Wordless among the crisps

A week or so ago I was driving down to Marrakech to open a conference on Jurassic palaeontology, and I stopped for coffee at one of the strangely alien Shell stations that dot the bare landscape like moon-bases. I thought a newspaper would go well with my coffee, and went to find one. I walked past rack after rack of Pringles and chocolate bars, glass-fronted cabinets of fizzy drinks and every sort of crisp you can imagine (along with many that defy imagination). But newspapers? None. Nada. So I looked around and realized that the entire place was without a single printed word. No newspapers. No books. No maps. Not even those undemanding little pamphlets of word puzzles that Moroccans like to do on trains.

Not a word. This really is a beautifully clear illustration of what an illettré society looks like. The French make a very useful distinction between people and societies that are analphabète – illiterate, unable to read and write  – and those that are illettré – technically capable of reading, but actually non-reading. Where one places Morocco on the scale of analphabétisme depends on whether one believes official literacy figures to reflect reality, or to be a wish-fulfilling fantasy based on testing to a very low threshold. But in the case of illettrisme, there can be no doubt at all. Look around you.

With this in mind I read a superb article in L’Economiste this week. I have never seen the case for darija in education put better than it is put here by Rachid Guerraoui, and I recommend this article strongly. It is pragmatic, sensible and clear-headed. He begins by sticking his flag firmly in the ground: Le fossé entre la langue parlée par la majorité des élèves marocains, et celle dans laquelle ils doivent lire et écrire à l’école publique, est important. A cause de ce fossé, la majorité des élèves reste de fait analphabète et ne maîtrise aucune langue. Toutes les grandes nations du monde sont passées par la simplification de leur langue pour réduire le « fossé linguistique » entre l’écrit et l’orale : les Russes, les Chinois, les Scandinaves, les Allemands, les ‘latins’ … 

He deals, one by one, with all the big myths: that the promotion of darija is a plot against the Arab World; that darija is ‘just’ a dialect; that darija has too many variants to be practical; that anyway teachers already teach in darija; that darija can’t be written down; that darija hasn’t got a proper structure or vocabulary; that there are children who come out of the present education system just fine; that before Arabisation education was pretty good even though it wasn’t in darija; and that darija is a ‘vulgar’ language. I reckon he slays all ten dragons pretty effectively.

And yet, and yet. The argument isn’t just about practicality: it is about identity, as a very eminent authority reminded me today, and about ideology. I agree with him, but this is nonetheless an argument that needs to be conducted with precision, open-ness and honesty, not the shrill abuse that greeted the Zakoura Foundation’s recent report Le Chemin de la Réussite, with its advocacy of darija in elementary schools. Much of the ‘argument’ against, seems to be simply aimed at forcing those who advocate darija back into their box and nailing down the lid. There are endless statements about Arab Unity and the status of Arabic as the language of the Quran, and these are no doubt deeply felt amongst the 15% or so of Moroccans who can read Arabic comfortably, and some who can’t. But these arguments have got to be explained and explored as a part of the deep and painful debate about what sort of society Moroccans want for themselves – where they want to belong, where their minds and souls are moored.

If the answer is in fus7a, then an earth-shaking educational revolution is needed. An extraordinarily well-funded and well-designed programme of re-Arabisation will be necessary to bring not just literacy to the classroom, but competent pædagogy to the staff room, books to the currently non-existent shelves of school libraries, newspapers to the tables of cafés, and all the other physical and mental paraphernalia of a society that is lettré. At the moment the organizations that are doing just this are mostly non-governmental: have a look at what the Zakoura Foundation is doing in the area of literacy and children’s book publishing, to take just one thread of their activity.

But there are many in this Moroccan Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns who will resist to the last drop of ink. It is a real culture war, and in that sense a distant western echo of the culture wars in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab-Muslim world. Identity is fundamental, vital – but so is the development that depends on literacy through education. Whatever else it is, this isn’t trivial: Morocco desperately needs to be both alphabétisé and lettré – and the question is who can build the best and most effective route to that desirable state, the Arabisers or the darija-promoters.

The price of failure is a desert of Pringles.

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