Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Back in the Day...

Over the past few months I’ve been working on an essay to submit as part of a proposal for an edited book about the experience of doing research in Morocco. I’m using some ethnographic anecdotes from my work at the Clinic to illustrate how the complexity of Moroccan society’s multilingualism plays out in daily life, and what it all means for someone trying to do research in such a setting.

What follows below is an excerpt from my first draft. After taking a second look at the essay I’ve realized that this section doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the piece. The excerpt describes an episode from one of my very first months in Morocco, and more than a year and a half later, my experiences and circumstances have changed so vastly that this particular little story no longer seems quite relevant to the message I am trying to convey. Yet I cannot bear to simply throw it away. Because relevant or not, this anecdote has become a pleasant memory – and it is a reminder, in many ways, of how far I’ve come (and how much I’ve learned) over the past 20 months.

And so here it is, in blogpost-form

In the fall of 2008, I arrived in Rabat, Morocco, for a period of preliminary fieldwork for my dissertation research. Through a language school in the city’s old medina I arranged for three months of private instruction in Colloquial Moroccan Arabic (or Darija), and a ‘homestay’ with a Rabati family. I came to live in a large house not five winding medina streets away from my school, and became part of a household that consisted almost exclusively of women. At its center stood lalla Khadija,[1] a stout woman in her sixties who came from a time and place where birth dates were not yet recorded, and girls were not yet sent to school. Two of Khadija’s children still lived at home: two daughters, who were temperamental opposites of one another in many ways but shared the common fate of being an unmarried Moroccan woman in her late thirties. The household also included one of Khadija’s grandchildren; her oldest son’s oldest daughter. Together, these four women took care of the cooking and cleaning, and cared for Khadija’s husband, a man about 20 years her senior and no longer capable of much movement.

The lack of privacy in the house facilitated my quick integration into the life of this family. I slept in the living room with the two daughters, assisted with the cooking and baking, helped Asmae, Khadija’s eighteen-year-old granddaughter, with her English homework and wardrobe choices, and spent evenings in the common room, reviewing Arabic vocabulary as the women of my family tuned in to their favorite Turkish soap operas. The family had never showed much interest in my language-learning efforts – until, one evening, my homework material caught the attention of Manal, the oldest of Khadija’s two single daughters. It led to a curious conversation that significantly changed the family’s impression of me and of my purpose in coming to Morocco.

It was about 7 PM, and I was in the living room reviewing flash cards – my preferred method for drilling vocabulary. Manal had just returned home from her small caftan workshop around the corner, and entered the room to change from outdoor clothes back into her pajamas. She said a quick hello, asked me how my day was, and then announced she was going to make us some coffee – but just as she was about to head for the kitchen, her eye was caught by the deck of cards I kept flipping through. Suddenly curious, she turned back to me and asked what I was doing.

“This is how I learn new words,” I explained. “I write the Arabic word on one side, and on the other is the English translation.” I flipped the card over to illustrate.

“Can I see?” she queried, and approached. I handed her a few cards and she studied them intently, a knot slowly twisting across her eyebrows. I remember worrying, self-consciously, that she might not be able to decipher my juvenile Arabic handwriting. Then she shook her head and turned to me.

“This word here is spelled wrong,” she stated in a schoolteacher voice. She sat down beside me on the sdari[2] and reached for the pen that lay on the table in front of us.

“See? There should be a long alif here in between the lam and the qaf,”[3] she corrected. “Like this.” She took the pen and added the alif’s long vertical stroke to the word on the card. I was confused, having just been taught how to spell the word in question that very afternoon. But Manal moved on to card number two. Again, she detected a spelling mistake, and added another missing alif. I looked on, slightly bewildered.

This continued with a few more cards. With each added alif, Manal sighed more deeply, and my bewilderment grew larger. Finally she turned to me. Incredulously, she demanded, “This is what they’re teaching you??”

Then suddenly it dawned on me: she must have assumed I was learning Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, rather than the Moroccan dialect. “Oh, wait!” I cried out eagerly, relieved to have identified the source of confusion. “These words are not Fusha, they’re Darija,” I explained, hoping that this clarified the situation.

But she simply looked at me, silently. The knot in her eyebrows showed no signs of disappearing. Then finally she exclaimed, with a mix of surprise and disgust, “You’re learning Darija? Why? Darija is bad, it’s no good!”

A little taken aback, I asked her why. Why on earth would she react this way to the news that I was learning her native language? I had expected at least a little bit of enthusiasm.

“Because it just is. Fusha is just better, it’s the ‘true’ language,” she explained, accompanying her words with heavy arm gestures to convey to me some of the solidity and weight that Fusha seemed to carry in her mind’s eye.

“Darija isn’t spoken right,” she then elaborated, and added an example. “It shouldn’t be tlata; it should be thalatha.” And as the hard ‘t’s of her colloquial dialect made room for the lyrical ‘th’s of Standard Arabic, the scowl on her face smoothed over into an expression of deep satisfaction.

In fact, the differences between Fusha and the Moroccan dialect are many. Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic, is the contemporary version of Qur’anic Arabic. It is the lingua franca of the Arab world, but native language to none. As is true for all Arabophone countries, the language of daily communication in Morocco is a dialect – a form of Arabic weathered by the test of time, foreign influence, and the transformative process of linguistic evolution. Moroccans refer to their particular dialect as ‘Darija’, and its most noticeable departure from Fusha (aside from the addition of French and Berber loan words) is arguably its pronunciation. To the untrained (and even to the beginning student’s) ear, it often sounds as though speakers of Moroccan dialect have eliminated all vowels from their words – which would explain Manal’s diagnosis of a deplorable lack of alifs in my spelling.

Moroccans agree that no dialect is as far removed from the standard Fusha as their own – and that, in consequence, it is all but incomprehensible to other speakers of Arabic. Nevertheless, most Moroccans deny their dialect the status of ‘real’ language – a sentiment reflected by the late king Hassan II’s choice to designate Fusha, rather than Darija, the country’s official language.[4] As Manal’s comments illustrate, Moroccans consider their dialect to be somewhat of a bastard child. It is the language of mundane, daily activity. Of bargaining at the market, of chatting about the weather, of light banter with friends. Fusha, on the other hand, is reserved for discussion of loftier issues such as religion, literature, or politics – communicative settings perhaps rare enough to have withstood the effects of linguistic evolution. Darija has no literary tradition of its own, and has no official rules of grammar and orthography. Despite my attempts at spelling Moroccan vocabulary, Darija is, in fact, very much an oral language. And by extension of all this, learning Fusha is considered a highly respected endeavor (because it is the gateway for knowledge of the Qur’an, of literature, and of Islamic jurisprudence), while most Moroccans do not consider their dialect worthy of real study.

In consequence I was unable to explain to Manal my reasons for choosing to learn the dialect – at least not in a way that satisfied her strong feelings on the matter. She was not swayed by my purported wish to be able to “talk to Moroccan people.” Why not talk to them in Fusha, she offered in rebuttal. Moroccans would be able to understand, and as an added bonus I’d be able to talk to people outside of Morocco, as well.

Despite her disagreement with my choice, Manal did finally seem to accept the fact that I was learning Darija, and shared the news with the rest of the family later that evening, at dinner. Although the rest of the women were less outspoken about the issue than Manal had been, I still received no positive reinforcement – until Assia, Manal’s younger sister, declared, “well, this means that we can speak Arabic with you now.”

Though I had occasionally tried out my newly learned Moroccan vocabulary on the family, they had, until that moment, always spoken French to me. But Assia’s pronouncement occasioned an immediate departure from that: for the rest of the evening they resolutely addressed me in Darija, and tested my vocabulary by pointing to random items on the table and asking me for a definition. Every answer, right or wrong, led to great laughter and comments of encouragement.

That night, as I wrote in my field notes, I tried to make sense of this strange interaction. What did Assia mean, that now they could speak Arabic with me? Was Fusha not Arabic too? In fact, didn’t Manal’s reaction suggest that Fusha was much more ‘real’, as far as Arabic goes, than Darija? Why did they want to speak Darija, but not Fusha, with me?

As I came to discover in the months that followed, the answers to these questions have to do with the particular role that language plays in Moroccan culture, politics, and constructs of identity. I am not a linguistic anthropologist, and the purported topic of my future dissertation is quite unrelated to the issue of language. However, living in Morocco over the past eighteen months has taught me that language, in this society, is intimately connected to definitions of what constitutes authentic ‘culture’, to notions of status, and to decisions about who belongs, and who does not.

My host family’s reaction to the discovery that I was learning Darija reveals a love/hate relationship with their dialect. It is not considered ‘real’ or worthy of study, but nevertheless it is theirs, it is the language in which they are most comfortable, and it is intimately connected to their culture and traditions. Though Fusha is often placed on a pedestal as a kind of ‘pure’ and ‘ideal’ Arabic, it is a language that the average Moroccan only masters passively. It is taught in school, and it is heard on radio and television; most Moroccans will thus understand anything said to them in Standard Arabic. Speaking it, however, would be the equivalent of an American speaking Shakespearean English. Fusha, one might venture to argue (from a linguistic standpoint at least), is no more ‘their’ language than French would be.

Moroccan Arabic, in contrast, is entirely ‘theirs’. It may not be a real language, but speaking it signals a kind of cultural belonging, or insiderness in a way that Fusha cannot. I had noted this difference in value before, when I first came to Morocco in the spring of 2005. I was in Fès for a period of three months, and took an intensive course of beginning Darija, followed immediately by an intensive course of intermediate Fusha. Whereas topics of discussion in the colloquial class included Moroccan customs, traditions, and superstitions, the Fusha classes focused on pan-Arab politics, Middle-Eastern history, and Qur’anic theology. Feeling a growing disconnect from the Moroccan context during that last course, I remember regretting my decision to switch from dialect to standard Arabic.

In late 2008, the shift in language of communication likewise brought with it a shift in subject matter. Communication with my host family became at once much more extensive, and much more context-related. Whereas before they had answered my curious questions about Moroccan customs only superficially, the women now began to explain things to me with enthusiasm, and to include me in their activities – claiming that it would be a ‘learning experience’ for me. Before the shift, they had warned me that I wouldn’t be able to handle witnessing the sacrifice of a sheep during the upcoming ‘Eid leKbir. But now, now that we were speaking Darija, I was not only allowed to be present, but was in fact charged with documenting the whole day with my digital camera. It was, in short, as though a door had been opened, and I was finally allowed inside the private life of this family. The realization that I was learning Darija seemed to have utterly changed the family’s impression of me. Before, I had simply been another foreign student, here to learn a language and then go back home. Their preference for speaking French with me at that time suggests an a priori assumption of an insurmountable communicative and cultural divide; a fundamental difference, an inherent outsiderness on my part. The fact that I was studying Darija, however, seemed to have led them to discern in me a potential for immersion, learning, understanding, and perhaps even integration. Perhaps my interest in Darija confirmed for them the sincerity of my interest in Moroccan culture – and their ability to speak to me in dialect allowed them to talk to me about it in its own terms. Darija may be no Fusha, but it is the vehicle of Moroccan culture.[5]



[1] Lalla is the Moroccan word for “lady,” or “mrs.” It is commonly followed by a first name. All first and last names used in this paper are pseudonyms chosen by the author.

[2] A sdari (pl. sdader) is a Moroccan sofa: a thick and firm mattress-like seat that rests on a wooden base, and a back rest of loose cushions. Sdader typically line all four walls of a Moroccan sitting room.

[3] An alif is an ‘A’, a lam an ‘L’, and a qaf is a ‘K’ pronounced deep in the throat.

[4] History books argue that this choice was driven by a desire to align Morocco with pan-Arab political movements that were emerging at the time in the Middle East.

[5] This was again confirmed a few weeks later, at a friend’s wedding. I had commented to Manal on something, and had switched back into French because I was unsure of the right Arabic word. She turned to me and told me in no uncertain terms that we had to speak ‘Arabic’ right now, because we were at a wedding, and that was a ‘Moroccan’ event. French would thus be inappropriate.

7 comments:

Simon said...

Great post, enjoyed the story and the information about the dialects was interesting and new to me. I particularly like the shakespeare analogy.

Chris said...

Charlotte, great story. As a linguist, let me assure you that your experience is echoed throughout the world. Local dialects are often considered a bastard children as you say, by the very people who speak them natively. You'll find this attitude throughout China, India, yes even Europe. I knew a well educated Belgian who hated her local dialect because she thought it sounded ignorant. As you say, language is an intimate part of our identity and community.

The Lounsbury said...

The choice of formal Arabic for the national language had bloody little to do with Arab nationalism of the day, and rather more to do with 1400 years of history of Arabic as the governing language and the sacral language. Political scientists and ahistorical analyses aside.

Charlotte said...

Thanks for your comments!

Chris - it's really interesting that this pattern repeats itself across the world! What does that say about the role of language in human consciousness - and self-awareness?

Lounsbury - Of course there are many reasons for the choice of standard Arabic over the Moroccan Arabic dialect as official language - the religious role of classical Arabic being one of them. But Hassan II's wish to align himself with the pan-Arab movement emanating from Egypt at the time was also one of them :-)

Stiller said...

I was very moved by this post, especially by your last paragraph. What I find extraordinary in your blog is that the sharpness of your analysis never blunts the empathy you seem to show towards the women you work with. So much of identity is passed on through language. I think it is even accentuated in Arabic cultures by the fact that you need to know Arabic to have any credibility in discussing religion, which is, as you know, central to identity, and this even if you have been taught the precepts of Islam since childhood. So while some parents choose to teach their children French as a way to increase their chances of succeeding in the West, by the same token they remove a sense of belonging to a community, I would even say a certain form of legitimacy, and this can be very detrimental to constructing a strong identity. I speak as a North African having been raised mostly in the West, but having met other people who were actually spoken to in French (at home) while growing up in Morocco, my impression is that there must be a sense of alienation in following a French curriculum in a North African country, which must render connection with others difficult. Of course there's the factor of class that comes into play, but precisely, while parents are keen on establishing themselves as upper class through use of the French language, it can be that children feel prejudiced by this imposed divide between them and children of more modest upbringing.
I wonder if you might have read anything by Kateb Yacine, who is Algeria's most celebrated French-language writer, and who had a very tormented relationship with a language he mastered perfectly, but considered to be the language of the colonizer. He's a case in point that language is at the center of identity. 'Nedjma' would be his best known fiction novel.

John Cowan said...

Moroccan Arabic really isn't one of the more distant colloquials. As bulbul said on one of Lameen's postings:

"My scale (1-10, lowest to highest intelligibility): if Levantine Arabic is 10 and Moroccan Arabic is 8, Chadic is 6, Nigerian is 5. Cypriot [Maronite] Arabic is 2."

This may be like the Japanese belief that theirs is the most difficult language on earth, and that no gaijin can really learn it.

Anonymous said...

Sure, but usually people mean the Arabic dialects spoken in the Arab world. Who's ever been to Kormakiti or spoken to Arabic-speaking Nigerians? I could imagine Afghan or Uzbek Arabic, if they still exist, also might be pretty far down Bulbul's scale.