Friday, December 17, 2010

The Middle East is critically ill

The verdict is out and you may have already heard it. The Middle East is critically ill. The Americans unwillingly reminded us of that recently, when one now-very-famous Australian leaked out some of their widely known so-called secrets. One of the leaked documents told us how some U.S. senators met with the doctor of Damascus last year and how he clearly advised them that the way to deal with the question of Middle East peace is similar to how a doctor treats a cancer. One has to treat the cancer, the doctor alluded, in order to "cure" the patient. Treating the symptoms alone won't cut it.

One very clever Israeli historian agrees with this expert medical opinion. Although he does not diagnose the illness as a cancer (he admits he's not a physician), he does agree that treating the symptoms only will not cure the patient:

"There is no demonstration against Zionism, because the European Parliament even regards the demonstration against Zionism as antisemitism. Imagine in the days of Apartheid South Africa if you were not allowed to demonstrate against the Apartheid in South Africa, but only against the Soweto Massacre. And this is still a great Israeli success, and Germany plays a very important role in this success, that the main problem and the main reason for the criminal policies, is not analyzed, is not discussed, is not touched upon, only the symptoms. I'm not a doctor, I'm not a physician, but I know that if you deal with the symptoms and not with the cause of the illness, you don't cure the patient". 

So as you see, our patient is very ill, and everyone seems to be scrambling to find a way to treat the symptoms of the illness, rather than the cause of it. But... is it really a cancer?

Well, here is what we know. We do know that the illness is deadly, and that it causes a lot of bleeding. When you look at some of the artistic depictions of the illness from the last century, you may think that it was a violent assault that resulted in a stab wound.

[Photo credit: Joseph Morris, shared by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence]

But that would be one heck of a recalcitrant stab wound that does not heal in 63 years! It's very hard to believe it was only a stab wound, but if you insist, some of the things that could cause non-healing in a stab wound like this are, secondary infection and/or persistence of a foreign body in the wound. While both of these complications are plausible explanations, there may be more to the story of the illness than that.

One alternate theory points to the fact that there is some evidence to suggest that an organ transplantation procedure was performed on the patient some time in the last century (around 1948), as per a prescription that was issued decades earlier by a British doctor whose name was Balfour. It is very likely that the illness is related to complications that resulted from that procedure. For the first time ever in the history of organ transplantations, they did the procedure not because the patient needed it (there was actually a clear contraindication to doing the procedure), but because, they said, it was essential for the survival of the transplanted organ ( i.e. the graft) itself.

Before an organ is transplanted, doctors suppress the immune system of the body so that the body does not reject the graft. The body was partially suppressed by its caretakers in this case, before the transplantation (in an attempt to ward off a rejection), but as everyone should have predicted, the body did severely reject the foreign graft. There was also severe trauma from the surgical procedure, and moreover, cells of the graft itself started to violenty attack the rest of the host body (they call this graft-versus-host disease or GvHD, for short).  It was another first in the history of organ transplantations that the graft-versus-host reaction actually started long before the transplantation procedure, and many doctors believe that was a reason why the rejection was so severe. And then, there was another very bad complication in this case, and which can occur in situations like this. It was the development of a cancer in the graft itself (they call this post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, or PTLD for short, and it happens because the immunity in the body is suppressed). The cancer took over some nearby areas of the body (with significant and sudden growth in 1967) and the attacks by the graft continued unabated on the neighboring organs since that time. And they continue to this very day.

Post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD): sudden growth in 1967
[Photo credit: Supreme Deliciousness, shared by a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic license]

This is not to say that doctors did not try to treat the illness at various points in time. There was an attempt by the Arabs at one point, for example, to use some kind of "chemotherapy" in 1973, but the effects of that treatment were short-lived.

The patient has been admitted to the intensive care unit many times so far since the beginning of the illness, but no good doctors have been allowed to take over the case. The doctors who have presided over the case have been incompetent. One of the recent ones goes by the name of George Mitchell, and he has been very incompetent in even treating the symptoms, let alone the core cause of the illness.

Everyone seems now to be waiting for some miracle to happen to cure the patient and everyone seems to be giving up, one way or another. This is because all involved parties utterly lack the credibility or the courage to suggest and pursue the therapy that could effect a cure. And just so we are all on the same page, the treatmet in this case does not, and should not, include radiation therapy. It is funny though how there is some evidence to suggest that cells of the graft are emitting some radioactivity themselves, as they attack the neighboring organs (and this is yet another first, in the world of transplantation medicine).

One piece of sad news is that a daughter of our patient and who goes by the name, Peace Process (born some time around 1991) had died, many believe, several years ago. Some believe she was stillborn, while others think she only died recently. Doctors in the West have denied (and will continue to deny) her death, but that denial is becoming more and more untenable as the days go by.  The British newspaper The Guardian, published a euology yesterday saying in it that Peace Process was dead, but that she has not been buried yet. I'll add and say, that an autopsy has not actually been requested on this case, because, as you might have guessed, the cause of death is known, and an autopsy would be redundant. Many are left wondering how the passing of Peace will affect our already critically ill patient.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Peace in the Middle East in the eyes of a physician

The reactions to the most recent leak (Secret US Embassy Cables) by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks continue to flood the media in all its forms.

One of the leaked secret cables was sent from the US Embassy in Damascus Jan 4, 2010 at 9:09 AM with the reference ID 10DAMASCUS8. Its subject was the December 30, 2009 meeting in Damascus between Dr. Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria and 6 visiting US Senators. Paragraph 4 of this cable quotes Dr. al-Assad (an ophthalmologist by training) as follows:

Calling for a fact-based approach to identifying the obstacles to peace, Asad likened the process to how a doctor should treat cancer.  Condemnations and mutual recriminations might be self-satisfying, but the cancer still grows unless the doctor is able to treat the root illness.

The title that the cable gave for paragraphs 2, 3 & 4 is "Doctor Asad:  Treat, Don't Condemn, the Illness".

I will have to say that it does not seem to me that the Americans are in any way heeding the doctor's advice. The patient remains in denial of the illness as we speak.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

How to Watch Syrian (and Some Other Arab) TV Channels Online

UPDATE (Nov 2, 2014): This posting is outdated. There are now several options to watch the official Syrian television channels online. Seven Syrian televisions channels can now be watched on the website of the General Organization of Radio and TV. The channels include, the Syrian Satellite Channel, Syrian TV Channel 1, Syrian News Channel, Syrian Drama Channel, Nour Ash-Sham TV, Talaqie Channel and the Syrian Educational Channel. The website also provides the option to watch the Syrian Satellite Channel and the Syrian News Channel on YouTube. You can also listen to one of 6 radio channels on the same site. 

The quality of the streams is very good. If you experience interruptions in the streams, check out the live streams on YouTube, as they tend to be more reliable. 

You can also try the GLArab website, although there is an ongoing problem with the sound in the streams when using a Mac computer. The channels open fine through the GLArab apps on mobile devices. 

As for the non-official Sama TV channel, its live stream can be watched on the Addounia TV website.

And you can watch the satellite TV broadcast of Syrian radio channel Sham FM, on the channel's website. 


Syrian actor Ayman Rida's keffiyeh is a little girl's dress with the girl in it! - Spotlight ... on Twitpic

As of this writing, the official stream of Syrian television from Syria is unreliable. And when you find a link that works, the quality of the stream is usually not very good. Both the Syrian Satellite Channel and the Syrian Drama Channel are available Free-to-Air in North America. In other words, all you need is a satellite dish and a receiver and you can watch the channels (and many others in Arabic or other languages) for free (i.e. no subscription required). But if you don't have a satellite dish for whatever reason, your other option is to watch the channels online, if you manage to find links to reliable streams.

I just found a website that provides streams of the 2 Syrian channels mentioned above (in addition to streams of 13 other Arabic television channels). The channels in that site are some of the same ones that are available Free-to-Air on satellite. The channels available include, Kuwait TV channel 1, Al Iraqiya (Iraq), Al Sharqiya (Iraq), Al Forat (Iraq), Al Alam (Iran), Qatar TV, Yemen TV [Ar], Oman TV, Jordan TV, 2M Morocco [Fr], Tunisie 7, Canal Algérie and Sharjah TV [Ar] (UAE).

The streams on the website are of somewhat better quality than others you can find elsewhere online. The website uses the Microsoft Silverlight web application framework.

Live stream of the Syrian Satellite Channel on

Live stream of the Syrian Drama Channel on

Actors r speaking the Latakia (Coastal) Syrian dialect in the series Laʿnat aṭ-Ṭ īn لعنة الطين (Curse of the Mud)... on Twitpic

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Syrian Song For And By The Folks With Special Needs

Syrian actor ʿAlāʼeddine ez-Zaibaq in the Syrian TV series... on Twitpic

If you happen to tune in to the Syrian Drama Channel these days you will hear an optimistic upbeat song that celebrates the individuals with special needs, playing repeatedly throughout the day. The programming on that channel (and other Syrian television channels) is addressing the issue of individuals with special needs at length. The occasion for this is that the 7th Special Olympics Middle East/North Africa Regional Games are being held in Syria as we speak, between September 24 and October 3, 2010. But not only that. More than one Syrian drama series this year addressed the topic of individuals with special needs.

The series titled Warāʼ aš-Šams وراء الشمس (Behind the Sun) is the most notable in this. It featured the life and the feelings of people who have Down syndrome and autism, and their families. The Syrian actor who played the role of ʿAlāʼ in that series (his real name is ʿAlāʼeddine ez-Zaibaq علاء الدين الزيبق; you can see him in the picture above on the left) has Down syndrome himself. And talented Syrian actor Bassām Kūsa بسّام كوسا brilliantly played the role of a character who has autism. This is the first time such a thing is brought to light in that manner in Syrian drama works. And as the media outlets in Syria celebrate the Special Olympics, Syrian TV is trying to bring everyone together to reflect on their experiences as they filmed (or watched) the episodes of the series. Participating in a work like this was apparently an eye opener for the actors who worked in the series, as it was also for many of the people who watched it. 

The song that you will see below was recorded from the Syrian Drama Channel using a handheld smartphone. I will replace the embedded video with a higher quality one if it becomes available. The song is in the Syrian (Damascene) dialect, and as you will see, the lyrics appear in Arabic at the bottom of the screen in the video. Individuals with special needs are an integral part of the video clip, as they dance and appear to also sing along some of the words in the song. Some of the the images in the video somewhat match the meanings of the phrases in the song. When the Arabic words say 'arm in arm' or 'hand in hand' or 'we fly' for example, the folks dancing in the video are acting these meanings out in the images. But you can also refer to the table below for a transliteration of the lyrics as well as an English translation of them. The transliteration was done in an attempt to be an honest representation of the exact way the words are said in the song in the Syrian dialect. 

Together Everything is
Maʿ Baʿḍ Kil Ši Biṣīr
مع بعض كل شي بيصير
When we're together, everything is possibleMaʿ baʿḍ kil ši biṣīr
مع بعض كل شي بيصير
Everything is more beautiful, everything is different Kil shi aḥla kil shi ġair
كل شي أحلى كل شي غير 
We build and we leave our
Mnebni we-mnetrok
منبني ومنترك بصمتنا
We stand arm in arm and then
we fly
īdaina w-minṭīr
منشبك إيدينا ومنطير
Hand in hand and we are
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna mneʼder
إيد بإيد ونحنا منقدر
Hand in hand and we
became friends
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna lfīna
إيد بإيد ونحنا لفينا
Hand in hand [and] life
becomes more beautiful
ʼĪd b-ʼīd d-dinyi bteḥla
إيد بإيد الدنيا بتحلى
And our future calls upon us
w-Mustaʼbalna bīnādina
ومستقبلنا بينادينا
Together we collect stars Maʿ baʿḍ minlemm njūm
مع بعض منلم نجوم
And we erase the clouds up above
w-Mnemḥi bil-ʿāli ġyūm
ومنمحي بالعالي غيوم
So that we get the moon to accompany us la-Nḫalli l-ʼamar
لنخلي القمر يرافقنا
Flying with us, hovering with us
Maʿna yrafref maʿna yḥūm
معنا يرفرف معنا يحوم
Hand in hand and we are
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna mneʼder
إيد بإيد ونحنا منقدر
Hand in hand and we became friends
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna lfīna
إيد بإيد ونحنا لفينا
Hand in hand [and] life becomes more beautiful ʼĪd b-ʼīd d-dinyi bteḥla
إيد بإيد الدنيا بتحلى
And our future calls
upon us
w-Mustaʼbalna bīnādina
ومستقبلنا بينادينا
Together we cultivate a farm Maʿ baʿḍ mnezraʿ bestān
مع بعض منزرع بستان
We make melodies out of a tune
Min naġmeh mneʿmel alḫān
من نغمة منعمل ألحان
We sing together for the future lal-Mustaʼbal sawa
للمستقبل سوى منغني
So that we liberate the human within us
la-Nḥarrer fīna l-ʼinsān
لنحرر فينا الإنسان
Hand in hand and we are
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna mneʼder
إيد بإيد ونحنا منقدر
Hand in hand and we became friends
ʼĪd b-ʼīd w-neḥna lfīna
إيد بإيد ونحنا لفينا
Hand in hand [and] life becomes more beautiful ʼĪd b-ʼīd d-dinyi bteḥla
إيد بإيد الدنيا بتحلى
And our future calls
upon us
w-Mustaʼbalna bīnādina
ومستقبلنا بينادينا

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Arabic Song That Deserves to Be Translated

It is not every day that you hear a song that touches your heart. Many songs that we come across on a daily basis strike us as non-creative or repetitive and pass us by without a trace. This is especially true when it comes to Arabic pop songs. So many songs nowadays sound similar and they also sound interchangeable. In other words, you can switch the songs around between the various singers and you do not feel that the songs would lose anything. Very few contemporary Arab singers have a distinct style and a distinct talent and who leave a prominent mark on the Arabic music scene that cannot be easily imitated.

This song, the subject of this posting, is a song that sets itself apart. It touched me when I first heard it. Its effect was amplified by watching the singer perform the song in the video clip. The meanings of the lyrics in Arabic coupled with the palpable emotions of the singer as he uttered them and add to this the attractive melody and the beat, all played a role in making this song distinctively moving.

The song is by renowned Lebanese singer Ahmad Kaabour and its title is Baddi Ġanni la n-Nās (I Want to Sing for People). A notable thing about the song is that it is based on the 1985 song "Chanter pour ceux qui sont loin de chez eux" by the late French singer Michel Berger. This is clearly stated in the credits of the Arabic video clip. You can watch the original French song at the bottom of this posting (below the table). Ahmad Kaabour was loyal to the original song. He styled his song in the same spirit and with the same melody. The first few sentences in the song are even the same as those in the original French song, but he then gives the Arabic song the distinct Arabic feel and touch by seeming to refer in it to the suffering that many Lebanese have seen in their country as a result of the wars and the turmoil their small country has witnessed in the past decades.

There is a possibility that some of the effect of the Arabic song may get lost in translation if one translates the lyrics. But here is an attempt to transcribe the Arabic lyrics, then transliterate them and then translate them to English. You can see the result in the table below. The song is in the Lebanese Arabic dialect and I tried to transliterate the words so that to replicate exactly how the words are uttered in that dialect. If you don't know Arabic or if you are learning Arabic I suggest listening to the song as you go down the list of the phrases in the column of your choosing in the table. I hope you enjoy the song as much as I did.

Ahmad Kaabour - Baddi Ghanni أحمد قعبور - بدي غني

I Want to Sing for People Baddi Ġanni la n-Nās بَدّي غنّي للناس
He who's lost in the night 'Elli b-laylu ġarʼān اِلّي بِلَيْلُه غَرقان
Gazing at the stars Sāreḥ bi-ha n-nejmāt سارحْ بِها النِّجمات
Hoping there's someone thinking of him Yetʼammal
innu fi mīn ʿam bi-fakker fī
يِتأَمّل إنّه في مين عم بِفكّر فيه
She who's fleeing war w-Elli harbāni mni l-ḥarb والّي هربانة من الحرب
Her fear way ahead of her Ḫawfa sābeʼha la bʿīd خوفها سابقها لَبعيد 
When she asks what happened Lamma tesʼal ʿalli ṣār لمّا تِسْأل علّي صار
Her mother tells her: Nothing ʼEmma tʼella māfi shi إمّها تْقِلّها ما في شي
There's death Fī mot في مُوت
I scream but there's no voice Biṣruḫ mā b-yeṭlaʿ ṣot بِصْرُخ ما بيِطْلَع صوت
There's death Fī mot في موت
How do I sing when there is no voice? Kīf b-ġanni w-māli ṣot? كيفْ بْغَنّي ومالي صوت؟
I want to sing for people Baddi ġanni la n-nās بَدّي غنّي للنّاس
Who have no people 'Elli mā ʿendon nās اِلّي ماعِنْدُن ناس
And they were the root of things w-Kānu hinni l-asās وكانوا هنّي الأساس
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
And I want to sing for lands w-Baddi ġanni la-blād وبدّي غنّي لبْلاد
Whose people are in other lands Ahla bi-ġair blād أهلها بِغِير بْلاد
And who forgot what holidays are like w-Nisyet ṭaʿm el-ʼaʿyād ونِسْيِت طعم الأعياد
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
Who launches a war Mīn elli b-šinn el-ḥarb مين اِلّي بشِنّ الحرب
In the name of human rights? b-'Esm ḥʼūʼ el-ʼensān? باسم حقوق الإنسان؟
Declares it in the name of the Lord b-Yeʿlenha bi-'esm er-rabb بيِعْلنْها باسم الرب
And he abandoned the Lord long ago w-Bāyeʿ rabbu min zamān وبايع ربُّه من زمان
Who converted this Earth Mīn elli ḥawwal hal-ʼarḍ مين الّي حوّل هالأرض
To a miserable injured planet? la-Kawkab bāʼes majrūḥ? لكوْكب بائس مجروح؟
And stabbing it all over  w-Byeṭʿanha ṭūl w-ʿarḍ وبيِطعنها طول وعرض
And the stab reaches the soul weṭ-Ṭaʿneh b-tūṣal lar-rūḥ والطعنة بتُوصل للروح
There are wounds Fi jrūḥ في جروح
Most painful wound is wound of the soul w-ʼAṣʿab jerḥ jerḥ er-rūḥ وأصعب جرح جرح الروح
There are wounds Fi jrūḥ في جروح
I really don't want to go Ya ʿammi ma baddi rūḥ ياعمّي ما بَدّي روح
I want to sing for people Baddi ġanni la n-nās بدّي غنّي للناس
Who have no people 'Elli mā ʿendon nās اِلّي ماعنْدُن ناس
And they were the root of things w-Kānu hinni l-asās وكانوا هنّي الأساس
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
And I want to sing for kids w-Baddi ġanni la-wlād وبدّي غنّي لَولاد
Who have never lived as kids b-ʿOmron mā ʿāšu wlād بعُمرن ما عاشوا ولاد
And who'd stayed in this world as kids w-Beʼyu b-ha d-dinyi wlād وبِقيوا بها الدِّنيِة ولاد
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
I want to sing for people Baddi ġanni la n-nās بدّي غنّي للناس
Who have no people 'Elli mā ʿendon nās اِلّي ماعنْدُن ناس
And they were the root of things w-Kānu hinni l-asās وكانوا هنّي الأساس
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
And I want to sing for kids w-Baddi ġanni la-wlād وبدّي غنّي لولاد
Who have never lived as kids b-ʿOmron mā ʿāšu wlād بعمرن ما عاشوا ولاد
And who'd stayed in this world as kids w-Beʼyu b-ha d-dinyi wlād وبِقيوا بها الدِّنيِة ولاد
But how do I sing? How? Lākin kīf b-ġanni kīf? لكن كيف بغَنّي كيف؟
Who have never lived as kids b-ʿOmron mā ʿāšu wlād بعمرن ما عاشوا ولاد
And who'd stayed in this world as kids w-Beʼyu b-ha d-dinyi wlād وبِقيوا بها الدِّنيِة ولاد
But how ... Lākin kīf ...  ... لكن كيف 

Chanter pour ceux qui sont loin de chez eux - Michel Berger

Monday, August 16, 2010

Standard Arabic Is Alive And Well And Is Here To Stay

This posting is a sequel to the one posted on this blog two days ago under the title "'Linguistic Democratization' of the Arabic Language is not the Way" and which was written in response to an article that was published in the English language UAE-based newspaper The National, titled "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated", by author of the Lebanese politics Qifa Nabki blog Elias Muhanna. My posting resulted in additional interesting discussion, including comments by Elias Muhanna (including this comment, and this comment) and by Benjamin Geer (including this comment and this comment). You can read my replies here, here and here.

In one of his comments, Benjamin Geer commented on the situation of Fus'ha (Modern Standard) Arabic in Egypt (in response to my comments on the situation in Syria) by saying:
"As you’re probably aware, the situation in Egypt is very different from what you describe. It’s very rare, in my experience, to find an Egyptian intellectual who is comfortable speaking fusha. This is reflected when Egyptians participate in debates on Arab satellite TV: while a Moroccan participant will speak fusha, an Egyptian participant typically speaks only in Egyptian dialect. Moreover, this seems to cause no problems in practice." 
In my reply, I attempted to speculate on why this may be the case:
 "[--] I am aware of the situation of Fus’ha amongst Egyptians. But I do not see that as a flaw in Fus’ha Arabic. I see it as the result of how the Egyptian educational system sets its priorities. I always get the feeling that there is less public emphasis in Egypt on pan-Arabism (and as result on Fus’ha Arabic), when compared to the situation in other Arabic countries, such as Syria (or even Libya or Algeria, to mention other examples). There is celebration in Egypt of ‘Egyptness’, if you will, more than there is of pan-Arabism. And that perhaps is reflected in how Arabic is used in public life and education in that country. Fus’ha Arabic, in comparison, is nurtured at a very young age in the Syrian educational system, and the emphasis persists throughout the stages of learning of Syrian students all the way until — and including — university education. All specialties and fields in the public Syrian universities (including higher education) are taught in Fus’ha Arabic. All the curricula are in Arabic. As I mentioned previously, I studied medicine in Syria in Arabic, for example (cf. medicine is taught in English in Egypt and many other Arabic countries). But not only that. Fus’ha Arabic is also celebrated in the media and in public life in Syria. Yes, you do see the local dialects celebrated in the widely popular Syrian drama works that have made the Syrian dialect(s) familiar to other Arabs, for example, but you also find Fus’ha Arabic widely used and supported officially in Syria in the media and in other public life activities. There is no online Syrian portal that I know of that writes in colloquial Syrian. And for the readers of this blog to see how (and what kind of ) Fus’ha prevails as a language of communication in Syria, all you have to do is look at some Syrian websites, as examples (such as or There is no way that any literate Syrian — who is living in or who grew up in Syria — would find difficulty in reading the sort of Standard Arabic used in the likes of the websites mentioned above."
 In the same comment Benjamin Geer further wrote:
Why do you see a need for a single standardized written language? Isn’t the purpose of language to enable people to understand each other? If a Jordanian can understand Egyptian dialect, and an Egyptian can understand Jordanian dialect (at least when it is somewhat formal, or “moderate”, as you put it), why shouldn’t each person speak and write in their own dialect?
Moreover, hasn’t this already been happening for a long time? Egyptian films are popular all over the Arab world. Throughout the twentieth century, most Egyptian writers have written narrative in fusha and dialogue in ammiyya. Therefore, it is necessary to know Egyptian dialect in order to understand most modern Egyptian literature. Where is the “chaos” in this? Why should Egyptians struggle to master fusha when everyone already understands their dialect anyway?
My response to that included the following:

Dialects in the Arab World.

Photo Credit: Arab League. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license
"[-] Let’s first start by looking at a map showing the different dialects of Arabic in the Arab World [-] . To my mind, just looking at that map makes me think that your suggestion is impractical. Yes, most Arabs understand the Egyptian dialect when it is spoken, thanks to the popularity of Egyptian television and cinema works in the past decades, but Egyptian dialect does not come in one flavor. There is “Egyptian Arabic” and there is “Sai’di Arabic” and there are probably some variants of both. I do not see it as practical that you adopt a policy in which everyone officially writes in their own dialects. But even if you want to do that, you will need standardization. You cannot in any language have people just spelling words or writing sentences any way they like. If you look at how Arabs write in their spoken dialects in social media, you will see that their spellings are so variable, and your understanding of their text will depend largely on your knowledge of their dialect and your interpretive skills that will allow you to read correctly what the writer intended to say by their spelling (based on the context of the topic they are addressing). This is hardly a recipe for success. You will eventually need standardization in the written language, and good luck standardizing the writing of the soup of Arabic dialects we have in the Arab World. Moreover, what do the other Arabs, whose dialects are so unfamiliar to other Arabs, do? How are others going to understand them if they write in their own dialect (provided that they decide on which dialect or variation thereof to adopt, and that they standardize the writing in it)?
My problem in accepting your reasoning is that I see Fus’ha Arabic in action elsewhere and all over the place. Fus’ha is the standard version of Arabic. Yes. Arabic is diglossic, but that is the nature of the language. If there are deficiencies in how some Arabs are learning or using the language, the flaw is not in the language, but rather in the people and in the educational systems. Fus’ha Arabic (and not any other dialect) is the officially recognized language in the United Nations and other international bodies. It is the language of media and literature. It is a beautiful and expressive language that is deeply rooted in Arabic culture and history. Abandoning Fus’ha Arabic and replacing it with the written colloquial or any beautified version of the latter to make it look and sound close to Fus’ha will not succeed. One reason for this may also be that religion is important in the traditionally conservative Arabic societies in most Arabic countries, and you would see, if you flip through the Arabic satellite channels in the current month of Ramadan, that Fus’ha Arabic is not only the language of communication of news and other educational and informational programming, but it is also the main version of Arabic used in religious programming and religious speech. That will definitely not change."
One of the points raised by Elias Muhanna was that being able to read and comprehend Fu'sha Arabic is not the same as being able to write in grammatically correct Fus'ha:
"Receptive competencies are different than productive competencies. It’s one thing to be able to read a newspaper, but it’s quite another to be able to write a newspaper article, or even a grammatically correct Facebook message!"
This is true, but is it really a reasonable expectation that all Arabic-speakers should be equally good Arabic language writers? This is how I said that in my comment:
"[--] not all Arabs really, need to be professional writers, who are proficient in writing excellent and perfect Fus’ha Arabic. Not all Americans, for example, are proficient in writing essays or novels in English. Why should our expectation be different for Arabic speakers?"
At the end of my comment, I mentioned the Arabic-language drama series Thākirat al-Jasad which is currently showing on Arabic TVs.
"It may be too early to tell, but I would like to mention as an example, that the Arabic television series Thākirat al-Jasad [Memory in the Flesh] (based on the book by Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanemi) showing this month on some Arabic channels like Abu Dhabi TV, uses Fus’ha as its language [-], and the series appears to me to be quite popular amongst Arab viewers. I wonder if there are many Arabs watching that series who find the language to be difficult. I strongly doubt it.
Fus’ha is alive and well and is here to stay, and the only way forward, in my opinion, is to improve the systems and the curricula that teach it."

Actors in the Arabic language series Thākirat al-Jasad speak Modern Standard Arabic

Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's Not All About Jokes When It Comes To The Syrian City of Homs

If you are a Syrian or you are familiar with Syrian culture, the one thing that you would surely know about the central western Syrian city of Homs (Hims) is that people make jokes about it. The typical joke is about "The Homsi" (el-Homsi; the man from Homs) who says this or that or does this or that, for a ridiculously funny reason. This is the equivalent to the popular Egyptian jokes about the people of Upper Egypt, or the Sa'idis or the other stereotypical jokes in other parts of the world, such as Irish jokes or blonde jokes.

But the reality of the Homsi personality cannot be farther from the stereotype depicetd in the 'Homsi jokes'. If you happen to know people from Homs, they may be some of the most vibrant, intelligent and lively people you know. That is certainly my experience with the people from Homs that I have met in university or later on in my life.

If you look at Syrian television drama works, you find that most personalities other than the famous and popular Damascene personality (e.g. the one you see in the popular Syrian series Bab al-Hara) are really underrepresented. This was also true for example of the Aleppine personality, until several television drama works started to appear and that used the northern Syrian city of Aleppo as the background for its events and that hence accordingly adopted the Aleppine dialect as the one used by its characters. An example of this would be the Syrian series Khan al-Harir [Ar] of 1996, the events of which took place in the famous Aleppine neighberhood that bears the same name, between the years 1955 and 1961. But the representation of the other regional Syrian dialects in Syrian drama series remained incidental and sketchy at best, and was mainly exemplified by the occasional inclusion of characters that conversed using some local Syrian dialect such as the local Latakia (Coastal) dialect or the Southern (Sweida) dialect, for example. When it comes to the Homsi dialect, one personality that stands out in my memory is that of Farhan in the Syrian comedy series "Aileh Khams Njoom" [Ar] (Five-Star Family) of 1993, that was performed by talented Syrian actor Fares al-Hilou [Ar].

Theme song of the Syrian comedy series "Aileh Khams Njoom" (Five-Star Family) (1993)

Now, and for the first time ever, the Homsi dialect is the one used in an entire Syrian drama series titled "Wadi es-Sayeh" (The es-Sayeh Wadi; وادي السايح), the events of which take place in Homs after 1967 (the year Arabs call the year of the Setback or al-Naksah, because of the huge loss they suffered in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967), up to 1970 (the year in which pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser died). The social drama series bears the name of a prominent area in the old city of Homs. The name historically refers to a wadi that used to collect water, located to the east of the old city's wall. The wadi used to serve as a protective barrier for the city. The series aims to illustrate the impact the events of 1967 had on Homsi society (which is pretty representative of societies in the Arab World during that time). Several Syrian actors participated in this series including [Ar] Zuhair Abdul Karim [Ar]¸ Abdul Rahman Abul Qasem [Ar], Husam Eid [Eid], Jiana Eid [Ar], Sahar Fawzi [Ar], Lina Karam [Ar] and others. The work was directed by Syrian director Mohamad Badrakhan. It was written by Faculty of Sharia graduate and mosque Imam [Ar] Sheikh Hasan al-Hakim.

According to the Arabic-language portal Discover Syria [Ar], Wadi es-Sayeh is being shown on Syrian TV in the current month of Ramadan.

Old Clock in the city of Homs, Syria.

Photo Credit: Bo yaser. Shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Linguistic Democratization' of the Arabic Language is not the Way

I read with interest yesterday the piece titled "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated" in the English language UAE-based newspaper The National written by author of the Qifa Nabki blog Elias Muhanna. Many thanks to Portland-based Arabic language teacher Sarah Standish who brought it to my attention. It was enjoyable to read that piece, but the line of reasoning towards the end of the article started to contradict what I believe in. And when I saw that piece being retweeted today in my Twitter timeline, I found myself coming here to write these words. I agree with the title of the piece that "The death of Arabic is greatly exaggerated", but I disagree with the details that you see in the argument laid out in the article (more towards the latter part of it).

The author quotes Kristen Brustad, a professor at the University of Texas who alludes in her argument to the variety of communicative styles Arabs use in their interaction on the non-traditional media platforms such as online social networking sites and to the language used by Arabs on the many satellite television channels that broadcast in Arabic (there are more than 500 such channels). The argument goes to call for bridging the gap (between the familiar spoken Arabic and the unfamiliar Standard or Fus'ha Arabic) in language instruction in the Arab World by "incorporating material from the spoken idioms into language instruction". Kristen Brustad is quoted again as saying that what schools need is “the same kind of linguistic democratisation that is pervading communicative spaces like the internet and satellite television.” 

Distribution of Arabic as a Majority language in the Arab World. [Public domain image on Wikipedia]

I cannot disagree more. This proposal sounds like annoying heavy metal music to my Syrian ears. I do not know what satellite channels Kristen Brustad is looking at, but the vast majority of those 500 Arabic-speaking satellite television channels are not of good quality, and the most credible and popular pan-Arab satellite channels that I know of (such as the Al Jazeera Arabic Channel for example) use Fus'ha almost exclusively as their language of communication. Channels like these not only prove that Modern Standard Arabic can be successfully and brilliantly used as a standard communication medium amongst Arabs regardless of their country of origin, but that also the language is flexible enough to accommodate the continuously proliferating new technical foreign-language terminology, that the opponents of Arabic point to as one big obstacle that faces the Arabic language today. For me as a native Arabic speaker who grew up in a country that strongly promotes Fus'ha Arabic, the original new foreign language terms are as unfamiliar to me as the corresponding newly-Arabized or newly-coined Arabic terms. It is all a matter of habit in using the terms. If all you will do is look at the terms as a critical outsider and never attempt to use them or improve them, they will forever remain unfamiliar to you.

And I cannot even start to imagine how mediocre a curriculum of any subject in school will be in an Arab country if they start incorporating material from the spoken idioms in the formal language of instruction. It is unimaginable that that will ever happen, and especially not in Syria! And just to clarify, we are talking here about the language of instruction in the Arabic countries for the native Arabic speakers. Teaching spoken dialects to the non-native Arabic speakers is a whole different issue!

Here is my comment on this that I left on the Qifa Nabki blog quoted here for completion:

Why do you all ignore the Syrian example in this? The Syrians have done something right to make Fus’ha easy and accessible to Syrians. Think what you may of the Syrian education system, but Syrians can probably use Fus’ha with much more ease compared to some Arabs in other Arabic countries.
I enjoyed reading the piece in The National, but the author lost me towards the end. I disagree with the conclusion and with the premise of Kristen Brustad’s opinion on this as quoted in the article. “linguistic democratisation” is not the solution, and especially not for native Arabic speakers.
The solution is in teaching Fus’ha the way it should be taught. The Syrians have a good thing going in that area in my opinion, and their example should be examined and perhaps followed. Yes. I agree that Arabic is healthy, but in a different way. Isn’t the Fus’ha-speaking Al Jazeera Arabic the most watched news channel in the Arab World? Don’t all its competitors in the Arab World and the West use Fus’ha to speak to Arab viewers. Don’t all [respectable] media portals in the Arab World write and publish in Fus’ha? What version of Arabic do you all read in the ubiquitous Arabic-language newspapers that are published in or outside the Arab World?
The brilliance of the Syrian example is that Fus’ha and the spoken dialect co-exist seamlessly in communication both in daily life and in instruction, but when it comes to published material and curricula, Fus’ha is what rules.
For clarification, I was born in Syria. I lived there most of my life. I studied medicine in Arabic in Syria before moving to North America in the late 90s.

Jerusalem Tells Its Story. I Am Jerusalem -- Ana al-Quds

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan visits us every year and brings with it many things including a plethora of Arabic drama works that crowd the sky of Arabic satellite television channels. The month is really a marathon of so many Arabic drama series that are absolutely impossible for anyone to watch in their entirety.  Several works stand out at the end of Ramadan each year as ones that have attracted the most viewers and that have left the biggest impact on Arab audiences. An example from last year would be the Syrian television series Bab al-Hara which was watched by tens of millions of people. It remains to be seen which series will stand out at the end of Ramadan this year.

Syrian actors Karis Bashar (L) and Abed Fahd (R) in Ana al-Quds

One of the the noteworthy series this year is the joint Syrian-Egyptian drama production Ana al-Quds (I Am Jerusalem), which took al-Khatib brothers (film director and co-scenarist Basel al-Khatib and his brother co-scenarist Talid al-Khatib) three years to prepare. The drama work chronicles the story of the city of Jerusalem in the 50 years between 1917 (when Jerusalem was captured by the British Army in the process of fulfilling the infamous Balfour Declaration) and 1967 (the year in which East Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War).

Egyptian actor Farouk al-Fichawi in Ana al-Quds

The series tells the story of the Jerusalemites who lived in the city and what happened to them in those stormy 50 years of the city's history. In an interview with al-Jazeera Arabic television channel in April of 2010, co-scenarist Talid al-Khatib pointed out the fact that not many Arabs today seem to know details of the Palestinian story:
"It is regrettable that despite the abundance of publications, literature, photographs and songs about Palestine, one finds that the knowledge of the Arab citizen regarding the Palestinian cause almost resembles perhaps that of the citizen of Japan"
The importance of the work stems also from the fact that one easily finds parallels between the historical events that took place in those crucial 50 years and what continues to go on today on the ground in occupied East Jerusalem. This is what director Basel al-Khatib was alluding to when he said:
"We would like in this series to shine the light on the city and to show how Palestine and Jerusalem were lost, especially in light of what continues to go on today in Jerusalem, including the Judaization of the city and the expulsion [by the Israeli authorities] of its Palestinian inhabitants; it's as if the scenario has been repeating itself now for many years"
The title of the work "I Am Jerusalem" was chosen to represent the idea that the city is telling its story by itself through the characters in the series. Filming was done in Syria in areas that have a climate similar to that of Jerusalem [Ar] including the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Safita and the Syrian village of Mashta al-Helou. The cast includes prominent actors from Syria (including Abed Fahd and Karis Bashar) and Egypt (including Farouk al-Fichawi).

Promo of Ana al-Quds [Video Credit: Fadi Qadi]

You can watch the 30-episode series during Ramadan on one of several Arabic television channels including [Ar] the Syrian Satellite Channel [Ar], Algerian TV, al-Manar TV and Melody Drama. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Heroism of a Syrian-American to be Showcased in a Hollywood Film

Photo credit:

In the last week of August of 2005, the city of New Orleans was devastated by what turned out to be one of the  five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Hurricane Katrina flooded 80% of the city and killed 1,836 people. One man who decided not to leave the city was Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun. He stayed behind to protect his property and his business.

Abdulrahman's experiences were brought to light by best-selling author Dave Eggers who published his book Zeitoun in 2009. In the aftermath of the hurricane, and when most of the city was underwater, Abdulrahman paddled silently in a canoe, delivering supplies to those who needed them and helping those whom he could help.

A film version of the book is now in the works and is due to be released in 2011. The film is an animated film that carries the same title, Zeitoun. American filmmaker Jonathan Demme is the director. The New York Times Arts Beat blog interviewed Demme about this back in October, 2009:

“I was staring at the book,” Mr. Demme said in a telephone interview, “and there’s this wonderful line drawing on the cover, the character of Zeitoun in his canoe, paddling through a submerged neighborhood. And I suddenly imagined, What if we could do an animated film and visualize the experiences of the Zeitoun family and all of New Orleans?” 

In a recent report on this, the Arabic-language news portal said [Ar] that the production is by Syrian-American businessman Jamal Daniel and that the cost of the film will be around $20 million.

The report also said that Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the brother of the Syrian swimming World Champion Mohamad Zeitoun about whom Syrian blogger Abufares had this to say, on his blog:

There's a tomb at the far end of the Corniche in Jableh, Syria. It is the resting place of 23 year old Mohamad Zeitoun (1941-1964), by far the most accomplished Syrian athlete of all times. 
Mohamad Zeitoun, Syrian long distance swimmer, went on to become an international legend as 3 times World Champion (1960, 1961 and 1964).

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was also born in Jableh, Syria in 1957.  He worked in construction according to He then traveled and worked as a sailor on Greek ships in 1974. In 1988, he settled in New Orleans, Louisiana where he worked as a contractor. There he met his wife Kathy and they had four kids.