Being a Guide and an Interpreter

In the souq in Rissani

I just said goodbye to my good friend Jon who came to visit me from New York. We spent a lovely 10 days traveling around Morocco and enjoying the charms of this country.

Taking him around Fes and Morocco resulted in some interesting and revealing interactions, many of which involved language.

Jon speaks a little French and no Arabic, so as his guide I was responsible for interpreting what went one around us. Interpreting require conscious, directed effort. Sometimes this came easily; I'd attentively explain the details of a conversation or subject. Other times, I'd completely disregard Jon's language deficiency and dive head first into a conversation, leaving him behind politely smiling and nodding his head, pretending to follow along.

Since Jon's departure, I've thought a lot about these phenomena. My intention was to be his interpreter, but that only happened in certain circumstances.



I am on vacation for the next 10 days, so see you when I get back!




Morocco's Languages and its 'Arab' Identity

A Carpet with Amazigh Designs taken by pietroizzo on Flickr
My most recent post about Morocco's identity as an Arab nation caused a bit of a stir, particularly, and not surprisingly, among Moroccans.

In the piece, I defended Moroccan Arabic in response to comments made by Dr. Reem Bassiouney in the Introduction to her book Arabic Sociolinguistics. She employed an anecdote of meeting a second-generation Moroccan woman in England to describe how she understands the fear that Arabs are losing touch with their nation, thereby insinuating that Moroccan's are somehow 'less Arab' than other Arabs.

I criticized Dr. Bassiouney for using such an example to support such a claim, and noted that her views conform with widely held beliefs about Morocco's 'inferiority' as an Arab nation. I argued that such views are tainted by nationalism and empirically unfounded.

I submitted the piece to MoroccoBoard, an English-language Moroccan news site whose readers seem to be mainly expats, and before it had earned some revealing and thought-provoking comments.

To clarify, my argument against Dr. Bassiouney was on the grounds of language. And though I didn't state this explicitly, I'm frustrated by the notion that Morocco is a bad place to learn Arabic. Thinking that Morocco is 'not very Arab' contributes to this view.

However, my description of the language situation in Morocco was overly simple and demands further explanation.

To state that Morocco is an 'Arab nation' is not accurate because it ignores two important realities. The first is that Amazigh peoples, previously and impolitely known as Berbers, make up roughly a third of the population. Many Amazigh grow up speaking one of several Berber dialects, and many, importantly, are not native Arabic speakers.

Historically, the Amazigh inhabited the countryside, whereas Arabs, who came to Morocco in the 8th century, established and inhabited cities. I would say that relations between Arabs and Amazigh have always been normal, both groups coexisting and intermingling in areas where they lived in proximity to each other. Geography kept the two groups separate, something that has changed with modernization and urbanization in the last century.

Linguistically speaking, Arabic always held an advantage because of Islam. The conversion of Amazigh to Islam introduced Arabic as a 'superior', 'divine' language. Though the Berber dialects remained spoken, they were not used as formal and, most importantly, written languages.

This comment from a reader named "Amazigh" illustrates the nature of Amazigh - Arab relations in Morocco:

Morocco and most north Africa have confused Islam with Arabic.
Being moslem does not make one "ARAB" and Morocco for political reasons has decided to join the Arab League following its independence from France, and Voila, it made a majority Amazigh population "arabic"
Moroccans are not Arab, the Kings after independence wanted to cement their legitimacy and decided to elevate Arabic and marginalize Amazigh.
The results today is that Morocco is full with 'arabized" amazighs.
Yes, darija is widespread in Morocco but for many, including myself, it is not our native language.
we were forced to learn it by various peer pressures, discrimination agains amazigh speakers, who are seen as backward country folks,...etc 
I can't speak to the popularity of opinions like these. Living in Fes, which is perhaps the most Arab city in Morocco, I haven't heard much talk like this. But I know that in the countryside, and particularly in Southern Morocco, Amazigh Nationalism is a living movement. For example, a good friend of mine taught English in Errachidia last year, in Southeast Morocco, near to the Algerian border. A colleague and friend of his was an Amazigh Nationalist and refused to speak Arabic. He viewed it as 'the language of the colonizer.' So instead, he spoke French.

Which brings us to the second reality: French is very much a second language in Morocco.

Though France colonized Morocco for only 44 years, it deeply impacted almost every aspect of Moroccan culture and society. When Morocco won its independence in 1956, it was clear that there would be no real return to Arab tradition. Though Arabic was made the country's official language, all eyes were looking North, to the former colonizer, as a model for modernization.

Like most other Arab countries, Morocco faced an impasse between continuing the development initiated by their foreign colonizers and returning to their Arab roots. The desire to modernize threatened its Arab identity. Though Arabic had itself been modernized in the 19th and early 20th century, it was inappropriate for conducting business on an international stage. No 'Arab' models for economic growth existed at the time. So by default, French, the colonial language, remained in use in administration, business, science, and all other 'modern' fields. And Arabic, though official, only really flourished in traditional fields like the Islamic Sciences.

This linguistic rift only continued to grow, and today, French is ubiquitous. To use Arabic in a business or administrative setting is more or less inappropriate (though necessary for some Moroccans and expats, like yours truly). To many, French represents the future, while Arabic the past. French is the promise of modernity, manifested in personal freedom and economic prosperity. Arabic is the pressure of tradition, which crushes individualism and offers few solutions for the problems of the contemporary world.

Two comments reflect this attitude best. A reader who calls himself 'bAHA' said:

Arabic is incontrovertibly less prestigious than French is in commercial and intellectual life. It is pragmatic not sentimental. Everything follows the economy's lead, including politics, education systems, culture, etc. The % of GDP that comes from the EU vs Arabs tells all you need to know.

He was followed by 'man en blanc' who said:

I wish the European Union would adopt us so we can finally prosper and shed the loser Arab moniker

Coincidentally, I had a conversation with a taxi driver on Tuesday on almost the identical subject. As we drove past the Medina he began talking about how terrible of a place it is, which is not an entirely uncommon opinion. However, his comments were more vehement than any I had heard before. He said he wished the Medina would be "destroyed" and "erased" completely and that something new would be built in its place. He told me that Morocco's "Arab heritage" was holding it back. "Progress is what we need," he said, "we need to look forward. Arabic, the Arabs - the Arabs are worthless."

I still believe that Morocco is undeniably Arab. Islamic and Arab civilization not only influenced but were centered and developed in Morocco for centuries. Some of Morocco's rulers were Arabs, others Amazigh. But all were Muslim and all supported high Arab culture. To look at the nation's history and write off centuries of Arab culture is terribly irresponsible.

At the same time, it's impossible to deny recognition to the Amazigh peoples and their language. This is why making Amazigh an official language was a good move, though sadly I think it happened for purely political reasons, and hollow ones at that.

Similarly, French cannot be ignored and probably will never go away.

So to call Morocco an 'Arab' nation is not accurate. But to deny its Arab identity is equally fallacious. As with most things, the reality of the situation is too complicated to boil down into a few words or sentences. 


Do Moroccans Speak Arabic?

After my Fulbright grant ended last July I traveled to America to visit family and friends for about two months before returning to Morocco to study Arabic. Of all the people I saw, I looked forward the most to reuniting with my undergraduate advisor, a professor in the Religious Studies department at Rice. For three years, he was my guru, especially in Arabic. He guided me through Classical Arabic, its broken plurals, irregular masdars, ma / min constructions, and instilled in me a great appreciation for the language in its most intricate forms.

We met one night in Houston for dinner, and he made me defend my choice to stay in Morocco to him. He did so with the best intention. He had encouraged me to go abroad and stay abroad, emphasizing the importance of 'real world' experience and language skills for any Arabic / Middle East scholar. So I was surprised when, after explaining to him my decision to stay in Morocco, that he told me, "Matt, if you want to get serious about Arabic, you need to leave Morocco and go somewhere else."


A Language in Crisis

Below is a translation of an opinion piece by Islamist thinker and Arab nationalist Fehmi Huwaidi (فهمي هويدي) from the March 30 edition of the Moroccan newspaper Al-Masae.

In his piece, Mr. Huwaidi address a familiar topic in the Arab world, which is the crisis or decline of Arabic's use, status and prestige in our modern age:

Our Besieged and Defeated Language

Last Thursday, March 15, around 650 scholars in Beirut, Lebanon issued a statement defending the Arabic Language. For the previous three days, the researchers and professors had participated in a conference organized to discuss the state of Arabic and the crisis it faces today. According to Lebanese papers, the conference, which issued the "Beirut Paper on the Arabic Language" at its conclusion, was called for by the International Council for the Arabic Language, a new organization supported by UNESCO.


Anatomy of a Translation: Morocco's Failing Universities

As I've done in the past, I wanted to spend some time discussing the challenges I faced in a recent translation.

My latest translation of Mohammad Al-Khemlichi's op-ed about Morocco's failing universities raised some problems typical of Arabic/English translation.

Word Repetition

Word repetition is a common stylistic feature of Arabic writing. Unlike English, it is not poor form for an Arab writer to repeat the same words in the sentence or paragraph.

This is exacerbated by Arabic's root system. We'll address this in more detail in the future, but for our purposes today it's important to know that in Arabic words are based on three or four letter roots.

These roots are modified by additional letters to create different forms and meanings, such as passive and active participles. As a result, different forms of the same root are often repeated. Though they perform different functions (i.e. one is an adjective the other a verb), they often carry nearly identical meaning.