My language doesnt exist

Darja, the North African language that is officially unofficial.

Ghiles El Kadi and I are sitting in a café in Finsbury Park, London, home to a sizeable Algerian community, on a day where he has no lectures for his Economics Master’s at Westminster University. “Sometimes I come here to talk about football over a merguez sandwich.” Ghiles is a rare breed – a footballer with a higher education qualification. Once a player in Algeria, including a stint with El Harrach in Division 1 and selection for Algeria’s U21s, frustration at the corruption and violence surrounding the sport forced him to turn his back on professional football. “Unlike many of my teammates I had a degree in Finance, so I had an alternative career path”. In socialist-autocratic Algeria, one means of buying social peace is to offer universal higher education. And yet this get out of jail free card is a far bigger obstacle for Ghiles’ team mates. This is because higher education is offered in French, and at times in classical Arabic – two languages which are not mastered by the majority of the Algerian population. “I grew up speaking French and Darja, unlike many Algerians who only speak Darja”.

Darja, or Maghribi, or even Algerian, is for some a form of dialectal Arabic, for others a language in its own right. What is undeniable is its dominance of the linguistic sphere across the Maghreb – Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia – where the language is mutually intelligible, and spoken by nearly 80 million people. “We learn to read and write classical Arabic at school, but speak to our parents at home and friends on the streets in Darja, a language that variates [sic] enormously from classical Arabic, or Fus’ha”, says Samy Firad, an architecture student at Blida University. “So it is normal for the jump from lycée to university after the baccalaureat to be quite significant in terms of language, because you either study a course in academic French, like mine, or in academic Arabic, like Political Science”.

Such misalignment owes its explanation to history. Algeria recognises two official languages, Arabic, and more recently Tamazight. Given its entrenched colonial past, French is also widely spoken, and as though to continue its colonial legacy, today it serves as a de facto line of social demarcation due to its synonymity with higher education. The same could be said of Fus’ha. Many Algerians who do not often utilise Arabic would find it more difficult to maintain a conversation with someone from the Gulf as would an Egyptian or a Jordanian for example. Yet even the country’s political elite, for whom public correspondence in Arabic is obligatory, struggle with using it. Abdelmalek Sellal, the Prime Minister, fumbles his way through public addresses held in Arabic. There is also the example of Mounia Meslem, the Minister for National Solidarity, eventually resorting to French to suggest that married Algerian women should give their salaries to the state as their husbands can support them financially.

Indeed, the differences between Arabic and the vernacular Darja are striking. The vocabulary reflects the culturally rich and diverse history of Algeria. Alongside Arabic words which tend to be shortened (like wAssat in Arabic, ‘wast’ in Darja meaning ‘middle’), examples from other languages include Arouah (‘come’ in Tamazight) and ‘dossier’, French for ‘folder’, whose plural is then arabised into ‘dawasa’. Darja is grammatically different too. Rather than the prefix la and its corresponding negations in Fus’ha, Darja negation starts with ma and finishes with sh. For example, ‘you don’t answer me’ is ‘mat’répondilish’. Note the influence of the French – ‘tu ne me réponds pas’.

However, the arguments for Darja constituting a wholly separate language go deeper. Abdou Elimam, a Professor of Linguistics at ENSET – Oran posits that Maghribi (Darja) has its origins not in Arabic but in Punic, from the days of Carthage. In fact, Arabic was exogenous to North Africa, spreading from the Middle East as the Caliphate grew, leading to an Islamisation and Arabisation of the region. Whilst the religion may have succeeded, the language was met with stronger resistance, as the Berbers can attest through their fierce defence of Tamazight. Yet the mongrel nature of Darja has always been subordinate to ‘pure Arabic’. Theories of Punic beginnings notwithstanding, Darja’s claim to being a wholly separate language lies in its manifestation as a key ingredient in Algerians’ search for an identity.

Following independence in 1962 and his own ascendance to power in 1965, President Houari Boumediene, continued to emphasise the notion of unity amongst the Algerian people, evident in the regurgitated maxim l’arabe est ma langue, l’Algérie mon pays, et l’Islam ma religion (Arabic (Fus’ha) is my language, Algeria my country, and Islam my religion). This forced notion of homogeneity served to unite disparate groups under the single National Liberation Front (FLN) banner against French colonisation, and then the under the single Arabic banner for nationalism. But by 1988, chronic socioeconomic inequalities caused by a government that did not officially speak the same language as its citizens bred a deep sense of hogra (Darja for a severe injustice, disillusion, and resentment). In October 1988, the people rebelled. In December 1991, after the first of two rounds of newly established elections, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won in a landslide victory. In January 1992, before the second round, the Army moved to crush democracy.

The FIS may have seen itself as the rightful heir to the revolution and responsible for national liberation. Promising policies of socioeconomic retribution coated in egalitarian Islamism struck a chord with a population who felt they were being colonised for a second time. As Donald Trump has shown, simple, repetitive and easy-to-understand language can captivate millions. This demotic style was a tool of the FIS, particularly Ali Belhadj, one of the leaders of the party. If the brain finds language easier to comprehend, then it is taken to be more truthful: here was a party who managed to articulate hogra in Darja. They would also eschew the suits politicians favoured, instead donning everyday djallabas and would hold political rallies in football stadiums. The fact that they filled these stadiums was testament to their oratory pulling power.

A substantial part of the FIS’ attraction was their ability to deliver a message that resonated with a populace whose sparse channels of communication with their government were in a language few used daily. Darja allowed Algerians to understand Algerian problems and to argue for Algerian solutions. However, after being excluded from the political process, the FIS exploited their rapport with Algerians and voiced what many would interpret as being violent principles. To regain legitimacy, in January 1992 the Army asked Mohamed Boudiaf, a former leader of the FLN, to become President. Popular with Algerians because he strenuously fought corruption and addressed them in Darja (the first time for a President), he was assassinated only 5 months later. La décennie noire was to follow, a decade of political violence where atrocities committed by both terrorists and state authorities led to the loss of at least 200,000 lives.

Whenever a popular figure seemed to represent Algerians, they were removed. This indirectly fed the belief that Darja was an unwelcome, illegitimate and clandestine language that belonged in the streets, unfit for official purpose. Even the FIS spoke in Fus’ha when quoting from the Qur’an, the ‘official word of God’. Today, modern media has allowed Darja to break free from the shackles of censorship imposed on previous generations. Radio and satellite TV offer an array of private channels that broadcast in Darja. International superstars Cheb Mami & Khaled sing in Darja. Darja is written in texts and on Facebook with an alphabet that includes Latin characters and numbers like 3, 7 and 9 for the sounds Latin languages do not pronounce. There are Darja-French dictionaries, and it is even taught at a centre in Algiers. This multitude of platforms should go a long way towards normalising a language that had previously only spread orally, yet it may not be that simple.

« Que tu le veuilles ou non, la Darja n’existe pas » (“Whether you like it or not, Darja doesn’t exist”.) It was an odd statement from a cousin of mine when asked for his musings on speaking Fus’ha in the classroom with teachers but Darja in the playground with friends. It is reflective of the inferiority complex Algerians have regarding their most widely-spoken language and highlights the linguistic schizophrenia that many Algerians were conditioned to feel from over 50 years of unity politics. Indeed, Khaoula Taleb Ibrahimi, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Algiers 2 argues that “it is wrong to say to children starting at school that the language they speak is either correct or incorrect as our mother tongue is vital for transferring personality-building values. It is part of our conscience. This has psychological effects that create an identity vacuum sometimes filled by extremities of a linguistic, cultural or religious nature”. Think décennie noire.

French and Fus’ha dominate the political, economic and cultural spheres in Algeria. They are ‘prestigious’ languages that have been, and continue to be, forced upon citizens by the ruling classes. Darja has been tarred with vulgarity and pauperism and its cultural and historical significance continually undermined, perversely affecting the dignity of its speakers. It is time this psychological impasse is overcome, for French and Arabic will never dislodge Darja as the mother tongue of most Algerians. It is an affirmation of an Algerian identity that, despite borrowings from other tongues and cultures, has developed its own linguistic identity.

“I would say that Darja is my first language, the one I speak naturally and perform the best at orally,” Ghiles tells me. And yet according to any form he has had to fill out he only speaks Arabic, French and English fluently. “For me it defines what it means to be an Algerian.” I agree with him – “3andek lha9″ (“You’re right”).

This article was first published on Thraedable

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Aghiles Ourad

Aghiles Ourad, British Algerian, is the co-founder of Thraedable. He studied politics at Durham and has a Masters in international energy from Sciences Po's Paris School of International Affairs. He has experience in business development and marketing in the energy industry. He has a special interest in Africa, photography, and football.
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