Pidgen [sic] or poetry? Moroccans debate identity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jul 5 13:19:45 UTC 2007


*Pidgen or poetry? Moroccans debate identity *

By Tom Pfeiffer

Rabat - Darija, the language Moroccans use in everyday life, is coming to
the fore in media and music, prompting calls it be declared a national
language as some in the North African country ask for the first time: "Who
are we?" Morocco's official language is standard Arabic. But most people,
from royal advisers to street cleaners, speak the mixture of Arabic, Berber,
French and Spanish words whose diversity reflects its history as an ancient
crossroads linking Africa, Europe and the Arab world.

  *'They want to create the problem of language'*If you say, "yallah
nshoufou f-el-kouzina ila kanet el-bota kheddama bash ntayybu shlada dyal
khezzou" it means: "Let's go to the kitchen to see if the cooker works so we
can make carrot salad." Most words in that sentence are from Arabic but
kouzina is from Spanish, bota comes from the French gas brand Butagaz and
shlada is derived from the French or Spanish words for salad. Few Moroccans
have a kind word for their tongue. Some hold it in virtual contempt as a
mongrel pidgin of the pure Arabic taught to young boys in Q'uranic schools
across the country.

Darija has moved so far from Arabic since the Arab invasion of North Africa
in the 7th century that visitors from the Middle East often need a
translator to get by. It sounds more guttural than standard Arabic, contains
fewer vowel sounds and appears to be spoken twice as quickly.   *'Give me a
break!'*In the heyday of pan-Arabism in the late 1970s, European words were
seen as a colonial hangover that must be expunged. The government banned
schoolteachers from communicating in Darija in classrooms as part of a
policy of "Marocanisation" - Arabisation under another name.

Critics of the policy say it cemented a division between an elite who could
speak standard Arabic - the official written language - and those who could
not.  It also entrenched illiteracy: with no written Darija, Moroccans must
learn a new language in order to read. Just under half of Moroccans are
unable to read or write but experts say another 30 percent are semi-literate
as they cannot decipher official language. To many Moroccans the ideal of
standard Arabic remains a noble one - only God's language is worthy for true
debate, international affairs and creative writing.

But to foreigners, the contrast that news bulletins are still read in Arabic
while advertisers are increasingly choosing Darija to reach a mass audience
smacks of snobbery. "So you don't care whether people know what's going on
in the world but you want them to buy things? Give me a break!" said Elena
Prentice, a United States painter and editor who set up the country's first
free newspaper, published in Darija. Those who oppose lifting Darija to the
status of a national language say its varied forms from one region to
another make it impossible to pin down and formalise. "We'd have to create
one Darija for all the Moroccan people. Why go to all that trouble when we
already have a language ready-made (standard Arabic)?" said Mohamed Yatim of
the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), the largest Islamist
opposition group. For Yatim, foreigners want to promote Darija because they
are jealous of Arabs - with their single language that links them from the
Gulf to the Atlantic - and want to divide them. "They already created
political and social problems for us and now they want to create the problem
of language," he said.

The debate over Darija began in earnest in 2003 when suicide bombings by
impoverished youths from the Casablanca suburbs driven by Islamist
extremists killed 45 people and shocked the normally peaceful country.
Parallels were drawn between Morocco's image of tolerance and Darija's
shifting form and diverse origins, versus what many saw as prejudice and
extremism imported from the Middle East. "People asked 'How did we
manufacture these monsters?' and began to question who they really were. And
Darija was one of the answers in this new definition of what it meant to be
Moroccan," said Dominique Caubet, professor of Maghreb Arabic at Paris-based
oriental studies institute INALCO.

Darija is now seeping into the media with a liberalisation of the air waves
and the creation of magazine Nichane, banned from newsstands for two months
this year after publishing a list of popular jokes about Islam, sex and
politics. Many Darija expressions are the invention of rap musicians from
the sprawling suburbs of Casablanca, whose rhymes are reaching more people
thanks to new music stations whose sole priority is boosting audience
numbers and advertising revenue.

"It was an obvious decision to broadcast in Darija," said Imane Laraichi,
communications manager at Hit Radio in Rabat, which launched last August.
"You wouldn't ask the presenters of TF1 in France why they broadcast in
French."  The first Moroccan literature entirely in Darija appeared
recently, a book of short stories by Youssef Amine Elalamy and Internet
chatrooms are buzzing with conversations in the tongue using the Latin
Social workers are using it for health awareness campaigns and to educate
deprived youngsters, breaking down a language barrier they say stops people
from becoming active citizens able to understand world events and influence
their own futures.

"There is a feeling that we must put in place a real bridge to exchange
knowledge across the yawning gulfs in our society," said sociologist Youssef

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