RABAT // Nadia Soussi licks her lips, peers at the teleprompter and in a calm, flat voice recites, "Inghameesen ntelefizion ntamazight gharibat azoul filon!" - "Tamazight television news in Rabat, welcome!" "OK, let's try again, but relax your pose a bit," says Rachid Iken, Ms Soussi's editor, observing her from a corner of the studio. The newscast is a dry run. Soussi, 28, is practising for a new job at a new kind of TV station in Morocco: one dedicated to broadcasting in Tamazight, the language of the country's Amazigh, or Berber, minority.
Officially launched last week by Morocco's state-owned TV and radio company, Tamazight Channel is the latest effort to boost Amazigh culture and language by a government keen to avoid political clashes along ethno-linguistic lines. Some Amazigh activists say such gestures distract from calls for political reform. But for Tamazight Channel's director, Mohamed Mamad, they "serve to consolidate the unity of the country".
While 30 per cent of the station's programmes will be in Arabic, the rest will air - with Arabic subtitles - in Tamazight, a distant relative of Arabic spoken in several dialects by Amazigh communities across North Africa. That is what attracted Soussi, a former radio journalist who grew up speaking the language near the city of Marrakech, once the imperial capital of the Almoravids, a medieval Amazigh dynasty.
"I'm comfortable in Tamazight, and I'm serving people who don't speak Arabic," she said. In recent decades, demand for jobs and education has pushed more Moroccans into big cities, where Arabic is dominant. But up among the pines of the Rif mountains, in terraced Atlas highlands and on the red plain of the Souss valley, pockets remain where only Tamazight is spoken. Nobody knows quite when the Amazighs arrived in North Africa. The earliest record of them may be prehistoric rock carvings of war chariots in the Sahara.
They watched later conquerors come and go - Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines - secure in the mountains and the depths of the desert. But when Arabs invaded in the seventh century, they swiftly adopted Islam. Today, most North Africans are of mixed Amazigh and Arab ancestry but consider themselves Arabs. Of the minority that identifies as Amazigh, the largest group lives in Morocco, making up about a third of the country's 32 million people.
After Morocco gained independence from its coloniser, France, in 1956, the government set about Arabising the country, prompting Amazighs to organise in defence of their culture. In 2001, King Mohamed VI changed direction in order to head off political trouble, declaring the Amazighs integral to Morocco. Nevertheless, a hard core of the Amazigh movement "is radicalising quite rapidly", said Michael Willis, professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean Studies at Oxford University's Middle East Centre. "They're even talking about regional autonomy."
That has Moroccan leaders looking nervously at the example of neighbouring Algeria, where Amazigh activism has boiled over into unrest, Prof Willis said. In spring 2001, riots and clashes between Amazigh demonstrators and police tore through Algeria's Kabylie region; the government promptly made Tamazight an official language and in 2005 set up the country's first Tamazight television station. Despite such concessions, Kabylie remains a stronghold of major Algerian opposition parties born from the country's Amazigh movement.
"In Morocco, there's a much larger Berber-speaking community than in Algeria," Prof Willis said. "But the government understands that if you keep Amazigh issues cultural, you stop them from becoming political." Since 2001, the Moroccan government has set up the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture and introduced Tamazight into some schools and media. The long-awaited Tamazight Channel is the latest such initiative. But some activists remain sceptical.
"The station will sometimes broadcast a discourse that goes against our interests," said Ahmed Dghirni, president of the Democratic Moroccan Berber Party, which calls for democratic reforms to promote Amazigh culture and was banned in 2008 as an ethnically-based party. But on the plus side, "it will spread the use of our language and deepen the recognition of our existence", Mr Dghirni said. In the Tamazight Channel studio, Soussi is running her lines and trying to get the hang of the teleprompter foot pedal.
For now, the station is running test reels, but full programming will begin in March. Soussi wants to highlight women athletes "because women are under-represented in sport, especially Amazigh women". Her fair skin, dark eyes and high full cheeks show her own Amazigh roots. When she recites, her words are quick and rasping. They sound like Arabic but are not. Suddenly the audio link goes dead. Iken departs for the control room, leaving Soussi standing alone in the middle of the studio.
"Can you hear me?" she asks the microphone clipped to her lapel. Then again, louder. "Can you hear me?" After a minute, Iken returns. "It's OK, they can hear you now," he says. "Sorry about the wait," crackles a technician's voice over the intercom.Once again, Ms Soussi cues the teleprompter, straightens her jacket and begins to speak. email@example.com