Language Barriers Faced by Maghrebi Influencers

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Every region of the world has social media influencers. Even so, the internet celebrities of the Maghreb – the western chunk of North Africa – come with a twist: they know a plethora of world languages


Look no further for evidence of this trend than Hiba, a 26-year-old Moroccan influencer in Turkey who knows Arabic, English, and French (she asked that I only use her first name in this article to preserve her privacy). Thanks to this linguistic arsenal, Hiba has accumulated over 19 thousand followers on her Instagram account, @simplyhiba. I, however, have the pleasure of knowing Hiba in real life.

At first, my friendship with Hiba remained confined to the internet. Back in 2020, she appeared on my list of suggested Instagram accounts to follow. I soon messaged her to inquire about Cookie, an iconic cat that she was fostering at the time (Cookie starred in many of Hiba’s Instagram stories and, as I would argue to Hiba time and again, deserved an Instagram account all her own).

Last September, when Hiba returned to Morocco for a few weeks, we connected in person. We cemented our friendship on a disastrous road trip from Hiba’s hometown of Kenitra to the coastal city of Asilah. Hiba’s car broke down twice, once in the middle of a highway.

During Hiba’s brief time in Morocco, I guest-starred in several of the stories that she posted to Instagram. I also appeared in a video about our ill-fated trip to Asilah that debuted on her 104,000-subscriber YouTube channel. Since nothing brings friends closer than near-death experiences, Hiba and I stayed in frequent contact after she returned to Istanbul, where she works as a French content specialist for a fashion company.

The longer I watched Hiba’s videos on Instagram and YouTube, the more I noticed that she often varied the languages that she spoke, alternating between English and Darija – the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. This code-switching mirrored my conversations with Hiba in real life and online, given that we typically mixed Darija and English. At the same time, it struck me as unlikely that Hiba was expending all this effort just to build an audience of Darija-speaking Americans.

Curious about why Hiba might opt for Darija or English in a particular Instagram post or YouTube video, I arranged an interview with her over WhatsApp.

“Normally, I try to speak Darija as much as possible in my videos, but I struggle on Instagram because it’s easier to write in English on my stories,” Hiba told me during our call. “I get a lot of complaints about that from people who can’t speak English, though, so I’ve been trying to write in a mix of English and Darija on my Instagram stories.”


READ: Youssef El Kaidi: Is the french language helping us or holding us back?

 

The Maghreb’s Linguistic Jigsaw Puzzle
As Hiba and I can attest, Morocco presents a complex, sometimes-frustrating linguistic environment. The kingdom’s official languages comprise Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a literary language used by governments and news agencies throughout the Arab world, and Standard Moroccan Tamazight, an attempt to unify the many languages of Morocco’s Amazigh indigenous peoples; Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia have their own sizable Amazigh communities. Nonetheless, most Moroccans shun the use of MSA in their daily lives, speaking Darija instead, and few non-scholars even know Standard Moroccan Tamazight.

Darija has evolved into Morocco’s lingua franca, and many Amazigh families speak one of the kingdom’s three main Amazigh languages at home: Central Atlas Tamazight, Tarifit, or Tachelhit. France’s colonization of Morocco means that most Moroccans study French as a second language, while the younger generation, awash in American movies, television shows, and memes, has also picked up English from popular culture. Other countries in the Maghreb, such as Algeria and Tunisia, offer similar linguistic melting pots.

I found that Hiba’s upbringing coincided with these cultural trends. She learned French in school, but taught herself English by listening to music, reading books, and watching movies. In contrast to most Moroccans her age, Hiba also writes the Darija subtitles of her Instagram stories and YouTube videos in the Arabic script rather than the English alphabet, for the benefit of her more elderly viewers. Some older Moroccans struggle with the jumble of numbers and English letters that the younger generation routinely uses for texting – and that I myself use to speak Darija with her.

Hiba admitted that the experience of other Moroccan influencers might differ from hers, since she has been living abroad for three years now.

“The people who are watching my videos are mainly Moroccans interested in Turkish culture, which makes my audience ‘niche’ because I’m not reaching all the Moroccans who could relate to my daily life if I were back in Morocco,” she said.

READ Analysis: The future of Turkey’s role in Libya


I figured that I would need to speak to a broader range of Moroccan influencers to learn how language might impact their engagement with their audiences. Hiba gave me an idea of where to begin. She explained that she attracted the bulk of her Instagram followers from her YouTube channel, adding, “I had wanted to start a vlog for a while but didn’t have the courage until I saw other Moroccans doing it.”

Casablanca’s Top Influencers
I decided to reach out to Saoussane Hmidouch, a 29-year-old marketing consultant in Casablanca who runs a 34,900-subscriber YouTube channel.

“I had a blog back in 2014 or 2015, and I had a few readers who followed the tips and tricks I shared,” Saoussane told me by email. “After that, I started making YouTube videos, which brought a larger audience. Later on, I started posting content mostly on Instagram, and the more you work on your content and the things you share, the more people appreciate it or discover your account through other accounts and friends.”

Today, Saoussane’s Instagram account, @saocurious, has 131,000 followers. Saoussane noted that, unlike Hiba, she employs French more than English in her content on social media.

“I usually speak in French and Darija like I would naturally do with my friends and family,” she said, “and I add English subtitles for those who don’t speak French. Most captions are also usually in English.”

Despite this difference, Saoussane’s experience with language acquisition paralleled Hiba’s. While Saoussane learned English and French in school, for example, she too credits the internet and pop culture with expanding the vocabulary that she now uses on social media.

The languages that influencers used had as much to do with their personal preferences as with the demands of their audiences.

After I returned to Instagram to speak with more influencers from Morocco, I came to see that the languages that they used had as much to do with their personal preferences as with the demands of their audiences. I began by messaging Yousra El Hachimi, a 23-year-old supply planner at a company in Casablanca. Her Instagram account, @yousraelhachimi1, has 52,500 followers.

“Moroccans are generally bilingual, or even trilingual,” she told me over Instagram. “There are no rules when it comes to communicating. Generally, I use French and Arabic for exchanges, but English can also manifest itself from time to time.”

Yousra attributed her command of English to the time that she invested in studying it outside the classroom, whether by “enrolling in English classes, singing, or watching movies in English.”

Her interest in the language reflects the wider trend of English gaining momentum in Morocco at the expense of French’s historical dominance. Last year, a survey sponsored by the British Council found that 74 percent of Moroccans ages 15 to 25 – with a margin of error of 2.82 percent – wanted English to supplant French as Morocco’s “main foreign language.”

Tunisia’s Sea of Languages
I wondered whether these sentiments held true in the other countries of the Maghreb, in light of their similar ethnic and linguistic makeup. The experience of Samy Chaffai, a 26-year-old content creator and film director living in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, points in that direction. Samy is now pursuing a doctorate in the science and techniques of cinema and audiovisual at Carthage University’s campus in Gammarth, a key node in the Tunisian wing of the film industry.

“When I was young, I was speaking a lot of Arabic and French,” Samy told me in an email. “But since a couple of years ago, it’s mostly been Arabic and a little bit of English.”

Samy has amassed an impressive fan base: his YouTube channel has 394,000 subscribers, and his Instagram account, @samy.chaffai, has one million followers. The size of Samy’s audience means that he needs a variety of languages to reach them all.

“To communicate with my followers, I talk in Arabic,” Samy explained. “But when there is a specific context, it happens that I talk in English. I also translate all my videos with Arabic, English, and French captions.”

The linguistic gymnastics deployed by the influencers of the Maghreb goes hand in hand with the code-switching that has become second nature for the region’s inhabitants. Hanen Faidi, a 22-year-old Tunisian student of law at Carthage University’s Tunis campus and one of Samy’s admirers, told me over Instagram that she views most content on social media in English or Tunisian Arabic, a reflection of her daily life.

“At home I use Arabic,” she said, “and with my friends, I usually speak English.”

Shifting definitions of ethnicity make for an additional wrinkle in the relationship between the Maghreb’s influencers and their audiences, given that the languages in which Moroccans and Tunisians produce or consume content only sometimes correspond to their ethnic identities. For instance, Hanen identifies as Amazigh. On the other hand, Yousra, the supply planner in Casablanca, described herself as “purely Arab.”

An inhabitant of the Maghreb may identify as Amazigh, Arab, both, or even neither.

An inhabitant of the Maghreb may identify as Amazigh, Arab, both, or even neither – a form of self-conception that often has as much to do with familial tradition or personal preference as with language and genealogy. My friend Hiba, the Istanbul-based influencer who almost killed me on the road trip to Asilah, calls herself a mix of Amazigh and Arab.

In our interview, Saoussane, the marketing consultant in Casablanca, voiced a view of personal identity common in the Maghreb.

“I identify as a mix of cultures and ethnicities,” she told me. “As a Moroccan, I don’t feel like I am 100 percent Arab, nor am I 100 percent Amazigh. So, both are part of my identity.”

It surprised me that, despite the number of Maghrebi influencers who identified as Amazigh to at least some extent, few spoke Amazigh languages on social media. In fact, I could think of only one netizen in my social circle who made a habit of producing Amazigh content: Ali Abdeddine, my former Arabic teacher.

An Arabic Professor and Amazigh History
Ali, who has mastered several Arabic and Amazigh dialects, tutored me in Darija and MSA when I first moved to Morocco in late 2019. In March 2020, he moved to Michigan, where he now lives with his family and continues to teach Arabic, as well as Amazigh languages. He also posts videos in Arabic and Amazigh languages on Facebook, Instagram, and his YouTube channel. Last February, I even made an embarrassing, 18-minute guest appearance in his YouTube series about Darija-speaking Americans.

“I personally speak Tachelhit with my family in Morocco, and I also speak Darija with my friends, and English, of course, with my family and in my everyday life where I live now,” said Ali, who is completing his doctoral dissertation on Amazigh poetry. “Among influencers in Morocco and North Africa, though, the form of communication that comes first is the Arabic dialects. We see that the Arabic dialect in Morocco retains primacy because of its use by the largest segment of Moroccans, whereas the influence of other Amazigh dialects comes in second place.”

In the Maghreb, Amazigh languages have had two factors working against them. First, Amazigh peoples have often faced discrimination under policies of Arabization promoted by governments in the region, leading to the marginalization and stigmatization of their languages. The regime of Mu’ammar Gaddafi, for example, outlawed Amazigh languages in Libya. Gaddafi, who led Libya until has overthrow in 2011, forbade the teaching of these languages in schools and even the use of Amazigh names.

Decades of Arabization damaged Amazigh languages’ standing
The second hindrance to the presence of Amazigh languages on social media stems from the first: as decades of Arabization damaged Amazigh languages’ standing, some Amazighs switched to Arabic dialects for everyday life.

Even in countries where Amazigh languages no longer carry the same social stigma, many Amazighs still opt for Arabic by force of habit. A number of the Maghreb’s inhabitants also identify as Amazigh based on family, not language. They have no knowledge of Amazigh dialects because their parents, having switched to Arabic, never passed down the mother tongue.

“Many of those who post on social media use Darija as a language of communication, even though they have an Amazigh background,” explained Ali. “Some of them are even fluent in Amazigh languages but prefer Darija in line with the social expectations of interactions and likes from publications and videos. There are those who publish in Amazigh languages and are loyal to this option, but they don’t get views and follows, despite the quality of their content.”

Too Many Languages?
On a wider level, the number of languages spoken in the Maghreb – and the identity politics involved – can limit influencers’ ability to engage with every segment of their audiences. Arabic dialects differ from country to country and even city to city. The dialects of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia have some overlap, but Mauritania’s dialect, Hassaniya Arabic, has little in common with any of them.

Even second languages can vary. Some of Morocco’s northern cities, such as Tétouan, prefer Spanish to French because of Spain’s colonization of that region. French and Spanish also have little relevance to Libya, which Italy colonized.

“I would say that the number of languages in Morocco limits my audience,” Hiba told me. “Many Moroccans prefer French. A lot of vloggers use French for that reason, whereas I prefer English, but that restricts my reach a bit. Not many people in Morocco speak English well.”

Yousra has encountered a similar problem with her Instagram stories: “Sometimes I speak only in French and some people in my DMs ask me to speak Arabic to understand.”

The Challenges of Going Global
The language barrier can grow as influencers from the Maghreb travel to other countries and accumulate more followers from overseas. Hiba noted that, after she relocated from Morocco to Turkey and started getting more followers from the Middle East, “people from other Arab countries asked for more simplified writing in Arabic so that they could understand.”

I contacted Amira Al Jaziri, a Tunisian television presenter for Alkass Sports Channels in Qatar, for her perspective on the challenges facing Maghrebi influencers interested in reaching a global audience. Amira’s Instagram account, @amira_al_jaziri, has 1.8 million followers, and the website Starngage ranks her as Tunisia’s 16th-most-followed Instagram influencer.

Amira engages with her vast audience by trying to bridge the linguistic divide.

Amira explained in an email that she engages with her vast audience by trying to bridge the linguistic divide, producing half her content in Arabia and half in English, a language that she needs often in her personal life as she pursues a remote master of business administration from the University of Cumbria in the United Kingdom.

“My followers are mostly from North Africa and the Middle East, and, as you know, in North Africa we speak Arabic mixed with French, but in the Middle East we use Arabic mixed with English,” Amira told me. “So, I try to alternate between these three languages depending on whom I am talking to — but when I want to address all of my followers, I speak Arabic and leave an English translation of what I said for my non-Arabic-speaking followers.”

Amira noted that she has followers from Cameroon, France, India, Italy, the Philippines, and the United States, making the use of global languages even more important for maintaining her gargantuan fan base.

Finding the Right Balance
I know that Hiba has at least one American follower despite her focus on Moroccans — though I understand her Darija stories on Instagram most of the time. However, a greater emphasis on English content will become a necessity if Hiba wants to pick up more followers from the United States and other countries outside the Maghreb.

Influencers from the Maghreb have to find a balance between audience and language.

In the end, influencers from this North African region have to find a balance between audience and language that best aligns with their objectives and needs.

“I add English subtitles mostly for my expat friends who live in Morocco and who like to discover places through my account but who cannot understand French or Darija,” said Saoussane, the Casablanca-based marketing consultant. “It is hard to please and speak to everyone, and it’s not my goal. I’m happy with the few.”

Hiba, for her part, is weighing a major pivot in her online presence.

“My Turkish is still not that good, but I’ve thought about producing content in Turkish in the future,” she told me. “I’ve more seriously considered producing videos in English to talk about expat life in general, not just in Turkey.”

The two of us will have a chance to discuss these ambitions when Hiba returns to Morocco. She and I are planning another road trip, which will no doubt appear on her Instagram account and YouTube channel.

I expect that we will have a lively discussion about how best to subtitle the inevitable video for her Moroccan followers – and her American audience of one.


The author is a Morocco-based, American writer specializing in the Greater Middle East and North Africa region.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Maghrebi.org but we do nonetheless encourage freedom of expression and even the ‘right to reply’. If you want to contribute to the Opinion section, feel free to send your article to opinion@maghrebi.org with a detailed bio including a twitter handle at the end of the piece.

 


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