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Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door

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In which the author increases his understanding of the intellectual and educational condition of modern Morocco with the help of leading historian, Maati Monjib; and, returns to his favourite subject of language, this time with a Gordian Knot just waiting to be cut.
Martin Rose
26 March 2013

Let them eat pencils

‘What is the role of the historian in society?’ asks the interviewer, in this week’s TelQuel, and Maati Monjib replies, “He studies it, understands it in order for it to transform itself, to change.”

Monjib is one of Morocco’s leading historians, an editor of the IRRHM’s monumental Histoire du Maroc, réactualisation et synthèse, recently published (or at least recently printed) in Rabat. He is also a ‘scientific adviser’ to Zamane, the excellent two-year old magazine of Moroccan history. His most famous work is his thesis, La monarchie marocaine et la lutte pour le pouvoir, and he has written an acclaimed biography of Ben Barka. He spent eighteen years outside Morocco (1982-2000) of which seven were at university in Senegal, where he enjoyed what he describes as a society “much more liberal than our own, a real democracy where people are prepared to listen to every point of view.”

His definition of the role of a historian and his focus on modern, often contemporary history, suggest why he has not always been allowed to feel comfortable in Morocco. The social sciences – amongst which historiography can for this purpose be numbered – are both vital to the intellectual and moral health of a society, and deeply suspect to any ruler who does not wish society “to transform itself, to change.”

Autocratic rulers do not wish to see the endoskeleton of society laid bare, the raw mechanisms of power and patronage, the struggles for influence and control of resources explained. Obscurity and the sanction of tradition serve them well. In his TelQuel article Monjib talks of the marginalisation of historians in the 1970s, the tacit bargain between universities and the régime to sidestep research on the period after independence, the removal of ‘difficult’ historians from teaching roles and the attempts to take away even the title of historian from contemporary historians like Monjib. The contemporary historian is in this sense the conscience of society, its psycho-analyst and its Cassandra.

March is Professor Monjib’s month: he also has an article in Zamane, a substantial reflection on Hassan II’s fight against the intellectuals. It’s entitled Haro sur les intellectuels, which you might translate loosely as Open season on the Intellectuals. The pull-quote on the first page gives the flavour: “Hassan II considered the cultural modernisation of the country, especially through academia, as a danger to his regime. To guarantee the durability of his throne he made the control of the intelligentsia an affair of the state.”

This article picks up where the other left off, and seems to me to be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the intellectual and educational condition of modern Morocco – which is to say the shaky foundations on which its present and future prosperity are built. And – because Morocco’s is still a far from hopeless situation – just what needs most urgently to be done to redress the omissions of more than half a century.

He explores the late King’s ambivalence towards intellectuals – his personal pleasure in his own reading and conversations in history and politics, and his youthful sympathies with the reformist nationalists - contrasting this with his growing suspicion of the tendency of liberal education to undermine the foundations of the monarchy. The Casablanca demonstrations of March 1965 and their suppression were a turning-point, when the king’s fascination definitively began to be outweighed by his scorn. As Monjib puts it, he seems from this point on “to sacrifice his own subjective preferences on the altar of his régime’s objective interests.”

After 1965, the haro turned to full cry. What Monjib makes clear is that this was part of a conscious strategy to base the monarchy in the countryside, to co-opt the rural populations at every level through tax exemptions and to bolster the traditional channels of religiosity and allegiance by subsidising moussems and zaouiyas. This meant ditching the urban intelligentsia, the "couches instruites et politicisées de la societé," resisting the massification of education at all levels, and attacking subjects like philosophy and history in the universities. This process deliberately marginalised researchers like Monjib who investigated the structure of power and the history of the immediate post-independence years. The universities entered a period of back-pedalling and obscurantism as student numbers were held down to spare a saturated public service and avoid the corrosive graduate unemployment which by May 1968 was fanning the flames of student revolt in France. “If no one wants to till the soil, if we all become intellectuals, we shall have to eat pencils,” as the King put it.

If this had a destructive impact on Higher Education, it was also disastrous for the vast majority of the population who never saw the inside of a university but who depended on the Moroccan public school system for their education, skills, language and upward mobility.  Modern education had been a rallying cry for the nationalists, “a fundamental tool for the liberation of the nation and the individual.”

At the King's instance now, education was retraditionalised, with new emphasis on Islamic Studies and m’sid quranic schools, which latter Monjib quotes the Director of the Collège Royale as calling, in 1968, “one of the principal causes of our civilisational retardation.” Arabisation, in the botched form in which it was implemented across the public school system, was a disaster: in a box alongside the main article there is printed a long extract from comments made to Economia by Mohamed Chafik, the same Director of the Collège Royale, in which he calls it “a treason by a minority of the political class,” and draws a devastating analogy with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “One is tempted to believe,” he writes, “that they intended to create an impoverished Beta class of the masses, and a privileged Alpha class for themselves and their children.”

That’s quite a knot to untangle today. This weekend I was at an event for young policy analysts at Casablanca, and over coffee a serious young man said to me that in his view, education is not just one of the many policy questions facing Morocco, but the key question. I wondered if he was consciously echoing Mehdi Ben Barka, quoted by Monjib: “Education isn’t a fundamental question, it’s the fundamental question.” Or whether it’s just so obvious that any thinking person must come to the same conclusion.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in March, 2013.

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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.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in March, 2013.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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