the Imazighen dropout rate.
"Many Imazighen students do not follow the educational system and they do not succeed, and this is in part because they don't study in their own language," says Fatima Agnaou, a researcher at IRCAM.
In 1967, Moroccan university students had formed the first Imazighen association in North Africa, the Moroccan Association of Research and Cultural Exchange. In the years since, new associations have continued to spring up, demanding the teaching of Tamazight in Moroccan schools.
Finally, in 1994, the late King Hassan II announced the introduction of Tamazight in Moroccan primary schools, but no move was made by the Ministry of Education until 2000.
Some worry that the initiative will stumble due to a government decision to begin teaching Tamazight in three separate dialogues, phasing in standardized Tamazight over the course of a decade. It's a decision some critics suggest was influenced by government fears of too much Imazighen unity.
There are, of course, countries that comfortably mix languages in their public school systems.
"In Switzerland, there are four official languages recognized by the state," says Khaji Mounia, director of the Tarik Ibn Zyad Cultural Center. "There are not ethnic ruptures in Switzerland. They are taught these languages from primary school up through university, and society lives in harmony."
But there are also places where the teaching of indigenous languages is a point of contention. In neighboring Algeria, for instance, the Imazighen were harshly repressed after independence from France. It was even illegal for a child to be given a Imazighen name, and such cultural repression sparked violent reactions.
The King of Morocco, whose mother happens to be a Berber, is cautiously pursuing a politic of incorporation. "I don't think we will have the same kinds of problems that Algeria went through," says civil activist Jamila Hassoune. Use of Tifinagh, she insists, is "a cultural richness that, instead of dividing Morocco, unifies it."