Language is one of the mostimportant aspects of human society.
It is, by definition, a system ofcommunication. It impacts how people interact with one another and to someextent view reality. How words are used convey meaning; they translate theintangible thought to tangible sounds and tangible writing. Language givesdepth and, at times, a sense of history.
It grows and changes and expands asthe people who use it do so, with words being phased in and out. Language alsogives power. The Year of the Elephantwas “one of the first works by any Moroccanauthor to be translated from Arabic to English” (Abouzeid xviiii). To understandwhat a powerful act that is the role of language in Morocco’s bloody history underFrench power, how its citizens felt under such a power, and the aftermath ofFrench ruling must be analyzed.The French language came to theMaghrib (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) via French colonization in 1830, but didnot make it to Morocco until 1912 (Hall). From the start, Morocco foughtagainst French power. From the Rif revolt, to the exile of the sultan, to the Casablancamassacre in 1952 (which prompted even ordinary citizens to fight back)Moroccans pushed against that which suppressed them, incited by stories andhorrors and figures they could use as motivation to gain their freedom.
Only,when their freedom had been won they found another alarming problem stilldeeply saturated in their communities: illiteracy.“On the eve of independence in1955, it had been estimated that in Morocco there were only forty universitygraduates, all men, and only six girls who had graduated from secondary school.”(Abouzeid xxviii). That is, forty-sevenassuredly literate Moroccans. Despite promises of schools being built and illiteracyending, the French did the bare minimum in ushering in education.
In whatschools Morocco did have through these unwelcome colonizers, French was theonly language taught. French was what they relied upon to build Moroccaneducational systems. It became popular, for a brief time, to know French and toteach it, as Zahra mentioned in chapter two that her then husband had somestatus because he taught French (Abouzeid 20). Knowing French was a symbol ofhaving 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 Frenchoccupation? Did most of them learn in French?By the time Morocco gained itsindependence, “…many of the officials in the new government had themselves beentrained in France or in French schools and had minimal Arabic skills” (Abouzeidxxix). Where were the Moroccan ideals in such a French-dependent government? “Language is intrinsic to the expression ofculture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has animportant social function and fosters feelings of group identity andsolidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and sharedvalues may be conveyed and preserved” (“The Importance of Culture…”). Zahra’sex-husband was a clear example of this trend away from the base values ofMoroccan culture, evidenced in his distaste in the traditional values Zahraheld 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 (fromIslam to Catholicism) was also the loss of his family, his home, and hisconnection to his culture. His family even buried him, carrying an empty coffinand burying the son they once knew. French was the Moroccan connection to theEuropean world and the values that were found there, but it also instigated aloss of traditional Moroccan ideals.
Leila Abouzeid was in school amidst all of this,including debates over bilingualism and Arabicization (the latter being whatMoroccans fought for) within the Moroccan government (Abouzeid xxix). Withfreedom at hand, language remained the dividing line between the oppressed andthe oppressor. French was the symbol of colonial power, Arabic the people.Before the translation of Year of theElephant, many Moroccan novels translated into English after Moroccan independencewere originally written in French (Hall).
This was due to the fact that manyFrench publishers were interested in translating books into English and otherEuropean languages, and the idea that if anyone wanted to get their writing outof Morocco it had to be in French (Abouzeid 124). By publishing her book inArabic, Leila Abouzeid made a very clear statement, one that harkened back tothe ideals held when Morocco was fighting for independence: Arabic is thelanguage of the people. It is the language of the Islam. It is the language ofMorocco. By leaving French behind, she sheds the shackles of France and itsinfluence over her culture and people. Language plays a vital role in Year of the Elephant.
With Moroccanhistory mired in French colonialism and the eventual post-colonial climate, thebattle between French and Arabic as the national languages began and remainsdebated. Having Year of the Elephantwritten in Arabic as opposed to French highlights the trend away from the powerFrance had and continues to subtly have over Morocco. Through Zahra’s story,and the short stories included in the book, Abouzeid gives the reader asnapshot into Moroccan society and its struggle in embracing yet denying theFrench influence placed upon them.