Making Peace With English: What I Learned from Reading in French

by Barâa Arar

Barâa Arar is a writer and community organizer. She received her Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and is an incoming MA candidate at the University of Toronto, with a research focus on art and colonial resistance. You can find her work at www.livewellspoken.com.

On his release from prison in the spring of 1962, Ahmed Ben Bella proclaimed: “Nous sommes des Arabes! [We are Arabs!]”[1] When I first came across his declaration, I laughed under my breath. The Algerian freedom fighter who later became the country’s first president triumphantly proclaimed his Arabness (and that of his fellow Algerians) in the tongue of the foreign occupier. His three simple words, spoken in the colonial language he rejected, demonstrate that no matter how hard we try to construct pure, coherent identities, elements of our complex histories creep up and expose us.

I am the child of parents who came to Canada from two different countries. This duality had less significance for me growing up than it did for adults within my Muslim community. Tunisian congregants at the mosque would ask: “So you’re more Tunisian than Syrian, right?” And whenever my father’s Syrian friends would see me, they would bend over to ask: “You’re more Syrian than Tunisian aren’t you?” Even to my seven-year-old self, having to choose between two parts of identity seemed odd and frankly, unnecessary. I didn’t understand why they insisted I choose one over the other. But what I did understand was that the options were mutually exclusive.

After some years, I thought I found a response: “I’m Canadian.” I delivered that line with such confident wit and naiveté. At best, this line would get me a laugh from the amos but usually it would produce tight-lipped disapproval. To anyone outside the Muslim community, I appear simply as a Muslim, an Arab, or another immigrant. Many do not notice, or care, that my parents came from two different countries, cultures, and dialects.

When I started university, I straddled a new set of binaries, though this time they were specifically about my faith. In Muslim spaces I got labelled “too white” and in mainstream spaces, I am “too Muslim,” and/or oddly enough, sometimes, “not Muslim enough.” My hijab identifies me as Muslim but my light skin complicates that perceived racialization. “Oh, are you a convert?” non-Muslims often ask me. When I ask why they think I might be, they explain: “You don’t have an accent.” On the other hand, in a sea of Muslim students opting for science, engineering, or accounting programs I chose Humanities.

My hybrid identity taught me to question truth claims. I learned to be suspicious of forces that asked me to pick just one side, just one way to be.

Both in the Muslim community and broader society, I was neither here nor there. My experience straddling dualities taught me that the world is caught up in defining us according to restrictive binaries. My hybrid identity taught me to question truth claims. I learned to be suspicious of forces that asked me to pick just one side, just one way to be.

I did my undergrad in Humanities, a program that aims to teach the world’s history through the world’s greatest books. I learned to read, to write, but most importantly, to think, from men and women (but mostly men) who did not look like me. I ravenously consumed stories of important men—Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson.

Yet these are the very stories, vocabularies, and references that lubricated my presence in mainstream spaces. I learned how to present myself in a certain way, how to speak English in a certain way, that rendered my presence as a racialized woman more palatable in often homogeneously white spaces. I learned how to speak an English that is neat and reserved and unprovoking. My studies in Humanities allowed me to uncover powerful and compelling histories of resistance to colonialism. I gained a connection to some of the writers and thinkers who fuelled these anti-oppression movements.

After the liberation of Algeria from French occupation in 1962, the state introduced Arabization as a policy as a way to unite the Algerian population after the divisive politics of colonialism. However, Arabization did not work for everyone. Some Algerians continued to use French, as this was the language of their formal education. Others, who were of Berber descent, did not identify with the cultural implication of Arabic. Many notable Algerian literary figures continued to write in the French they had learned from colonial institutions.

Throughout his career, the Algerian Berber multi-genre writer and advocate, Kateb Yacine, struggled between writing in French and Arabic. Born in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine, he was raised in a scholarly family and experienced the country’s anti-colonial uprisings as a university student. He produced most of his literary work, including plays, essays, and poems, between the 1940s and 1980s. Yacine’s first novel Nedjma, published in 1956, influenced the course of Francophone North African literature. His French-language novel adopts a particularly disjointed style that reflects the internal confusions of his bi-cultural heritage. He mixes regional legends and religious beliefs to narrate the quest for an independent Algeria. The result is a mythic story about freeing Algeria from its foreign occupier that breaks away from the traditional linear style of the French novel.

Yacine describes this cultural infidelity in his anthology Le Polygone Etoilé as a ‘rupture of umbilical cord’ wherein he lost his mother, her tongue, and their land simultaneously.

Yacine learned French after his father explicitly demonstrated the limitations Arabic imposed on him in colonial Algeria. French was equated with economic power and cultural superiority. Therefore, to abandon Arabic was celebrated as a step in the march towards civilizing Algeria. At the same time, the conscious turn away from the native tongue denied him an intimate relationship with his homeland. Yacine describes this cultural infidelity in his anthology Le Polygone Etoilé as a “rupture of umbilical cord” wherein he lost his mother, her tongue, and their land simultaneously. Yacine conceives of his relationship to Algerian and her land as a maternal relationship. I find this unsurprising, since many post-Independence writers use women’s corporeality and femininity to materialize the newly freed Algeria.

Assia Djebar, an Algerian novelist born in 1936, echoes that convergence of gender and language. She is famous for writing about struggles of women that often lay at intersection of patriarchy and colonialism. Djebar attended a Parisian institute of higher education that made her one of the first Muslim Algerian women to graduate from such an elite French school. At the start of autobiographical book L’amour, La Fantasia, she tells the story of a young girl going to school. She describes in vivid detail how the young girl’s imminent education is lamented by the villagers, how her male kin who support her are at fault.

“And what if the maiden does write?” she asks. Then answers sharply: “Her voice, albeit silenced, will circulate. A scrap of paper. A crumpled cloth. A servant-girl’s hand in the dark. A child, let into the secret. The jailer must keep watch day and night. The written word will take flight from the patio, will be tossed from a terrace. The blue of heaven is suddenly limitless. The precautions have all been in vain.”[2] For Djebar, young women receiving an education, specifically, learning to write, represents a sort of unveiling, an illumination out of darkness.

Like Yacine, Djebar grapples with the tensions of writing in the colonizer’s language. To encapsulate the frustrations of writing in a language that is never fully her own, Djebar crafts the clever term “la langue marâtre” [the stepmother’s tongue].[3] On one hand, Djebar attributes her literary success to her knowledge of French; she explains how French granted her access to public spaces she would have otherwise been denied as an Algerian. Djebar speaks frequently about the anonymous and forgotten women who were never considered successful because of their lack of Frenchness. On the other hand, her knowledge of French is the product of a colonial enterprise that systematically marginalized and, in her own words in her book, “entombed” her people.[4]

Recently I spent one summer pouring over Eugene Delacroix’s renowned painting Women of Algiers. In it, four women adorned in jewellery and colourful fabrics lounge around with hookahs at their feet. They are meant to imprint onto the French national popular imagination of the late 1800s, an ideal Algerian woman, known as the “Fatima.” Subdued and passive, with their bodies open to the audience, the women’s inviting appearance is possibly the furthest from Delacroix’s reality in colonial Algeria. He was not actually invited into a private Algerian home, certainly not while four women lounged at midday. He painted this work in his studio, based on models and his imagination. Delacroix idealized Algerian women in vibrant oil colours on the surface of a canvas. He created “Fatima” in his own image, in his own language, and then froze her in time, to export her to his Parisian patrons.

After I presented my research on Delacroix, a friend told me it reminded her of a passage from Djebar’s novel Women Of Algiers in Their Apartment.[5] This book quickly became my antidote to the orientalizing French depictions of Arab women I’d absorbed. Djebar writes of her hopes of a post-colonial world: “[the] glorious liberation of space where the bodies are revived in the dance, in the release of movement. For there is no longer a harem, the door is wide open and the light streams in. Even the spying servant is no more; there is simply another woman, mischievous and dancing.”[6] Djebar aspires to freedom from the colonial jailers: in language, imagination, and even physical space. She does not attempt the impossible task of either imitating or erasing these masters and their work.[7]

Instead, she focuses on the re-humanization of those idealized, imaginary women, encouraging readers to decolonize themselves in body, mind, and soul; to feel the light streaming into their space, to feel at home in the world, beyond internalized constraints of life under an occupier’s rule. She phrases her celebration of Algerian women’s freedom so simply that for a moment, it feels attainable.

There is no going back to a time free of these linguistic complications, for any of us.

For Djebar and Yacine, the French language simultaneously represents a force of oppression and a mechanism of survival; both the landlord who evicted them and the friend who offered up their couch. Both Djebar and Yacine believe that their use of French inverts the colonial dynamic; their writing reintroduces subjectivity to the experiences of Algerians and begins to eradicate linguistic homelessness.

At French schools in occupied Tunisia, the “step-mother’s tongue” also crept into my mother’s vocabulary and her mother’s before her. There is no going back to a time free of these linguistic complications, for any of us. My own position became further complicated as the daughter of immigrants to Canada, where I adopted another colonial language: English. Through the twentieth century, French served to silence the presence and power of Algerians, while English continues to threaten the survival of Indigenous communities of Turtle Island in the present day.

I find this resemblance of transnational colonial tactics uncanny and disturbing. As someone who lives on unsurrendered and unceded territory, I must confront my own position within the ongoing colonial enterprise. My use of English not only alienates me from my mother tongue, Arabic, but it continues the dominance of this imported colonial language.

At the same time, English lets me earn the respect of the university professors when I present a convincing point of view. English is the language that lets me fight back: the language that lets me be, like Djebar puts it, “a messenger” between two worlds. Djebar seems steadfast in her belief that the French language saved her humanity and attributes it to her celebration of expression. Perhaps I cannot ever fully appropriate the English language, or divorce it from its violent history, but I can negotiate the terms on which I live with it. I remain comfortable with the discomfort of my vocabulary, to go beyond the face value of the words I use.

When a professor complimented my eloquence after I presented my research on Algeria, I knew it wasn’t simply because I spoke well. It was because I was able to tell stories and make references that made my presence acceptable to the room. I used that neat, reserved, and unprovoking English that allows me to challenge those who otherwise chose to speak for me. I used an English that let me ride the in-between; that let me exist in a space of neither here nor there.

 

To me, a careful use of language is one that does not demand or assume that all listeners fit into narrow either/or categories of identity. Instead, I write as a racialized woman, like Indigenous and anti-colonial writers before me, to find solace in the chaos, not to order it.

In one of my favourite poems by spoken word artist Sarah Kay, she writes “When I am inside writing,/ all I can think about is how I should be outside living./ When I am outside living,/ all I can do is notice all there is to write about.”[8] These lines capture the constant duality I feel between introspection and extrospection. I do not, or rather cannot, write for conclusions, for solutions, or for answers. I find beauty in the way poetry allows for unresolved-ness.

Without the tools of this language, I could not have learned how to be the mischievous and dancing woman of Djebar’s aspirations. English is the sneaky and stubborn guest in my vocabulary: at times, I might want her out, but I was raised to be hospitable.


ENDNOTES

[1] “The Syndrome of the French Language in Algeria” in the International Journal of Arts and Sciences by Malika Rebai Maamri (2009).

[2] Translated from French by Dorothy S. Blair in Fantasia: an Algerian cavalcade (1985).

[3] My translation from French.

[4] Assia Djebar describes French as entombing her people in L’Amour, la Fantasia (1985).

[5] Thank you to my friend Zineb Adref who introduced me to the complex world of Algerian art history.

[6] Taken from Assia Djebar’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1980). Translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager (1992).

[7] From the quote by Fadila Ahmed: “We, the women of Algeria, have two jailers: colonialism […] and the apathetic creatures who cling on to customs and traditions inherited not from Islam but from their ignorant fathers. The second jailer is worse than the first.” Neil MacMaster, “The Colonial ‘Emancipation’ of Algerian Women: the Marriage Law of 1959 and the Failure of Legislation on Women’s Rights in the Post-Independence Era,” in Vienna Journal of African Studies, 2007, pg. 97.

[8] “The Paradox” by Sarah Kay.


 


Barâa Arar is a writer and community organizer. She received her Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and is an incoming MA candidate at the University of Toronto, with a research focus on art and colonial resistance. You can find her work at www.livewellspoken.com.

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