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How language makes and unmakes our world: French language policies in Algeria, storytelling, and post-colonial recovery – Part 2

As part of  our #MDAcademics space, in a two part essay, Barâa Arar discusses the impact of French Language policies in Algeria, how it impacts not only language but a whole culture, and how to overcome.

Read Part one here

The Algerian novelist Ahlam Mosteghanemi chose to write in Arabic instead of French, as part of her resistance to her country’s colonized past, “Only language and emotions are capable of restoring and rebuilding a new Algeria”, she asserted. Inspired by her aspirational statement, the second half of my essay explores how language is both a vehicle for violence and a space for healing in a postcolonial context.

The forcible adoption of a linguistic identity in which you have no history or contextual reference points is a form of slow violence. Literary theorist Homi Bhabha argues that being subject to these impositions of languages results in the denial of a positive, public self-representation; it robs natives of points of reference. As such, a permanent tension is created: the imposed colonial language simultaneously is an act of aggression and a demand for the colonized to emulate. It is an act of erasure, if not torture. The destruction of language-life relationships unmakes the contents of one’s world. As your world disintegrates, the self too can fragment or dissolve as the building blocks of subjectivity are systemically destroyed and eliminated. All that would or could have been expressed is driven to the margins or eradicated. For Bhabha, the emotive and material relations that words offer are erased and connections to the world are unanchored. The theft of linguistic, and by extension emotive, vocabularies creates the inferoritized.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Elaine Scarry argues in her book, The Body in Pain, that language and torture an inextricably linked. Scarry writes, “Intense pain is language-destroying: as the content of one’s world disintegrates, so the content of one’s language disintegrates; as the self disintegrates, so that which would express and project the self is robbed of its sources and its subject.” In colonial Algeria, assimilation policies quite literally destroyed language and thus, destroyed a sense of world and self. Franz Fanon’s evokes this sharp dichotomy in his book Black Skin, White Masks in the injunction “whiten or perish” to describe the racist colonial dynamic. I argue that imposition of the French language forced Algerians, to some degree, to whiten and to perish.

Scarry has also explored the possibility for healing that language offers. Language, understood as an extension of oneself, she argues, is a vehicle by which pain is lifted out of the world. Language is the way people communicate their pain. In conditions where torture and oppression are not pervasive, language has the potential to recognise grievances so that healing becomes possible. Therefore, the destruction of language destroys the possibility for healing. The torturer’s violence becomes two fold— the violent act and the denial of healing.

Here I would like to make a distinction between formal capacities of grieving and informal spaces. To argue that there is absolutely no resistance to or healing from these policies is reductive and false. As I go on to discuss, Arabic language and cultural practices became sanctuaries of creative resistance during the occupation and the War.

Another important effect of French language assimilation policies is their destruction of a sense of belonging and possibilities for shared storytelling. Storytelling can sustain agency since the narrator is able to control the narrative design. Storytelling can create a sense of home because it links and endows a series of events with meaning. I use the term home figuratively here, as a way of feeling at home in the world. Home is a balancing between who you believe yourself to be and who the world believes you to be. Being at home in the world is a freedom that allows you some choice of when to be anonymous and when to be autonomous.

Therefore, the removal or binding of native tongues imposes passivity and risks objectifying those without a linguistic voice in the public sphere. The removal of the native tongue eliminates organic possibilities of storytelling and favours a foreign vocabulary. These colonial policies relegated storytelling, creative resistance, and healing, to private and often invisible spaces.

Through the forced adoption of French, Algerians were always being acted on by sources outside themselves. Their language became alien, if not antithetical, to their ancestral lineage and cultural practices. As such, they were never able to fully create a public space that was their own, they could never fully occupy a space as their own: they could not create their own home. Although French assimilation caused cultural erasure, it is important to highlight the inventiveness of resistant practices, or what Homi Bhabha calls “sly civility.”

Like many other formerly colonized countries, post-Independence Algeria aimed to institute social and political practices to accelerate a process of nation building. Much like the French understood the centrality of Arabic language and Islamic studies to Algerian tradition, and aimed to dissolve its use; the new independent Algerian state launched policies for extensive re-Arabization and re-Islamization of the nation.

In a colonial context, mythic grand narratives create and sustain dehumanizing divisions between the powerful and the powerless. Conversely, community-based storytelling holds the potency to enable the powerless to recover a sense of their own agency. The powerful do not have absolute monopoly on its use. Storytelling, in that way, can be a democratising tool.

We see a prime example of the return of agency, of consciousness, and being, in the re-Arabization of Algeria’s literary scene. Some Algerian writers choose to write in Arabic although they are fluent in French as an act of resistance and “re-memorying.” The use of the Arabic language to tell stories can transform Algerians from objects to subjects, returning a sense of power and agency.

An example of this regaining of agency can be found in a traditional Algerian linguistic form of resistance adopted by Algerian women during French colonialism and post independence. Buqala is a form of Arabic Algerian poetry, which takes place in women-only rituals. It is an idealised women’s space divorced from the everyday realities of colonial life and patriarchy. French ethnographers tried to gain access to these women’s folklore but the spaces were unlocatable because of their ad hoc nature. In essence, they are private endeavours, and as such, suited for the women who were banished from public education and civic spaces as a result of French language polices. The informal ritual of Buqala poetry symbolizes a vestige of pre-contact Arabic Algerian tradition and more broadly, an anti colonial way of being. In an anti-colonial setting, such a return to folklore becomes important, revolutionary. The significant position Buqala held after independence is an enterprise in memory making: a space for storytelling within circles of kinsmen and friends. It is a reconstructive social act.

Arabic poems, novels, and newspapers aimed at reintroducing the Algerian Arabic dialect lost under French assimilation policies. These cultural productions try to reinstate the emotive power of the mother tongue, mediating private emotions and allowing traumatized Algerian nationals to unburden themselves of the isolation of their experience in a concrete way. Such compositions, the act of recounting, can bind individuals and communities. And in doing so, the reward of the storytelling as Hannah Arendt promises, is to let go.

As Algeria undertook the process of nation building, all classes and groups of people used colloquial and traditional narrative forms in hope of finding consolation. The accessibility and human-centric oral expression, possessed equal “social clout and emotional power as a newspaper or historical account,” writes Susan Slyomovics. The act of speaking and listening, leads to the possibility of healing, and in this way, we see once more the power of spoken words. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the therapeutic use of Buqala in his book The Algerians, “usually anonymous and inspired by precise events” he wrote,  “they sing of the atrocity of war, the heroism of the combatants and of hope for peace. Simple and naive, these poems in Berber or Arab language, sung in accordance with the modes of the traditional music, are both chronicle and chanson de geste.” (Italics in the original)

Linguistic assimilation policies were not unique to the French colonial regimes. Epistemicide is rampant in colonial regimes including that of Canadian settler colonialism. The systemic removal of cultural practices and languages began in the colonial period and the repercussions are felt today. As part of the erasure of First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities across Turtle Island, Canadian colonial policies outlawed the use of native tongues. There are approximately 58 Indigenous languages with over 90 dialects, among these are Dene, lnnu, lnuktitut, Ojibway and Oji-Cree, none of which are taught in public schools. This interactive map proves a useful educational tool for learning about Indigenous lands and languages. Today, many are on the “brink of extinction.”

In June 2018, the Government of Canada pledged financial support to non-profit organisations working on the revitalization and reproduction of indigenous languages. Yet ironically, that same month an Indigenous Member of Parliament, Rameo Saganash, argued his statements made in the Cree language Nehiyo could not be translated into English by the Houses’ translation services. (Since this paper was written, an interpretation service was announced to launch in January 2019.) How can we accept this to be a legitimate commitment to the recognition of Indigenous languages and dialects?  Why are English and French schools publically funded and yet Indigenous languages are sidelined?

In similar ways to the Algerian colonial context, investment in the revitalization of languages must not be a political tactic to garner votes. Language is more than a means for communication. It is a mode of passing on knowledge and experience across generations. Shared language encourages the dialogic transmission and honouring of knowledge. That is why the Canadian constitution protects English and French as minority languages in certain regions. If Canada truly wants to implement the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it must acknowledge its two official, constitutionally protected languages, are those of colonizers – French and English.

Cultural productions in Indigenous languages, whether in Canada or Algeria, are reclamations of selfhood, and more broadly, of nationhood. These cultural productions can establish a renewed socio-political community, with reinvigorated trans generational connections, that are punctuated with decolonial aspirations.

Assimilative language policies constrained and removed the technical and social possibilities of telling stories, to heal, and ultimately, to form personal and collective identities. A genuine investment in learning Indigenous languages prompts the reconstruction of stories lost over countless generations and can reinstitute agency. Poems, artworks, and novels can begin a process of reconciliation, identity building, and hope.

Barâa Arar is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s College of Humanities with a research focus in art history, politics, and colonial resistance. She is a community organiser, writer, and the co-host of The Watering Hole podcast. She tweets at @livewellspoken