Lina Ben Mhenni on Historical Taboos

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

For more than 35 years, my country Tunisia, along with other North African countries, had belonged to the French colonial empire. A long period during which Tunisians suffered too much as they were slaves within their own territories. After bloody battles and continuous sacrifices, colonialists left our country. Nevertheless they left their traces. One of the most important of these is French language, which today constitutes a real taboo for Tunisians. Indeed, under the French protectorate, this language was imposed through institutions, and especially through education, which proved a strong factor for its dissemination.

Despite the attachment of Tunisians to the Arabic language, the newly independent Tunisia chose to maintain bilingualism while moving towards a gradual Arabisation. This choice has the consequence of an unprecedented increase in the number of French speakers as the teaching of French starts from the third year of primary school and as it is the language of science and education and technology in secondary and higher schools. Regardless the different Arabisation attempts, French remained an important linguistic tool in Tunisia.

The linguistic feeling engenders infinite controversies: the linguistic factor is very controversial as the question of the French language is a main source of many identity conflicts. These linguistic conflicts increase or decrease depending on the Franco-Tunisian or the Franco-Arab relationships. For example after 14 January 2011, Tunisians discovered how the French government was an accomplice to the dictatorship. This resulted in hatred and a rejection of all what is French and coming from France, including the language. We can notice this by observing the discussions and debates on the social networks. Indeed, all languages used to be tolerated and used equally on the social networks, which is no longer the case. Whenever someone expresses themselves in French dozens of people leave comments urging them to use our mother tongue:  Arabic, the language of the Quran. Otherwise they are accused of treason.

The use of French language presents one of the biggest European taboos in Tunisia. For some people, this language presents a heartbreaking heritage, as it is the language of the colonisers, who occupied our lands and killed a large number of our ancestors. After independence, this language was imposed as a second language and as the language of sciences and technology, thus engendering an identity conflict among Tunisians. When it comes to this language, the many debates usually turn into arguments – especially on social networks.

For conservative people, the use of French is a betrayal of their homeland, national identity and religion. The debate is often interpreted as Muslims versus Christians (or Jews) – as Arabic is the language of Quran. To be honest it is not easy to overcome this taboo, as it has been going on for a long time.

Personally I think that learning and using French and other foreign languages is very important and crucial to Tunisians. This is related to many factors. The history of Tunisia is one that is known for its openness and tolerance. Our strategic geographical location, in central Mediterranean allows important trade exchanges between North Africa and Europe. Tunisia has been removing barriers to trade with the EU and I think that language is one of these barriers. Moreover tourism is one of the pillars of our economy, and is experiencing hard times due to security fears since 14 January 2011 when the Tunisian dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was ousted. It’s a sector that should recover as soon as possible. Knowing foreign languages is very important for Tunisians working in this sector and in the services sector in general. 

How can this taboo be overcome?

Overcoming this taboo should be done through making the people aware of the importance of this language. This should be done through introducing courses in the curriculum to explain the importance of foreign languages and to make the distinction between remote history and the present situation. Language is a tool that we should exploit efficiently to convey our messages. It is true that Arabic is our mother tongue and we love it very much. But learning a foreign language is so important in today’s context of trying to make solid steps in this globalised world.