Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: La question linguistique en Algérie

I just finished reading Benmayouf's (2009) La question linguistique en Algérie. It was... interesting.

The narrative this book presents is easy to summarise, although when stated baldly it verges on self-parody: By 1930 or so, Standard Arabic had practically vanished from Algerian life, apart from the Friday sermon. At independence, most literate Algerians were literate in French; but, tragically though inevitably, the revolutionary government opted to make Standard Arabic the official language, and tried to Arabise the educational system. The beleaguered Francophones found their job security threatened and their students demotivated, and the level of French spoken in the country dropped lower and lower. The new generation, having been deprived of the salutary effects of French culture and brought up to hate everything foreign, became Islamists and terrorists, leading to the civil war of the 1990s. "The individual produced by the Algerian school is a rigid being with no value but Islam, radically opposed to his open-minded father nourished by French school." (p. 76!) But after 1988, the government gradually woke up to the political and economic dangers of Arabisation, and started expanding the use of French; meanwhile, the satellite dish enabled millions of ordinary Algerians to watch French media. Apart from a few dangerous attacks on the position of French – such as the introduction of English as a third language in schools – the future is now bright, under the leadership of our "enlightened" president (p. 108). Eventually, she hopes (p. 118), Standard Arabic will be limited to the role of a liturgical language, while French comes to occupy an even more important place than it does today, and Algerian Arabic gets recognised as the language that binds the nation together. But it's French which is crucial: it not only "satisfies a need for modernity that none of the local languages can handle" but constitutes "a maquis in which resistance develops to every form of constraint, oppression or denial." (p. 98)

This view, of course, ignores a long history of Standard Arabic in Algeria – the zaouias' continued presence even after the French confiscated most of their land, the manuscripts and imported books of my grandfather's generation, the excellent work of Ben Badis and the Association of Ulema starting in 1931, the expanding ranks of Arabophone intellectuals and writers since independence (tellingly, she finds time to mention Jean Amrouche but not Ahlam Mostaganemi), and even the satellite dishes tuned to Arabic channels. If Francophone professors and officials have felt threatened by institutional Arabisation, their extremely successful efforts to hold it back in turn denied (and deny) positions to the much more numerous Arabophone graduates. The social tensions caused by this did help set the stage for the violence of the 1990s, but that can hardly be blamed on Arabic, let alone caricatured in the terms above.

As for her vision of the future, I would consider it close to a worst-case scenario. Her tactical and qualified support for Algerian Arabic does not entail actually using it for anything important; while rather hostile to Standard Arabic as a medium for university education, she takes it for granted that French is appropriate in that context, and indeed is the perfect vehicle for anything related to modernity. But, frankly, I do not want a French-language-mediated "transfer of modernity from the north shore to the south shore of the Mediterranean" (p. 118); I want an Algeria with the self-confidence and self-awareness to learn from a variety of examples and choose its own path, not mechanically follow in France's footsteps. Nor do I believe that relegating "modernity" to a foreign language is likely to help Algeria achieve it!

Nonetheless, I'm glad I read the book. It's fascinating – if sad – to discover that there exists an Algerian intellectual prepared to take a position this extreme in favour specifically of French; I don't believe I've ever met one. Could one find a corresponding phenomenon in France, I wonder – some professor eagerly advocating for more English in the bureaucracy and the universities, and condemning supporters of French as narrow-minded nationalists? It's difficult to imagine... But what this book mainly leaves me wondering, to be frank, is: why on earth does the author feel this way? And that points the way towards a more anthropologically oriented book that I really would like to see. A person's feelings towards a language are shaped by memories – a mother's voice or a teacher's scolding, a story you couldn't put down or a tedious manual, a group that you hung out with or couldn't stand. To really understand the wide variation in Algerian language attitudes, we need to go beyond the political history and into experiences of learning and living the languages.


John Cowan said...

Since the book is written to defend a position, perhaps the author belongs to the school that believes the best way to defend a position is to take it to extremes as fast as possible. Her personal view may not be so uncompromising as the book's view.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

It's conceivable – I don't know much else about the author – but if anything, I get the opposite vibe: that she's trying to stick to a vaguely objective-sounding tone and hold herself back from attacking Standard Arabic with the fury she actually feels against it.

David Marjanović said...

our "enlightened" president


Amin said...

When one watches Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian broadcasted news the thing they have in common is how hard they try to adopt the "Aljazeera accent", they try so hard to sound Levantine and conceal the Maghrebine element, since they believe this to be the truer & correct form of Arabic. I believe part of the reason some people feel like Benmayouf has to do with this; there is a feeling that Standard-Arabic is somewhat as foreign as French, and since the latter is -today- more developed and relations with the French, notwithstanding history, are perhaps more cordial relative to the middle-east, they opt for French.
The way the young leadership of the 1960s handled the "Arabization" was wrong in suppressing the historical local from of Standard Arabic and wholesale import the language from the east; Lebanese & Syrian poets replaced the Maghrebine poetry in school curricula whereas middle-eastern terminology became the correct form and the Maghrebine one was perceived as ignorant/illiterate.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

I wasn't there, but the impression I get is that, at independence, the last thing the new government wanted was to maintain tradition - the memory of Algerian weakness in the face of colonialism was to be replaced by the new modern Algerian, raised on more nutritious fare. It's a common reaction to defeat, as illustrated by the more extreme cases of Ataturk or of Zionism.

Emphasising Maghrebi classics in the curriculum, and selecting terms that correspond more to local Arabic usage, are both good ideas; however, some degree of pan-Arab standardisation is also useful.

Anonymous said...

في كل الأزمنة و العصور كان نشر لغة ما و تعميمها من أهم الأدوات التي تستعملها الدول و الامبراطوريات في نشر هيمنتها المعنوية عن طريق صقل هوية وطنية بواسطة اللغة تشكل من خلالها أمة موحدة.
وإذا كانت الدولة الفرنسية سعت لذلك على أرضها و في مستعمراتها بنجاح فإن دولة الاستقلال الجزائرية أرادت كذلك الارتكاز على فرض لغة موحدة (بفتح الحاء) و موحدة (بكسرها) دعامة للهوية الجديدة للدولة الوليدة.
لكن اللغة ليست وعاءا فحسب يمكن استبدال أي منها بأخرى. انها ثقافة و مضمون ، هوية و جذور. و من المؤسف أن نلحظ اليوم أن عربية الجزائر الفصحى فشلت في استيعاب الحداثة و ترجمة آمال الجزائريين جميعها.
و لم ينجح الجزائريون في إخراج منتوجهم الثقافي العربي من دائرة التراث و الدين و بقيت العربية في نظر الكثير من الجزائريين الظمأى للحداثة لغة طلاسم و حروز تصفدهم في أغلال الماضوية و تحبسهم عن الانطلاق في فضاءات الحرية.
نعم ، ذهبت العربية كبشا يفتدي عجز الجزائريين ، و غيرهم كثير ، عن تخطي ثنائية الأصالة و المعاصرة و تبني الحرية سبيلا الانعتاق من ازدواج الشخصية المرضي الذي يمنعهم من التصالح مع ذواتهم.
كم من الاشخاص لا أعدهم ممن تقاطعت سبلهم و طريقي كانو يزدرون العربية أيما ازدراء و يسقطون عليها كل نواحي الظل في أنفسهم. و كانوا يجتهدون كل الجهد في الحديث بفرنسية ركيكة لا يتقنونها أو على الاقل رص بعض المفردات المفعربة للايحاء بأنهم يبذلون جهدا للحديث بالعربية رفقا بالمستمع المسكين الجاهل المعربز ! كم كان يغيظني ذلك !
كلا ، ليست المسألة اللغوية في بلدان المغرب ، مع أن لها جوانب موضوعية ، سوى إسقاط نفساني لأزمات لاشعورية مكبوتة و محظورة على ساحة الوعي متمثلا في ميدان اللغة. إنها مسائل حرية العقيدة ، حرية الانسان في أن يختار لنفسه القيم الأخلاقية التي يرتاح اليها و أن يختار طريقة العيش التي يجد فيها سعادته دون قيد . طالما لم تتصدى المجتمعات المغاربية لجذور مشكلاتها الهوياتية إن جاز الاشتقاق فلن تتخلص من الصراعات المفتعلة حول لغة الجيران.