RABAT (Reuters) - Darija, the language Moroccans use in everyday life, is coming to the fore in media and music and prompting calls it be declared a national language as some in the North African country ask for the first time: “Who are we?”
Morocco’s official language is standard Arabic. But most people, from royal advisers to street cleaners, speak the mixture of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish words whose diversity reflects its history as an ancient crossroads linking Africa, Europe and the Arab world.
If you say, “yallah nshoufou f-el-kouzina ila kanet el-bota kheddama bash ntayybu shlada dyal khezzou” it means: “Let’s go to the kitchen to see if the cooker works so we can make carrot salad.”
Most words in that sentence are from Arabic but kouzina is from Spanish, bota comes from the French gas brand Butagaz and shlada is derived from the French or Spanish words for salad.
Few Moroccans have a kind word for their tongue. Some hold it in virtual contempt as a mongrel pidgin of the pure Arabic taught to young boys in Koranic schools across the country.
Darija has moved so far from Arabic since the Arab invasion of North Africa in the 7th century that visitors from the Middle East often need a translator to get by.
It sounds more guttural than standard Arabic, contains fewer vowel sounds and appears to be spoken twice as quickly.
In the heyday of pan-Arabism in the late 1970s, European words were seen as a colonial hangover that must be expunged.
The government banned schoolteachers from communicating in Darija in classrooms as part of a policy of “Marocanisation” — Arabisation under another name.
Critics of the policy say it cemented a division between an elite who could speak standard Arabic — the official written language — and those who could not.
It also entrenched illiteracy: with no written Darija, Moroccans must learn a new language in order to read.
Just under half of Moroccans are unable to read or write but experts say another 30 percent are semi-literate as they cannot decipher official language.
To many Moroccans the ideal of standard Arabic remains a noble one — only God’s language is worthy for true debate, international affairs and creative writing.
But to foreigners, the contrast that news bulletins are still read in Arabic while advertisers are increasingly choosing Darija to reach a mass audience smacks of snobbery.
“So you don’t care whether people know what’s going on in the world but you want them to buy things? give me a break!” said Elena Prentice, a U.S. painter and editor who set up the country’s first free newspaper, published in Darija.
Those who oppose lifting Darija to the status of a national language say its varied forms from one region to another make it impossible to pin down and formalize.
“We’d have to create one Darija for all the Moroccan people. Why go to all that trouble when we already have a language ready-made (standard Arabic)?” said Mohamed Yatim of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), the largest Islamist opposition group.
For Yatim, foreigners want to promote Darija because they are jealous of Arabs — with their single language that links them from the Gulf to the Atlantic — and want to divide them.
“They already created political and social problems for us and now they want to create the problem of language,” he said.
The debate over Darija began in earnest in 2003 when suicide bombings by impoverished youths from the Casablanca suburbs driven by Islamist extremists killed 45 people and shocked the normally peaceful country.
Parallels were drawn between Morocco’s image of tolerance and Darija’s shifting form and diverse origins, versus what many saw as prejudice and extremism imported from the Middle East.
“People asked ‘How did we manufacture these monsters?’ and began to question who they really were. And Darija was one of the answers in this new definition of what it meant to be Moroccan,” said Dominique Caubet, professor of Maghreb Arabic at Paris-based oriental studies institute INALCO.
Darija is now seeping into the media with a liberalization of the air waves and the creation of magazine Nichane, banned from newsstands for two months this year after publishing a list of popular jokes about Islam, sex and politics.
Many Darija expressions are the invention of rap musicians from the sprawling suburbs of Casablanca, whose rhymes are reaching more people thanks to new music stations whose sole priority is boosting audience numbers and advertising revenue.
“It was an obvious decision to broadcast in Darija,” said Imane Laraichi, communications manager at Hit Radio in Rabat, which launched last August. “You wouldn’t ask the presenters of TF1 in France why they broadcast in French.”
The first Moroccan literature entirely in Darija appeared recently, a book of short stories by Youssef Amine Elalamy and Internet chatrooms are buzzing with conversations in the tongue using the Latin alphabet.
Social workers are using it for health awareness campaigns and to educate deprived youngsters, breaking down a language barrier they say stops people from becoming active citizens able to understand world events and influence their own futures.
“There is a feeling that we must put in place a real bridge to exchange knowledge across the yawning gulfs in our society,” said sociologist Youssef Sadik.