Sunday, April 17, 2016

Diglossia politics and the Algerian novel

For decades, Algeria has been characterised by a divide between "Arabophone" and "Francophone" intellectuals. The divide is drawn primarily according to which language they feel more comfortable writing in, but correlates rather well with political and cultural positions. Of these two, it has almost always been Francophones who have attempted to attack diglossia and elevate Algerian Arabic (Darja) to the status of a language rather than a dialect. The best-publicised recent case is the columnist (and now novelist) Kamel Daoud, who wrote a typically hyperbolic "manifesto" calling Arabic a dead colonial language (warning: popup-infested link):
In Algeria, the essential part speaks Algerian: the people, the money, the ads, love and anger. The rest, then, is artificial: ENTV, Bouteflika, the regime, the imams, the "assimilated", the Islamists. All those who want Algeria to prosper, to love itself, or to get through, speak Algerian. All those who want to possess it, to steal it, to destroy it, to deny it, speak Classical Arabic. They are a dominant minority. Algerian is a dominated majority. For the moment. When they tell you it's a dialect, what they're saying is that you're not a citizen. That you're plebs, not a people.
This stirring passage, like everything else Kamel Daoud has ever published, is written in French. His prize-winning first novel, Meursault : un contre-enquête - a rejoinder to Camus' L'étranger set entirely in Algeria - contains precisely one line in Darja, quoted from a rai song: Malou khouya, malou majache. El b'har eddah âliya rah ou ma wellache. ("What's wrong with my brother, what's wrong with him that he hasn't come? The sea has taken him from me, he's gone and hasn't returned.") Apparently, as much as Kamel Daoud may want to challenge the view of Darja as a dialect, he has little interest in challenging what, in most Algerians' eyes, makes it a dialect: the fact that it isn't written. It is almost unnecessary to say that Darja is equally absent from the works of most other Algerian Francophone novelists, few of whom have ventured to defend Darja in such terms. The one exception is Kateb Yacine, who, after Independence, went from writing novels in French to writing plays in Darja; but, as far as I know, even he did not venture to incorporate Darja passages into French novels, much less attempt Darja novels.

Ahlam Mostaghanemi, one of Algeria's most widely read Arabic novelists, has rather less to say for Darja than Kamel Daoud. I am not aware that she's taken any public position on the dialect as such, but she's on record as favouring the diglossic status quo: she described the Minister of Education's recent proposal to teach in Darja for the first two years of primary school as a "new scandal" intended to "destroy the national character". On the basis of stated ideologies alone, one would expect her work to contain less Darja than Kamel Daoud's. The contrary, however, is true. Alongside much more numerous Darja quotes from songs, she casually throws in dialogue in Darja as well, eg (ذاكرة الجسد, p. 354, Darja sections italicised in the translation):

I politely ask him:
How are you, Si Mustapha?
Without preambles, he starts complaining:
We're drowning in troubles... you know!
At that point, randomly, a saying of De Gaulle crosses my mind: [...]
I keep it to myself, and say
Yeah... I know...
أسأله مجاملة:
- واش راك سي مصطفى؟
فيبدأ دون مقدمات بالكشوى:
- رانا غارقين في المشاكل ... على بالك!
تحضرني وقتها، مصادفة، مقولة لديفول: [...]
أحتفظ بها لنفسي وأقول:
- إيه... على بالي...

Granted, more-Arab-than-thou types have been known to criticise her for these brief concessions to reality, as in this fine example of self-hatred by Mouloud Ben Zadi (whose targets also include Naguib Mahfouz):

Are we to fill our writings with our complicated colloquial dialects spread in our Arab lands, easy and difficult, and count what we have written as Arabic literature? Has the Arab intellectual not yet realised that these colloquial languages are only languages that divide and do not unite, that lower and do not raise, that hurt and do not benefit? If Fusha could speak, it would wash its hands of us and of the literature distorted by blind dialect that we record under its name and attribute to it, whose benefit, by my life, is little, and which has no relationship to Fusha!
Nevertheless, Mostaghanemi's practice is not isolated: similar passages can easily be cited from Waciny Laaredj. Why the difference?

One obvious explanation comes to mind: the audience. Any Algerian novelist can hardly avoid hoping - forlornly or otherwise - to become popular abroad; they certainly aren't ever likely to be able to live on the proceeds of selling their book in Algeria alone. French speakers, by and large, can make no sense of dialogue in Darja at all. Arabic speakers, on the other hand, can at worst understand a good deal of Darja just by looking for cognates, and a good third of them can be assumed to speak a very similar dialect already; even for Middle Easterners, a Darja passage may be no harder to read than a particularly flowery Fusha passage. Passages like the above did not stop Ahlam Mostaghanemi from becoming a bestseller in other Arab countries; their equivalent in French would give the average reader pause, at the very least.

The other difference is, precisely, diglossia! French, for its speakers, is a language of daily conversation. Translating a Darja dialogue into French doesn't make it any more formal; if you want to explicitly mark it as informal, there are plenty of contractions and prescriptively ungrammatical forms that you can use ("J'sais pas"). Translating the same dialogue into Standard Arabic makes it a good deal more formal, verging on schoolmarmish - not because of any intrinsic limitations of Arabic, but because Standard Arabic is normally only used in formal contexts. A novelist who wants to render the mood and context of a conversation correctly, rather than just the content, will thus be hard-pressed to avoid at least a few concessions to the colloquial. It's probably no coincidence that Ahlam Mostaghanemi and Waciny Laaredj have sold better than Mouloud Ben Zadi.

In brief: Writing in French encourages the desire to identify with Darja and treat it as a distinct language, but makes actually writing in it feel difficult and superfluous. Writing in Arabic reinforces the idea of Darja as just a provincial dialect of Arabic, but makes writing in Darja feel easy and, in some contexts, almost unavoidable. Writing novels in Darja is not a serious option, for the moment. But if it develops gradually, I suspect its development will be driven by Arabophone writers rather than by Francophone ones.


John Cowan said...

It sounds like Algeria needs a Frankétienne or perhaps a Yannis Makriyannis.

Nadia Ghanem said...

Hello Lameen! Great piece, very interesting parallel and conclusions. As you say there are plenty of super-short elements to more sizeable chunks of Derja in DZ literature written in Arabic given the diglossic parameter as you explain, but also quite naturally I've always thought considering the very nature of the relationship between two Semitic languages.

Literature written in French (by French speakers in "francophone" countries) is composed in the same manner as that which you describe for Algerian literature in French, I've found. It includes very little of the native language or mother tongue of the author who translates and transposes most things not to say everything into French (at least, that's what my readings have brought me to notice and perhaps I am not reading the 'right' things). There is also the question of the audience, who are Algerian authors addressing? I have a sense, in Algerian literature, that they are exclusively addressing the 'adoptive mother ship', France and a French monolingual audience, not francophone Algerians, and this certainly affects a (non-)budding inclination toward adding Derja within a text.

As I read your article, I wonder: French and Derja are from two different language families, do you think that this parameter plays in the non-inclusion of Derja within a French text? I wonder what happens in the literature of diglossic communities where the two languages are from two different families? Do they engage in a text as naturally as MSA and Algerian/Syrian/Iraqi/etc Arabic can?

I always assumed that Algerian literature in French could not be the language through which Derja would emerge, because of the distance of two different language families, and because the way French literature is so exclusively (in) French. Perhaps there are more elements of Italian, Spanish (in short of Romance languages) in French literature, if so I would have thought it was because of the organic closeness of these languages (and because they've been engaging with each other in writing for a substantially longer period). But these 'other language' insertions remain minor.

Representing in writing one's own 'Arabic', and how much, is a feature of and a development in Arabic literature used and debated across the MENA as far as I know. As you say, Arabic will be the language through which Derja will be put to pen and I believe it get to that stage when these Arabics extend to being used from practically solely representing speech (dialogues, songs, oral poetry) to representing thoughts, both those of characters and the writer's.

Anís del moro said...

Or else this development might be driven by neither Arabophone nor Francophone writers: in Morocco some well-known advocates of Darija writing are professors and translators of German and English, like Mourad Alami and Abderrahim Youssi (cf.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: Makriyannis sounds like a very interesting character. Probably too late for an Independence veteran to write dialect memoirs in Algeria, though!

Nadia: Thanks for the observations. Glad to hear your impressions are similar - you've almost certainly read a lot more Algerian novels than I have. (Even apart from language and genre issues, I tend to find them too depressing and too alien from my own experience of Algeria.)

Abu Ilyás: Have you ever heard the old Northern Ireland joke that ends with "Yes, but are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?" It's kind of like that with Arabophone and Francophone in Algeria. You can be a specialist in English or German or even Japanese, but there's no mass audience in Algeria to address in any of these languages, so for any kind of popular writing, you still end up resorting to Arabic or French (though I imagine Morocco has somewhat more potential readers of English). Still, I suppose it's conceivable in principle that people who had never previously written for an Algerian audience might start doing so in Darja without passing through such an intermediary.

Anís del moro said...

Well, my point is that specialists in other than Arabic or French, precisely because there is no mass audience to address in these languages, either in Algeria or Morocco, may resort to Darja in an attempt to find their own and an eventual larger one. It is somehow interesting, for example, how the Zakoura Foundation (cf. supports both Moroccan Darija as the best language for schooling and English as the best one for technical and scientific learning instead of French (and, needless to say, Standard Arabic).

Unknown said...

Can anybody confirm or disconfirm my idea that, in the 20s or 30s, somebody did make a full translation of the Qu'ran into Moroccan Darja ? It was regarded as a scandalous thing to do. I suspect the whole story may be apocryphal. Any info ?

Author Mouloud Benzadi said...

. Algeria is not the UK. There are no reliable statistics in the Arab world to establish how many copies have been published/sold. Publishers and authors can always exaggerate figures for propaganda purposes. And at the moment it is still too early to talk about best sellers and we still have a long way to go, I'm afraid. And there is absolutely no basis at all to state that an author sells more than the others. So please stop comparing people.

. The big problem we have is that everybody has started talking about language/linguistics without enough knowledge, making serious verdicts about languages used in Algeria. And I believe it should be left to the experts to deal with.

. The funny thing is that those writers who defend Algerian dialects do not have the ability/courage to write novels in Darja! They can only talk. My grand mother would be amongst the best authors if she could write in Darja. She has a great style when she tells us Algerian classical stories, some of which can be scary!

. Darja - if we analyse it - is composed mainly of Arabic words and not words from another planet. And if we travel outside of Algiers and the big cities into the countryside and Sahara desert, we will notice the Darja is richer in Arabic vocabulary. So we are not against it, but we do not believe that (in its current condition) it can be used as a proper language (spoken /written /academic language /language of literature, science and technology...
Besides, it is not one Darja.. Each area has got its own Darja dialect and can result in total anarchy unless developed.
Personally I can never use it for my novels because it is too poor unlike arabic which contains 12 million words and very rich in Synonyms which allow me to express myself freely and better explore and exploit my abiliies...
Please follow me on Facebook. I have published several articles about langues and a new one is coming soon. Regards

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

You can't use Darja for your novels because its vocabulary is too poor? That might work as an argument against trying to write novels entirely in Darja, but it logically amounts to an argument in favour of the sort of Fusha-Darja mixing that Ahlam Mostaghanemi or Wassini Laaredj are (very cautiously) attempting. Even if Fusha contained 12 million words (which it doesn't - see my earlier post on this) and Darja contained only a few tens of thousands, drawing on both the way they do would still give you thousands more words to choose from than restricting yourself to Fusha alone. More to the point, it would allow you to represent dialogues as they would actually have been spoken, rather than in translation.

Fair cop on the statistics - I have no idea how many copies of anyone's book have actually been sold. My rather subjective estimate was entirely based on relative fame.