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A Battle Flares up in Morocco’s Language Wars

RABAT—A fierce debate has erupted in Morocco over an advertising mogul’s recommendation that children learn the Darija dialect of Arabic in their first years of schooling rather than classical Arabic.

“Moroccans do not master either French or classical Arabic,” said Noureddine Ayouch, a Moroccan businessman and the head the non-governmental organization Zakoura, which recently issued a report on the state of Moroccan education. “We speak in one language,” said the report, “and we write in a different one, which creates communication problems and efficiency in terms of education.”

Moroccans from all walks of life agree that there is an urgent and desperate need to reform education, which is marked by high dropout rates and fails to prepare graduates adequately for the job market. Half of all Moroccans are illiterate and the youth unemployment rate, currently at around thirty percent, is rising.

This report, however, revealed a deep divide over whether linguistic reform must be part of education reform. Currently, Moroccans (who are born into Darija- or Berber-speaking households) study in Arabic until they finish high school and then, if they move on to university, study in French or English.

Education experts say that Darija does not have a large enough vocabulary or linguistic nuance to be used in an academic setting.

“It is not possible to translate Shakespeare or Victor Hugo into Darija,” said Khalid Soulami, former director of the regional education authority of the city of Al Jadida – in central Morocco. “The problem of language is part of the problem but it’s not the essential one.”

Soulami said that, unlike in Egypt, where some materials are published in the Egyptian dialect, Morocco would greatly reduce its access to established educational resources if the country were to drop classical Arabic from its curricula. The solution, he says, lies in improving the teachers and giving them a strong will to educate the students. Another option could be simplifying classical Arabic to make it more accessible.

“People are arguing over this as if this were the debate that would solve our educational problems,” he said. “Education has been in a bad shape for the past 50 years and today we have people with college degrees who cannot write a text properly.”

Others agree.

“The problem is a lot deeper,” said Abdellah Tourabi, researcher and editor of the monthly magazine Zamane. “It is a war between the elites: a French-speaking elite that dominates and that has a problem with classical Arabic and an intellectual elite that is attached to Arabic.”

After the country won independence from France in 1956, the education system produced a generation of well-educated students who were educated both in French and Arabic. In the 1980s, the government, led at the time by the conservative Istiqlal Party and hoping to foster a sense of Arab identity, changed the language taught in elementary and high schools to Arabic even as university programs continued to be taught in French. This created huge university dropout rates because the students were ill equipped to handle the switch to French.

According to Tourabi, switching to Darija would isolate Morocco from the rest of the Arab world.

“Arabic is the language of the Quran – it would mark a break with the past, with culture, religion, science and poetry,” he said. “Should we throw it all out and start from zero and sacrifice an entire generation? The cost may be too high.”

The Moroccan novelist, Sonia Terrab, said that writing in one language while thinking in a different one would be problematic for her, which is the reason why she writes in French.

“The most important thing is to find the language in which we express ourselves best,” she said. “The argument to say that writing in classical Arabic is better to standardize Morocco with other Arab countries and have a chance to get noticed [as a writer] is wrong. Look at someone like Mohamed Choukri [best known for his autobiography For Bread Alone] who wrote in Darija and has gotten recognition simply because he was good.”

After a nationally televised debate on the television show, Moubacharatan, between Ayouch and Abdellah Laroui, a greatly respected Moroccan intellectual and defender of the Arabic language, a sarcastic tweet from the user @Aissman summed up the cultural pride at stake:

“I would have liked to be there at the end of Moubacharatan,” @Aissman wrote, “where everyone continued the debate in their mother tongue: French.”

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