Sharidan Russell is a Rabat-based researcher who studies language ideologies. After graduating with a BA in Arabic and Middle East Studies from Dartmouth College, she was named a Fulbright fellow to Morocco, where she conducted research on transition of Darija, the dialect of Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, into a written language. Keenly interested in the ways new writing practices evolve, Russell’s work draws on sociolinguistics and the field of linguistic anthropology as she seeks to understand changing social practices through the lens of literature.
Hodna Nuernberg (HN): Morocco, where you have been conducting your research, has a very rich linguistic landscape. Could you please describe how Morocco’s languages interact and describe the role of Darija specifically?
Sharidan Russell (SR): Morocco has both official languages and what I refer to as “de facto official languages”. After its independence in 1956, Morocco began the process of Arabization by re-introducing Arabic as the language of government and education. By Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA)—or Fusha—was meant. Today, MSA is the kingdom’s official language, but French, which is not in the constitution, functions as a de facto official language. There are very high standards for “fluency” in France and there are many ideologies around the continued use of French. In 2011, Tamazight—the name of a family of languages spoken by the Amazigh, or indigenous peoples of the Maghreb—became an official language in the constitution. Morocco is also home to a range of dialects, which are—or have been—largely unwritten. Darija is the most widely spoken of these dialects and it varies from region to region. Darija is also a de facto official language, in a sense, because it is so widely used for communication at a variety of levels, though it has no official status. Hassaniya, which is spoken in the south, is another dialect that is so different from Darija as to be mutually unintelligible. Hassaniya is recognized in the constitution—not as an official language, but as an important aspect of Morocco’s culture and diversity. Darija is the only of these that is not mentioned.
My research looks at the concept of language ideology against the backdrop of Morocco’s linguistic context. A language ideology refers to the thoughts and feelings we all carry about the languages we speak (or do not speak). For example, we sometimes see a stereotype in the U.S. about people who speak with a southern accent as being less educated. While stereotypes like this aren’t necessarily true, for research like mine it is important to understand where these ideologies come from and how they reflect other parts of the culture.
It would be difficult for even the most hardened of cynics to bemoan the state of literature after having read the news coming from around the globe this week. Our editors report on a stunning international festival of poetry in Transylvania, the determined literary representation of an “unofficial” language in Morocco, and an abundance of musical, literary, and theatrical events taking place under the open skies of Taipei.
Xiao Yue Shan, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the Z9Festival in Sibiu, Romania
The forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain, but the sun was still wispily gathered in the early evening, so rows were laid out in the courtyard and the fifth edition of Z9Festival, the young literature festival based in Sibiu, began.
Founded in 2015 and sponsored by the Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, the festival gathers poets from nine countries around the world to share their work with the Romanian public; the name can be read as either New Zone or Zone Nine, in an ode to both its focus on writers under forty and its international reach. So it is that in mid-July 2019, writers from the UK, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, China, Russia, and Romania descended upon the picturesque landscape of Sibiu to join one another in a night celebrating poetry, and its inherent ability to dissipate borders.
Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.
The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.
Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.
Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?
Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.
I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.
Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.
Diverse languages and artistic disciplines intersected at the Youmein Festival in Tangier where artists and writers from Morocco, Algeria, Spain, and France created pieces to reflect the interplay between tradition(s), taqalid, تقاليد, and imitation, taqlid, تقليد.. Asymptote’s Tunisia Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman and writer Alexander Jusdanis report from Tangier.
For the past three years, Youmein (“Two Days” in Arabic) has brought together diverse artists in the city of Tangier to create art installations based on a central theme over a 48-hour period.
The festival is run by Zakaria Alilech, a translator and cultural events coordinator at the American Language Center (ALC) Tangier, George Bajalia, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, and Tom Casserly, a production manager at Barbara Whitman Productions. They’re quick to emphasize their hands-off approach. “We’re not curators,” says Alilech. Instead, they see themselves as facilitators, providing artists the initial inspiration, space and support to realize their ideas. The trio stressed that Youmein is less about the final product and more about the process of making art.
They intend the festival to be an opportunity for the artists and audience to discover Tangier through the lens of each year’s theme. While strolling through the city’s streets, historically a meeting point for peoples from around the Mediterranean and beyond, it is not uncommon to hear any combination of Rifiya, Darija, Spanish, French, English, and Italian. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that language has played an essential role in selecting the theme of the Youmein festival from its inception.
We are back with your weekly dose of literary news from around the world. Our very own Jessie Stoolman takes you on a journey through the cultural landscape of Morocco and Qatar. Following, our editor-at-large on the ground Omar El Adl writes about the latest goings-on in Egypt, and last but not least, Reverie Powell brings you the latest from the buzzing literary scene in Texas.
Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large from Morocco, reports from Morocco and Qatar:
The 21st Annual Salon International de Tanger des Livres et des Arts just wrapped up on May 7 after four days of roundtables, workshops, concerts (including the iconic Moroccan rock band, Hoba Hoba Spirit), and appearances from world-renowned authors like Mohamed Kacimi (featured in our latest issue), Sapho, and Tahar Ben Jelloun (Prix Goncourt winner). In conjunction with the book fair, Darna Theater’s Dakirat al Mostakbal – Memoires d’Avenir presented “Nous Sommes”, a piece outlining the lives of two young Moroccans that asks “[s]ommes-nous condamnés à n’être que ce que l’on nous sommes d’être?” Darna Theater is a local non-profit situated outside Tangier’s old city that provides community members opportunities in drama education. “Nous Sommes” was presented in both French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic.)
Don’t fret if you weren’t able to attend the book fair because there is still a chance to see Abdellah Taïa at the Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier on May 9, where he will present a brand-new translation of his novel, Un pays pour mourir, into Arabic (بلد للموت). At the book fair, Taïa gave a conference about his writing and the difficulties facing society today which was structured as a conversation between him and young Tangerines. Taïa’s letter “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother” and an interview with the author appeared in Asymptote’s July 2012 issue.