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Bliss Was It in that Dawn to be Next Door

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In which our author underestimates the good vibrations in British Film Week in Morocco, enjoys a steel band, and rejoices in the grit of a woman called Rabha. In Part Two he returns to the vexed question of language, concluding that the choice is between isolation and opening up.

Martin Rose
11 December 2013

Instances of the Seventh Art

The last couple of weeks have been an elongated British Film Week, with full programmes in Marrakech and Rabat and a couple of very interesting events in Casablanca. As Director of the British Council , I have the problem of wanting – but not being able – to see all the films. I do, though get to see a few. This year I managed the opening in Marrakech and both the rather special events in Casablanca.

Marrakech opened with Glenn Leybourn’s Good Vibrations. I’ll admit that I set off for the cinema with a certain resignation. My job takes me to some odd events, and a film about punk rock in 1970s Belfast, watched in Marrakech, promised to be one of the odder, and possibly less enjoyable, of them. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a magnificent film, quite gripping and carrying an important message about the power of obstinate refusal to take sides in a polarized society.

The central character is a splendidly stubborn alcoholic Ulsterman, Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer), who ploughs and muddles his way through the Troubles, through beatings and bombings, disasters and triumphs, with a superb insouciance. He borrows money with spectacular optimism and opens a record shop, called Good Vibrations, on a main street in central Belfast that is a frequent target of the IRA (‘the most bombed half-mile in Europe’), and progresses through alcohol-fuelled concerts, arguments and inspirations to become the kingpin of Belfast punk. Never taking No for an answer (and seldom taking Yes very easily), he promotes Belfast bands, organizes shoestring concerts, tours the province in a beat-up camper van and records discs for bands that he has discovered – discs and bands which are eventually fairly, but generally not very, successful. Ultimately he organizes a triumphant, epoch-marking concert at the enormous Unionist Hall which is a tremendous success but loses money in shed-loads because of the number of free tickets he has given out. He is rueful but delighted.

Two moments stand out particularly in my memory, from the film. The first is when the camper van full of drunken Ulstermen with outlandish costumes and multicoloured hair is stopped at night in the countryside at a British roadblock, and a black squaddie interrogates them suspiciously as they stand uncomfortably spread-eagled against the side of the van. Where are they from? They name a bewildering variety of places, which immediately makes him suspicious. Are they Catholic or Protestant? They don’t seem either concerned or interested by the question or the answer. Both. Bemused by this bizarre bunch, who defy all easy categorisation, he eventually lets them go on their way, with a quizzical grin.

The second is after the credits at the very end of the film. We see on the screen the date that the Good Vibrations record shop opened. And closed. And opened again. And closed again. And opened … and so on, a tale of bloody-minded, obstinate resilience that is very touching. The audience laughed and cheered at every reopening date (and there were at least half a dozen). This is a story of the triumph of a cussed, maddening, thoroughly imperfect but oddly attractive individual over the malice and violence that deform society, simply through refusing to take it too seriously.

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A few days later I found myself in Sidi Moumen, for a showing there of Nessim Abassi’s film Majid. Sidi Moumen of course is the bidonville outside Casablanca from which came most of the 2003 suicide bombers whose story is told in fictionalised form by Mahi Binebine in Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen, and by Nabil Ayouch in his film of Binebine’s novel, Les Chevaux de Dieu. It has changed a lot since 2003. The appalling slum that Binebine described has seen much government money pumped into housing, and much attention leading, among other things, to a new cultural centre founded seven years ago by Boubeker Mazouz, and another under way at the hands of Nabil Ayouch. It’s still a pretty rough urban neighbourhood, but it could no longer act as itself when Ayouch came to make the film, and he had to do much of the filming elsewhere, in an unimproved shanty-town. The shacks have largely given way to concrete apartments blocks, and Sidi Moumen has been absorbed into the city.

The film was screened at Boubeker Mazouz’s cultural centre, a bright, warm place which has become a focus of community life after an initial period of deep suspicion. The audience was welcomed with tea and cakes, and entertained by a very good steel band which played with great gusto in the garden. As for the film, it went down very well. We chose it because it is made in darija, and so is accessible to an audience that speaks little French and virtually no English (and can’t easily manage, because largely illiterate, even Arabic subtitles).

Nessim is a film-maker with one foot in England (he studied at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design and lives part of the year in London) and the other in Mohammedia where the film begins. It is a picaresque tale, of a pair of small street-boys who eke out a living selling cigarettes and cleaning shoes. One of them – Majid – is determined to find a photograph of his dead parents, and sets off with his companion, Larbi, to Casablanca to find some distant old friends who may, just possibly, have a photo. The film is the story of the boys’ adventures on the way, and their eventual success, followed by an unexpectedly happy outcome.  Their adventures form a series of clever, linked, cameos, with a raffish elder brother, a malignant policeman, an aggressive gang, a dishonest taxi-driver, a generous blind man at the mosque, a demonic drug-addict and so on. It is a simple and very effective story, seen from a child’s point of view, with a structure that is hidden from its two small heroes. The audience loved it: a film that is quite so accessible, in a language that they all understand, cameos that they all recognize and with an ending – emigration to Europe – that most want for themselves, it has instant appeal. And it has instant appeal to me, and this on the second time of watching.

Nessim has given the film a number of showings in London aimed at raising funds for the boys’  - Brahim Al Bakali’s and Lotfi Sabir’s  – education. Like the characters they play in Majid, they are poor, and from Mohammedia, and he has set about giving them a step up in life. It’s a good story-in-a-film, and a good story-in-life.         

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The third and last film I saw at British Film Week was a documentary made by the British film-maker Deborah Perkin, called Bastards. It follows the stories of a number of women supported by the remarkable Casablanca women’s charity Solidarité Féminine, in their quests to establish through the courts the legitimacy – or if not the legitimacy, at least the paternity – of their children. As Deborah puts it on the film’s website, “illegitimate children in Morocco are outcasts, non-people, bastards … but recent legal reforms give single mothers the right to register their children, either alone, or by persuading the father to recognize the child in court. Registration on the state birth register means access to education and health care, and a respectable position in society.”

It isn’t easy, but it’s possible, and although the situation has got a bit better since the 2004 Moudawana reform, it is still a pretty dire fate to be the mother of an illegitimate child in Morocco.  “In the Arab world, it’s a taboo to talk about the single mother, and in Morocco we are confronting society and encouraging the mothers to stand up and say ‘I’m a mother and I’m proud to take care of my baby.”’ says Aïcha Ech-Channa, president and founder of Solidarité Féminine.

Deborah came over to show the film at Beni M’Sik’s Faculty of Letters, a notable centre of film work, and there was a large, invitation-only audience for what was the film’s first outing in Morocco. It tells the story of two women. One is a rather splendid, loud and spirited woman called Fatiha, who spent many years as the mistress of a married taxi-driver. He dumped her when she became pregnant, leaving her with a small child and no roof or income, and her urgent quest is to prove paternity and to extract some kind of support for herself and her daughter.

The other is a young woman called Rabha El-Haimer, who was married at 14 in a traditional wedding in the presence of an imam – a wedding that was well-witnessed, but left no documentary footprint, and was never registered. Rabha was sent off to her husband’s family in Casablanca, abused and beaten and – once pregnant – sent back to her own family in the country, as a reject, the marriage brusquely denied. This left her and her daughter Salma as social outcasts, entirely dependent on the goodwill of her family. Rabha sought help and found it in a remarkable group of women running Solidarité Féminine; and they set about assembling evidence, witnesses and statements, and taking her case to court.

We see her going back and back to small town courtrooms where rough-and-ready and often uncompromising but (if we can judge from the film) generally not unkindly justice is administered. We see the unalloyed nastiness of her husband’s family, her father-in-law spewing vicious insults to camera with carefree bile. There are endless disappointments, procrastinations, lies and delays – but in the end Rabha wins her case, and her daughter Salma is declared legitimate. Fatiha wins her case too – DNA tests are quite clear about the taxi-driver’s paternity – but at the time the film was finished she had still received no financial support. And Rabha’s victory was being appealed in the Supreme Court.

The film ends with Rabha’s first appeal court victory. The cinema audience cheered and clapped and rose to their feet in delight. A rather diffident Rabha, who had, unknown to them, been sitting in the audience throughout the film, came up onto the stage with Deborah and the film’s researcher, and Soumia Idman, the splendid woman from Solidarité Féminine who had supported her case throughout. They talked and answered questions, and the discussion went on long after I had had to jump back into the car and head for Rabat.  As I drove back up the motorway I thought with admiration about the sheer grit of women like Rabha who will stop at nothing to assert their children’s rights in a paternalistic and frequently misogynistic society.

Quite how engrained this misogyny, and the prejudice against illegitimate children, are, was sadly emphasized for me by what Fatiha the taxi-driver’s mistress had to say bitterly about her former lover: “Bastard,” she repeated several times, “he’s a bastard.”

The next night Deborah and Rabha, her enchanting daughter Salma, and the film’s researcher all came to supper at our home in Rabat. Rabha told us more of a very difficult but inspiring story.  Salma is at school at last, doing well; and her mother is learning to read. A more ordinary, more charming little family – despite the difficult challenges they still face – it is hard to imagine. But she is one of many: there are apparently some 6,500 illegitimate babies born each year in Morocco, and each little family faces a version of the same brick wall, and the same struggle to surmount it.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis in two parts, on November 23 and December 8, 2013

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Of bald men and combs

There’s an interesting spat going on at the moment over language and education. Six weeks ago there was an education conference in Casablanca called Le Chemin de la Réussite. It was organized by the Zakoura Foundation, and had a fine line-up of speakers and participants. It was an excellent event, as I can clearly see from the report on the desk beside me (I was supposed to take part, but sadly, in the end, couldn’t). It takes a strong line on language, making very clear that the language question is vital to Morocco’s future:  by the 6th year of primary school only 6% of pupils have mastered Arabic, and only 1% French.  “The choice today,” says the report, “is not between our language and those of the rest of the world, but between isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what remains is only coherent implementation.”

The most controversial proposal (and it is controversial not because there is much doubt about its correctness, but because it confronts a national shibboleth) is about Arabic. The report recommends that children be taught in their mother tongues, the Arabic or Berber colloquial dialects,  in pre-school and elementary; that darija be codified so as to link it coherently for teaching purposes with classical Arabic, by establishing ‘passerelles,’ or linking bridges; and that educational practice move smartly towards “a convergence between spoken and written Arabic.” This is achingly obvious: no one in Morocco speaks classical Arabic as a mother tongue (except, as Fouad Larbi wrily observes, for Brazilian soap stars). And learning to read in a second language is a high road to disaster.

The Zakoura Foundation report indicates a sensible way to address the cataclysmic illiteracy from which Morocco suffers.  This seems pretty uncontentious – it’s hard to doubt that Morocco’s dismal literacy levels are to do with teaching darija-speaking and Berber-speaking children to read in a language that is not their mother tongue.  Arabic is often badly taught, and the drop-out rate in the early years of public education is phenomenal, with girls much more badly affected even than boys. Morocco’s scores in the worldwide PIRLS test (2011) speak for themselves: out of 45 countries testing 4thgraders in literacy, Morocco comes 45th; of the 4 levels of literacy assigned, only 21% of 4th graders reach or pass the lowest (as against 95% for the international median).  Literacy is an absolute imperative, and classical Arabic doesn’t seem to cut the mustard in the practical literacy department: diglossia, as this double-language phenomenon is called, is the enemy of literacy, of development and of cultural capital accumulation.

But what seems obvious to Noureddine Ayouch and the majority of academic linguists is less obvious to politicians, and M Benkirane came out of his corner with gloves up this week: Le Maroc continuera d’enseigner l’éducation islamique à ses enfants et à les éduquer en arabe et ce jusqu’au jour du Jugement, said the head of government. He was only one of many. There is a good account of this strange argument, by Zuhair Mazouz on the Free Arabs website, which notes the reactions of parliamentarians on both sides of the house. “In a surprising show of unity,” he writes, “MPs from all sides of the political spectrum turned into conspiracy theorists and accused Ayouch and (Minister of Education, Rachid) Belmokhtar of attacking the cornerstone of Moroccan identity. Islamist MP Moqri Abouzayd went as far as describing the proposal as an “imperialist attempt to destroy Islam.” Across the ideological aisle, Socialist MP Rachida Benmassoud rendered the idea “historically and scientifically irrelevant.”

Clearly it’s not for me to comment on religious education, but if Morocco’s children are to be educated in Arabic until Doomsday, it seems probable that vast numbers of them will remain functionally illiterate until Doomsday.  This is a high price to pay, individually and nationally, for ideological correctness.

And literacy apart, the HoG’s remarks, as they touch on language, while undoubtedly expressing a laudable cosmic commitment, don’t much make sense down in our sublunary world of employment: of the unemployed graduates demonstrating outside Parliament, 80% are evidently (Driss Gerraoui in the Observateur du Maroc  #235) from only five disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology, Arabic Literature and Islamic Studies. So the elements of education that will be with us till Doomsday seem also to be serious chômage-generators at the graduate level.

It is therefore very sad to see the President of the Zakoura Foundation, Noureddine Ayouch, put on the defensive by doctrinaire knee-jerk reactions. He was obliged after the barrage of attacks against him to deny his supposed attack on Arabic: “This is in no way a question of attacking the Arabic language, which must retain a dominant rôle in education. Our official languages are Arabic and Tamazight. ” But of course he sees clearly that it is only by adapting, by seeking the convergence that the report describes, that Arabic will remain supple enough, and education-friendly enough, to retain this rôle. Paradoxically, it is the purists who will, over time, ensure that Arabic becomes less and less relevant to Morocco’s future, by making of it a dead language, like Latin.

The Zakoura report  is also very clear about employability: “Economic pragmatism,” it says, “must steer the choice of languages for better employability, better insertion into the world of work.” This means more, and much better, teaching of foreign languages. “Enlarge the offer to the international languages of the future’ – les langues internationales de l’avenir – “Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin etc,” and above all “For better insertion into the world of work, where English is predominant,  English must become the main language of scientific instruction,” and the disastrous changeover from teaching scientific subjects in Arabic at school to teaching them in French at university, must end.

Interestingly this echoes remarks made by Lahcen Daoudi, the Minister of Higher Education, last weekend: ““French is no longer the language of research…the language of the world today is English … the student who doesn’t speak English is illiterate,”  he told a group of telecoms engineers. And what’s more, as Mazouz puts it, “Fus’ha has no place in the job market.”

But this mustn’t make us English-speakers complacent. These remarks about Morocco and language relate to a different but related debate going on in Great Britain, and recently summed up in a very stimulating new report published by the British Council, on Great Britain’s own take on les langues internationales de l’avenir.  Britain of course has its own problems with language, notably a marked decline in the study of foreign languages caused by the insularism of speaking “the language of the world today.” Take-up rates of language degrees at British universities are in steep decline, and many departments of languages are shrinking or closing. The report analyses this decline and looks at the language requirements of international prosperity over the coming decades. Using a list of factors, chiefly but not exclusively economic, it ranks the ten languages that are likely to be most important to Britain’s prosperity if we can persuade Britons to learn them.

The report notes David Graddol’s warning that the competitive advantage of English is temporary, and will diminish – and that monolingual English-speakers face longer term exclusion from multilingual environments and markets. Multilingualism is the name of the future game – and it’s a game that Morocco is perhaps better placed to play than Great Britain. A 2012 survey found British schoolchildren to have the poorest foreign language skills of any country taking part. 75% of British adults can’t have even a basic conversation in any language other than English. And the authors’ conclusions are that language-learning is a strategic necessity for a prosperous future. (In case you were wondering, the ten most beneficial and important languages to learn are Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. In that order: which means that Arabic is the second most important world language for Britain’s future. What sort of Arabic? Ah … that’s another conversation.)

So it is very important indeed that Morocco too think hard about its language future: as many very thoughtful Moroccans like Noureddine Ayouch understand well, prosperity depends on getting this right. English is vital, but not just English, if Morocco is to achieve serious professional and labour mobility, a strong place in the international research economy, growing FDI and the exploitation of its extraordinarily advantageous geographical position on the very doorstep of Europe. The thing that really needs to be hauled aboard is a lesson that the British Council’s researchers know very well: second and third language choice may be to an extent aesthetic and cultural, but it needs primarily to be driven by economic criteria. These are hard-nosed and evidence-based. The polemics of the last week in Morocco suggest that – alas – Morocco is not ready to think in a hard-nosed, evidence-based way about language.  I hope I’m wrong, and that Ayouch is a harbinger of clearer thinking to come. If not, then Mazouz’s concluding paragraph (from which I’ve already quoted) holds true:

Moroccans’ relationship with languages is at the same time a cause and a consequence of the deep socio-economic inequalities plaguing the country. Classical Arabic, taught in school, is the language in which the regime addresses its subjects. Yet Fus’ha has no place in the job market. French and English do. As a result, the country’s political and financial elite (mostly loyal to the Fus’ha-speaking regime) makes sure to instruct its offspring in foreign languages. The social stratification in the country is also a linguistic one: Darija for the masses, French and English for the elite, and Fus’ha for the state apparatus. It is then easy to understand the fierce resistance of the political class to any attempts at officializing Darija: a citizenry confident in its identity is more difficult to govern.

But I hope that the Zakoura report’s much more upbeat comment is right: “The choice today is not between our language and those of the rest of the world, but between isolation and opening up. And Morocco has made its choice: what remains is only coherent implementation.”

The same goes for Great Britain.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on November 11, 2013.

 

 

 

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