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Transcribing Jewish Fez: Colonial Linguistics and the Ethnographic Construction of Judeo-Arabic

Abstract of paper to be presented by Oren Kosansky, Lewis & Clark College, at the conference "Fez, Morocco, Crossroads of Knowledge and Power: Celebrating 1,200 Years of Urban Life"

During the French colonial period, Fez was the focus of an extensive  ethnographic corpus aimed, in its own terms, at recording the city’s  traditional Jewish customs, beliefs, and languages prior their predicted demise in face of Western modernity. This paper takes as its starting point the ways in which Judeo-Arabic, as it was spoken in Fez, was subjected to strategies of textual objectification and ethnographic analysis. I argue that such objectifying and analytical strategies resulted in representations of Judeo-Arabic in terms that corresponded more with colonial ideas about the nature of Moroccan language and society than with the dynamic and multifaceted forms of linguistic practice through which Judeo-Arabic was, and continues to be, expressed.  More specifically, I interrogate the colonial strategies and effects of representing Judeo-Arabic as an exclusively spoken dialect that would most authentically be transcribed in an Arabic orthography. I demonstrate that his strategy failed to account for: 1) the performative aspects of the various kinds of speech events captured in the recorded texts, and 2) the contemporaneous circulation of printed Judeo-Arabic materials, many of which were published in Fez itself, written in Hebrew letters. By tracing the multiple modalities, both oral and written, through which Judeo-Arabic has been mediated and circulated, I argue that the language is situated at “crossroads of knowledge and power” that colonial ethnography failed to capture.

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