17 January 2012 8:01 pm | | 0


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Recent controversy sparked by a member of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly’s difficulty communicating in Standard Arabic has reopened a debate about the role of language in Tunisian national identity.

Karima Ben Souid, a member of the Constituent Assembly and a representative of the center-left Ettakatol party, has been facing challenges within the Assembly because of her lack of fluency in Standard Arabic. Souid, born to Tunisian parents, is a dual national of both France and Tunisia. She spent the majority of her life living in France, and, due to her lack of exposure to the Arabic language, never achieved a mastery of Standard Arabic.

Souid admits that lacking  fluency in Standard Arabic is a common issue for Tunisians that have grown up abroad.

“I was born and raised in France, so I never learned Arabic when growing up. I do speak Tunisian and I’m trying to improve my [Standard] Arabic,” said Souid.

During one of the Constituent Assembly’s sessions addressing the composition of the interim constitution, the issue regarding the official language of the Assembly was raised. When Souid used French to inquire about a matter that she was unable to communicate in Arabic, one of the members showed dissatisfaction about using French within the Assembly. The remark turned into a heated conflict, among several members of the assembly, concerning whether the use of other languages than Arabic was acceptable.

“I was trying to ask for a clarification but was not able to find the right words to speak my mind in Arabic. So I used French but it upset Omar Chtioui, from the centrist Congress for the Republic (CPR) party. His reaction was extremely offensive and provoking,” Souid explained.

Members who objected to using French during sessions of the Constituent Assembly, such as Omar Chtioui, cited the need to respect the “Arabic and Muslim identity of Tunisians.”

Since the revolution, the linguistic identity of Tunisia has been and essential part of political discourse – particularly for the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, whose leader Rached Ghannouchi notably decried the “polluting” influence of French in Tunisian Arabic, but also for the CPR, who have entered into a ruling coalition with Ennahda and Ettakatol.

According to the Office of Tunisians Living Abroad (Office des Tunisiens à l’Etranger), the total number of Tunisians living abroad is over one million - 600,000 of whom live in France.

Alia is a Tunisian living abroad who speaks both Tunisian Arabic and French, but is not fluent in Standard Arabic. Alia has been living in the USA since 1999. Consequently, she has found little time to practice speaking Arabic very often.

Addressing the possibility of being marginalized due to her lack of fluency in Standard Arabic, Alia stated, “The Islamic party made it clear that the French language was not something they would promote.” She explained that she is used to relying on French to complete paperwork, as it is also an administrative language in Tunisia.

“Having a second language will never make the first one weaker! I think that it is a valuable asset, for obvious cultural, economic, touristic,  and financial reasons,” said Alia. Alia thinks Tunisian Arabic should be permitted, and made use of, in political life.

Tunisians speak Tunisian Arabic, a dialect of Standard Arabic which incorporates influences from several other languages. Standard Arabic is the official language of the country (according to Article 1 of the “Mini-Constitution”), while French is second in terms of spoken prevalence. On a daily basis Tunisians typically communicate in both Tunisian and French.

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