درّج الله يخليك
The phrase above translates literally as "Colloquialize, God protect you!" The Moroccan listener understands, "Speak Moroccan (rather than Modern Standard) Arabic, please!" I have used it a few times in responding to questions from the audience at various talks I have given in Moroccan Arabic over the course of the last 20 years. The context has typically been a session in which I was introduced as an American professor interested in the Internet and/or some aspect of Moroccan culture and society, and in which I then proceeded to explain how I came to Morocco in 1970 without formal training in either French or Modern Standard Arabic (fusha, الفصحى ) and learned to communicate in darija (الدارجة ) the language spoken with family and friends by a large majority of Moroccans (the exceptions being native speakers of one of the three Moroccan Berber languages, now characterized by the more appropriate term "Amazigh"). This rich and varied offshoot of the Middle Eastern Arabic brought by Muslims who came to Morocco and Spain over the period from 711 to 1492 CE has centuries-old poetry, a rich musical tradition extending from the semi-classical 19th and 20th century malhun to the passionate lyrics of Nass el Ghiwane and Jil Jilala in the 1970s and to the explosion of contemporary Moroccan hip-hop since the mid-1990s. Darija is ubiquitous. One charms and is admonished by one's parents, one reestablishes connection with a long-unseen friend, one jokes about the complexities of modern political life, one recounts one's dreams and hopes in this language. It is almost the only Arabic one hears on a Moroccan street or in schoolroom halls between classes. However, one does not typically speak darija in the classroom, employ it in responding to an interviewer from the national radio-television stations, or risk using it among one's educated peers at a public forum.
Thirty years ago, when we were researching adolescence in Zawiya (Davis and Davis, 1989), the national news was broadcast twice every evening on the one available channel -- once in formal French and once in Modern Standard Arabic, neither of which most of the adults in our neighborhood could understand. As a result, parents would ask their schooled children, "Who's that? What's he doing?" The child would glance at the screen, listen for a few moments, and say, "That's the leader of Syria. He's gone to Jordan to meet with their King." I wondered then, and I wonder now, about the wisdom of a national media broadcast in a language only a few percent of the population really understand.
The adolescents of 1982 are now adults, and most of them have enough schooling so that they can follow the news headlines on the hundreds of channels available through satellite broadcast. It is still the case, however, that most residents of the countryside and the poorer neighborhoods of Morocco's cities are not understanding the details of complex news stories or the pronouncements of their government officials. One hears an announcement of a new policy or a reporter's summary of an international meeting in fusha, and then the broadcast breaks for an advertisement for soap powder or yogurt -- in darija. This contrast between formal and informal language, between complex and simple grammar, between prose that stretches understanding and slang that hovers at the edge of crudeness, is of course part of US and other media. By early adolescence US teenagers learn -- even if they choose not to employ -- semantic and syntactic rules to distinguish between the street and the classroom. Pronounce all syllables, finish sentences, use "like" sparingly, think in paragraphs. What seems different, and crucial, to me is that the 12 years of public school and the four of college/university offer a graded series of examples of spoken and written thought that move the student from an alphabet-illustrating poem to a Shakespeare sonnet, from Hemingway to Faulkner, from arithmetic to calculus, from social studies to real history. It took several generations for American prose to earn the grudging respect of scholars in England, but Mark Twain and Walt Whitman found their place in the canon. The argument I wish to make here, the dialogue into which I hope to enter with my Moroccan colleagues, concerns my conviction that darija offers many and convincing examples of speech that should be recorded, written, and shared with pride; and that a curriculum moving by graded steps from the epigrams of Sidi Abderrahman el Majdoub (17th century CE Moroccan oral poet) to the qasidas of malhun would prepare young Moroccans for the complexities of fusha and the subtleties of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish or the prose of Naguib Mahfouz better than the current front-loading in elementary school of modern standard Arabic's complex grammar and daunting vocabulary.
The most striking change in this question of colloquial versus classical Arabic has been with the emergence of a robust Moroccan film industry and an Internet-accessible popular music. Most Moroccan films are now made in darija, and they are viewed with delight and comprehension by most Moroccans. The Ministry of Education has begun a program of teaching elementary classes partly in Amazigh, and this has presumably been a boon to the children targeted. It raises in some minds the question of why it is not prudent to use colloquial Arabic in the lower grades and to move gradually into Modern Standard Arabic.
It is not for a foreign researcher to presume to resolve this problem, touching as it does an attachment to classical Arabic rooted in the great power and beauty of the Qur'an and the longing for solidarity among Arab peoples; but I have been increasingly outspoken about my own delight in Moroccan oral colloquial culture and in numerous recent experiments in the use of colloqual language for literacy and the introduction of literary works composed in darija and written in Arabic script. These include:
- Alef, Tanmia, Tarbiya, and Moustaqbali, all projects developed by US and Moroccan sponsors to promote literacy and enhanced school success in school by means of colloquial materials.
- Khbar Bledna, a Tangier-based publishing enterprise that for a number of years offered a free weekly magazine with articles about literature, sports, cooking, and other materials likely to be of interest to the population at large. Khbar Bledna also publishes books of basic literacy instruction in darija and the three Amazigh languages, as well as pamphlets on Moroccan family law, a collection of stories from the oral tradition, poetry, and "Tqarqib Nnab."
- A fine translation into darija of the French classic, "Le Petit Prince," by a Moroccan professor of linguistics and English literature (Youssi, 2009).
- "Tqarqib Nnab" (Elalamy, 2006), a marvelous set of vignettes of Moroccan life by a professor of Francophone literature who is the author of several novels in French.
All of this work has been met with surprise and appreciation by some and vehement condemnation by others. it seems to be the writing of such materials in Arabic script as much as the privileging of darija in an educational or literary setting the troubles the authorities. These enterprises have been met with accusations (a) that one cannot in principle write Moroccan Arabic because it is not a language, merely an "argot," and (b) that any attempt to do so is an attempt to undercut the success of Moroccan national education in Modern Standard Arabic -- if not a plot by foreign agents. I would welcome civil discussion of these questions in comments to this blog.
Arguably the most pervasive and persuasive evidence that there is a large and talented population producing a body of memorable work in darija is the Moroccan music scene. Get yourself to YouTube and enter search terms like "Moroccan hip-hop," "Nass el Ghiwane" and you will find yourself in a world of popular expression accessible to 30 million Moroccans and to millions of young people of Moroccan descent in Europe and North America. This work to provokes lively and disparate reactions, most of them by young Moroccans themselves, whether in a cyber café in Sidi Kacem or coffee shop in Utrecht. These discussions occur mostly in "aransiya," a mixture of French letters and numbers used to translate the sounds of Arabic and carried over from the widespread SMS culture developed for cell phone use. Only a few of these lyrics have been translated into other languages, and there are almost no good renderings into English. In previous entries to this blog I have reported on my enthusiasm for this material and presented several initial attempts at translation, and I hope to do more over the next few weeks of my residence in Morocco. This would be a fine collaborative project for Moroccan students and their foreign fans. Merhababikum (welcome)!
I do not want to trivialize the concerns of educated Moroccans about interference with the complex interplay of multiple colloquial and literary languages in the Moroccan educational system. I do, however, want to open a dialogue through this blog and my own speaking about these matters, in the hope that all those who love Moroccan culture at home in the Maghrib and in the Moroccan diaspora may participate. I shall do so in the two languages I actually speak, English (colloquial and literary) and darija.
Note: Morocco Board requested permission to re-publish this blog entry, and it appeared there as Arabic: Communicating in a Language not Everyone Understands. Morocco Board News Service. Thursday, July 01 2010. Comments are open.
Davis, S.S., & Davis, D.A. (1989). Adolescence in a Moroccan town: Making social sense. Rutgers University Press.
Elalamy, Youssouf Amine. (2006). Tqarqib Nnab (قارقيب ناب). Tangier: Khbar Bledna. (podcast interview with the author in English and darija)
Youssi, Abderrahim. (2009). الأمير الصغير (Al-âmîr As-saghîr). Rabat: Editions Aïni Bennaï