What’s going on in the fictional Moroccan classroom?
By Erin Twohig
Something troubling is happening to classroom scenes in Moroccan literature in French. The fictional classroom isn’t filled with stories of students learning lessons, taking exams, growing up and succeeding in the school and in life. The fictional classroom is filled with desperation, anarchy, and even revolt. Students throw rocks while teachers take off to watch football matches in Moha Souag’s short stories. A teacher causes himself physical harm in order to get a break from his classroom in My Seddik Rabbaj’s L’Ecole des sables. A single misunderstood word causes the paralysis of an entire school system in Fouad Laroui’s “L’affaire du cahier bounni” What’s going on in the fictional Moroccan classroom?
Educational angst inside literature mirrors, to some extent, angst about real-world classrooms. To read just a little about education in Morocco is to discover panic about a system in crisis: a survey of recent newspaper headlines turns up talk of frustration and resentment among students, exclusion of the most vulnerable members of society, fear over poor job prospects, and multiple “rescue plans” to save a struggling system. Discussions about education and literature both focus on loss and lack: the readers that the school doesn’t create, the disposable income and leisure time for reading that graduates do not possess, the audience that authors cannot find inside or outside the classroom, the absence of authors publishing locally when it is more lucrative to do so overseas.
However, to answer our initial question by simply saying “education literature is bleak because the prospects for education are too” would do a disservice to the fascinating debates happening around both literature and education. There’s much more going on in education literature than just hand-wringing despair about the failure of the classroom, and authors are far from giving up on tackling the problems they see. Rather than disengaging, Moroccan authors have produced creative, stylistically experimental, and even subversive novels that engage with education as a system that calls for critique, but also dynamic reform.
What follows is an overview of just some of the ways that Moroccan literature has responded to debates about education: and indeed not just responded, but actively participated and proposed solutions. My focus is primarily on Francophone literature, which has a unique relationship to the education system.
The “dark side” of the literary classroom
Perhaps the simplest answer to “what happens in literature when education is in crisis?” is that things become extremely, violently dark. Tragic, melodramatic narratives of death and suffering are increasingly present on the Moroccan educational-literary landscape in French. Two notable examples can be found in the aformentioned L’école des sables, where a desperate public-school teacher pours boiling oil on himself to escape his position in a remote rural school, and Mohamed Nedali’s Triste Jeunesse, where administrative corruption and a struggling job market lead to tragedy for two high school graduates.
It’s tempting to read these novels as documentary realism, and were that simply the case, they would still be of interest: Triste Jeunesse especially was praised for shedding literary light on the problem of diplômés chômeurs (unemployed graduates). But these novels also have something to tell us about the changing role of literature, and can get us asking bigger questions about what literature “does” with social issues. We’re used to thinking of literature as part of the education system, yet these darker narratives show that authors may no longer be looking to publish books that will be recycled back into the educational system. Instead, this educational literature is increasingly critical, striving to work outside the classroom, recording its problems in a way that is not dissimilar to testimonial writing. The idea of testimony has been critical to Moroccan literature (especially prison narratives), and this category of books suggests that we might add the classroom to the list of places that require witnessing. While many of these narratives stylistically restrict themselves to a bleak realism, they are nonetheless interesting for how they change the way we think about literature, moving its function away from reproduction of the educational canon, and towards an outsider’s witnessing.
Lessons in nonsense
Not all education literature is full of doom and gloom, however. In fact, one of the most interesting trends is towards the use of humor (though still definitely a dark humor) to describe education. Many of these novels describe schools where nonsense, instead of actual content, is taught. The teachers in these schools are often unconcerned with teaching, preferring to watch football, sing songs, or spout jargon than teach. One common referent of “nonsense” in Francophone school literature is the educational policy of Arabization, which made Arabic the official language of the classroom after Morocco’s independence from France. While Arabization was lauded as a necessary step in decolonization and affirmation of national identity, its uneven application and subsequent problems turned it into a frequent scapegoat for educational underperformance. Fouad Laroui responds to Arabization in his short story “L’affaire du cahier bounni” (“The affair of the bounni notebook”). He describes a school year that descends into chaos when nobody can figure out what color the government intends when it orders students to buy bounni– colored notebooks. With citizens unable to define what bounni looks like, control over the meaning of the word falls to corrupt politicians, who collude with businessmen to corner the market on bounni and rack up the prices of notebooks of their chosen color.
Laroui’s short story uses “nonsense” to suggest that when people are taught a language that isn’t their mother tongue they are deprived of power and control over their education. As amusing as Laroui’s and other francophone depictions of Arabization as “nonsense” are, however, there is perhaps even more for us to learn from what they omit or fail to consider than from what they critique. To begin with, the idea that teaching in Fusha is equivalent to teaching “nonsense” because Fusha is not a native spoken language proposes a fairly limited vision of how a language becomes meaningful to those who learn it. While Fusha might not be a language spoken from birth, it is nonetheless a language that carries multiple types of meaning, from religious, to nationalist, to literary, to historical and especially anti-colonial. Furthermore, while these novels rightly point out that language can always be manipulated by those in power, they often fail to consider how much French is manipulated by the powerful in Morocco, especially to economically marginalize students (Charis Boutieri’s work on the “two speeds” of Moroccan education that reserves French mastery, and the ensuing access to the job market, for the rich, is a critical read on this topic). Often, depictions of Arabization as “nonsense” fall short of engaging with just how complex the linguistic situation of Morocco is.
Nonsense in the school isn’t only about Arabization, however. Several examples of school nonsense don’t directly reference language policy, from Mohamed Nedali’s depictions of students who spend class filling in crossword puzzles, to Moha Souag’s short stories where math teachers write a stream of numbers on the board, place a division sign in the middle, and call it a day. By not directly referring to Arabization, these narratives suggest other ways to interpret the complex mix of factors that have contributed to the Moroccan education “crisis.” The school’s failure to “make sense” in literature could represent its failure to “make” a number of things: to make education accessible to all children regardless of social status or geographical location; to make social mobility a possibility; to make economic success a reality for diploma-holding graduates. Yet the nonsense at the center of the literary school also points readers to what should have been taking its place: the teaching of Moroccan literature to students. In the summer of 2015, I had the opportunity to talk to authors and publishers throughout Morocco about their perceptions of the school system, in the context of a larger book project about education and literature in French and Arabic. A common refrain kept returning throughout these encounters: those in the literary world feel that the school, which should be a place of encounter between authors and readers, is actually erecting barriers between them. Many schools lack libraries for students, and books are often prohibitively expensive. In French classes in particular, the “classics” of metropolitan French literature are often given preference over the works of local authors. Nonsense in the literary classroom, then, is perhaps a way for authors to self-reflexively debate their work’s place in the classroom, and their own place society.
It’s easy to become pessimistic about the challenges facing Moroccan education, and the struggles of authors to connect with young audiences. There is still cause for optimism as we read French-language narratives of education, however : all of these authors remain creatively engaged with the classroom, using their writing as a way to debate and imagine change. The creativity of these efforts suggest that literature is far from disengaging with the school and with its readership. On the whole, the dark, satiric, and nonsensical novels of the classroom are perhaps authors’ way of coming to terms with what literature means and where it belongs in society, when it is increasingly doesn’t seem to “belong” in the classroom. On that topic, we all have something to learn: panic over declining readership is certainly not unique to Morocco, nor are the ways in which literature itself will continue to evolve as it finds its shifting place in the world.
Erin Twohig (@erinktwohig) is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Georgetown University. Her current book project, Contested Classrooms: Literature and Education in North Africa, explores education as a theme in French and Arabic language novels from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. She also has scholarly articles forthcoming in Francosphères and Research in African Literatures.