Morocco’s “National Coalition for Arabic” is reportedly up in arms over a Ramadan sitcom it says “mocks the Arabic language”; a government minister says speaking formal Arabic causes her “a fever”; a recent report suggests teaching Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, in early primary:
Darija* (the language that’s doing the mocking) and Standard Arabic (the language being mocked) are just two of the players in a landscape that also includes French, English, and Tamazight. French and Standard Arabic seem to be associated more with older generations, with English and Darija, or “Moroccan colloquial,” for the young. The language war is also, it seems, a culture war, with the blog “The View from Fez,” quoting a “critic” who suggests “if we speak Standard Arabic we will end up like the Saudis!”
For poets and novelists, these are certainly not small decisions. Most prominent and award-winning Moroccan writers who work in an Arabic continue to write in the standard literary form. Globally celebrated Bensalem Himmich and Mohammed Bennis write in standard Arabic, as does International Prize for Arabic Fiction winner Mohammed Achaari. The prominent Moroccan authors who don’t write in standard Arabic generally write in French. Fewer write in English, Dutch, or Tamazight. And while there are novels and poetry collections in Darija, there are perhaps no authors who write solely in the langauge.
But as Alexander Elinson wrote in “Darija and Changing Writing Practices in Morocco,” the landscape is nonetheless shifting:
Beginning in the 1970s, but really taking off inthe early to mid-2000s, writing in darija has gained support as serving the practical, political, and artistic needs of a dynamic and multilingual society.
Elinson quotes the highly regarded Moroccan literary critic, academic, and novelist Abdelfatteh Kilito as saying that colloquial Egyptian alienates him from a novel, but, for Moroccan literature, “colloquial Arabic . . . as a bearer of [a certain] history and geography, would allow one to recognize a Moroccan work, in Arabic or French, ancient or modern!”
Yet for himself, Kilito wrote in 2013 (trans. Kristin Gee Hickman), reading in Darija is difficult:
I speak colloquial Arabic, I read classical Arabic. My education has, indeed, accustomed me to only reading texts written in French and classical Arabic. There are certainly poems, stories, proverbs in colloquial, but they remain, for me, fundamentally, connected to orality. When I happen to read them, I have a bizarre experience: because of my lack of habit, I start deciphering them as if they were written in a foreign language. As easy as it is to speak in colloquial, reading it is equally laborious and full of obstacles.
Education usually still trumps in determining an author’s language of choice.
There is also yet no standardized orthography for Darija, and critics of its use have pointed to regionalizations, and the multiplicity of words for carrot, for instance. But a growing number of authors have staged novels in the language, with more or less success, including Youssouf Amine Elalamy, Murad ‘Alami, Driss Mesnauoi, and ‘Aziz Regragi. Graphic novels, such as Fatima’s Memories by Safia Ouarezki and Mahmoud Benameur, also create new and fertile ground for Darija.
Many proponents of a literature in Darija, such as celebrated novelist Fouad Laroui, write most of their work in French or another European language. Yet it seems Darija is growing in strength, and unlike in other places where the lament is that “Arabic is dying,” here a new sort of literary production is being born.
Martin Rose’s “Bavures and shibboleths—language in Morocco”
*The decision to capitalize Darija is to recognize it as a language.