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Learning in Morocco: Language Politics and the Abandoned Educational Dream

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Learning in Morocco offers a rare look inside public education in the Middle East. While policymakers see a crisis in education based on demographics and financing, Moroccan high school students point to the effects of a highly politicized Arabization policy that has never been implemented coherently. In recent years, national policies to promote the use of Arabic have come into conflict with the demands of a neoliberal job market in which competence in French is still a prerequisite for advancement. Based on long-term research inside and outside classrooms, Charis Boutieri describes how students and teachers work within, or try to circumvent, the system, whose contradictory demands ultimately lead to disengagement and, on occasion, to students taking to the streets in protest.

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1. Schools in Crisis

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Schools in Crisis

As we walked toward a bookshop in Kenitra, a medium-sized city on the Atlantic coast, Lahiane, a high school student in his senior year, and I passed a gathering of several hundred unemployed demonstrators. This buzzing crowd made up of both sexes and a variety of ages, anger and boredom imprinted on their faces, had gathered outside the town’s city hall to organize yet another rally demanding more jobs that were both secure and more highly paid (see Figure 1.1). Lahiane, his somber gaze fixed on the crowd, smiled bitterly and asked me, “What do you say? Shall I join them?” He had not yet graduated high school.

The pessimism Lahiane voiced has informed the actions of large numbers of unemployed school and university graduates, known by the term diplomés chômeurs. Approximately 27 percent of all educated young Moroccans are unemployed, and more work on an irregular basis or have insecure jobs (African Development Bank 2013, 12). For the last two decades, many of these graduates have spent their days frequenting the offices of labor unions syndicates and demonstrating outside government buildings. Seeking access to white-collar jobs in the new service sector that has superseded Morocco’s mainly agricultural and small industrial economy, these lower-middle and middle class youth have seen their job prospects systematically dwindle. As a consequence, these youth move between advocating forcefully for a chance at social integration and economic prosperity based on the meritocratic evaluation of their educational skills and expressing deep cynicism about the material and ideological value of these skills. It is hardly surprising then that both students and graduates took to the streets during the tumultuous Arab Uprisings (2011–2012). They protested not only the current set-up of political institutions and their own economic marginalization but also that the failure of educational experiences to give them the possibility of pursuing a “decent life.” They staged sit-ins, confronted the security forces, and engaged in highly symbolic acts of self-immolation across the kingdom.1

 

2. Study Antigone to Become a Scientist!

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Study Antigone to Become a Scientist!

Le choix d’une filière d’études ne relève en rien du hasard

(The choice of an academic discipline has nothing to do with chance)

—Pierre Vermeren, École, elite, pouvoir au Maroc et en Tunisie au 20ème siècle

In September 2007 Zineb was a fifteen-year-old public school student who had graduated al-iʿdādī or collège (middle school) and was about to enter al-thānawī or lycée (high school). Invited to her home for early evening tea, I sat in on a conversation she had with her parents and four siblings about the academic discipline she would choose for the next three years. The first year of high school comprises al-jidhʿ al-mushtarak or le tronc commun (the common core), and the second and third years the maslak al-bakālūryā or le cycle baccalauréat (the Baccalaureate cycle). The second year culminates in a regional exam and the third year in a national examination, called al-imtiḥān al-jihawī or examen régional and al-imtiḥān al-waṭanī or examen national, respectively. These two exam grades, along with those earned on al-murāqaba al-mustamira or le contrôle continu (midterms) for the duration of the Baccalaureate cycle, contribute to the final average score that determines access to higher education.1 That final average is the Baccalaureate score, which goes by the abbreviation le Bac. The structural and terminological affinity between the Moroccan and the French educational systems is hard to miss. The affinity was especially conspicuous in the urban schools in which I conducted fieldwork; there, school participants used Arabic and French interchangeably to refer to school levels, evaluation tools, academic disciplines, and examinations.

 

3. Paradox and Passion in the Tower of Babel

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Paradox and Passion in the Tower of Babel

All cognitive experience and its classification is conveyable in any existing language. Whenever there is deficiency, terminology may be qualified and amplified by loan words or loan translations, neologisms or semantic shifts and, finally, by circumlocutions …. Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey. [emphasis in original]

—Roman Jakobson, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation

Please welcome the fifty-first student of your class!” exclaimed the [dar.] mudīr (school principal) of the Ibn Battuta high school as he introduced me to the SVT senior-year class. The SVT class belongs to the Experimental Sciences track and takes its name from the abbreviation of its key subjects, Biology and Geology: Sciences de la Vie et de la Terre or ʿUlūm al-Hayāt wa-l-Arḍ. His announcement, followed by a wink he cast in my direction, alluded both to the fact that the class would have to endure me for a few months and that it already had fifty registered students. This large class size is common for urban public schools, but is certainly not ideal for a senior-year class. His encouragement to students and teachers to see me as a student sought to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible. This aspiration remained entirely unfulfilled. Even after teachers overcame their initial reservations, I regularly became the addressee of their commentaries around topics as varied as Greek philosophy, mathematics, French literature, and English-language lessons. Students matched their teachers’ curiosity. My varying desk mates in the back row questioned me constantly about my work and life in Morocco and elsewhere, often while class was in session. After sharing a desk, spending time together during break, or taking the same bus home, I came to know some of these students very well.

 

4. Inheritance, Heritage, and the Disinherited: Sacred Arabic

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Inheritance, Heritage, and the Disinherited: Sacred Arabic

What does it mean to modernize a sacred language? What do such processes look like? How do they intersect with political interests and official policies? And what is a modern language in the first place?

—Niloofar Haeri, Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt

On the bus ride home from school that we frequently took together, junior-year student Malika often initiated provocative discussions about piety, the moral problems that undercut Moroccan society, and the relationship between what she called the “Muslim World” and the “West.” The child of two primary school teachers, Malika was articulate and authoritative beyond her years. From her flushed face and beaming smile, I could tell she took equal pleasure in quizzing me on other religions, mainly Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, and in instructing me on Islam. During one such ride, slightly dazed by the heat and the very crowded bus, we spoke about the various educational resources on Islam available to Muslims today. Malika insisted that she did not owe her knowledge of Islam exclusively to what she learned at school; she also learned about her religion from independent online study, exposure to radio and television experts, and her participation in regular discussions on moral issues in her neighborhood’s charitable association called Raḥma (God’s Mercy). Even though these sources of knowledge definitely did not all speak in one voice, she told me every single one had convinced her that “Islam was the most advanced and most perfect of all religions.” When I asked her to explain further, Malika pointed to how congruent the religion was with both tradition and modernity, with the past and the present: “I appreciate how the Qurʾan explained natural phenomena and scientific facts that societies discovered centuries later!” Because Malika was a humanities student and very committed in sharing her religious expertise, I asked her if she contemplated a degree in Islamic Studies at university. Her tone shifted from cheery to somber: “No way—where would I work? There are no jobs in this field! Then, I don’t really want to study and teach in fuṣḥā (Classical Arabic), I know it’s our official language and it’s the language of our religion, but I find it old and heavy.” Her reluctance to study and teach in fuṣḥā piqued my interest in the relationship between language and religion for high school students. A self-avowed pious young woman, Malika contrasted Islam as a religion that transcends time with Arabic as a language stuck in the past. Her view is all the more striking because it conflates the Arabic language of worship, Qurʾanic Arabic, with the Arabic of public education. What was the context that framed such a view, and how did it inform the negotiation of Muslim identity at school?

 

5. Once Upon a Time, There Was a Happy Old Berber Couple

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Once Upon a Time, There Was a Happy Old Berber Couple

There can be no flourishing of our culture or reform of our educational structure without a genuine modification of our political system. There can be no democratic launch without a radical change in the status of culture.

—Abdellatif Laabi in Kenza Sefriouri, La revue Souffles: espoirs de revolution culturelle au Maroc (1966–1973)

I made sure never to miss Mr. Idrissi’s senior-year Arab Literature class, admittedly the most enjoyable I ever attended—even counting my own high school years. An amateur actor, Mr. Idrissi was dramatic and enthusiastic, exerting every possible effort to motivate and excite his students. His energy was infectious to the point that both students and anthropologist hung on his every word. During one double session, Mr. Idrissi introduced the class to the topic of modern poetry and specifically to the structure of the modern poem. He asked one of the students to read aloud the introductory passage in the relevant textbook unit.1 Just as in the Islamic Education class, the teacher urged the student to read with a non-regional accent, for example, to pronounce thaqāfa (culture) instead of taqāfa. He phrased his remark in the following way: “Bi-l-lugha al-ʿarabiyya naqūl … thaqāfa!” (In the Arabic language we say … thaqâfa). With this statement, the teacher momentarily distanced dārija (Moroccan Arabic) from the language of the canon of arabophone poetry taught at school, fuṣḥā (Classical Arabic).

 

6. Desires in Languages

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Desires in Languages

Linguistic ethics […] consists in following the resurgence of an “I” coming back to rebuild an ephemeral structure in which the constituting struggle of language and society would be spelled out.

—Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art

In a badly lit, run-down, and unheated locker room, the girls in the senior-year Humanities track were getting ready for gym class. While changing into a tracksuit, adjusting her ḥijāb (veil), teasing her best friend about her dreadful volleyball skills, and singing the latest tune she heard on the radio, Khadija reported the newest developments of her online romance with Tarek. A student in the year below, Tarek spoke with Khadija online without being aware of her offline identity. I now understood why her girlfriends called her Camelia: it was her MSN (instant messaging service) pseudonym. Khadija assured me that after spending long hours chatting with Tarek she had learned French “par amour” (out of love).1 Her statement elicited great laughter among the group as Khadija cleverly played on the ambiguous meaning of the expression “par amour” as both love for the French language and love for Tarek. Her close friend Meryem teased her about the stratagems she used to engage in online chatting on her family’s only computer despite the explicit prohibition of its use and the vigilant monitoring of her two brothers and parents. There was really nothing surprising about this locker room scene of peer sociality and romantic awakening, but for the fact that it was the first time that these girls, with whom I had spent considerable time in and out of class, told me about their use of French for flirting. As they headed out for gym class, I asked Meryem if she also flirted online and, if so, whether she did it in French. She replied,

 

7. Out of Class, into the Street

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Out of Class, into the Street

On my way home yesterday, I decided to walk along the main avenue. It was dusk, I guess it was around 7 p.m. The avenue was full with demonstrators, you know, the unemployed ones. There were so many of them, even women! One of them was pregnant. Some of the demonstrators clashed with the police and others ran away to seek refuge in the side streets. I got really scared. I thought, what if a policeman mistakes me for one of them and arrests me or, even worse, hits me? I started walking faster but not too fast, trying to look like I minded my own business. Suddenly I stopped because a crowd blocked the sidewalk. Passers-by had gathered around an injured guy. He had been stricken on the head and there was blood all over his face, he just lay there semi-conscious…. I made my way through the crowd to get closer even though it was risky to stand on the street. As soon as I saw him, tears came to my eyes, the people next to me were shaking their heads, everyone was really upset…. And then we heard this man screaming just a few steps away. We all turned around. He was holding his two-year-old son by the hand cautioning him: “Do you see? This is why I’ll never take you to school! You’re better off selling fruit in the market; you’re better off riding a bicycle! As a matter of fact, I will get you a bicycle first thing tomorrow and you can start practicing!” The man was clearly shaken by the scene, and I swear to God he was being serious, but he made me want to laugh. I wanted to laugh and cry at once.

 

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