In “Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa,” historian Ousmane Omar Kane opens with a mesmerizing account of his childhood in Dakar, Senegal. In telling this story, Kane’s aim is to counter simplistic accounts of Islam in West Africa that focus solely on the spread of jihadism or the predominance of slavery and anti-Black racism. By contrast, yet without diminishing these realities, Kane sketches a cosmopolitan world of multidirectional migration across the Sahara characterized by hospitality and learned discourse, by cultural hybridity and interethnic marriage, and by reciprocal (if often asymmetrical) exchange. For Kane, the Arabic language — which he champions in Africa over the continued use of European colonial languages — has provided a versatile, powerful medium of expression and scholarship that fuses creatively with local African practices and connects the continent with the wider world. For more than a millennium, Arabic in Africa facilitated intellectual innovation in fields from mathematics and numerology and astronomy to poetry, theology and jurisprudence. Canvassing this wide Trans-Saharan world, historian John Hunwick calls Arabic “the Latin of Africa.”
My desire to study the Arabic language — relatively late in life, beginning in my mid-30s — was inspired in part by my encounter, over the years, with snippets of such histories as conjured by Kane and other writers. How could I access this esoteric knowledge and historical experience, some of which enslaved Africans carried with them into the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade? As a scholar of the African Diaspora, but trained in English and Anglophone literature, I found this intellectual history imaginatively, even viscerally important, but somewhat obscure — present and growing in the academic literature, true, but absent from the more modest enterprise of formal language study.
And for me, language study was the place to begin. Like most beginning learners, I plunged into standardized al-fuṣḥā, or fus-ha, the modern version of classical Arabic taught in institutional contexts and used in media, education and formal situations. It is common knowledge that fus-ha is not spoken in any home or on any street, anywhere, and for that reason its utility is often questioned. As Hossam Abouzahr argues recently, the postcolonial effort by Arabophone countries to valorize and institutionalize fus-ha at the expense of spoken forms is riddled with contradictions: not only does this mode of pedagogy inhibit access to higher education and labor markets, but it also alienates speakers from their living language and linguistic inheritance.
That said, the capacity of fus-ha to unite an exceedingly heterogeneous array of speakers, to say nothing of its economy and elegance, cannot be denied. But, to the extent that Arabic pedagogy in fus-ha incorporates spoken varieties at all, these digressions typically include only Egyptian and Lebanese; occasionally Iraqi or Syrian penetrates the curriculum. Even in the context of instruction in fus-ha, there is at least some opportunity to engage with spoken Arabic from Egypt or the Levant. With the exception of Egyptian, however, the same is not true of African vernaculars, which are also excluded in advanced courses in spoken Arabic.
Quick, which country does not belong to the Arab League: Djibouti, Comoros, or Somalia? Trick question, because each is a member state, though it’s easy to forget in this pedagogical context. My point is not that African vernaculars merit instruction on par with others — though some representation is essential — but rather that the continent remains inert, a blank space in the geography of Arabic curricula.
Like the disparate histories of African-descended peoples in the region, these languages are hidden from view in Arabic language curricula: a disconcerting fact if for no other reason than that the majority of the nearly half a billion speakers of Arabic today inhabit the African continent and its diasporas. Textbooks, recordings, news broadcasts, language apps, multimedia materials — all the conventional instruments in a language learner’s toolkit — may well incorporate any dialect except those of African provenance, especially south of the Sahara.
Some observers lament the marginalization of Maghrebi or North African vernaculars in today’s curricula, but these remain at least peripheral in comparison, say, to the pedagogically invisible Hassaniya or Saharan Arabic spoken by 3 million people mostly in Mauritania and Morocco but also along the Sahel from Senegal to Mali and Algeria and beyond.
Likewise, Sudanese Arabic is seldom heard or invoked unless it is spoken by a student, whose voice is often the only classroom point of entry. I suspect the same is generally true of Libyan and Chadian Arabic or Algerian Darija.
Or consider Omani Arabic, a vernacular inflected with Swahili that before the 1970s was a major tongue of Zanzibar, an island once the imperial headquarters of Oman and now an extension of mainland Tanzania. This dynamic is similar in West Africa. Arabic pedagogy gives no hint that in Nigeria, for instance, a significant body of literature written in Arabic and composed in a distinctive tradition of Bornu calligraphy has flourished for 800 years.
On social media, these African languages are seldom regarded as Arabic; the Arabic classroom corroborates this impression.
By no means is Arabic unique in its center-periphery approach to language instruction, particularly where Africa occupies the margins. Similar disproportions shape curricula in European and other languages. Yet there’s an important difference, attributable in some measure to Arabic’s diglossia (the use of two varieties of the same language within a community). Aspiring students of Arabic who want to be both literate and conversant in the language will, unlike learners of French or Spanish, have to learn at least two languages: Standard Arabic and a national or regional vernacular. If they choose only a spoken language, they will be unable to read a novel or understand the news. If they choose only Standard Arabic, they will be unable to have anything more than a stilted conversation. Students who want to have a more intimate conversation than communication in Standard Arabic allows will therefore need to study a spoken version. That means they must choose a vernacular — and this decision-making process is itself an intriguing aspect of Arabic learning — and the state of the curriculum (in addition to perhaps more decisive economic, personal and geopolitical factors) invariably shapes what students perceive as viable and attractive paths of Arabic study.
Defenders of the status quo in Arabic curricula can point to the historic cultural capital of Cairo, Beirut, and Baghdad — and increasingly Doha and Riyadh — as a self-evident justification for their prominence in the classroom setting. But a pedagogy of prestige, even one bolstered by an instrumental rationale such as workplace preparedness, is out of step with today’s ethos and only perpetuates the invisibility of African Arabic.
Students in search of a glimpse into the urbane African world depicted by Kane and lived by millions of speakers worldwide will have to look elsewhere.
So, I am looking elsewhere, approaching this subject with trepidation and great humility — not as a scholar of the language but as a humble talib, or student.
I underscore my humility, which the majestic Arabic language has deepened within me. Years ago, after enrolling in an Arabic intensive summer course at Berkeley, I nearly quit after failing the mid-term. Encouraged by my wife, Tatyana — who texted me a picture of our then-infant son holding a sign: DON’T GIVE UP DADA! — I stayed and squeaked out a passing grade. But that wouldn’t be my last hurdle.
After the summer course, I continued my studies in Morocco.
Moroccans will tell you that whereas no one in the Arab world understands Maghrebi Arabic, Moroccans understand all the Arabic vernaculars, a claim that is largely accurate. That must have to do with the enormously complex linguistic situation in the Maghreb. When asked about intellectual life at the University of Rabat in the 1960s, writer Abdelfattah Kilito recalls how “everyone wanted to be on the cutting edge of the modern. If you didn’t know linguistics, everybody agreed, there was no help for you.” Today one might add, if you don’t speak multiple languages, there is no hope for you, either.
But the problem runs deeper. As the writer and visual artist Youssouf Elalamy explained in an interview published in 2019 in the Bulletin of Francophone Postcolonial Studies: “You cannot think, cannot even imagine that a people has got a native language that is not used in writing, and not used in literature. It is a kind of schizophrenia. And no wonder so many Moroccans are schizophrenic. It comes from language.” And this linguistic malady, as we will see, is but one legacy of French colonialism in North Africa.
Morocco’s national language is Standard Arabic, which, as in other Arabic-speaking countries, many understand but no one speaks. In everyday conversation, Moroccans speak Darija. Hassaniya is spoken in southern Morocco and the Western Sahara (though my friend in Rabat, a young linguist named Zack Wadghiri, told me that he rejects the term “Hassaniya.” “Why name a language after a single person? Nobody speaks of Moliérien French.” Instead, he refers to Saharan Arabic, privileging the region where the language evolved).
Urban Moroccans speak French and residents in the northern coastal cities understand Spanish — they code-switch in both languages — although young people are pushing for English to supplant French as a language of primary education. Large segments of the Moroccan population speak a version of Tamazight, an indigenous language family across North Africa with an ancient script and written tradition that predates Arabic on the continent by centuries.
What does all this celebrated linguistic pluralism mean in practice, in the social life of individuals striving for position in a warped economic order?
A student who attends public school in Morocco will receive instruction in standard Arabic, even as Darija or Tamazight or both are spoken at home. If a student excels academically and applies to study at a university, however, proficiency in French will be expected in many subjects, and without it there is little chance of success.
Only students who have attended private schools, where French is the medium of instruction, or those who can afford private lessons, will possess this level of proficiency. But the masses without French instruction are rerouted away from university and denied entry into North Africa’s professional classes. Meanwhile, the Francophone elite — including some proponents of standard Arabic education — reproduces itself as its children join the higher echelons of the national and global economy.
To compound matters, as anthropologist Charis Boutieri observes in her book “Learning in Morocco,” Darija- or Tamazight-speaking students and their families often blame themselves for not prioritizing French competency; either the parents didn’t tuck away money for their children’s French lessons or the students didn’t read enough Flaubert on the side. Rather than ask why the public education system places young people in an impossible linguistic situation, working-class students and their families wonder why they were unable to achieve a level of multilingualism that puts the world to shame. That’s one way the logic of late capitalism operates in Africa.
These questions were on my mind when I talked with people, awkwardly but with conviction. Abdelkebir, who drove my taxi from Rabat to Marrakech, pursued a Quranic education. He wore steel-rimmed glasses, a humble aspect, and a scholarly mien. It was easy to picture Abdelkebir as a university professor or a learned imam. When I told him that I was studying Arabic and visiting Rabat to attend an August 2018 mu’tamar (conference) on linguistics in Africa, his eyes lit up. Thanks to his training in classical Arabic, he spoke a mellifluous fus-ha, slowly and in a way that I could understand.
I told him about my amateur interest in African Arabic, and he replied that I came to the right country: Morocco was the most African of Maghrebi countries. Even more than Algeria and Tunisia, he explained, Morocco has intimate historical, religious, cultural, and economic ties with West Africa. Abdelkebir spoke of the Tijaniyya Sufi order spanning Senegal and Morocco, Algeria and Mali, whose disciples have for centuries crisscrossed the Sahara to exchange ideas and practices. Moroccan Arabic, I would hear often, is the vernacular most deeply inflected by Tamazight.
In “Black Morocco,” author and historian Chouki El Hamel constructs the history of Gnawa music, which exerted “a profound influence on the religion, rituals, and music of the greater Arabo-Berber culture.” Fusing elements of jazz and the blues, and with a trancelike element known to exorcise evil spirits, Gnawa is a sonic and spiritual ensemble created by West Africans and their descendants displaced by the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. The annual Gnawa music festival in the coastal town of Essouaira is a major tourist attraction, but many of the kingdom’s cultural institutions point to a pluralistic African conception of Maghrebi identity. In Rabat, Morocco hosts an Institut des études africaines that supports the study of African languages, civilizations and “the common Moroccan-African cultural heritage.”
The visual street art throughout Morocco’s cities — the graffiti in Casablanca of Saharan men in Adidas sweat suits with turbans and shades, flanked by riyads and palm trees; or the murals in Meknes of jazzmen on keyboards overlooking the medina — evokes a distinctive style of Africanité captured by what anthropologist E. Ann McDougall describes as “being Saharan.”
Even the Royal Air Maroc 747 I flew in was emblazoned with a Basquiat-style banner draping its fuselage.
Because of this shared history, and I would say aesthetic, Abdelkebir ventured further: West African countries would do well to claim Arabic as a national or official language, like some East African countries have done.
As I understood him, he wasn’t saying that Arabic ought to supplant the variety of languages spoken in West Africa. But Arabic is already studied and highly valued as a sacred language in much of West Africa and is spoken throughout the Sahel. About 20,000 West Africans study in Moroccan universities on scholarship. That’s a remarkable number, as Mohammed Chtatou, a professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, pointed out to me, given the modest (but rapidly growing) percentage of Moroccan youth who manage to pursue higher education in the Kingdom.
Senegal, Mali, Guinea — all are umbilically connected to the Maghreb, and vice versa. So why not solidify this ancient kinship through the Arabic language?
Thoughtful, Abdelkebir didn’t frame this notion as a reciprocal endeavor. What West African languages, I might have asked, ought Moroccans to study? Linguists have produced a substantial body of research analyzing Arabic’s influence on Swahili, for example, but seldom study the influence of the latter on the former, though some Omanis speak Swahili.
Without reciprocity on this score, would not the propagation of Arabic cement a patron/client relationship between the Maghreb and Bilad-as-Sudan (or Land of the Blacks)? Wouldn’t such measures establish Arabic as a hegemonic language and reduce the linguistic diversity of the continent?
Maybe not. As Kane argues, Arabic over the centuries has tended to preserve West African languages such as Wolof, Hausa and Fulani, among several others, and contributed to the history of publication and intellectual exchange in Africa. Literature in African languages composed in the Arabic script, known as Ajami, constitutes an antique library spanning a variety of subjects. Without the historical role of Arabic, Kane asserts, African writers would have been compelled to write in former colonial languages, chiefly English and French, or been denied an opportunity to publish at all.
But it’s important not to fetishize African Arabic as the proof of African intellection and literacy: The Black Orientalist’s rebuttal to Hegel’s philosophy of history. A racist corollary to this view is the assumption that anything magnificent on the continent must have originated elsewhere. Moreover, and contrary to a widespread and pernicious misconception, Africans devised many indigenous systems of writing, from the Ge’ez language and script in Ethiopia to the ancient Punic languages to the Kongo graphic writing system meticulously documented by art historian Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz. And in any case, as medievalist D. Paul Vance notes, the pervasive idea that literacy constitutes “the supreme cognitive and cultural achievement” of humanity is itself Eurocentric and wrongheaded.
If Arabic is unquestionably an African language, however, it is not seen as an indigenous one. At the landmark 1962 conference on “African Writers of English Expression” at Makerere University, the acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe asked if literature in independent Africa should “embrace the whole continent or South of the Sahara, or just Black Africa? And then the question of language. Should it be in indigenous African languages, or should it include Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, etc.?” By lumping Arabic together with European colonial languages, Achebe voiced, perhaps inadvertently, a widespread perception about the language as foreign — or worse, as a medium of the Trans-Saharan slave trade, which predates Trans-Atlantic slavery by centuries and placed millions of Africans in bondage.
And what is the status of this Arabic phrase, Bilad-as-Sudan? Whatever it is, the phrase is not a geographical or ethnological descriptor. Though some historians object to it, Bilad-as-Sudan — which has become more or less synonymous with “Sub-Saharan” or “Black” Africa — nonetheless abounds in Anglophone scholarship. Some scholars reject the term as at bottom a racial construction; others view it as untenable in light of historical and archaeological evidence. Yet many more employ the phrase merely as a matter of convention. And because it draws a crude color division between Africans, the common use of “Bilad-as-Sudan” appears to support Achebe’s argument about the inclusion of Arabic among colonial languages.
Compare Achebe’s remark with a more recent commentary by fellow Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka, writing in celebration of a 2010 exhibition of African art held in Dubai. In contemporary Africa, the “colonial cords remain as effective as ever – Francophone, Lusophone, Anglophone or Hispanophone,” he writes. “And yet a powerful ‘external’ creative language exists on the continent itself – the Arab/Islamic, beckoning towards the larger Arab world.” On this view, Arabic and the Arab world are “external” but not colonial, intimately close if not indigenously African.
Some scholars view this perception of externality as consequential for determining what counts as African literature. The tendency to see Arabic and its literature as foreign to Africa, writes literary scholar Wendy Belcher, “is tantamount to dismissing British literature as Italian because of the Roman invasion 2000 years ago.” By this criterion, perhaps Greek would also count as (once) an African language since it, too, was a medium of prestige and key to privilege in Egypt and Nubia for over a millennium, from roughly the third century B.C. until the 15th century A.D.
When — or rather how — does a foreign language become indigenous, and an indigenous language foreign?
Binary arguments may miss the complex liminality of African Arabic, one that marks the work of South Sudanese novelist Stella Gaitano, whose family originates from Juba but who grew up in Khartoum. At home, she spoke Latuka, a South Sudanese language; Juba Arabic with others from the South; Sudanese Arabic in Khartoum; and classical Arabic in school. Whereas many South Sudanese writers choose to write in English, Gaitano writes in Arabic. In a profile for The New York Times, she explains why: “Language for me is the soul of the text,” she said. “I love the Arabic language, and I adore writing in it. It is the linguistic mold that I want to fill my personal stories and culture in, distinguished from that of Arabs.”
It is an irony of colonial history that Arabic, at least in South Sudan, is considered more of a colonial tongue than English.
She also admitted that some of her South Sudanese colleagues, many of whom write in English, “have criticized her privately for writing in Arabic, a language they deem a ‘colonial tool.’” It is an irony of colonial history that Arabic, at least in South Sudan, is considered more of a colonial tongue than English.
I was struck that Abdelkebir’s argument was nearly identical to a keynote address I’d heard a few days earlier at the linguistics conference. This talk, presented by the director of culture and communication for the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ICESCO) — an affiliate of the intergovernmental Organization of Islamic Cooperation — was titled “Historical ties between Arabs and Africa and the Phenomenon of Arabisation in Tropical Africa.” I initially tried to listen to his presentation in Arabic, but swiftly put on the headphones transmitting a live English translation.
The speaker, a scholarly Sudanese man, presented a brief linguistic history that underscored how Arabic, along with other Semitic tongues such as Amharic and Tigrinya, evolved through the ancient traffic between Western Asia and Northeastern Africa, and over time influenced major languages from Hausa and Wolof in the west to Swahili and Somali in the east. The takeaway was clear: it is erroneous to regard Arabic in any way as foreign to Africa.
Then he transitioned to a thornier argument about the high value of Arabic language pedagogy in Africa, especially in predominantly Muslim countries, and the steps his organization had taken in that effort.
During the discussion session, an audience member from Kenya seized the microphone. The Arabization of Africa, he asked — who is it for? And toward what end? Over the course of history, he reminded us, foreign powers have invaded the continent and installed their languages for exploitative ends. He might have added that Arabization and Islamization policies led to strife in Sudan and elsewhere. Why, the Kenyan scholar asked, would Arabization be any different? And did the scholar’s organization have some hidden agenda by promoting Arabic?
The keynote speaker responded by reiterating his linguistic argument about the Afro-Asian sources of Arabic and then adding, curtly, that involvement with his organization was entirely voluntary. African dignitaries solicited his organization’s attention, he said, not the other way around.
Nodding heads and sharp glances signaled African hermeneutics of suspicion at work. Perhaps to avoid awkwardness, some audience members rerouted the conversation, but the conference hall was already buzzing like a beehive.
Was this scholar’s keynote a subtle argument for linguistic hegemony, or a case for completing the project of decolonization initiated by Arab nationalists?
Decolonization unleashed many ironic and unintended effects in the postcolonial states. Arabization is one such example. Here, “Arabization” refers to the phenomenon of language rationalization, in which the state imposes a single, dominant language for education, administration, and cultural life. This policy developed during the era of decolonization as a way to promote pan-Arab and pan-Islamic solidarity and to rectify colonial-missionary restrictions placed on Arabic communication and pedagogy.
To be sure, language rationalization policies extended beyond the Arabic-speaking world and were a fixture of numerous decolonizing nation-states in Asia and Africa. A prime example is India, which imposed a dominant national language, Hindi, on a country with hundreds of languages. Such initiatives and their consequences reverberated throughout South Asia. When “the Islamic Republic of Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on its Bengali-speaking citizens in East Pakistan,” novelist Arundhati Roy writes in her book “Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction,” “it ended up losing half of itself. Sri Lanka tried to impose Sinhala on its Tamil citizens, and paid with decades of bloody civil war.” For Roy, if there is an enemy of the novel and literature generally, it is the idea of “one nation, one religion, one language.”
But the idea of national linguistic unity remains seductive. Since independence in 1962, the leaders of postcolonial Algeria, as elsewhere in the region adopted, to varying degrees, Arabization language policies. Because there were few teachers in Algeria with proficiency in standard Arabic, the Algerian state imported teachers from Egypt who were said to be better religious zealots than language instructors. In schools, teachers punished children who were caught speaking Kabyle by forcing them to kneel for hours without relief.
In Algeria, colonizers sought to repress Arabic, which they equated with Islam, while predicating the benefits of citizenship on mimicry of French culture. The Algerian revolutionaries, in turn, tried to extinguish French and liberate the country from all vestiges of colonialism. After independence, the attempt to eradicate French went hand in hand with the restoration of national pride in Arabic — but this effort came at the expense of the region’s native languages, which had coexisted peacefully with Arabic prior to colonization.
The tension between Arabic and Amazigh identity harkens back to colonial divide-and-conquer strategies. Drawing on extant anthropological and archaeological research, French colonizers, according to American historian Heather Sharkey, cultivated a “Kabyle Myth,” which “held that Berbers were less fanatical, more authentic, and more civilizable than Arabs.” One irony of this mythology is that its 19th century French exponents produced a corpus of Orientalist scholarship that, as Sharkey observes, would inspire the Berber movement a century later.
Language often functioned as a proxy for class conflict.
If it is generally true that languages splinter and combine with others, and that an imposed language can morph into a native language over time, and so on, it is also true that linguistic rationalization can reduce these complexities and thereby revive old schisms and exacerbate present resentments. Language often functioned as a proxy for class conflict. Arguably, the policy of Arabization-as-decolonization precipitated a bloody civil war in Algeria in the 1990s that was difficult to explain in strictly political terms. For historians, in some measure the conflict was about national identity — what it means to be an Algerian — and that question hinged on what languages one speaks, and in what context.
Algeria’s pro-Arabization leaders, meanwhile, were far more fluent in French. Though they compelled the Algerian masses to attend Arabic-language schools, they sent their own children to French schools. Such hypocrisy discredited these leaders in the eyes of the people, who remained disillusioned about their own and the nation’s prospects.
At the same time, for many Algerians these language policies, reinforced by flourishing Arabic newspaper and publishing industries, evoked a collective dream world and assuaged the humiliations of colonial rule.
During the 2011 uprisings in North Africa misnamed as the Arab Spring, the role of language politics in these revolts escaped the notice of Western commentators. Most reportage also tended to overlook North Africa’s native Imazighen, whose struggles constitute a response to Arabization policies that suppressed their languages. Often referred to as “Berbers” (derived from the Greek and Latin word for barbarian), many prefer to be known as Imazighen (plural of Amazigh, meaning “free man”) and their languages as Tamazight. Both are umbrella terms for a variety of geographically disparate ethnic groups and languages, from the Tuaregs across the Sahara to the Kabyle in northern Algeria along the Atlas Mountains.
Increasingly, Indigenous activists are casting a light on their transnational movement for political, economic and linguistic recognition throughout the region — a movement distinct from the Arab Spring’s emphasis on human rights, democracy and economic reform. In the years following these uprisings, public signs began to feature Tamazight writing in the revived Tifinagh script, when a decade prior, only Arabic and French were present; there’s a burgeoning Tamazight publishing industry, and schools are expanding curricula to include Tamazight pedagogy. But the movement on behalf of Tamazight is not purely about linguistic or minority recognition. It is also about claims for land sovereignty and, more generally, about the articulation of a vocabulary adequate to indigenous political agendas that have been suppressed by the state in the name of national unity. It’s not clear yet whether public recognition of Tamazight is meant to carve out a genuine space for Berber identity and politics — some contend that current Tamazight pedagogy actually underwrites the teaching of Arabic — or to pacify activists with prominent symbolism instead of economic and political enfranchisement.
On my last trip to Morocco, in the spring of 2019, there were aftershocks of these earlier uprisings, especially in Algeria and Sudan, where protesters succeeded in overthrowing long-reigning presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir, respectively. One Algerian protester gained the spotlight during an interview with a journalist for the Emirati channel Sky News Arabia during a protest in Algiers in March 2019. When the interviewer asked him to respond in Standard Arabic, the young man fired back: “I don’t speak Arabic, this is our Darija!” His interruption of the journalist’s inaccurate reportage — which framed the protests as an expression of joy — also implied a judgment about her use of Standard Arabic to describe the events. The protester’s proclamation in Darija, “Yetnahaw gaa’” (throw them all out), went viral on social media and became a rallying cry in Algeria.
By contrast, unrest in Morocco was evident in the streets but characteristically muted. Protesters called for reform but did not challenge the King or the monarchical institution: a sign of the monarchy’s canny ability, as Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi puts it, to manage discontent and outfox the opposition.
As protesters in 2019 were toppling governments in Sudan and Algeria, I tried to focus on my Arabic studies even as doing so took on a slightly surreal dimension. For the oral component of my final exam in Rabat, I delivered, before an audience larger than I expected, a tremulous survey of Morocco’s big cities. For the written exam, I thought I’d done well but came up just short.
Here’s the story I would like to tell of what happened next: After some setbacks, I eventually graduated to advanced studies, and thanks to hard work and determination, I’m presently scrutinizing ancient manuscripts from Mauritania and Mali.
That’s not what happened.
After years of uneven study, my proficiency is still modest, my memory a sieve. I burn through pencil erasers. Obsessively, and rather cartoonishly, I still practice the letter ع (“ein”), the correct pronunciation of which is the hallmark of any Arabic speaker.
But the language is in me.
And I continue my pursuit of Arabic in Africa. In his study “Language, Identity, Modernity: The Arabic Study Circle of Durban,” historian Shamil Jeppie tells the story of a group of South Asian-descended Muslims in 1950s South Africa who gathered to study the language of the Quran and the heritage of Islam in an informed way. These men were mostly native speakers of Gujarati and Urdu, but they saw Arabic study as crucial to their enterprise — especially their ambition to harmonize Islam with modernity.
I read this book with interest but was surprised to see the following sentence tucked away in the second chapter: “The great feat of the Circle [of South African Arabic learners],” Jeppie writes, “was its consistent effort to see Arabic taught at all levels of the South African educational system. However, none of its leadership became either fluent Arabic speakers or capable readers of any serious Arabic literature, secular or religious.” Wait — these men who studied and championed Arabic for decades achieved neither fluency nor literacy? And yet they never gave up proselytizing for the language.
They are my inspiration.
What kind of African-Arabic curriculum might these South African Muslims have established, if they’d had their way? Would it have followed the path of classical Arabic or adapted to the complex racial dynamics of South African society? Would it have anything to offer interracial and religious violence in that country and elsewhere? Who knows, but surely these questions for Arabic study are more than academic.