Saturday, April 12, 2008

Speaking French to a... Cradle!

The Sad Story of a Culturally Alienated Society

When I first decided to start blogging, it was clear in my mind that I wouldn't in any way write in French. And yet French has accompanied me for most of my life and is practically a second mother tongue. I decided to write in English and Arabic. The first because it is the world's language and the latter because it's supposed to be my own language, part of my identity, of which I'm proud. I wasn't motivated at all by any anti-French feeling or some weird nationalistic zealotry. I was simply trying (symbolically) to reclaim the right to my own language and to emancipate (legitimately I think) from the imposed linguistic prison and cultural prism through which I was subconsciously forced to see and interpret the world.

I never felt the urgency or need to write about this issue until I recently witnessed one of my closest friends speak to his newborn son (few days old) in French. He explained how he (an Arab) and his wife (Arab too), although living in Morocco, a supposedly Arab (and Berber) country, deliberately decided to speak French and inculcate French culture to their beloved newborn child.

This is not an exceptional peculiarity in today's Morocco.The north-African kingdom is one of the rare Arab countries (with Lebanon) who -thanks to geographical or geopolitical considerations- has remained open to foreign cultural influences and benefited largely and undeniably from that interaction. But the country has developed very little during its 52 years of independence and having adopted an archeo-capitalistic economic and political system, only a fraction of the population has really achieved any social success. A system that fosters the advancement of a small breed of elites, already favoured by their blood kinship and/or by nepotism. But the system also allowed some, to contemplate and achieve real success, forming a tiny but remarkably active urban bourgeoisie. However, in order to enter this glittering and restrictive world of fortune and achievement, made in Morocco, you must adopt the language of success: French. That, in turn, acted as an efficient incentive for a massive cultural cringe.

Affluent Moroccans -with the exception of some prosperous conservative Islamists- and those who aspire to join them or at least enable their children to reach prosperity, speak often French and put their children in missions françaises : French government-funded schools, originally created to provide education for French nationals and which now receive mostly Moroccan children whose parents prefer to pay the overly expensive application fees rather than trust the bankrupt public education system.

Hence (maybe) the attitude of my friend toward his newborn child. A behaviour significantly representative of an ambitious class of young parents legitimately avid of securing their offspring's future.

In addition to this quite pragmatic and reasonably understandable attitude, the Moroccan society has gradually drifted into a cultural alienation en masse: e.g. It's commonplace in Morocco to hear self-loathing comments dismissive of Moroccans own culture as inferior to that of western immediate neighbours; many would claim that Morocco was better-off under Franco-Spanish occupation while all evidence show how the country was grossly and savagely raped and exploited and little infrastructure left for the sake of the country's own development; very fierce opposition often develops against any reform of the education system that would include "Arabisation," a term which became synonymous of aversion and often generates odium since the failure of a reform conducted in the 70s for purely electoralistic purposes, with no clear planning by the then-(allegedly)-panarabist party of Istiqlal, and which saw generations of young Moroccan students engage in an educational system ridiculously incompatible with the realities of the job market producing scores of under-qualified and dangerously disillusioned graduates. Although this phenomenal failure was clearly due to political interference and lack of planning, the Arabic language per se, remained the principle cause of the fiasco in the mind of many Moroccans who often praise almost everything French as panacea.

Self-loathing is commonly heard in discussions with people mostly discouraged and deeply disillusioned with their own cultural background and own identity.

That, to me, shows a serious and quasi-pathological state of self-hatred often dubbed by social anthropologists, "colonial mentality."

"Culturally alienated societies often exhibit a weak sense of cultural self-identity and place little worth on themselves," yielding dysfunctional attitudes and a "permanent state of discouragement" according to post-colonial anthropologists like Helen Tiffin. Mental and social well being, the prerequisite condition for healthy, cohesive and productive societies can rarely be achieved in these conditions. Alfred Adler, the pioneer of social and community psychology, clearly identified an intrinsic inferiority complex at the root of the self-devaluating process in culturally cringed societies. He emphasised "the importance of social equality in order to prevent various forms of psychopathology and espoused the development of social interest and democratic family structures as the ideal ethos for raising children." (source: Wikipedia). I think that my friend would be interested in hearing that.

Unbelievably enough, half a century after (formal) independence from France, almost half of the Moroccan population is still illiterate. Most of the few presumably literates speak, read or write only Arabic, many of whom understand barely classical Arabic. The fact of adopting French as the quasi-exclusive language of mainstream news, knowledge, science, economics has in effect acted as a cultural Apartheid for the scores of disenfranchised, uneducated Moroccans, condemning them to a state of permanent ignorance and subordination. The dilemma is to insure that knowledge and information is provided fairly to the largest possible amount of people without stigmatizing any of the foreign languages and cultures or denying their invaluable benefits or losing one's own culture and identity in the process.

The picture is not completely bleak though. The Aljazeera "revolution" having proved to the world and to the most sceptics (amongst which I counted) that the Arabic language was alive and kicking, easily adaptable to different issues ranging from news to science, art...

Also the recent publication by some prominent Moroccan intellectuals and journalists of magazines and newspapers in Darija, the local Arabic dialect, opened an even larger opportunity to reach the greatest number of people.
Picture Courtesy of "Ladies! Yea Ladies!"


marouki said...

Il se trouve que le français est devenu un ascenseur social plus que valable, vu l'hermétisme du système politique chez nous...Mais contrairement aux apparences, le français est loin d'être la 2eme langue de prédilection chez les marocains... Toute la palette linguistique au Maroc est gravement déficitaire en ce qui concerne les langues étrangères, même si le français s'accapare l'espace culturel marocain...

Hisham said...

سمح ليا نجاوبك بالعربية بما أنك "مروكي".
الدنيا هانية إلى كان الواحد غادي يقري ولادو الفرنسوية باش ينجحو فحياتهم و يتحلو ليهم البيبان، ولكن المشكلة هي منين تيولي الواحد ناكر أصله و ما راضيش بلغته أو تيهضر مع ولاده بالفرنسوية بحال إلا هوما نصارى
ما تحتاجش تنكر أصلك باش توصل فالحياة
ما كاين ما احسن من الي تي بقا على صباغته
أنا تنعرف أساتذة ناجحين تبارك الله و محافض على صباغته و ما مسوق لحتى شي واحد

[Sorry, I'll answer you in Arabic since you're a Marrouki.
I find it perfectly understanble for somebody to give his children the best education possible through whatever language available.
But the problem arises when people start denying and devaluing their own cultural background and identity. I say it's a case of social disease.
What's more, one doesn't need to imitate others or mimic Parisian accent in order to succed in life. I know of Emeritus Professors, Moroccans, who obviously succeded but had not to get rid of their quite heavy 3aroubi (country-side) accent]. said...

The first paragraph is talking to me.

I, too, decided that I wanted to blog in English, (Moroccan) Arabic besides some Berber on my blog, and deliberately 'neglect' French. I didn't really give it a second thought, but today, I realized that I have written many entries in French as well.

Abdelilah Boukili said...

Hi Hisham,
The linguistic problem in Morocco still has to do with social and economic status.

As you know the politicians, especially those from Al Istiqlal party, are the first to turn against arabasition when it comes to the education of their children. As you pointed out they are taught in French schools and after getting their baccalaureate, they're sent to finish their studies in a Western country, mainly France and the USA.

Morocco still needs linguistic reforms and rights on many level. Although French is no longer a powerful language as it used be, now surpassed by English, French is still given a special status because of the close ties with France.

There is nothing bad in learning and using as many languages as possible, but not to the point of being ashamed to use one's native language for expressions and communications among one's countrymen. It's rather queer to see Moroccan in Morocco use French at home as an expression of distinction of the "popular" classes who can't speak any language other than Darija.

Hisham said...

You know I visited Sweden at a younger age and it was the first time I realized how much alienated (culturally) we were in Morocco thinking that the outside world speaks, thinks, reads only in French. Before that trip I too, thought that all "N'sara" were "Fransawi'yine." Again, I have nothing against the French or against their language or culture which I appreciate. The thing is, I discovered a country (Sweden), with barely 5 or 6 million inhabitants at the time, who all spoke their own language and almost all of them mastered the English language, not as a matter of cultural fait-accompli (to use a French word :)) but as a matter of practical choice.
I thought, this is a nation of 5 million souls that has succeeded, tremendously without having to lose its identity and most important of all its language. Whereas, we are 30+ millions Moroccans and we haven't succeeded in neither accounts.