I was in Kalila wa Dimna a few days ago, buying a French novel that my wife wanted, and I caught sight of a table of tiny books in the window, published by Khbar Bladna of Tangier. (Actually I caught sight of one or two other interesting things too, but that’s the danger of going into bookshops.) These are short books as well as small, and in various languages. I bought a couple, including The Curse of the Moroccan Writer by Fouad Laroui.
Laroui’s book caught my eye because it is about the endlessly vexed and endlessly fascinating question of writing, and language – the tortured relationship of the Moroccan with all the languages in which he, or she, speaks and writes. It can’t be more than 4,000 words in all, but Laroui manages to distil much wisdom into a small room. And part of the interest comes from finding this book, of all books, written in English. Why? Is it a sort of neural bypass around the problems that he is describing?[i] A silently ironic comment on the tangle of tongues in this linguistically plaited country?
He talks of the way in which the Moroccan language landscape makes it very difficult for writers to play games, to subvert rules, because the Moroccan lacks the framework of shared rules to subvert; and he explores the shakiness of the relationship between language and expression in Morocco. There is, he says, no national language, and so there can be no national literature. What is left is a pot pourri of interesting writing in several languages, which don’t express a coherent common identity.
He flicks through the available options. Classical Arabic, fus7a, has little relation to the language spoken by most Moroccans, whether that is darija or Berber. Its readership is tiny, “those who write in Arabic form an elite who write for an elite.” He tells the story of Ahmed Bouzfour refusing a literary prize with the bitter words “You are giving me an award for a book that has sold 500 copies.” He questions whether fus7a can be a national language, cutting 85% of the population off from access to culture: “there is no continuity between the two languages in the same way that there is continuity between the language of a French youth who left school at fourteen and the formal French of, say, Pascal Quignard. The young man could read a text by Quignard (although he would certainly have to consult a dictionary from time to time). In contrast, an uneducated Arab youth could not even begin to read a highly literary text written in Arabic: for him all the words, syntax, verb forms etc., would be foreign.”
But the attachment of Arabs, and Moroccans, to fus7a is a strangely visceral reaction. Somehow (as we saw a few weeks ago when Noureddine Ayouch’s modest and sensible discussion of the use of darija in the classroom sent the purists into paroxysms on both sides of the aisle in parliament) the very mention of any other language in the same breath as fus7a gets up a head of steam in the old babour that risks explosion. This has been so for a long time, ever since a few brave souls started championing the colloquial – started seeing the development of national Arabics as a natural parallel to the gentle breakdown of Latin into the mosaic of romance dialects that succeeded it as Europe’s spoken tongue. Bichr Fares and Sharif Shoubashi are both cited as writers who dared challenge the heavy hand of fus7a, and suffered for it. What is striking is that there are very many for whom this question is not even discussible.
It’s intriguing. The arguments against are clear enough, and amount to an almost pathological determination that classical Arabic remain the bond between its users, who are Moroccans (but many Moroccans of course don’t see themselves as Arabs, and most don’t understand, let alone write, fus7a); or Muslims (but most Muslims in the world know no fus7a except a few rote phrases); or Arabs – we even see the odd statement that Arabic is all that holds the Arab League together. Easy enough to see that fus7a is an important part of every Muslim’s, every Arab’s cultural heritage. But it’s also a language, and if it is used by a small minority of – let’s stick with them – Moroccans, it’s rather like keeping a fancy but rusting old car in front of your house because, allegedly, it worked in your great-grandfather’s time. No matter that the engine doesn’t turn over, the wings are dropping off and the tyres are flat – it’s much more important than the Renault in which you actually go to work.
Put simply, the sentimental heritage of a small educated class is seen as more important than the literacy of the many (illiteracy in Morocco is currently a startling 44% according to the World Bank). Cultural capital accumulation, education, development are held back in order to preserve a linguistic regime that is, in Morocco, foreign, antiquated and impractical. There was a chance in the 1980s to reform the education system by arabising it – but that opportunity was lost. For Morocco it is probably now too late and the game lost – but the partisans of fus7a continue to insist.
“This is why,” writes Laroui, “I speak of the curse of the Moroccan writer: between classical language, various dialects, language of the ex-colonizer, even languages with no local ties, the Moroccan writer really doesn’t know where he is or who he is.”
The last few pages of the book he spends on ‘FML,’ French Moroccan Literature. He doesn’t doubt its importance – he is a practitioner of FML, of course – and of course he’s right not to doubt. But he wonders whether it is really a national literature – whether a national literature can exist in a language not understood by most of the population, in a language that has its cultural matrix, its norms and its history elsewhere and in a genre, the novel, that is foreign and arrived already expressed in a foreign language. “The problem,” he writes, “stems from the conjunction of the two givens: a genre from elsewhere in a language from elsewhere.” He calls FML “a monster, but a monster that refuses to die,” adding in a footnote that he means not just monster in the sense of a malformed being, but also monster in the sense of a prodigy, an omen.
This is surely right. FML raises all sorts of questions, existing in the creative space between cultures, with a numinous character all of its own; it is Moroccan, but perhaps not national in the specific sense that Laroui interrogates; and its substantiation of the language divisions of Morocco is not constructive.
I wrote last year about a conversation on this subject between Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdallah Taïa published in TelQuel. Ben Jelloun said at one point: “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.”
In the same discussion, Taïa refers to ce fardeau du décalage entre la langue parlée et la langue écrite. This fardel weighs heavy on the shoulders of Moroccans. FML is one way round it. Another is to write, as Laroui does in this little book, in English, but both are sidestepping the real issue. A national literature that is accessible to all who want to read it seems a small ask – but it isn’t.
[i] There is nothing, anywhere in the little book, to say that it has been translated.