Tongue-tied Arabs

It is one of the most important Semitic world languages. One of the six official languages of the UN. The language of Ibn Arabis – and of the Koran. And yet Modern Standard Arabic is not very popular with native speakers. Why? Mona Sarkis has some of the answers

By Mona Sarkis

Every student of Arabic is familiar with this paradox: after years of cramming to master tricky Modern Standard Arabic, one travels to where the native speakers live only to discover that Arabs in fact speak everything imaginable – except for what is written in the textbook. Even a Syrian living on the west coast of the country sounds different from a Bedouin in the east. And both of them will get a blank look on their face when an Algerian asks them "Derangtak?" (Am I disturbing you?). Or when an Egyptian cheekily demands "Sbellaha!" (Try to spell that!). This is because the former expression is derived from the word "déranger" and is a leftover from French colonialism, while "sbellaha" comes from the English "to spell", proof of the persistence of the British influence over the decades. Syria, on the other hand, sees itself as "the heart of Arabism" and finds such gibberish simply unspeakable.

In fact, there are so many political, ethnic and also climatic dividing lines running through the Middle East that oral communication with all of its 360 million inhabitants is quite impossible. Not only for foreigners but even amongst Arabs themselves. And the various dialects are in a state of constant flux – young Tunisians, for example, are currently baffling retailers with new names for old familiar banknotes.

Arabic is flourishing, that is undeniable. But only the spoken word. Written Arabic in the meantime remains the preserve of a less well-frequented parallel universe. In the Gulf States, it has even been eclipsed by English: according to the Arab Youth Survey Report conducted in 2017 by the PR company Burson-Marsteller ASDA'A, 68 percent of all Gulf Arabs between the ages of 18 and 24 spoke more English than Modern Standard Arabic. This represents an increase of 12 percent compared to 2016.

WhatsApp versus Modern Standard Arabic

Twenty-five year-old Hammad Hussein from Doha knows just what's happening here: The English language is "more precise, snappier and right in step with the times," he contends. Modern Standard Arabic, by contrast, with its flowery vocabulary and complex sentence structures, "can't keep up at all" with our digitalised world full of bits and bytes. "Or have you ever tried to write a text message or WhatsApp in MSA?" asks the software engineer with a grin.

Social media use in Africa – here in Egypt (photo: Getty Images)
Im Schatten von Twitter, WhatsApp & Co.: Das Hocharabische kann mit seinem blumigen Wortschatz und den verschachtelten Satzbauten in einer digitalisierten Welt voller Bits und Bytes „gar nicht mithalten“. „Oder haben Sie schon einmal versucht, auf Hocharabisch eine SMS oder WhatsApp zu schreiben?“, fragt der 25-jährige Softwareingenieur Hammad Hussein.

Maher Fakhroo, 23 years old and a biotechnology student at Carnegie Mellon University Qatar (which, like many elite universities in Qatar, was modelled on U.S. institutions), takes a similar view: Modern Standard Arabic was codified in a region that has not contributed anything to modernity for a long time. It only takes one look at the list of modern Arab scientists on Wikipedia to see that all those who have achieved something have done so in the West, mostly in the USA. The Middle East, on the other hand, is backward, says Fakhroo, and its cumbersome standard language is a metaphor for this state of affairs.

Escape from entrenched identities

On the surface, this all sounds utterly pragmatic: young people in the affluent Gulf States enjoy an excellent education and share a desire to prove themselves in the global market. It is perfectly clear that they would be better advised to learn English than to stick with the language of the Koran.

However, there is much more at stake here than just professional self-fulfilment, sighs Hossam Abouzahr. The linguist knows what he's talking about: He himself was born in the USA after his father fled there in the seventies during the Lebanese Civil War. While living in Michigan, Abouzahr taught himself Modern Standard Arabic and fell so in love with the "unwieldy language" that he ended up launching in 2015 the online dictionary "Lughatuna" ("Our Language"), which displays the meaning of words in MSA as well as in the Levantine and Egyptian dialects.Abouzahr thinks that the reason he cultivates his Arab heritage so proudly – unlike many locals – is that he didn't grow up there. "After fleeing Lebanon, my father hated everything to do with the identity imposed on him by his homeland. Islam, Arabism, the whole Middle East. But no one in the USA ever dictated to me what Arab and Muslim identity had to mean. In an Arab country, you are immediately pigeonholed: 'Are you a Muslim Brother?' 'What do you think of the Copts?' 'What about the Kurds?' 'Are you a nationalist?' 'Why aren't you part of the community of this or that sheikh?'" Many young Arabs have had enough of this constant pressure, he says, and are now concentrating on foreign languages – as long as they have a chance at an education in the Gulf States or Lebanon. "This is the only way they can get their hands on coveted positions in international companies and escape the stranglehold of their own society," explains Abouzahr.

Modern Standard Arabic is therefore not something many people take pride in. But even worse is that so few find in it an enjoyable pursuit.

Boredom as main subject

This is mainly due to the Arab education system, which in all Arab states seems determined to systematically drive out any pleasure students might derive from learning their mother tongue by insisting on dull memorisation. And any explanation of how all the ornate letters might have something to do with real life is certainly not on the curriculum – despite a prolific Arabic literary tradition spanning centuries.

Visitors to the Cairo Book Fair in 2015 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Elfiqi)
Entmutigungsstrategie der Behörden für den Buchmarkt: 2011 erschienen rund 17.000 neue Titel - davon 2.400 Übersetzungen ins Arabische. Mit ihren 360 Millionen Einwohnern hat die arabische Welt demnach genauso viele Bücher produziert wie Rumänien mit seinen 21 Millionen Bürgern.

It's not as if Arabs do not know their authors. On the contrary: in contrast to those in the West, the average Arab citizen is able to recite verse upon verse by heart. The only question is – if someone quotes for example Al-Mutanabbi (ca. 915–965) as saying: "Fear is nothing other than what people think is fearful; security is felt wherever one believes oneself to be safe" – is he quoting the poet because he has learned Al-Mutanabbi's words by heart through constant memorisation, or because he actually agrees with the thinking of the eloquent Iraqi?

Is he, for example, aware that Al-Mutanabbi sympathised with the Qarmatians, a sect that established its own republic in Bahrain in the 9th century based on equality and community property, and which then ultimately propagated atheism and even stole the Kaaba from Mecca?

Today's leaders in the Middle East are clearly not interested in launching a knowledgeable discussion of such historical details. But there is also contemporary literature that is politically harmless yet written in a stirring manner. For example Ghada Abdelaal's "I Want to Marry", in which the young Egyptian sarcastically describes the ten marriage candidates she rejected, driving her mother to despair and causing her to have nightly conversations with the refrigerator.

Reading material like this has failed to make its way into the classroom. Abdelaal after all writes in Egyptian dialect, and Arab ministries of education do not want to make their neglect of Modern Standard Arabic official by promoting dialects. What may put them in an even more precarious position is that anyone who acquires a taste for reading might be encouraged to keep reading. Or even to write themselves.

Linguistic self-denial

Koran suras on a mirror in Morocco (photo: picture-alliance)
Wem gehört das Hocharabische? Wenn die Fähigkeit, sich der Schriftsprache geschickt zu bedienen im heutigen Mittleren Osten hauptsächlich politischen Despoten oder religiösen Eiferern vorbehalten ist, dann liegt die Gefahr der Manipulation auf der Hand. Längst schon diskutieren beispielsweise islamistische Extremisten darüber, wie man Plünderungen und Brandschatzungen religiös rechtfertigen kann.

Just how successful the authorities' strategy of discouragement has been is demonstrated by the Arab book market: in 2011 around 17,000 new titles were published, 2,400 of them translations into Arabic. With its 360 million inhabitants, the Arab world thus produced as many books as Romania with its population of 21 million.

It is hard to deny that the Arab regimes have fostered with their omnipresent censorship and meaningless school instruction a lack of interest in Modern Standard Arabic. But have they also spurred people's interest in their own dialect? So that we can speak of a kind of self-denial when it comes to speaking the standard language?

Abouzahr is convinced that this is the case. The Arabs have certainly always cultivated their dialects, he maintains, but in the last 70 years they have been ruled everywhere by autocrats who have brought them nothing but political anxiety and economic troubles. These rulers hold forth on every television channel and in every newspaper article in the standard language. It is understandable why this would fuel people's need for their own form of expression.

This often happens unconsciously, but sometimes also very consciously, says Abouzahr, citing Ahmad Fuad Negm. The Egyptian people's poet and lifelong revolutionary, who died in 2013, always wrote in dialect – "and his autobiography reads as though he were constantly giving the finger to the state authorities. It is no coincidence that during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 the demonstrators marched through the streets loudly quoting from his poem 'Who Are They and Who Are We?'" laughs Abouzahr.

In the final analysis, this leads to a question that is anything but amusing: who controls the written language? If the ability to use it skilfully is reserved mainly for political despots or religious zealots in today's Middle East, then the danger of manipulation is obvious.

Islamist extremists, for example, have long been discussing how to justify looting and pillaging in religious terms. As proof, they cite "Modern Standard Arabic" terms they have coined themselves.

Mona Sarkis

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor