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 .