L’abîme entre le Morocain et le livre

In TelQuel last week (no. 541, 26 October 2012) there was an interview with two outstanding  Paris-based Moroccan novelists – Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdellah Taïa. They met in Ben Jelloun’s Latin Quarter flat to discuss writing, Morocco and politics. I shan’t attempt to summarize a long and absorbing conversation; but there is one central thread which I’ll pick up now, their deep concern for literacy, and the absence of a Moroccan book culture. There is a great abyss, says Taïa at one point, between the Moroccan and the book.

The two writers, who both write and publish in French, tackle the knot of problems in which illiteracy and education are wrapped inextricably together; and to which, being writers, they add publishing – all three areas of critical importance in Morocco and all three needing serious attention. This (my translation) is how Ben Jelloun opens the subject:

The problem of reading in Morocco is tied to the catastrophe of school education, which has caused much damage these last 30 years. The reading habit has not generally been acquired by young people and children, with some exceptions, at all. In this we are in the same situation as the rest of the Arab world. In Egypt, with its 80 million inhabitants, a best-seller sells about 3000 copies. It’s mad. There’s a problem with reading in the Arab world which can’t be seen in isolation from the political crisis which we’re living through, or from the cultural and identity crises, because they’re all linked.

Everyone I speak to has a different way of describing the symptoms of this disease, lucidly and realistically, with plausible cod statistics: one friend tells me that the average Moroccan reads a quarter of a page of print a year; another that the same average Moroccan reads for six minutes a year. Since there are a significant number of Moroccans who read many hundreds of pages a year, this depresses the amount of reading done by ordinary Moroccans close to zero. The total circulation of all Moroccan newspapers taken together is not much over 300,000, which is to say that one Moroccan in a hundred buys a newspaper.

The official figure for literacy is around 61.6%, with a gender gap of 25%. This compares with 69.9% for Algeria and 71.7% for Egypt. Non-Moroccan sources put the figure rather lower (the CIA Factbook and the UNDP both give 56.1%, a figure that dates from 2009). World Bank figures from 2009 focusing only on the young are more bullish, giving 79.5% of the 15-24 age bracket. But whichever way you cut it, Morocco has very high levels of illiteracy, even by the undemanding standards of its MENA neighbours. And when you add to this the conventional definition used – the percentage of people who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement about their everyday life – it is clear that there is a large gap between  the barely literate young Moroccan and any kind of reading habit. Let’s guess that 10% of Moroccans read books. A glance down the railway carriage on the Rabat-Casablanca train to see how one’s fellow-passengers are whiling away the time suggests that even this may be over-generous.

Does it matter? Clearly to novelists it does; and it should to everyone who wants to see Morocco flourish, not just because novels are important vehicles of social and political commentary, but because without a generally literate population, endowed with a literacy that enables  the easy consumption, digestion and use of written material, intellectual capital isn’t being generated. Ben Jelloun blames education: the real problem isn’t expressing oneself in darija, rather it’s being able to read, because we’re one of the most backward of countries when it comes to literacy. It does no good at all to write in classical Arabic, or darija, or French if the Moroccan across the aisle doesn’t read what one writes. We are shamefully backward in school education, completely out of our depth at this level.

He links the problem of literacy to the political crisis of the Arab world. He means, I think, that the failure of education in Morocco and other MENA countries to equip the young for the world of higher study and employment is one of the motors that sent young people out onto the streets in the spring of 2011. Close to my Rabat office I see regular demonstrations of orderly young graduates demanding public sector work ‘appropriate’ for their educational level  (but for which, as M Benkirane, the Head of Government, recently pointed out with disarming honesty, they are not generally equipped); and I remember too how on at least one Sunday the February 20th organizers called for all demonstrators to carry a book, a very poignant message. Education reform is high on the agenda of Morocco’s young: they may not read, but they are all too clear of the consequences of being so ill-equipped.

Ben Jelloun also points the finger at identity crises, and Taïa picks this up as a language question. Morocco, he says, is torn between several levels of language: classical Arabic, darija and French, and the value attached to each of these languages. Poor and ordinary people are excluded from the use of French, while classical Arabic is reserved for those of a certain intellectual level. So all we have left is this impoverished language – this language of the impoverished – darija, which is a long way from being respected. With the internet and all these modes of communication which radically change people’s daily lives, illiterates included, it’s urgent that we sort out this question , because we’ve been talking about the burden of the discrepancy between  the written and the spoken language for centuries. Those who govern us have taken advantage of this discrepancy to separate us from a medium which gives us a grip upon ourselves and on society.  There are rap singers and magazines in darija – like the experimental Nichane, which tried to decompartmentalize things – but the question of our relationship with language remains to be sorted out.

This seems to me to go right to the heart of the problem. Language in Morocco is an inchoate jungle of fraternities and exclusions, of social signals and subtle passports, of enablers and excluders. If education and social mobility are a game of Snakes and Ladders, it must often feel to Moroccans as though they are allocated either Snakes or Ladders, but never both; and that the languages they have managed to acquire through, or despite, their education, tell the world which. It appears to me, an outsider, that the country is divided into language compartments that are very hard to escape; that social and economic advancement requires French; but that increasingly young Moroccans feel trapped by a colonial language that carries so much political baggage. Which language do they actually speak, and is it the same language in which they write, if they write at all? The discrepancy Taïa refers to, ce fardeau du décalage entre la langue parlée et la langue écrite, is fundamental, and I have written about it before. The closet diglossia of darija and fus7a is crippling young Moroccans: a whole nation, with very few exceptions, is learning to read in what is in reality a new, and in many cases foreign, language. Or, as is only too clear, not learning to read. Taïa, of course, sidesteps the décalage by writing in French.

It’s in this non-reading context that Taïa (published by Seuil, as Ben Jelloun is by Gallimard) laments the absence of decent publishers in Morocco, the risk-averse publishing culture and the failure to change the image of the book as an expensive luxury item. He suggests that Morocco’s culture of festivals, successful in many fields, has ignored the book, and the potential of literary festivals, perhaps out of nervousness at the power of the written word. He says, rather strikingly, that the growth of arts festivals certainly had a great impact on what happened in 2011 and the 20th February movement, a suggestion that would be very interesting to explore futher.

All this, I must say, leaves me a little puzzled: it’s hard to see how a publisher can operate with flair and imagination in a non-book culture; a society in which very few books are read, and those by a small reading class; in which there is no effective national distribution network; and in which too many titles are published, often as vanities, in microscopically short runs; and where a best-seller doesn’t generally even reach that derisory Egyptian 3,000 mark. But having said that, it is also clear that where there is an appetite for content, books do shift, even if not through traditional channels: there is hardly a literate young Moroccan, for example, who doesn’t have a PDF of Le Roi Predateur, the banned book about the present king’s business interests, on his or her hard drive.

This business of reading is critical. There may be partial by-passes to be found in the internet, as this example suggests; but it won’t tackle the fundamental problem of how Moroccans can gain the skills to acquire, synthesize and transmit knowledge effectively, so that they can build the knowledge economy that the country needs. That the human capacity is there, is amply illustrated by the huge successes of francophone Moroccans in the international sphere to which French gives them access; and increasingly by a similar success in the anglosphere. The challenge is to defrag the clogged, cluttered and immobile hard disc of Morocco’s language-economy, and to bring speaking and writing into the same cultural compartment.

If Morocco can’t manage this, development will stumble, and the next generation of writers, like Tahar ben Jelloun and Abdellah Taïa will still be writing in French and publishing in Paris.  As Ben Jelloun puts it elsewhere: In the Arab world, there is no link between the cultural habits of peoples and the ways of thinking and creating of modern intellectuals. They are two separate worlds.

Morocco can’t afford them to stay separate.

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