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.