The Importance of Language

Language is one of the most
important aspects of human society. It is, by definition, a system of
communication. It impacts how people interact with one another and to some
extent view reality. How words are used convey meaning; they translate the
intangible thought to tangible sounds and tangible writing. Language gives
depth and, at times, a sense of history. It grows and changes and expands as
the people who use it do so, with words being phased in and out. Language also
gives power. The Year of the Elephant
was “one of the first works by any Moroccan
author to be translated from Arabic to English” (Abouzeid xviiii). To understand
what a powerful act that is the role of language in Morocco’s bloody history under
French power, how its citizens felt under such a power, and the aftermath of
French ruling must be analyzed.

The French language came to the
Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) via French colonization in 1830, but did
not make it to Morocco until 1912 (Hall). From the start, Morocco fought
against French power. From the Rif revolt, to the exile of the sultan, to the Casablanca
massacre in 1952 (which prompted even ordinary citizens to fight back)
Moroccans pushed against that which suppressed them, incited by stories and
horrors and figures they could use as motivation to gain their freedom. Only,
when their freedom had been won they found another alarming problem still
deeply saturated in their communities: illiteracy.

“On the eve of independence in
1955, it had been estimated that in Morocco there were only forty university
graduates, all men, and only six girls who had graduated from secondary school.”
(Abouzeid xxviii). That is, forty-seven
assuredly literate Moroccans. Despite promises of schools being built and illiteracy
ending, the French did the bare minimum in ushering in education. In what
schools Morocco did have through these unwelcome colonizers, French was the
only language taught. French was what they relied upon to build Moroccan
educational systems. It became popular, for a brief time, to know French and to
teach it, as Zahra mentioned in chapter two that her then husband had some
status because he taught French (Abouzeid 20). Knowing French was a symbol of
having an education, one outside of whatever was offered in Qur’anic schools.
But, what did that mean for the few children taught during the time of French
occupation? Did most of them learn in French?

By the time Morocco gained its
independence, “…many of the officials in the new government had themselves been
trained in France or in French schools and had minimal Arabic skills” (Abouzeid
xxix). Where were the Moroccan ideals in such a French-dependent government? “Language is intrinsic to the expression of
culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an
important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and
solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared
values may be conveyed and preserved” (“The Importance of Culture…”). Zahra’s
ex-husband was a clear example of this trend away from the base values of
Moroccan culture, evidenced in his distaste in the traditional values Zahra
held dear, and their eventual divorce. In her words: “I don’t eat with a fork.
I don’t speak French. I don’t sit with men. I don’t go out to fancy dinners”
(Abouzeid, 10). In Aziz’s case, the transition from Arabic to French (from
Islam to Catholicism) was also the loss of his family, his home, and his
connection to his culture. His family even buried him, carrying an empty coffin
and burying the son they once knew. French was the Moroccan connection to the
European world and the values that were found there, but it also instigated a
loss of traditional Moroccan ideals.

Leila Abouzeid was in school amidst all of this,
including debates over bilingualism and Arabicization (the latter being what
Moroccans fought for) within the Moroccan government (Abouzeid xxix). With
freedom at hand, language remained the dividing line between the oppressed and
the oppressor. French was the symbol of colonial power, Arabic the people.
Before the translation of Year of the
Elephant, many Moroccan novels translated into English after Moroccan independence
were originally written in French (Hall). This was due to the fact that many
French publishers were interested in translating books into English and other
European languages, and the idea that if anyone wanted to get their writing out
of Morocco it had to be in French (Abouzeid 124). By publishing her book in
Arabic, Leila Abouzeid made a very clear statement, one that harkened back to
the ideals held when Morocco was fighting for independence: Arabic is the
language of the people. It is the language of the Islam. It is the language of
Morocco. By leaving French behind, she sheds the shackles of France and its
influence over her culture and people.

Language plays a vital role in Year of the Elephant. With Moroccan
history mired in French colonialism and the eventual post-colonial climate, the
battle between French and Arabic as the national languages began and remains
debated. Having Year of the Elephant
written in Arabic as opposed to French highlights the trend away from the power
France had and continues to subtly have over Morocco. Through Zahra’s story,
and the short stories included in the book, Abouzeid gives the reader a
snapshot into Moroccan society and its struggle in embracing yet denying the
French influence placed upon them.