On February 2, 1952, during a peaceful demonstration to demand national status in East Pakistan for the Bengali language, four students were shot dead in the street. A postcolonial trauma that would lead to war and the creation of the nation of Bangladesh.
In 1999 the General Conference of UNESCO proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day “to promote all the languages of the world, as an effective mobilization opportunity for linguistic diversity and multilingualism.” The day belongs to scholars, linguists, sociologists, and nationalist movements, and commemorates public heroes and defenders of humanity’s greatest natural resource.
An admirable initiative. But the term “mother language” bothers me. It sounds like a bureaucratic compromise, wholesale and abstract, and hides a world of suffering by flesh and blood mothers. In Kateb Yacine's novel Le Polygone Etoile, the bond between a child, his mother, and the language he has learned from her, Arabic, is cruelly broken by—and described with great delicacy in—the language of colonial Algeria, French.
Yacine (1929–89) is Algeria’s greatest writer, author of the 1956 classic Nedjma, a dense, allusive, passionate response—in the midst of the war for independence—to the flat affect of Camus’s L’Etranger. Richard Howard's English translation appeared in 1961. Le Polygone Etoile, Yacine’s second and last novel, has not been translated into English. It closes with this intimate lament, which Algerians know by heart.
Someone in a position to observe, even from a distance, my earliest years in the bosom of our little family could easily have predicted that I would be a writer, or at least passionate about literature. But if he had hazarded a guess as to the language in which I would write, he would have said, without hesitating, In Arabic, like his father, his mother, his uncles, and his grandparents. And he should have been right since, to the best of my recollection, the first gifts of the muses flowed quite naturally, for me, from the maternal wellspring.
When my father put aside the Commentaries or Muslim law, he let loose with irreverent verses, and my mother, as often as not, produced a prompt rejoinder, but her real gift was for the theater. What am I saying? She was a theater, in and of herself, and I, all by myself, was her delighted audience, when my father was away pleading a case. He came home to us full of banter or in tragic mode, depending on the outcome of the trial.
All was well as long as I was an erratic pupil at the Koranic school. This was in Sedrata, near the Algerian-Tunisian border, where by some miracle there survives till this day a vestige of what was once an entire tribe. It was there I earned my slate of many colors, after I had copied out, in all docility, a great mass of verses I didn’t understand. And I could have gone that far and no further, learning nothing more, just a local savant or a village bard, content with my lot, happy as a fish in a perhaps murky but generally welcoming pond. Alas, I was obliged to accept the storm-tossed destiny of those famous trout that, sooner or later, wind up in an aquarium or a frying pan.
But I was just a tadpole, all unsuspecting, content with his watery habitat and the nocturnal song of his amphibian clan. I had taken a strong dislike to the taleb’s rod and his wispy beard, but I did my learning at home and there were no complaints. When, however, I reached the age of seven, in another village (our family moved about quite a bit, transfers required by my father’s work with the Muslim courts), my father suddenly took the unalterable decision to shove me, with no further delay, “into the wolf’s lair,” that is to say, the French primary school. He did so with a heavy heart.
Let go of Arabic for now. I don’t want you to wind up like me, caught between two stools. No, if I can help it, you will not be a victim of the Madrassa. Under normal circumstances, I myself would have been your professor of literature and your mother would have done the rest. But where could such an education lead? The French language is dominant. You will have to master it and leave behind everything we taught you in your impressionable childhood. Once you have thoroughly mastered the French language, you can safely return to us, to your point of departure.
So, more or less, ran the paternal decree. Did he believe it himself?
My mother could only sigh. And when I immersed myself in my new lessons, when I did my homework unaided, she drifted about like a lost soul. Farewell to our intimate childhood theater, farewell to the daily conspiracy we plotted against my father, preparing a rejoinder, in verse, to his satiric barbs . . . as the plot thickened.
After arduous and not brilliant beginnings, I quickly acquired a taste for the foreign language, and, head over heels in love with our vivacious schoolteacher, I even dreamed of solving—as a surprise for her—all the problems in the arithmetic book. My mother was too sensitive not to be disturbed by my desertion. I can still see her, deeply wounded, trying to tear me away from my books. “You’re going to make yourself sick.” And then, one evening, she said to me, her clear voice tinged with sadness, “Since I am no longer permitted to distract you from your other world, why don’t you teach me the French language?” And thus the trap of Modern Times sprang shut on my frail roots, and it makes me furious now to think of my stupid pride on the day when, French newspaper in hand, my mother sat herself down at my work table, distant as never before, pale, mute, as if the hand of the cruel schoolboy required her, since he was her son, to gird herself in silence for his sake, and follow him to the very end of his struggle and his solitude—in the wolf’s lair.
I suffered constantly, even on those days when I had earned the schoolteacher’s praise, from this second severing of the umbilical cord, this internal exile that brought the schoolboy closer to his mother, only to tear them farther away from the whispering in the blood, the reproachful tremors of a language banished, secretly, by their joint decision, regretted the moment it was reached.
And so I lost both my mother and her language, our only inalienable riches—and yet I gave them up.
From Le Polygone Etoile (Editions du Seuil, 1997), 179–82
After independence, Yacine gave up novels and the French language and ran a popular street theater in the mother languages Algerian Arabic and Berber (Tamazight). His plays, performed in schools and factories and village squares, were banned on Algerian television. The official language of Algeria to this day is classical Arabic.