Hard Lessons: North African Writers on Education

I have thought and written a fair amount about the way literature is (or isn’t) taught. But I haven’t paid much attention to how stories about education are told in literature.

I realized this blind spot when I came across the scholarship of Erin Twohig, an assistant professor in the department of French and Francophone studies at Georgetown University, in Washington, who specializes in North African literature. Twohig is specifically interested in how novels in Morocco and Algeria treat education and how literature is taught in those two countries. Her book on the topic, Contested Classrooms: Teaching and Writing a National Literature in Morocco and Algeria, is forthcoming from Liverpool University Press.

Once I stopped to think of it, I realized that education is a strong theme in North African and Arab literature—the books featuring schools, universities, students, professors, and educational experiences of one kind or another are legion. Yet as Twohig observed to me when I spoke to her recently, a lot of recent novels that address education are “very concerned with the idea of schools not producing readers of local literature.”

The relationship between education and literature is, in fact, existential. If schools are failing, as so many recent novels say, then writers also have to wonder: Who is going to read them?

Traditionally, some of the most common educational stories in North African literature have been autobiographical accounts of the experience of studying at the new schools set up by the colonial powers. These works often discuss the startling, world-altering discovery of the French language, and the divides—between home and school, writing and speaking—that it opens up.

In his book Je Parles Toutes les Langues, mais en Arabe (“I Speak All Languages, but in Arabic”), the Moroccan intellectual Abdelfattah Kilito writes:

“One morning, without asking my opinion, my father took me to the school. It was a voyage: we had to leave the house, leave the medina, go outside the ramparts and wander in a land I had never explored before, that of the new city. I saw horse-drawn carts for the first time, and a few rare automobiles. … Later on, the trip become familiar, from the medina to outside the ramparts, from the family’s space to the strangers’ space. It was also a voyage from an oral to a written register: French imposed itself to me as a language inseparable from writing. … I studied it to read and write it, not to speak it. Outside of school, it had no use: students didn’t use it with each other and at home it was proscribed. It was the language of separation: For the first time perhaps in Morocco’s history, children had received a language that was unknown to their parents.”

Similarly, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s The Bottom of the Jar recounts his childhood and upbringing in 1950s Fez. In his novel Le Fils du Pauvre, the Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun tells the story of a shepherd boy from the mountainous Kabylie region who becomes a star pupil and eventually a teacher. The Tunisian novelist Albert Memmi’s La Statue de Sel concludes with the narrator, a student, setting out to write his own life story instead of answering an exam question.

Abdellatif Laâbi (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

What is more surprising, Twohig told me, is that that in both Morocco and Algeria, post-independence accounts of education are still often accounts of linguistic colonization. This is because even when the school system was Arabized, the distance between formal Arabic and dialect (especially for speakers of Berber languages) remained vast and alienating. This sort of situation is described in books such as Les Coquelicots de L’Oriental, a story of growing up poor in Morocco’s eastern Berber province by Brick Oussaïd, as well as in a number of Algerian works.

Another classic educational trope is to recount an Arab student’s travel to and discovery of the West. These tales are also often ones of worlds colliding, and of an education that can be fulfilling and liberating but also alienating and destabilizing.

The protagonist of the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a brilliant boy who decides on his own to attend the government school established by the British. Pursuing his studies, he travels to Cairo and then London, where he becomes a university lecturer at the age of 24. Ultimately, his ambition and pursuit of Western knowledge and power (and women) dooms him.

Yet even when it comes at a steep price, very often education is experienced and presented as a form of redemption, emancipation. After all, it is what has allowed an author/narrator to tell his or her story at all.

At the end of the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri’s classic novel For Bread Alone—a book that is an account of being poor and utterly marginalized, including from education—the narrator becomes increasingly interested in literacy. In the last few pages, an acquaintance promises to get a schoolteacher friend to enroll the narrator in school. The narrator is skeptical, and yet part of the book’s power comes from the final implication we as readers make that the author/narrator did learn to read and write, hence creating the very work we hold in our hands.

Yet Twohig has found that while an older generation of writers (who are also often professors) tend to view education as a transformative experience, there is “a new generation of authors who depict education almost entirely satirically.” A prime example of this is Mohamed Nedali’s Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine, a biting account of being a young schoolteacher in Morocco. The protagonist must contend with the corruption of his superiors, who extract bribes and sexual favors in exchange for advancement, and with a system of examinations for future teachers that rewards them for parroting gibberish.

Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

In Nedali’s account, what the narrator learns is largely negative. As Twohig notes in an article in the journal French Forum, by the time he appears before a scholarly committee to demonstrate and explain his teaching methods, the narrator “has simply learned to plagiarize, invent, and reproduce the very nonsense he himself had previously mocked.”

This is a scathing view of education as reproducing ignorance, subservience and hypocrisy, and yet Nedali’s book also has a subversive edge and is often quite funny.

Other literary depictions of education are much more dire: At the end of another Moroccan novel, My Seddik Rabbaj’s L’École des Sables, a young teacher stranded in a remote village scalds himself with boiling oil to have an excuse to leave his post.

This view of the education system as hopelessly broken means that the traditional link between education and literature—some students learns to become writers, and their writing is studied in turn by others one day—is also broken.

While most graduates of North African universities worry about unemployment, “there’s another level of existential crisis for authors,” says Twohig. Would-be authors don’t see schools and universities as places where their books will be read or taught, or as institutions that will mold future readers.

She points to the novel Hot Maroc, by Yassin Adnan, which features opportunistic university professors who use their students to conduct their research, as well as politicized students who can’t see beyond the horizon of the campus. The protagonist is a student of Arabic literature. Instead of becoming a writer—as he might have in a narrative from a previous generation—he becomes a successful Internet troll, and is used by the powers that be to sway public opinion through opaque online campaigns.

As Twohig writes, a literature about the failure of education has to wonder if it does “anything more than posit the conditions of its own obsolescence.” On the other hand, “a literature aware of its own marginal status could use its position to critique institutions of power.”


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