‟We are free to speak Algerian”

The Multiple Paths of the Arabic Language · The current uprising of the Algerian people, which began on last February 2 was like a kick in the anthill. The rebellious citizens not only gave the Algerian political system a jolt but also foregrounded the issue of the use of the Algerian dialect.

© Dalal Mitwally

On Thursday evening 12 March, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement that he would not stand for a fifth term of office and that the presidential election was postponed drew the attention of the international media who rushed to get the reactions of the men and women in the streets.

While a journalist for the Emirati channel Sky News Arabic was covering the “demonstrations of joy” in central Algiers, a young Algerian interrupted her live report and demanded to be heard. The young man had decided to intervene to “correct” the journalist’s claim and explain that people were not joyful at all and that the President’s stepping down was just another move in the political game.

But the young man’s impromptu and unexpected interruption, which took the journalist by surprise was spoken in Algerian dialect and she asked him to speak standard Arabic so that the channel’s listeners might understand what he was saying. And the young man shot back: “I don’t speak Arabic, this is our darija!” (Algerian dialect).

That video went viral on the Algerian social networks and for the first time the Algerian vernacular made its way into a media whose audience was accustomed to hearing only classical Arabic.

Hisham Bustani, a Jordanian writer and Arabic scholar, felt that this video was “a kind of revolt of the oppressed against those who refuse hear its cries and understand its language.” That video makes us understand that this young man, speaking live on that Arabic channel, belongs to a huge group from which he draws his strength. A strength expressed in the form of a linguistic confrontation. The young man made his declaration confidently and coherently, thus refusing to use the language of the journalist and the TV audience. “In that context, it was an ‘incendiary’ reply to a journalist trying to transform the protest into a ‘TV show’ for her audience,” he went on.

“That young Algerian of humble origin is a member of an oppressed group which is demanding change. He is also a member of a social group demanding that the Other (the power structure, the media, officialdom) understand and grasp his ‘questionings,’ his hopes and his ambitions.”

And in Bustani’s reading, the young man could be said to be addressing himself to a system which pretended not to hear or understand what he was saying, demanding he speak another language, one of “compromise,” of “half-baked solutions” and of “procrastination.”

“The young man said: ‘Yetnahaw gaâ’ and it was up to the power structure and the TV audience to understand,” he went on.

Moreover, in this respect, Hisham Bustani reminds us that the last words spoken by ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali before he left the country during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings were: “I understand you.”

“What is at stake is a lack of ‘understanding’ between the power structure (metaphorised by the camera and the microphone) and the people demanding change. His language is the vernacular language, the colloquial speech of the general public, the people. In short, the language of their direct and self-evident demands for change.”

“Yetnahaw gaâ” appears in Wikipedia

In August 2019, Wikipedia created a page on the Algerian protest movement’s famous slogan “Yetnahaw gaâ” (Out with the lot of them!”) where it explains that this is a “slogan in Algerian Arabic” which appeared during the protests that have taken place in Algeria since 16 February 2019. It has become a sort of rallying cry of internet surfers since the publication of a video on social networks showing a young Algerian interrupting a local correspondent of the television channel Sky News Arabia, on the evening of 11 March 2019 when ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was giving up a fifth term.”

According to Wikipedia, “Yatnahaw gaa! ” demands the departure of all those who have benefited, contributed, participated, strengthened and protected the ex-president during the 20 years of his reign, failing which, any attempt at transition to a democratic model risks being torpedoed by these individuals. When we speak of counter-revolution, it is them that we mean.

Wikipedia asserts that this is the most common slogan in all the demonstrations. Since March 2019, the local and international media often mention it reporting on the events in Algeria.

As proof of the internationalisation of the Algerian slogan, Wikipedia cites two major events at which the slogan appeared. First there was the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival where Algerian actors sported banners and badges with the slogan “Yetnahaw gaâ” to show their support for the protesters.

The other instance occurred during the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2019) held in Egypt. In support of their national team, three Algerian fans brandished a banner with the slogan on it. They were arrested and deported. When they arrived in Algiers, they were arrested again and held in remand custody.

The French version of this Wikipedia article cites nineteen different sources, from the French and Algerian press.

“Algerians are proud of this ‘inter-language’ ”

While some consider the dialect a problem, others see it as a rich resource. It’s what makes us different from other communities. The intrusion of politics into the field of linguistics is at the origin of this dialect problem. Such is the opinion of Lamine Benallou, a university professor, writer, translator and linguist, who has published several books on language issues.

His point of view is that the use of the Algerian dialect (written or spoken) in the movement’s messages is a demand for recognition.

“I believe that the fact that their messages are couched in Algerian Arabic, in the Berber language or in Franco-Algerian, and sometimes even in Spanish, is to lay claim to an Algerian identity which is multicultural and intercultural,” he argues.

He sees it as a way of rejecting the system and its official language. “It is a rejection of the norm and of everything associated with the system, including classical Arabic, officialise and all the rhetoric which bolsters up the power structure.”

Benallou refuses to believe that the Algerian dialect is a language which divides Algerian society with its different languages (Arabic, French, and Berber).

“On the contrary, I think Algerians are proud of that inter-language which unites the people. Algerians in every part of the country are at home in that rich language, full of vitality, of expressions and locutions which constitute our Algerian identity.”

On the other hand, it is his conviction that the Algerian dialect is marginalised in Algeria, especially in the official channels of expression, the media, politics, schooling, etc. “I’m not too fond of the term ‘dialect’. It implies a hierarchy of languages, which is an extra-linguistic concept. I prefer to call it Algerian or Algerian Arabic.

Concluding on a hopeful note, Lamine Benallou wishes that the changes so ardently desired by the Algerian people as expressed in these massive street protests will also affect the future of the dialect. He hopes that if change occurs, it will also involve the democratisation of the derdja. He hopes this ‟wind of democracy, of free expression, will [allow for] the unabashed emergence of an Algerian Arabic. ”

Arabisation: a front for another policy

In his first official public speech following independence, Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, defined Algerian identity in these terms: ‟We are Arabs, yes Arabs, ten million Arabs (. . .) our country’s only future lies in Arabism.”

From that point forward, linguistic plurality and diversity were seen as a threat to national unity. Any appeal in favour of linguistic diversity was regarded as an attempt to sew discord in a population and a culture that were one and indivisible.

This policy grew more pronounced under the country’s second president, Houari Boumediene, who came to power with a coup which was accompanied by strong measures in favour of Arabisation. This was a foreseeable development since Boumedienne had been educated at Ez-Zitouna University in Tunis and Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

During that period of Algerian history, Arabisation was primarily a political rhetoric. Arabic was a tool for legitimising the governing party (the FLN) and making it a rampart against colonialism.

But as time went by, Arabisation became a means of forceful social exclusion.

After a half-century of independence, it became clear that what was at stake was not the command of the Arab language but the achievement of the narrow objectives of the power structure.

The truth is that none of the advocates of the Arabisation of Algerian society have actually believed in this project. The proof is that the most ardent champions of Arabisation have always managed to get their children enrolled in schools that were private or located abroad and where they were taught in French.

‟We are free to speak Algerian”

Considering that the principal and inescapable demand of the whole popular movement is ‟yetnahaw gaâ” (out with the lot of them), it is a message comprehensible for every fringe of Algerian society since it is expressed in our dialect.

Besides its literal meaning, that famous phrase demanding the departure of all the politicians who run the system and which has become the slogan of the Hirak (Movement) also implicitly demands the recognition of an Algerian identity.

It implies a genuine confrontation between dialectical Arabic and literary Arabic which has surfaced in these street protests. A spontaneous struggle between the language of the people, as spoken in the daily lives of Algerians and another language which has become, over the years, the language of the power structure, used in all the official channels and by the bureaucracy.

During 130 years of French colonisation, Algerian society, considered to be a part of France, preserved its dialect. The dialect also survived the restoration of classical Arabic after the country’s independence when a policy of Arabisation was seen as an important political and socio-cultural issue.

Today, and during the protest marches, we can read, alongside the slogans in French and Arabic characters, powerful and unequivocal messages in Algerian dialectic.

In addition to the slogan ‘‟yetnahaw gaâ”’, there is also ‟l’bled bladna w’endirou rayna” (it’s our country and we can do what we like with it), ‟jeych chaab khawa khawa” (the people and the army are brothers) and also the famous phrase: ‟klitou l’bled ya serrakine” (you’ve looted the country, you thieves).

Hakim, a young Algerian residing in the suburbs of Algiers, tells us that speaking the dialect is a form of liberation for him. ‟I feel free and strong when I proclaim my rights and opinions in derdja,” he says and he adds: ‟Nobody can make me express myself in a foreign language.”

In the protests, many give voice to the same opinion.

Leila is a student at the University of Algiers and she says that these youths want to break all the taboos imposed by the system.

‟Ours is an educated generation, we know the history of our country. Algeria is not a small country, it’s practically a whole continent with great cultural and linguistic diversity. We are proud to be a part of that rich diversity and at each demonstration we shout our pride”, Leila explains.

‟We speak derdja so that everyone can understand us. Even foreigners manage to understand in spite of the language barrier, because our slogans are spontaneous, they come straight from the heart, they reach out to anyone willing to listen,” proclaims a man in his sixties.

In his view, the slogans shouted in the dialect define the originality of this peaceful revolution. ‟We’re free to express ourselves in Algerian,” he assures us. ‟Our voice has been stifled for too many years. The people have never been asked what they wanted. Which language did they want to speak? Which educational system did they prefer? Today we are fed up with these rulers. I say it loud and clear: ̔l’bled bladna w’endirou rayna̕ (it’ s our country and we can do what we like).