North Africa, West Asia

Bliss Was It in that Dawn to Be Next Door


The author ponders literacy, the literate 'red blood corpuscles of society', and the way Arabic is taught in the Middle East and North Africa. He explores the shaky relationship between language and expression and closes with a story of an American seduced into 'deprovincialisation' by Arabic.

Martin Rose
27 January 2014

Of reading-lamps and literacy

Last week I received a publicity shot from a company selling top-of-the-range reading lamps. Printed on the back of the envelope were the words: The person who does not read books has no advantage over the one who cannot read them – Mark Twain. A little naff for reading lamps perhaps, but an important truth which focuses thinking about Morocco and many other societies, ‘developed’ and ‘developing.’ It makes us ponder what literacy actually means, and whether in its minimalist definitions it is actually very useful. While the world may have moved on a little, and Twain’s notion of books may need a little expansion, it is clearly true that literacy is a skill which needs to be exercised in society if it is to have any meaning; and that to be exercised it needs an environment in which that is imaginable, and encouraged.

Literacy, at one level, is a crude business. Measured by the World Bank, it takes as its benchmark the UNESCO definition of 1958, the percentage of the population aged 15 and above “who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.” World Bank figures tell us that in 2011 67% of Moroccans were ‘literate,’ which means simply that 33% were totally illiterate: the 67% could as a minimum cope with “a short simple statement.”

In the three preceding years (since 2008) these figures had risen from 56% ‘literate’ and 44% ‘illiterate.’  (Moroccan government figures state that illiteracy was down further, to 28% by 2012/13.) On the face of it, this is a triumphant advance for literacy. But what does it actually mean? Of course there are a fair number of deeply literate Moroccans, but the point here is that a great many fewer than 67% are literate in the sense of reading printed material for profit or pleasure. One might guess that 15-20% of Moroccans are literate in that latter sense of the word – the rest being what Twain calls persons who do not read books. Or, as one friend at the World Bank put it to me, “literacy generally means signature literacy – in other words, people can write their names.” The Persepolis Declaration of 1975 stated that “literacy creates the conditions for the acquisition of a critical consciousness of the contradictions of society in which man lives and of its aims; it also stimulates initiative and his participation in the creation of projects capable of acting upon the world, of transforming it, and of defining the aims of an authentic human development. It should open the way to a mastery of techniques and human relations.”

There’s a big leap from the Bank’s simple statement to this huge aspiration, profoundly influenced by the Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire; and it’s into that gap that literacy programmes run the permanent risk of tumbling. Obviously it’s no bad thing for people to learn to manage a short simple statement. It allows them to begin to cope with road signs and even simple official forms. It marks them out as ‘educated’ in a generally illiterate rural society. It gives dignity and self-esteem. It allows them to sign documents and possibly even perhaps to manage the headline on a newspaper.  But does it lead on to reading articles and books, to the creation of cultural capital, the pursuit of education, to familiarity with the written heritage of Morocco and the world?  Or beyond, “to the acquisition of a critical consciousness of the contradictions of society in which man lives?”

Any society needs to work at literacy, because literate men and women are the red blood corpuscles of society, carrying ideas, questions and aspirations from limb to limb. But to do so effectively means living in an oxygen-rich environment: red corpuscles are no use in a vacuum. So the creation and sustenance of the structures that support, feed and enrich the literate man and woman are vital if they are to become thinking citizens. This requires a quite different infrastructure of publishing, education, library provision, journalism, debate and intellectual freedom; and a quite different prestige accorded to what one might call ‘middle-level’ literacy, the literacy that allows one to read with enough fluency to get pleasure from a simple but well-expressed book, to browse a newspaper and to write letters.  Reading and writing a short simple statement about everyday life is to literacy what killing a goat is to binding a book.

Literacy is fundamental to the functioning democratic system that Morocco is striving to build. People who can’t read depend for all their knowledge of the world on intermediaries – TV, imams, caids, bosses, politicians  – and find it hard to form independent judgements. The lesson of this dependency was read differently in the last century, but today Morocco is committed to “la démocratie citoyenne et participative,” the Constitution of 2011 (article 1). To get there, not only must attitudes to reading change – more books, more book programmes on TV, more prizes for reading and writing – but the whole question of language must be addressed honestly and sensibly.

Because if literacy is defined in fus7a, Classical Arabic, which is not the mother tongue of Moroccans (important though it is in the cultural and religious heritage of the elite and the pious), and if Arabic continues to be as badly taught as it is today, then Mark Twain’s gloomy comment will hold true in Morocco for many years yet to come.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on January 26, 2014. 

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The monster that refuses to die

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? 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.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on January 20, 2014. 

Martin rose blog


I’ve happened on a nice blog in the last few days, called Arabic Literature (in English), which is well worth a look. My eye was caught by a splendid, very short, piece about a man – Elliott Colla – who started life as an American Republican Christian Zionist, learned Arabic for his work and found himself seduced by the language, educated by Palestinian friendships and driven to translate. He was, as he puts it, ‘deprovincialised’ by the process. Colla is no longer a Republican and no longer a Christian Zionist.

I like deprovincialisation as a metaphor for the process of growing-up. We all start life as provincial, as receptacles of received wisdom, Nature’s little conservatives – and we change at different speeds. There are rebels, born questioners, who deprovincialise themselves explosively, often in anger, spurning what their parents, teachers and elders tell them. There are those for whom it takes longer, a road from the provinces to the city that is full of surprises, reconsiderations, rethinkings and flashes of insight. And there are those – far, far too many – who languish all their lives in the provinces of the mind, unprepared to think, unwilling to listen, terrified of change, mired in self-righteousness. We all know many of them.

The second group, those who have to struggle to deprovincialise themselves, are the interesting ones. They look honestly at themselves and the attitudes and assumptions they are born into, and they ask questions. Slowly, sometimes painfully, sometimes with the sharp shock of re-birth, they reach unexpected and uncomfortable conclusions. Often they write about what they have found, leaving their work as signposts on the road from the provinces to the metropolis. Elliott Colla is one of them.

And while on ArabLit (as it calls itself) and scanning the back posts I also found this useful short survey of Moroccan literature in translation.

This blog was first published on Mercurius Maghrebensis on January 4,  2014. 

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