The Linguistic Fracture of the Maghreb

Juan Goytisolo

Writer, Spain

We can say that language is the direct expression of a people’s culture. Hence, the official use of a language that nobody speaks in formal fields such as literary and scientific knowledge or politics reveals a strong marginalisation of the population in these sectors. This is precisely what is happening today in the Arab world and, particularly, in Morocco and Algeria. In these countries, the longing for freedom and progress is reflected, for example, in the rejection of Classical Arabic in favour of the recognition of Darija. This term designates the popular language of expression, labelled pejoratively as “Vulgar Arabic” by scholars but nevertheless spoken by almost all Maghrebian citizens.

Some years ago, the prosecution of Ahmed Benschemi, Editor-in-Chief of the Moroccan weeklies Nichan and Tel Quel, for the publication in the former of an open letter to King Mohamed VI gave rise to a large number of written opinions and provoked controversy both in his country and abroad. Leaving aside his assessment of the Moroccan constitutional system, I will limit myself to setting out some of my views on the language in which it was written: Darija, condescendingly called by scholars and the “powers that be” dialectal or colloquial, not to say “vulgar”, Arabic.

One question comes immediately to mind: can a language spoken by 99% of Maghrebian citizens, both in Morocco and Algeria, be “common” or “coarse”? I do not think so, and my understanding of the two North African countries acquired over decades has helped me appreciate their constant creativity both in the field of people’s oral accounts and their music, theatre and art. Like the Late Middle Ages Neo-Latin languages – Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, and so on –, it has gradually distanced itself from its matrix, Classical Arabic, without abandoning its roots, and has added elements from other languages such asTamazight, Andalusian Arabic, French and Castilian Spanish in an ongoing process of mixing and mutation which, for someone like me interested in the origins of words, is a daily source of motivation and admiration. With an enviable capacity for assimilation, it plays with the different registers of speech, creates turns of phrases and words, and invents proverbs, jokes and tales accessible to almost all people. I have a delightful anthology of them, reflecting a humour and emotiveness which are impossible to express in the Arabic written and read, but not spoken, by a minority.

This colloquial language – pejoratively labelled vulgar – successfully integrates the different components of complex identities, such as those of Morocco and Algeria. It has an Arab and Berber identity, and is enriched by the idiomatic contributions of the former colonisers. The gap between cultivated and spoken culture affects all levels of social, political and cultural life. How can a novel or a play that apparently describes today’s Moroccan or Algerian urban or rural world be written in a language that nobody speaks? Such a difficulty explains why, half a century after independence, many writers from the two countries still express themselves in French rather than in a language which is not their mother tongue but is learnt at school. The European publishing market’s thirst for profit and visibility does not explain why. Spoken Moroccan and Algerian is not the official Arabic enshrined in the constitutions of both countries. In the last years of his life the great writer Kateb Yasin, aware of this, moved from French, in which he produced his beautiful novel Nedjma,to the Darija of his country, indifferent to the scathing disapproval of scholars and of the military, political and financial leaders in power since 1965.

The Maghrebian peoples do not recognise themselves in an official language of empty solemnity. They see it, in contrast, as a muzzle on their aspirations to free democratic expression

What happened in Algeria in the 1970s and 1980s with the Arabisation policy imposed by Boumediene – a policy based on the Arab Union myth belied every day and which is the object of cruel jokes both in the Maghreb and Egypt – reveals the spectacular failure of such an attempt, which did not manage to “educate” or Arabise the people, who continue to express themselves in Darija and Kabyle, but rather undermined knowledge of French and sowed the seeds, through teachers recruited in the Middle East, of Salafism, which would lead, after the military coup against the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front, to the atrocities of the 1990s civil war.

The Maghrebian peoples, I insist, do not recognise themselves in an official language of empty solemnity. They see it, in contrast, as a muzzle for their aspirations to free democratic expression. Excluded from literary and scientific knowledge, neither does Darija have access to the political world, except in electoral rallies in search of votes. Such a gap leads, as I heard people complaining in some conferences on the subject, to self-contempt and schizophrenia. In an essay published some years ago in the journal Transeuropéennes de Culture and whose title I have appropriated for this article, the Tunisian scholar Yadh Ben Achour summarises the situation in terms which deserve their reproduction in extenso: “In parliamentary assemblies, political forums and even, with some exceptions, official ceremonies, language is transformed into reading, because nobody, in any place, is capable of speaking Classical Arabic. This gives political language the paradoxical and lifeless appearance of the langue de bois. In such a context, freedom of expression is profoundly undermined. The substitution of speech with reading becomes a hindrance. Our deputies, TV presenters, leaders and politicians adopt a haughty and rhetorical tone. Radio or television news and speeches by heads of state all but bypass many people. Our politicians, in general, do not speak: they read. The fear of speaking awakens and reveals in them the fear of thinking.”

Can such a state of affairs last indefinitely? I do not think so. The youths with whom I speak do not share the official or erudite scorn for their mother tongue. This is slowly finding its place, like Tamazight, in the media and will predictably extend even more. Given that the Maghrebian identity is multiple and changing – as all identities are, regardless of what constitutions and official texts state –, Darija and common Berber in the Atlas and Kabylie will sooner or later take root in the field of knowledge and culture, however harsh the resistance of lawmakers and the prevailing powers. Classical Arabic will, of course, remain in the religious and interstate field. However, communication in Moroccan and Algerian will achieve a place in newspapers, the stage, cinema and literary creation. Putting Middle East speech into the mouths of people from Marrakech or Tangiers provokes and will always provoke the healthy effect of laughter. And this has always marked the direction in which all peoples eager for freedom and progress head whatever the obstacles standing in their way.