Language and Identity
The Arabization-Process of the Suppression of the ‘Moroccan’ Identity
“ Have you ever felt that the moment you said the word ‘ I ’ , that ‘ I ’ was someone else, not you?
That in some obscure way,
you were not the subject of your own sentence? ”
(Robert J.C. Young. 2003: 1)
Gone are the days when language used to be seen as a mere medium to express feelings or describe reality. Rather it is only through language that we, humans, come to see the world and experience it. It is also through this very language that our identities are shaped. Identity; one of the most paradoxical and illusive terms, meaning at the same time the thing and its very opposite. Identity as individualism, but also and paradoxically as collectivism. One can talk about her or his own identity in separation from all other human beings, but also as his or her identity as being Moroccan, Amazigh, African, Arab, Muslim, Jewish, Female, Atheist etc. That is identity as an expression of ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, nationality, etc. From this very simple trial to get a hold of the concept of identity, one starts to feel off the beaten track.
Elabbas Benmamoun (2007) argues that “issues of language and identity usually arise when more than one language competes for space, be it cultural, political, educational, or economic.” However, this statement presupposes the existence, somewhere in the world, of a place, a space, a country where there exists only one pure language, without any varieties, any dialects, etc. One could easily think of Orwell’s Oceania as such a place. But in the real world such a place simply does not and cannot exist. Yet, what we can still draw from this quotation is that the adoption of any language as official or standard can only presuppose the exclusion of others, in addition to giving the chosen one political legitimacy and prestige, while excluding, alienating and marginalizing others. The very choice of a language, any language, as official and/or standard can only be at the detriment of others. Let us try to look at the situation in Morocco as a case in point. But before doing that, let us ponder for a while about yet another illusive concept, one that I believe to be rather a political term, that of: The Arab.
In trying the answer the seemingly easy question of what is an Arab? Or what does the term Arab refer to? One can only notice the complexity of such a term. But before delving in that, let us ask a few questions. Is polymath Ibn Sina (Avicenna) an Arab? Most people would answer by a definite Yes. While in fact Ibn Sina was a Persian. Therefore, if by Arab we mean a certain ethnicity, most people would be wrong. Probably the reason why so many take him to be an Arab is because they take for granted the fact that he used to write in Arabic, while in fact he wrote in both languages, some argue that he only used Arabic for some of his major works because the Arabic language was considered then a de facto scientific language in the Middle East. We understand then, that to be an Arab is very much linked to the use of the Arabic language. Continuing our questioning: Is war-hero
Tariq Ibn Ziyad an Arab? The answer to be expected when asking this question is the same as for Ibn Sina. Whereas, even if the origins are still debated, most scholars seem to agree that he is an Amazigh. This time, Tariq Ibn Ziyad did not write books, so why is it that we take it for granted that he is an Arab? The question of attitude surely has something to deal with it, his conquests speak for him. But here we can argue that people would take him to be an Arab for mainly two things, he spoke the Arabic language, and he was a Muslim at the service of the Moroccan Sultan.
After problematizing the concept of the Arab a little, one would clearly understand that there are mainly two different definitions: Someone who claims Arabic as his or her mother-tongue, and claims to share a cultural heritage with the inhabitants of other so- called ‘Arab-countries’ and the second definition is that of the Arab as an ethnicity, that is one who is born from ‘Arab origins’. To complicate things a little more, can we say that Christopher Ross is an Arab? Although he has clearly shown great mastery of the Arabic language and culture? This problem in conceptualizing can only have its influence on our main topic, that of language and identity.
Traditional linguistic have dealt with language from a very objectivist point of view. While these questions of language and identity are not mere linguistic issues, they are also very political and I believe that their roots in third world countries is due to one major cruelty: Colonialism. When people talk about Cameron or Nigeria or any other African country as having 250 ‘dialects’ and not less than 80 written languages, etc. People often take it for granted that these countries exist since the beginning of times. Whereas the borders of most if not all African countries are very recent, and date to the neo-colonial era. Neo-colonialism, Kwame Nkrumah argues, is the “final and perhaps most dangerous stage of imperialism.” It refers to a situation when the state is supposedly independent while in reality “its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.” Logically speaking political policies can only include linguistic ones. From here stems my claim that these linguistic issues are also, and mainly; postcolonial issues.
In Morocco, a country with a very special linguistic situation, the Arabization Process is believed to have come as a response to the dominance of French in Morocco after the independence. The claims of el-Istiqlal party can be summed up in the following letter, published in the newspaper Al Alam, addressed to the prime minister in 1973:
We would like to draw your attention to the fact that this foreign language [French] is still dominant in the administration, such as agriculture, taxation, education, postal and communication service, law enforcement, local councils, and commerce. Though a few citizens know this language, the overwhelming majority of the citizens do not know it. Therefore, their interests are ignored because of the administration's insistence on using a foreign language. Using a foreign language to deal with the interests of the Moroccan Muslim citizens is considered an infringement on Islam, the Qu'ran, and the national language decreed by the constitution.
(Translated by Elabbas Benmamoun. 2005: 101-102)
Yet, the situation even after the Arabization process changed so little that the same arguments can be, and in many ways still are, used nowadays. Also, and more importantly the same argument can be turned against its original users. The foreign language that this letter refers to can easily be said to be “Arabic”. Only a few citizens know this language, to use the same words used in the letter, also it is in many ways a foreign language, one that people only learn in school. It is definitely not the mother-tongue of anyone. Not the language through which Moroccan exist and use to interact in their daily life. In addition to that, many scholars and activists see the Arabization-Process not as the innocent act to counter colonialism but as a much ideological and biased concept. First of all, the idée recue that Arab nationalism dates to the colonial era is absolutely wrong. The ideas of Arab nationalism date back to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Al Jabiri (1985: 147) argues that according to the Arabic nationalist discourse “comprehensive Arabization is a necessary condition to confirm ‘our’ identity”. But the process of Arabization for them did not aim at getting rid of French only, but also and more importantly, of “the local berber”; Amazigh and the Arabic ‘dialects’, and the ban of using any language or ‘dialect’ in the school, the radio and television other than standard Arabic.
The choice of any official language, indeed, can only mean the marginalization of others. And what is worse than when the official language is not the mother-tongue of literally anyone in the country? Relating this to Gramsci’s notions of Common Sense, Linguistic Hegemony and the intertwined link between the two. One would come closer to understand how so many people, Moroccans above all, Amazigh, Arabs, Jewish,… have been, and still are, supporting the process of Arabization, while in fact they have been supporting the suppression of, or at the least the trial to-suppress, their own languages, cultures and above-all identities. Frantz Fanon once said, talking about his experience as someone who was looked at as fair-skinned in his hometown only to be referred to in such words as “look! A negro!” on his arrival to Lyon, in France. This experience of being “sealed into that crushing object hood” (1967: 109) according to him is not the worst part.