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.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Yes to Arabic! No to "Hi.. Keefak.. ça va?"!!

Photo credit: Aieman Khimji

It is no secret. I am big fan of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and I oppose all efforts to marginalize it and to replace it with the regional spoken dialects of the differnt countries in the Arab world. And I consider all moves by the regionalists as nothing else other than lack of knowledge of MSA and its capacity to capture the pulse of life on the Arab street. Yes. The spoken Damascus dialect is beautiful. Yes. The Egyptian accent is cute and popular. Yes. The Moroccan accent is intriguing to us, Levantine Arabs for the fact that it uses terms and phrases we are so unfamilar with. Yes. Gulf Arabic is so interesting to listen to when you get used to it (with its own regional variations!). But Modern Standard Arabic is the only version of Arabic that has the potential to pull us all together in communicating using our one Arabic language.

The British, the Irish, the Americans, the South Africans, the Aussies and the Kiwis all use one written English language, generally speaking, in their literature and general mainstream media, and we should be doing the same in the Arab world! Modern Standard Arabic is already an excellent medium of communication that has proven its capacity to accommodate the explosive growth of knowledge and information that we are witnessing today globally. This is clearly evident by the many existing pan-Arab media outlets (some of which are wildly popular across the Arab world) and that exclusively use MSA as their language of communication.

I cringe when I see arguments defending the use of the local spoken dialects in Arabic writing and literature and I especially puke when I see a defense of the use of foreign-language terms in daily life communications amongst Arabs, wherever they may be. The usual justification levelled against us, the proponents of Arabic in general (and MSA in particular), is that the spoken Arabic (sometimes mixed with English or other foreign-language words) better captures the meanings, because it is more commonly used by people in their homes and on the street. This in my opinion is nothing other than the result of what one gets used to growing up. I grew up watching children's programming in Syria in Modern Standard Arabic and I am totally comfortable with using that Arabic in communication. I can express myself perfectly in it and I do not feel that I lose anything by using it as opposed to using the local spoken dialect of the region my parents came from in Syria (which happens to be Sweida, in Southern Syria). It is one thing to know MSA very well and use it effectively when needed while at the same time strive for excellence in knowing and using other languages (such as English or French for example), and quite another not to be taught MSA well growing up, and then hide behind the thin veil of convenience and conformity with the customary in defending the use of a local spoken dialect admixed with foreign-language words and phrases.

I thought of all of this as I read this piece [AR] that was published recently in the Al Arabiya [AR] news website, reprinted [AR] from the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Qabas [AR]. Thanks to Egyptian blogger Tarek Amr (@gr33ndata) who brought it to my attention by retweeting a link to it on Twitter.

Here is an English translation of that piece which was written by Kuwaiti writer and blogger Dalaa al-Mufti [AR](pictured below)(I added some hyperlinks to the translated text for completion and for additional references):

"Hi .. keefak .. ça va?" 

Photo credit: al-Qabas
 "Hi .. keefak .. ça va?" is a phrase that people borrow and say jokingly from the spoken language used by the youth in Lebanon. The phrase mixes the three languages (English, Arabic and French) in one sentence [Keefak means "how are you?" in Arabic]. The problem however is no longer confined to Lebanon alone. The reason for this is that the foreign-language invasion has spread to all Arab countries from one end of the Arab world to the other. Squeezing in some foreign-language words in one's speech has become a sign of development and modernity. And those who speak Arabic only (oh, pity them), on the other hand, have become associated with backwardeness and ignorance!  
Charbel Rouhana, a fine Lebanese artist, has written and recorded a song titled "Hi .. Keefak .. ça va?" in which he criticizes those who cannot complete a conversation in Arabic without stuffing it with foreign-language words. He calls on people to express their feelings in Arabic. He says: "Hi .. keefak .. ça va .. where did you get this from, oh Lebanese? What's wrong with marhaba [hello in Arabic] or sabah el kheir [good morning in Arabic]?". I remembered this song when I heard an anchor on a private Kuwaiti television channel as she struggled to use a language that was a mixture of Arabic and English .. she kept repeating the word "coin" without being able to find its Arabic equivalent ('umla ma'adaniyya عملة معدنية). Most of our anchors have become like her, reliant on foreign-language terms in their television programs, leave alone the names of the programs themselves, most of which have become foreign-language names per se. 
The misfortune in all of this is that "Arabish" (or Arabic mixed with English) has become common in all Arab countries and in all parts of society, even amongst those who speak no other language; some for example would use a few foreign-language words to show off in front of people. Most adolescents write Arabic in Latin charaters in their electronic communications and on Facebook. 
Experts say that the side to blame first and foremost in this is the family. The reason for this is that it is customary for parents to use a foreign language at home in their communication with their kids. And when the kids go to school, they face difficulty in learning Arabic (and the teachers suffer the most because of this). Some parents even find it necessary to cancel Arabic language classes from their kids' curricula if they were holders of foreign passports (despite the Arab blood running in their veins!). 
There are those howerver who are blowing the whistle.. In Morocco for example, there is a Moroccan blog called "Bla Francia!" [AR] ("Without French!", in Arabic) that aims to shine the light at the gravity of the situation that the Arabic language has reached in Morocco. The blog calls on companies and the media in Morocco to spread the use of the national language (Arabic) in public life and in education. And in Lebanon, a campaign was launched by a society called "Feil Amr" [AR] (name literally means "command verb") in association with The Arab Thought Foundation [AR] to protect the Arabic language. The campaign was called "Behkeek min esh-shark, betred min el-gharb" [AR] «بحكيك من الشرق بترد من الغــرب» ("I talk to you from the East, you reply from the West") [this is a spoken dialect proverb that is used when your answer has nothing to do with the question I am asking- it is used here though with pun intended]. The campaign aims to strengthen the native (Arabic) language amongst people of the new generation, and to motivate them and encourage them to use Arabic in speech, in reading as well as in writing. 
Our speech is now foreign, as are our actions, our meals, the names of our stores and malls, and our television programs .. And until our Arabic language regains its glory of a bygone era, we might as well all sing with Charbel Rouhana .. "Express your happiness in Arabic, express your sadness in Arabic, sing about your love in Arabic .. talk about your nation in Arabic". 
*via the Kuwaiti al-Qabas newspaper

And perhaps nothing is more fitting than to end this posting with Charbel Rouhana's "Hi, keefak? ça va?". Here it is. Take a listen:

Video credit: Bla Francia