Sunday, August 30, 2015

Discrimination against Arabic in Algeria?

Attention conservation notice: The story below is probably being promoted as a distraction, to keep Algerians talking about language instead of about what happens when a succession crisis combines with a fall in oil prices, in a state almost entirely dependent on oil revenue. Nevertheless, while not the most immediately pressing problem facing Algeria, it deserves attention on this blog.

After making the rounds of social media, a report of linguistic discrimination in Algeria recently got picked up by the unreliable but popular newspaper Ech Chorouk. Prof. Djamel Dou (who teaches physics at the University of El Oued, and formerly at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia) says he requested in writing - in English - that a stewardess on an Air Algerie internal flight should please address him in Arabic or English rather than exclusively in French, and got kicked off the plane, called a security threat by the captain, and sent to the police station for his pains. (Dou's video testimony is here.)

In keeping with its usual journalistic standards, Ech Chorouk didn't bother even to interview his fellow passengers, much less ask the flight crew for their side of the story, so I can't confirm whether this is a fair account. However, it reminds me so much of less dramatic encounters I've had with Air Algerie that I'm inclined to believe it. In particular, I remember one time in Timimoun a few years ago, when my French was rather poorer than it is now, walking into the local Air Algerie offices to get my ticket changed. I addressed them in Arabic (Darja, of course); they replied in French; I replied in Arabic; they replied in French, with some long set of details that I didn't fully understand; this continued, until eventually I got frustrated enough that I started talking to them in English. At that point they finally shifted to Arabic, after briefly lecturing me about how French was a national language after all (which, legally speaking, is entirely false) and how it's not fair for me to expect them to know English! I got my tickets changed in the end, so it worked out, but it was an eye-opening experience. I certainly spoke more French at the time than the average citizen of Timimoun (see Bouhania 2011:253). If Air Algerie's staff insist on using a foreign language even when the person in front of them obviously doesn't feel comfortable in it, how welcome do you suppose that makes their customers feel?

But the flip side of that is: why does anyone put up with such treatment? Why is it just Prof. Dou, out of an entire flight to a region where French is hardly spoken, complaining? In the case of Air Algerie, obviously because they have nowhere else to go for domestic flights. But I think there is a broader issue as well. People have internalised all too well the idea that Darja is an inferior non-language, unfitting for prestigious contexts like airline offices. So if they prefer Arabic, then, unless they belong to the minority who - like Prof. Dou - can speak grammatically correct Fusha on the fly, they're left with no effective options that they don't feel make them look bad. The immediate solution is obvious: insist that Darja is entirely appropriate in any and all conversational contexts in Algeria, including the most official and prestigious (and not merely that French is inappropriate in such settings).

One final thought, which I suspect many of those sharing this story have not thought about much: if people get treated like this for using the official and majority language, what do you think people experience when they try to use a minority one? A little sympathy on that point could go a long way towards healing the unhelpful political rifts that have been created between some Berber and Arabic speakers.

Updates, 31 Aug: Air Algerie has allegedly opened an inquiry into the incident (says Ech Chorouk). By way of background, Prof. Dou expressed his position on the language issue a year earlier: التعليم: لغة الأهالي أم لغة الكولون .


Moubarik Belkasim said...

The Moroccan airliner RAM does its announcements in Literary Arabic and French. I bet that at least 50% or 60% of the Moroccan passengers don't understand most of what they're hearing. An ongoing surreal joke.

When Morocco and Algeria don't teach Berber and Darija at schools, most institutions and companies (including airliners) won't be able to put out useful texts and audio material in Berber and Darija even if they wanted to.

We're in 2015 and there isn't a single Moroccan or Algerian TV channel that broadcasts a full news hour in Darija that is understandable to the lay Darija-speaker. Talk about involving people in public affairs. A nation that does that is shooting itself in the shoes.

Berber is in its infancy in this regard (TV news) but has an advantage over Darija. People and the State now consider Berber a legitimate language. For Darija, they refuse to.

Individual inclinations of Moroccan and especially Algerian employees to speak French with customers and ignore Berber and Darija (especially in high-class hotels, airports...) are also products of the educational system and the media, all wrapped in sheets of psycho-cultural upward-mobility make-believe illusions, often practiced from both sides of the counter.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

In theory, Air Algerie does its announcements in Standard Arabic and French too. It seems this stewardess decided not to bother with the Arabic part. But Algeria does have news broadcasts in Darja, I think, though not often.

Moubarik Belkasim said...

News bulletins in Darija? Which channel? I don't mean the pundits who mix Arabic with Darija during talkshows. I've seen the Algerian TV channels of Echourouk and Dzair and Almagharibia (which are supposed to be hip and independent and less formal) and they are copycats of Aljazeera and other Middle East channels. Almost the same language, same words, same style.

Emad Odel said...

Talking about Darja. Before teaching it at school, or using it in literature works (it is already used, at least in Tunisia), the language must be standardized. And here I wonder, is Darja one language or three different languages (or even more)? I can't really decide.

If I follow ISO 639-3, there are Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian, however, in Tunisia itself there are different dialects, with different vocabulary, phonology and even morphology, and I am pretty sure it is the same situation in Algeria and Morroco.

Note that in Tunisia people usually communicate in Tunis dialect (the de facto standard dialect)

TL;DR: Is Darja one language with different dialect? Is it possible to make one standard Darja?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

If you define "language" in terms of mutual comprehensibility, of course Moroccan and Algerian are one language, and so are Algerian and Tunisian. Dunno if Moroccan and Tunisian are the same language - this is a dialect continuum, so that does not follow from the previous two statements - but probably.

Is it possible to make one standard Darja? In theory yes, but it's unlikely to work unless the Maghreb is politically unified.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Dou's experience is believable and I am inclined to sympathise with him. My Moroccan bank posts letters to my London address written in French! When I telephoned them to explain that they write to someone with atrophied French, that Arabic or English would be more suitable, their employee started becoming defensive and asked for my name and other details with a Mukhabarat intonation.

Misguided people inject French into the dialogue whenever the subject matter/context becomes supposedly too sophisticated for the native languages. Assimilating my experiences and your experience with Air Algerie, it is almost as if the people in question fear the physical dynamics of their business vulnerable to malfunction if they speak Darija instead of French, that the mechanical soundness planes will not be consolidated without the use of French, planes might fall apart mid air if their passengers where sold tickets in Darija. By such behaviour, Maghreb professionals give French an almost mystical quality, speaking French as if by doing so they summon the gods of modernity, progress and sophistication to bless and guide their performance/transaction. It is ironic that they speak French expecting to garner an air of sophistication but can be interpreted to look so primitive deep in a mystical performance.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Hah. If only the ceremony worked, I might have more sympathy for them! Sadly, Air Algerie is living proof that speaking French all the time does not impress the gods of modernity and progress.

Peter Norman said...

When my boyfriend and I visited Ain Turck and Oran recently, we found ourselves in some absurd linguistic situations. His brother took us and his family out to a restaurant with an impressive menu printed in (only) French. But the waiter, clearly arrived recently from the countryside, understood neither French nor Fusha, and even my "brother-in-law" had difficulty making himself understood in Darja with him. Pointing at things on the menu was no help, as it quickly became apparent that the waiter could neither read nor write. (For those who like completion in stories, we upped sticks and went to a different restaurant.)

For what it's worth, my partner takes a very different view from you (which I simply report, and neither endorse nor contradict), that both French and Darja should be systematically taught in all schools, with Fusha as an "optional extra". He compares compulsory Fusha with the idea that all Europeans should still be able to speak or write Latin.

I didn't catch any news broadcasts in Darja, but there were chat-shows, and, contrary to what you said elsewhere, cartoons dubbed in Darja - though a rather artificial and barely credible Darja that contained virtually no French words at all.

My boyfriend is a very Europeanized and (although he's Belgian) I don't mind you saying "Frenchified" Algerian. I doubt whether your and his ideas of being Algerian are reconcilable. He certainly thinks speaking French is the sine qua non, Darja a good extra arrow in one's quiver, and Fusha a pointless distraction. Of course, for gay/lesbian people there, French is undeniably the highest-status language; let the sociolinguists get to work on that.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The idea of gayness as an identity is strongly endorsed by French media and society, and overwhelmingly dismissed and rejected by Arabic-speaking media and society. Hardly surprising then that adopting it should correlate with preferring French; the causation might even be bidirectional, in that Francophones are likely to be more exposed to the concept.

I've never seen a cartoon dubbed in Darja; that must be new.

Peter Norman said...

Your comment on the "foreignness" of gayness as an identity (though not, of course, homosexuality as a practice) is spot-on. My understanding is that the Mashriqi languages are chock-full of English, rather than French loan-words on the issue. In Oran, the use of the word "gay" or "lesbienne" seemed to trigger a whole switch in the conversation language from Darja to French. Accustomed as I am to unexpected gender attributions in North African French, I nonetheless permitted myself a smile at hearing my gay sisters referred to as "les lesbiens"!

I can't swear hand on heart that the Darja cartoons were Algerian, they could have been from Tunisia.

My partner's brother is some kind of generalissimo in the Douanes there, which was convenient, because we zipped through airport controls while others were queuing up. In the departure lounge, we ran into his boss, who was taking the same flight as us, and they spoke to each other exclusively in French. That JUST MIGHT have been out of politeness to us, but I don't really think so. It seems that's the language in which civilized, sophisticated people talk to each other, while Darja is reserved for the home/café and Fusha for tiresome Arabic foreigners. I'm trying to report these things objectively, and not be judgmental about them. You have plenty of other correspondents who'll do that.

Peter Norman said...

According to my ex-wife (from Djerba), Tunisian and Moroccan ARE mutually comprehensible, with a certain amount of good will on both sides.

I don't think political unity is a necessary prerequisite for a standardized Darja. Egyptian (Cairo?) is the de facto standard for Mashriqi. It would just take ONE of the Maghrebi countries to shake off the iron grip of Fusha (journalists pretend to write it, we pretend to read it) and declare (its own) Darja an official language, and prioritize it over "classical" or "literary" Arabic in schools. Don't hold your breath...

Heathcliff al-Huxtable said...

@Peter Norman,

My position as an Arab person is that neither darija nor French should be taught on schools until the education system is good enough to create above 95% literacy and fluency in Modern Standard Arabic. Once this is achieved then by all means start teaching in French.

Firstly, I think that teaching fusha as an "optional" class would be totally stupid. It would disconnect the Maghreb region completely from the rest of the Arabic speaking world. I am connected online with Maghrebi people on Arabic forums and social media. If fusha is no longer taught there, they will lose this connection to the Middle East within a generation or two. This makes no sense to me whatsoever. And living in the Gulf region, I meet plenty of Maghrebis and am able to converse with them without issue if I minimize my accent and they do some code-switching as well.

Secondly, I'm also a citizen of Finland, where there are also language problems. Finnish is a diglossia, with regional varieties, and the country has minority speakers of Finnish-Swedish and Sami. All teaching and formal discussion in Finnish occurs in the high register, but there are tv channels for Sami and Swedish. However, unlike in the Arab world, the education system is good enough that everyone can switch to the higher register without much difficulty whatsoever. On my visits to the Maghreb I found that there were many people who couldn't speak to me in Arabic whatsoever, stumbling and stuttering and using French words in every sentence.

I view the argument that Arab countries should standardize the darijas and teach in them to help literacy and scientific legibility the same as the Ebonics argument in the US. Sure, if you standardize Ebonics and teach it in schools, impoverished black youth will learn to read easier since it's the language they speak at home. But at the same time, you'll be disconnecting them from the standard English spoken everywhere else, and that is an enormous problem and exactly the same problem that teaching darijas would create in the MENA region.

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