Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Decay of Arabic

For me this is a very topical post. Many intellectuals are lamenting the decline of the Arabic language...but what do they mean by that? From observation I see more books than ever being published in the Arabic language and enjoying a huge success amongst audiences all over the Arab world. So this leads me to believe that the intellectuals mean we are witnessing the destruction of classical Arabic, fusha, the standardised Arabic .
Sadly this is indeed the case, perhaps for the mere fact that schools have been unable to provide the kind of education their students needed to achieve a real mastery of the language. For instance, those who attended language schools with me in Egypt during the 80s have most frequently finished school without mastering either English/ French nor Arabic. Indeed a sad state of affairs. A recent conversation with the Principal of Choueifat also revealed that even those willing to pay out thousands are not achieving the kind of standards needed to really be called a linguist.

But in anycase do we really need to be clinging to fusha? As potent as the ideology of a single unifying language has been for centuries, there are growing indications that it may finally be falling by the wayside. But as Layla Ahmed this may be lending a greater excuberance to the texts being published:

"I had always felt that English was somehow close and more kin to Egyptian Arabic than was standard Arabic. Until now this had seemed to me to be a nonsensical, unreasonable feeling. Now I realized that in fact English felt more like Egyptian Arabic because it was more like it: both are living languages and both have that quickness and pliancy and vitality that living spoken languages have and that the written Arabic of our day does not. I have yet to hear or read any piece of Arabic poetry or prose by a modern writer that, however gorgeous and delicate and poetic and moving, is not also stilted and artificial. There is a very high price to pay for having a written language that is only a language of literature and that has only a distant, attenuated connection to the living language.

I am not, I should say, implicitly arguing that we should do away with or stop teaching standard Arabic, for of course I recognize its usefulness as a lingua franca. And I know too how complicated the issue is, among other reasons because Classical Arabic (albeit different again from Standard Arabic) is the language of the Quran, and I know that many major writers of literary Arabic — including Naguib Mahfouz — consider literary Arabic, the Arabic of the educated classes, to be the only acceptable vehicle for literature. So I am certainly not arguing against our continuing to teach, study and learn literary Arabic. I am, however, making a plea for a recognition of the enormous linguistic and cultural diversity that makes up the Arab world. And I am arguing for our developing a creative approach that, instead of silencing and erasing the tremendous wealth that this diversity represents, would foster it and foster the development, on at least an equal footing with standard Arabic, of written forms of Moroccan, Gulf, Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian, and other Arabics, and also of the non-Arabic living languages of the region, such as Nubian and Berber. European nationalists have devastated their own local languages — Welsh, Scots, Breton — languages now struggling to make a comeback. Let us avoid that history. Let us find a way to celebrate, and rejoice in, this wealth and diversity that is ours, instead of setting out to suppress it."
Meanwhile the Lebanese government is doing what it can to save the language. 

In the Gulf, with the scores of English speaking expats flocking to their shores for economic purposes and English remaining at the front of business, economy and more and more in everyday life, Professors are becoming alarmed that Arabic may disappear all together. This would render Sati el Husri's definition of an Arab meaningless.
Every individual who belongs to the Arab countries and speaks Arabic is an Arab. He is so, regardless of the name of the country whose citizenship he officially holds. He is so, regardless of the religion he professes or the sect he belongs to. He is so,regardless of his ancestry, lineage or the roots of the family to which he belongs to. He is an Arab.

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