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NARRATIVE ARC: LANGUAGE AND NATIONAL LITERATURE

Updated May 14, 2017 10:20am

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In his essay, ‘The Curse of The Moroccan Writer’, Fouad Laroui’s description of the problems faced by Moroccan writers in terms of the choice of their language and idiom has analogies with the situation of languages in Pakistan and the conscious and unconscious choices made by our creative writers. Laroui deals with a host of other related issues including style, imitation, codes, register, diglossia and syntax, but the final question he attempts to address is that of ‘national literature.’

In Morocco, Spanish is spoken and understood across the Strait of Gibraltar and northern parts of the country. English is becoming popular with the younger generation. But it is French that remains the main European language, having a status similar to that of English in our case. Although Arabic (since 1956) and Berber (since 2011) are the two declared official languages, French is the language of class, diplomacy, social standing and quality education. A hierarchy of four languages and dialects exists in Morocco, making it complicated for writers to choose. This choice has a direct bearing on the nature and composition of their audience and readership. The four languages are French, classical Arabic, Darija (local dialect of Arabic spoken in Morocco and North Africa but quite distinct from classical Arabic) and Berber (including its forms and dialects) — in that pecking order. In our case, the four hierarchical levels for languages would be English at the top level, Urdu at the second, languages spoken widely in different regions — such as Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi, Seraiki, etc — at the third level and the languages of smaller populations within our provinces and regions — such as Brahvi, Hindko, Dhatki, Burushaski, Shina, Wakhi, Kohistani, Torwali, Gujrati, etc — at the bottom.

If one reads Laroui carefully, it becomes obvious that he is finally making a case for Francophone Moroccan literature to be seen as what he calls the ‘national literature’ of post-colonial Morocco without actually committing himself to this assertion in so many words. This is what you find in common in the local elite or the educated diaspora of post-colonial countries that have a facility with their former colonial language. They strive for that language to be accepted as the representative language of intellectual and literary expression of their country.

Laroui accentuates the differences between classical Arabic and Darija, and between them and Berber. He also quotes Berber writers who claim that Arabic is as foreign to them as French. While reading his commentary on Morocco, I could recall similar arguments made by some philologist friends, such as Arif Waqar, on Pakistan’s linguistic landscape. They place the standardised register of Urdu on the same position that Laroui places classical Arabic. Likewise, Darija is comparable to the various forms of colloquial Urdu developed in different parts of Pakistan. And like a Berber writer quoted by Laroui, you would find some of our writers claiming that Urdu is as alien to them as English. One is not sure if Berber writers who find French as close or distant to them as Arabic are making a political statement to emphasise their separate identity or whether it is historically and linguistically correct. Likewise, saying that Urdu is as alien as English in our case is a very problematic proposition.

Finally, coming to Laroui’s question of national literature and the complexities that it involves, one would ask: what is national literature? We have heard this term reverberate in Pakistan as well since the times of Muhammad Hasan Askari who coined the term “Pakistani adab.” This was followed by Qudratullah Shahab’s brand of pseudo-spiritual literature. But irrespective of language and theme, why can’t every worthwhile piece of literature be considered equally important and judged for its literary merit? The term ‘national literature’ reeks of authority rather than art.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His collection of essays Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan was recently published by Oxford University Press

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017

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