School video sparks Arabic v French war of words in Algeria

Nesrine Abdelrahim
BBC Monitoring

Image source, YouTube
Image caption, Sabah Bourdras's video has proved popular on social media

A teacher in Algeria has been told off after leading her class in a celebration of the Arabic language at the start of the new school year.

Sabah Bourdras recorded a video of herself encouraging her pupils to repeat "Arabic is the world's richest language... This year I'll speak Arabic and express myself only in Arabic."

Language is a sensitive topic in Algeria, a former colony of France.

Arabic is the official language, along with Berber, and in schools, most children are only taught in Arabic for the first four years before French is introduced.

Nevertheless, French is more widely spoken, and this is why Ms Bourdras' video touched a nerve.

It has been widely shared and discussed and it has sparked a debate about language and identity.

The Algerian government has announced that the teacher will face disciplinary action.

'Identity crisis'

Many Algerians, particularly older generations, complain about the dominance of French, or "the language of the occupiers", as they often call it. Others feel they can better express themselves in French rather than Arabic.

After the school grabbed attention, Algeria's Education Minister Nouria Benghebrit said that the teacher would be questioned over breaching her students' privacy and failing to obtain permission from parents to include them in her video.

Image source, Twitter\@OmOb_2
Image caption, This tweeter says Francophone Algerians did not like the fact that Ms Bourdras insisted on speaking in proper Arabic

But Ms Bourdras has received widespread support on social media, where she has been cast as a role model.

Twitter user @zohor4m1d said: "What this noble teacher is going through reflects the worst image of our psychological defeat and our shameful submission to occupation."

Twitter user @OmOb_2 said: "The French did not like the fact that Bourdras insisted on speaking in proper Arabic language."

And other teachers have been posting photos and videos from their own classrooms in solidarity with their colleague.

But the support is not confined to social media.

In the north-eastern city of Skikida, imams reportedly used their Friday prayer sermons to declare their backing for Ms Bourdras, urging worshippers to resist the government's attempts at Frenchification.

'War on the Arabic language'

Ms Benghebrit, who earned her PhD in France, has previously been accused of "waging a war" against the Arabic language as education minister and choosing to make statements on TV in French.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Minister Nouria Benghebrit wants Ms Bourdras questioned for posting her video online

In March, reports emerged suggesting that the education ministry was planning to eliminate the Arabic symbols that determine the vocalisation of Arabic letters - known as diacritics - from Arabic syllabuses, as part of an educational reform plan.

The decision was criticised by linguists who argued that these signs were essential to conveying the meaning of Arabic words.

'True Algerian'

The press had also reported that Ms Benghebrit was planning to decrease the number of hours dedicated to teaching Arabic in Algerian schools and to scrap "citizenship education".

The minister faced further criticism after a massive leak of exam papers, despite a new raft of measures employed to eliminate cheating.

She has received some support on social media, with one page calling her a "true Algerian without complex".

But the messages of support for Ms Bourdras are an indication that the idea of a "true Algerian" is contested.

BBC Monitoring reports and analyses news from TV, radio, web and print media around the world. You can follow BBC Monitoring on Twitter and Facebook.

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