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.