Homecomings of a cyborg. Tales of language and identity across the Atlantic (by Salma El Hankouri)

Our guest blogger this week introduces herself: سلمى , a PhD student in the interdisciplinary humanities at Concordia University. “Born and raised in Rabat, Morocco, I grew up speaking Arabic and Amazigh (the Indigenous language of North Africa), as well as French, English and a bit of Spanish. Issues of language, heritage and identity have always been part of my life. At the wake of my twenties, I decided to embark on the PhD journey, after having completed my Master’s degree in Swansea University, Britain, in human rights and international law with a focus on Latin American studies. Currently, my doctoral research is interested in the multiple manifestations of Indigeneity in the case of Montreal, including issues of identity and decolonial praxis. Moving to Montreal, the invisibility of Indigenous peoples in the city reminded me of my own experience as an urban Amazigh living in Morocco’s capital city: there but not really there at the same time. My interest in Indigenous issues in the Canadian context came from a desire to reconnect with my Amazigh and Arab heritage, and understand what Indigeneity means locally as well as globally. I enjoy traveling, the outdoors, listening to all kinds of music and dancing. I am also an etymology geek, especially regarding the intersections between Arabic and Portuguese/Spanish as a way to understand intercultural relations between my ancestors and Southern Europe in history.

One snowy afternoon in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal), I interrupted my writing activities to call my mother, and check in with the family. Since moving to this city five years ago to pursue my PhD, Facebook has become my main window into that part of the world ‘where the sun sets’ (literally)—a.k.a. المغرب or Morocco–the place I call home.

Sunset in Essaouira, Morocco

Montreal is not the first place that I have lived in outside of المغرب, but my time here has made me uniquely question the notion of home and community, topics that I dedicated my twenties to in my doctoral studies to better understand. I, therefore, started paying closer attention to the ways we address one another back home. Perhaps, living abroad has made me more observant of things that would otherwise go unnoticed. Or perhaps, Montréal’s own legacy of linguistic battles have made me question my own socio-linguistic realities.

But the conversation I had with my mother that afternoon tells a story that is characteristic of the complexities surrounding language and identity in المغرب. A tale of being a cyborg ‘à l’état chronique’, of being displaced within, but rolling with it anyway. There are two layers to this aspect, so let me walk you through each one of them.

Facebook conversation with mom

The first one concerns language use. When I asked my mother for feedback on an idea that I had for a project, interestingly, I noticed that we chose different languages in which to communicate with one another. Orally, we would have addressed each other in Darija (the Moroccan dialect of the Arabic language). In this written exchange, however, I used French and Darija, the latter with the Latin alphabet. My mother, on the other side of the screen, wrote back in Arabic, using the Arabic alphabet. Unlike her, I have a harder time using the Arabic keyboard, because I belong to that generation of children called المفرنسين (les francisés), so I stick to the Latin alphabet.

Given the ongoing colonial context where my upbringing took place, this discrepancy in language use is hardly surprising. As المغرب was signing its independence from France in the 1960s —well, let’s face it, that piece of document was more for aesthetics than anything—a series of contradictory linguistic and educational policies were unleashed, producing generations of people standing on a linguistic continuum, but on opposite ends of one another. These policies were at the battlefront between Arabic and French, eventually producing a ‘crooked’ bilingualism, whereby ‘on ne maîtrise ni l’un ni l’autre’. A sort of linguistic no man’s land at the interstice of an ideological war between East and West, filled with hybrid linguistic cyborgs like ourselves that neither my mother nor myself chose to inhabit it.

My mother’s generation lived through the glorious years of Arabization, meaning that she had the luxury to explore all facets of her identity in her mother tongue. In practical terms, it meant that all educational institutions highlighted Arabic as the main language of instruction in the early days of the modern Moroccan nation, circa the 1960s and the 1970s. At this point, French was slowly making its way to the front stage.

Rabat centre-ville in the 1960s, source unknown

My generation, those born between the 1980s and 1990s, saw the linguistic tables turn. French became the lingua franca par excellence, and was attached to a sense of socio-cultural prestige that Arabic did not seem to have – or at least that’s what the mainstream discourse wanted us to believe. So here I was, a 20-something ‘francisée’ at the expense of my mother tongue, which I even regarded with slight denigration. I grew up with phrases like “Go French, or go home”, so eventually I came to embody this discourse as well. A conversation like the one I had with my mother is a testimony to the gap that grew between our generations, due to language politics going awry. But this discrepancy is more than just about language. It’s about identity and community, the things that define us as human beings. The fact that my mother and I interact in different linguistic terms, and are attached to the languages we are wired into, means we inhabit different worlds. 

This brings me to the second aspect, that of being in one’s language. If you ask me what my mother tongues are, I would say: Darija and Tarifit (a dialect of the Amazigh language spoken in northern المغرب), the latter being my grandparents’ first language. Yet in reality, I seem unable to experience the full spectrum of my identity in these two languages that are part of my heritage. In retrospect, I realize how much space French has taken in my own identity journey at the expense of my other identities embodied by my ancestral languages. Though I grew up surrounded by several linguistic soundscapes, French seemed very determined to displace that core and make itself the reference frame for expressing everything, down to my emotions, my state of mind, and my ideas. Why take the place of, instead of existing alongside of? In my experience, colonial dispossession is a very intimate process that involves language. That sense of displacement within that makes you able to transcend all kinds of territories, yet somewhat makes you ill-fitted to walk in the shoes of your own kin.

A road sign featuring cities in Arabic (right) and Amazigh (left). Source: https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/06/275124/parliament-confirms-tamazight-tifinagh-alphabet/

Perhaps my mother’s request to reformulate my project idea into “a whole with a head and feet” (موضوع يكون عنده الرأس و الرجلين) in that conversation was a call for redress against the fortress of colonial alienation, the one that made such language policies and such disconnect possible. But like all cyborgs out there, we both possess the kind of fluency that allow us to step in and out of these life worlds effortlessly – though it comes at a price. In this common space of understanding we create with one another, a sense of chronic hybridity emerges that transcends the territories of linguistic systems and conditions our thought processes and modes of expression. In the space of a Facebook conversation, my mother and I were crossing all kinds of territories – syntactic, generational, geographical, and cultural – like we always do. After all, that’s how Darija came to be: a linguistic whole at the crossroads of Arabic and Amazigh, tinted with bits of French.

However, the imperatives of decolonization have led me to strip French away from Darija, in an attempt to shed, like old skin, the coloniality of this language and what its culture came to represent for me. I grew increasingly resentful of French, even refusing to speak it – Can you imagine, a francophone refusing to speak French in Québec? The irony.

The conversation with my mother is a reminder of the impossibility to dissociate that self that is ‘francisée malgré elle’ from my other selves that I continue to embody in Darija and Amazigh. I may embody a different relationship to language and identity than my mother, but I like to think that I create spaces of inter-lingual encounters, in which I carry on the walk of my kin in my own sweet style. I might continue to refuse engaging in the French language if I want to, but with the recognition and the acceptance that it has been part of me and will continue to be in the future. This is how I’ve come to terms with my inherent ‘cyborg-ness’ and how I hope to accept these complex facets of this identity that I have always embodied, but had never had the luxury to look at eye to eye.

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