Sounding the Maghreb in the _Nahda_: Nineteenth-Century Arabic/European Language Politics at the Interstices

By Shaden M. Tageldin
Submitted to Session P4842 (Rethinking the Maghreb: Liminality and Transversal Connections, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Maghreb occupies a liminal space in the long-nineteenth-century Arabic literary-intellectual “renaissance,” or _nahda_. Often the _nahda_ is identified with the Arab East, or Mashreq. Whether its politics also resonate in the Maghreb is an open question. That question turns in part on the premise that in the Maghreb (under coercive French colonialism) French supplanted “standard” Arabic, or _fusha_, whereas in the Mashreq (thanks to more ambivalent British and French colonial institutions), Arabic survived as a literary language, enfolding English and French in an unbroken skin of nativeness. While that premise holds truth, it ignores the fact that in the nineteenth-century Maghreb—even in Algeria, annexed and longest colonized—French supplemented but did not yet supplant Arabic as a language of intellectual production. This paper argues that Maghrebi intellectuals of that period shared with their counterparts of the Syro-Lebanese, Egyptian, and Palestinian _nahda_ a powerful investment in the past, present, and future of Arabic. Of special interest was the question of whether standard Arabic, _fusha_, was close enough to life, to the living, and to the people to “speak” to modernity and aspirational nationhood. Taking a case in point, I focus on a little-known text by the Algerian Mohammed Ben-Braham, _Répartition des voyelles dans l’arabe vulgaire_ (Distribution of Vowels in Dialectal Arabic), published in 1900. A judicial interpreter for the French colonial government in Algeria, Ben-Braham was a member of the Société Asiatique de Paris, participant in the International Congress of Orientalists (Paris, 1897; Rome, 1899; Hamburg, 1902; Algiers, 1905), and author of several French-language monographs on Arabic grammar and metrics. Refuting the notion that formal written Arabic is a “dead” tongue severed from its “living” spoken form, his _Répartition_ argues the derivation of _'ammiyya_ (dialect) from _fusha_ (“standard”) by marking the grammatical regularity of the phonetic shifts between these. Here continuum, not diglossia, defines the relation between Arabic speech and writing. Through that redefined relation, I contend, Ben-Braham’s _Répartition_ mounts a distinctly Maghrebi interstitial critique, rare in _nahda_ discourse, of colonial and hegemonic ideologies of language: a vindication of the “life” of formal Arabic in the face of European Orientalists and Mashreqi intellectuals who pronounce it “dead,” of the “democracy” of Arabic before French republicanism, of the status of dialectal Arabic in a formal Arabic literary culture that systematically devalues it, and of the position of the Maghreb in a modern Arab-Islamic intellectual landscape dominated by the Mashreq.