Blaming the colonials for everything

Fatimah Ouaziz, holding her school textbook and grade certificateOver the weekend I saw a touching story about an elderly Moroccan lady who completed the first grade of her country’s school system after having been illiterate all her life and having spent three years, in her 80s, studying for it. She is a mother of six who has made two pilgrimages to Mecca in the nine years since the death of her husband, described as a “kind, caring and compassionate man” despite being twice divorced and marrying his wife in her early teens, thanks to his origins:

As a traditional Middle Atlas Berber, he had never absorbed Arabic cultural influences in matters of gender relations. He was more matriarchal than he was patriarchal.

Besides this racist aside about Arabs, this story blames the French for Fatimah Ouaziz’s illiteracy, which is not tenable.

The author, John A. Morrow, claims:

Born in the tiny town of Tazoughart in the Middle Atlas of Morocco, Fatimah Ouaziz suffered through the famine provoked by the secular French occupiers during the French “Protectorate.”

From an Amazigh family, she grew up speaking Tamazight. Like most Moroccans of the time, the lively little girl was deprived of even a basic education.

Since the traditional Islamic school system was dismantled by the French, and mosques could no longer operate as a medium of literacy teaching, Fatimah, like millions of others, became part of a lost generation that mastered neither French nor Classical Arabic. While Moroccans could speak Berber languages and Darija, the Moroccan Colloquial Arabic dialect, they could neither read nor write them.

The problem is that Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, when this lady was 22. France may have interfered in the country’s affairs since, but I don’t believe it was they who dictated that much of the country’s rural and poor population should remain illiterate for more than 50 years. That can only be blamed on the country’s three kings in the post-independence era: Mohammed V, Hassan II and the present incumbent, Mohammed VI, and their responsibility for this is nowhere mentioned in Morrow’s article. The present king is generally regarded as a reformer (despite his Arabic origin!), but has been on the throne since 2000 and I’m sure Fatimah Ouaziz is not the only adult in Morocco who has been illiterate all that time. Only a couple of years ago, a young girl was forced into marriage with a man who had raped her, resulting in her suicide; this sort of thing can still happen in Morocco despite the much-vaunted reforms in personal law and education.

The destruction of traditional Islamic learning did not end with the departure of the French; Hamza Yusuf mentioned in a lecture about the elimination of such places of learning that the last one fell (i.e. closed or was converted to a modern university) in Marrakesh in 1962, six years after independence. This is not to belittle Fatimah Ouaziz’s achievement, but it’s ridiculous to blame a long-departed colonial powers for the failures of three autocratic kings to ensure that their subjects are educated and the sight of westerners (Muslim or otherwise) hymning such rulers for such trivial achievements is just as ridiculous. On top of this, adult learners should not be sitting classes designed for five- or six-year-old children; they should receive tuition aimed at equipping them for the modern adult world now. When children start school late in England because of, say, having arrived as a refugee from a country where there is war, they do not go into reception if they are older than four or five; they take the same classes as those of the same age.

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  • George Carty

    How much do you think the Arab world is held back by the fusHa/dialect dichotomy?

  • Not as much as Islamophobes/snooty anti-Arab western writers think. The gap between Arabic dialect and written Arabic is not as great as between, say, French or Portuguese and Latin, and Arabs are exposed to both that and to other Arabic dialects in films, music and the media. You can’t blame it for widespread illiteracy, especially not cases like this. This was because of lack of education, which was well within the Moroccan government’s gift to remedy, but they chose not to (perhaps because they didn’t want an educated peasantry, as was the case with neighbouring Portugal under Salazar, who was still in power at that time). My point was that they had decades to remedy it and didn’t, and their apologists blame the French, who left 60 years ago.

  • George Carty

    Personally I’m surprised that no Arab country (especially those which were former French colonies) attempted to copy the French policy of attempting to eradicate non-standard dialects: what’s the Arabic for “Speak Fusha: Be Clean!”

  • M Risbrook

    They might get round to this after other former French colonies eradicate non-standard dialects of French. The people of Mauritius speak a corrupted dialect of French that is almost mutually unintelligible with standard French. It is totally confined to Mauritius and only exists as a spoken language and is not written down except for informal communication. The official language of Mauritius is English but most residents either don’t know it or pretend they don’t know it. I have first hand experience of this when I attended an event in Mauritius where other attendees were fluent in both English and French but nobody knew the local dialect. The local dialect doesn’t seem to be dying out. It might even outlive standard French. Could history be repeating itself where French becomes a new Latin. Dead as an everyday language but survives in literature whilst its corrupted descendants live on as everyday languages?

  • George Carty

    Don’t many universities in the Arab world teach some of their courses in English or French because no suitable Arabic textbooks are available for the relevant subject matter?

  • M Risbrook

    Don’t many universities in Europe teach some of their courses in English because no suitable textbooks are available in the language of the country for the relevant subject matter?

    Yes. Computer science is one such course.

    There is a real shortage of materials relating to computer science in languages other than English. Textbooks about programming C and Python exist in many languages but when it comes to academic journals and conference papers then you will be hard pressed to find anything that isn’t in English.

  • George Carty

    Academic journals and conference papers are mainly relevant for research and postgraduate study — I was thinking more of undergraduate degree courses.