An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”
The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall. As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”
All too often, we think of Arabic writing in West Africa—when we think of it at all—as a way to access a history beyond or outside the colonial moment. Yet this document, the front page of the weekly journal of the French colonial government in Senegal, shows that the French authorities depended on Arabic to speak to their subjects, even as they gradually tried to transform Senegambian social and political organization for their own economic gain. Far from being beyond the colonial moment, here Arabic appears integral to it.
The use of Arabic in Saint-Louis, the capital of French colonial Senegal, is not so startling in and of itself. The Arabophone geographers, most notably al-Bakri, report that Islam and its accompanying Arabic script appeared on the banks of the Senegal River, in Tekrur, as early as the eleventh century. The use of Arabic in the Western Sahel appears to have started to grow during the fourteenth century, under the influence of the trade empire of Mali, whose famed Mansa Musa lured scholars from Egypt and as far as Andalusia. Arabic written production in the Sahel reached its peak in the pre-modern period during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the area was under the suzerainty of the Songhai empire. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that Arabic writing became an important technology of government when the ulema’,or Islamic scholars, began to lay claim to temporal power, thus producing “textual polity,” to use the phrase of Brinkley Messick.