Tunisia’s linguistic dilemma could affect future generations

If nothing is done to reverse the trend, future generations will become victims of a linguistic monstrosity that can produce neither literature nor poetry nor philosophy.

During the first half of the 20th century, France initiated its colonial project for Tunisia with the Frenchification of the Tunisian elite so they could be co-opted to further French interests through the elimination of the Tunisian identity. For that project, colonial powers resorted to ideas of Orientalists who had come up with the linguistic theory claiming that Arabic had become a dead language just like ancient oriental languages and Latin.

The French argued that if the Tunisian elite wanted to be right in the heart of modern times, they had to write and speak in the language of Moliere. French colonial powers invested a lot in that project but only a few fake or misguided Tunisian intellectuals went along.

Tunisian intellectuals who had realised the enormous dangers of the Frenchification project countered it in different ways. During the 1930s, for example, Tunisian novelist and playwright Mahmoud Messadi produced his two most important legacies, “The Dam” and “Abu Hurairah Said.” Messadi had an excellent knowledge of the classics of Arabic literature as well as of major classical and modern European works.

Through his dramas, Messadi wanted to rehabilitate the use of classical Arabic and restore its lost lustre by writing in a style worthy of the great classical Arab authors such as al-Jahiz, Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, Ibn al-Muqaffa and al-Ma’arri. Messadi used classical Arabic to write about modern philosophical topics and concepts borrowed from European existential philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus.

Messadi’s choice of classical Arabic for his work was his weapon in confronting France’s colonial project and its efforts to erase the Arab identity of colonised Tunisia. Messadi was not alone in using language against colonialism. Poet Sandor Petofi did the same in Hungary as did Agostinho Neto in Angola, Mattesini in Italy and Jose Marti in Cuba.

Also during the 1930s, there emerged in Tunisia a number of poets, writers and intellectuals who played an essential role in modernising Tunisian culture, not by killing the Arabic language but by reviving it and freeing it from its long coma and adapting it to reflect the fast-changing modern realities.

Tunisian poet and literary critic Aboul-Qacem Echebbi renovated Arab poetry and Tahar Haddad innovated in social philosophy while novelists Ali Douagi and Mohamed Aribi gave life to storytelling in Arabic.

Following independence from France, and more precisely during the 1960s, pro-French voices rose again among Tunisian intellectuals but the literary and intellectual currents influenced by avant-garde movements in Europe and the Middle East drowned them out.

Unfortunately, the political, ideological and religious chaos that had invaded Tunisia left the Arabic language reeling under the horrendous use of Arabic by Tunisian politicians and the media.

This beautiful language is being disfigured through the injection of French words in political and media discourse, especially in advertising. Tunisians now speak a hybrid language, mixing classical Arabic, French and Tunisian dialect, all in the name of democracy and freedom of expression.

Even stranger is that educational institutions and teachers’ unions seem oblivious to this linguistic conundrum and have shown no reaction to it. In many instances, those institutions — directly or indirectly — feed the problem and contribute to making it a de facto reality.

If nothing is done to reverse the trend, future Tunisian generations will become victims of this linguistic monstrosity that can produce neither literature nor poetry nor philosophy. It is good only for unproductive and boring chatter.

To borrow Milan Kundera’s observation, when people are stripped of their language, their culture and their authenticity, it only means that they have been sentenced to death.