Aporia with knobs on

It is hard to live in Morocco and not become at least a little obsessed by language. I was very taken by a recent article from Jeune Afrique sent to me by a friend in Washington. It’s by Youssef Ait Akdim, and it’s called Tamazight, darija, français? Le Maroc est “lost in translation.” Clearly preoccupied with the language issue too, Ait Akdim runs through the whole argument from the bizarre macaronic dialect that many Moroccans speak, and which he calls tamaghribit, through the political pressures that continue to distort language policy in Morocco by giving undue political and religious weight to fus7a, and the awful impact that failure to teach any language well has on the nation’s literacy.

The key to all this is the arabisation policy promoted vigorously by successive governments under the decisive pressure of Istiqlal, the grand old party of nationalism. The paradox of this policy is the fact that the arabisation of teaching has gone hand in hand with serious illiteracy. In Morocco, to summarise: the grinding to a halt of mass school inscription has allowed mother tongues – darija, the Amazigh languages – to survive in the private sphere. As far as school is concerned, this segmentation policy needs only one illustration: although public schooling is in Arabic up to baccalaureate level, and French is the first foreign language (with the number of hours assigned to it, and the quality of teaching, leaving a great deal to be desired), almost all instruction at Higher Education is in French, with the exception of Arabic literature, theology and some elements of law.

Calling this, as he may and I probably shouldn’t, cette hypocrisie, he explores the intense pressure that is put on parents to find ways to get their children past, rather than through, the national education system, so as to avoid their becoming disempowered and under-equipped students, linguistically incapable of a university course. He describes the stratagems for gaining linguistic advantage – the crèches to prepare for advantageous entry to French-speaking nursery school, leading inexorably on to cut-throat competition to get children into the lycées of the Mission Française, the gateways to privilege and power. And he quotes a communications executive as saying: Sadly, my generation takes as read the fact that the public school is a death-zone. I wouldn’t think for an instant of putting my daughter in one, even though I did my whole education in the public sector right up to my master’s degree.

Finally he looks at recent manifestations, the increasingly vocal promotion of Darija as an answer to diglossia-induced illiteracy, along with the risks it carries for isolation in the Arab world (Are Moroccans to be schizophrenic or isolated? – An aporia) and the growing challenge offered by Tamazight with its position under the 2011 constitution still being worked out. It’s quite a challenge: whatever the government, dominated as it is by two parties committed to l’arabité, the organic law (which will give solid shape to the constitution’s abstract commitments) is a royal priority.

I am surprised though by the implication (in the paragraph I quoted above) that the failure of literacy education has “allowed” mother-tongues to survive. This seems back-to-front in its apparent implication that a successful literacy programme would wipe them out. On the contrary, it is the failure to accommodate those mother tongues into Morocco’s written culture that guarantees the failure of literacy education.

The more I read and think about this, the more I suspect that there is a Gordian Knot waiting to be cut. It’s certainly true that Arabic is a vital part of the Moroccan past, and perhaps too of the Moroccan present (though remarkably few Moroccans are actually competent in it). But is it such an integral part of the future? The spoken languages, Darija and Tamazight, are vital to overcoming the punitive diglossia that cripples Morocco: until they are the first port of call in literacy-education, it must be that knowledge-accumulation and cultural capital-building are going nowhere, fast.

What’s more, with IRCAM and other NGOs working hard and effectively at refining a standard Tamazight language and orthography, supporting teacher-training and ‘valorising’ (that wonderful French word) the language – it is not inconceivable that literacy will make faster progress amongst Tamazight-speakers than amongst Darija-speakers. This would be an interesting development, and seriously undermine the curious view of M Benkirane, as quoted by Ait Akdim, that the Amazigh are simple people who pass their time in singing and dancing.

It is of course very good news that anyone is beginning to shift this sacred cow off the tracks, but there are dangers. Differentiated educational achievement is socially and politically divisive – one has only to look at the way unprecedented education brought to rural Jewish communities in the 1940s and 50s by the Alliance Israelite encouraged Jewish urban migration and the development of increasingly different employment prospects for Jewish and Muslim children, with all the alienation that came in its train.

Today’s is obviously a very different situation, but it is hugely important that Morocco as a whole, rather than a single language community within it, climb out of the linguistic bear-trap in which it finds itself today. The message doesn’t seem to be getting through very effectively.

Which is what Ait Akdim means by aporia – that state of confused, immobilised puzzlement that makes serious thought difficult and decisive action more so.


Talking of M Benkirane, I was struck today by a comment in Akbar El-Yom to the effect that he has recently been given the gift of a second great opportunity to shine internationally. This second gift was his being sent off to the enthronement in Rome of Pope Francis, as the royal representative. His first gift was being sent a few weeks ago to do the same at the inauguration of the Fes synagogue so painstakingly restored as a cultural centre by the German government. Tempting as it might be to read all this as gentle teasing of an Islamist minister for whom synagogues and basilicas are not natural habitats, it would no doubt be quite wrong. As Akbar el-Yom said, after all, M Benkirane as well as Pope Francis seemed to have enjoyed their brief conversation.

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