Globalisation- a problem or solution for Arabic?

Globalisation Last month I posted a comment written by SLC with regards to the similarities between the Arabic and Greek diglossic situations, today I post the third and final part of our discussion below. This part delves into the role globalisation may play in the current situation (confusion, uncertainty) of the Arabic language, and it is in response to a point I made……

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Now on to your next point, about whether globalisation is to blame for the current problems of Arabic:

“One may argue that globalisation has nothing to do with it, you just have to look at China, Russia, Germany and all the other very modern, very successful countries who have maintained their mother tongues …”

Yes, I agree, and I’d like to add Japan to your list of examples. Japan has been fully engaged with globalisation for several generations now, including an American military occupation with enough cultural influence to make baseball and American football into popular sports with a mass audience. Japanese has also adopted thousands of loanwords from English. Yet if you are Japanese you can describe yourself as a “sarariman” with a “modan-na gaarufurendo” (a salary-man with a modern girlfriend) without feeling your language is under threat at all. Indeed more than half of the Japanese vocabulary already consists of loanwords from Chinese, but even over many centuries the Japanese have never seemed in any danger of being culturally overwhelmed by China. The Japanese language has simply evolved structures that enable loanwords to fit comfortably into a Japanese sentence. (The “-na” in my example is one of these. It gives the loanword “modan” that distinctive halfway-to-being-a-verb quality that Japanese adjectives have, and works equally well with loanwords from any language.) The Japanese language is in no danger at all despite military disaster, occupation, globalisation, and tens of thousands of loanwords.

So, for example, the Japanese took ‘pocket’ and ‘monster’, adapted them to Japanese phonology as ‘poketto’ and ‘monsutaa’, abbreviated them to ‘poke-mon’, and sent them back to us as the global Pokemon franchise. This is how language exchange should be: playful and relaxed, both sides gain, and both languages are enriched. Language exchange is definitely not a zero-sum game, where a gain for one is by definition a loss for the other.

The same thing applies to the rest of culture in general. The Japanese took Western comic books and cartoon films, gave them a uniquely Japanese flavour and sent them back to us as manga and anime, now global in their turn. This is what a healthy linguistic culture is like; it doesn’t cower away from foreign influences, blaming them for everything that goes wrong in the country. Instead it embraces those cultural imports, improves them and sends them right back out again.

The often cited ‘globalisation fact’ that “Computer manuals are all in English” is not too much of a problem for the Japanese either, since their language has already assimilated all the technical vocabulary as loanwords. The Japanese for “error log” is “eraa rogu”. So when a Japanese computer engineer reads an English manual, he is already familiar with all the technical terms. Together with some basic English grammar remembered from school, this is usually enough to get by. Notice how much more difficult all this would have been if some purist National Language Academy had enforced the use of invented words based on Japanese roots for things like “error log”.

So the Japanese language, full of loanwords though it is, still feels completely Japanese, and one of the things that gives it that quality is its uniquely rich system of registers, or politeness levels. (This is where I come back to the idea of registers …) I won’t describe any of the details here, just point to the Wikipedia article on Keigo. But the important thing is that wherever you are on the politeness spectrum, from barking a reprimand to a military subordinate at the bottom, up to formally congratulating the Emperor at the top, the basic sentence structure doesn’t change. As you go up the scale the vocabulary changes (often in several steps, and even for quite basic words like “I” and “do”), and the phrasing grows longer and more flowery, but there is never a step-change in the grammar like a different way of expressing “not”, or the sudden introduction of a new set of inflections (as there would be in switching up from ECA to MSA). This means that you have quite a fine-grained control of politeness level; whatever nuance of social position you want to assert, there will be suitable language available.

When you’ve seen the way Japanese handles such an elaborate system of levels so smoothly, you realise that code-switching in Arabic is doing something linguistically quite different (although of course with the same social purpose); it is mixing two different languages, with nothing in between (or at best embedding chunks of one language in sentences of the other). There’s a simple way to demonstrate this. In Japanese, about halfway up the politeness spectrum, there is a ‘Neutral Polite’ style. This is the one that foreigners always learn first; everyone will understand you, you won’t offend anyone, and native-speakers won’t feel awkward replying to you at the same level (this is the only level I personally can use with any competence). Of course all languages with registers have a neutral polite level like this; it’s just particularly well-defined in Japanese.

But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them.

Again, I can think of only one parallel for this situation, and it is 1880s Greece, when even the most talented writers like Roidis and Xenopoulos struggled in vain to find a usable formality-level in between katharevousa and demotic. It’s not coincidence that Roidis was driven to coin the word ‘diglossia’ in 1885 to describe this unusual – and in his opinion, thoroughly unsatisfactory – split between the two forms of his language.

Right then, that’s the end of my digression on the register-spectrum vs separate-languages question. Now back to globalisation!

Despite the wealth of counter-examples provided by other countries, I know that some people do still claim that globalisation is the threat. Here’s one from bikyanews.com on 8th May 2013:

“DUBAI: United Arab Emirates Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan said on Thursday that the greatest threat to the Arabic language, as well as Islam, was the rising influence of globalization and the shrinking of the world.”

If I’d been invited to the conference he was opening (on the theme “Arabic Language in Danger: All Are Partners in Protection”) I would have asked: “Other countries have been much more exposed to globalisation than the Arab world, until recently at least, without their languages being weakened. Indeed some of them (like Japanese) thrive on it. The influence of English is the same for everybody. So if globalisation really is the threat, what makes Arabic so much more vulnerable to it than all the other languages?”

I’d then have presented the best counter-example of all: the Arabic and Muslim culture of the Abbasid Golden Age itself, when Islam and especially the institution of the Hajj promoted international links, which shrank the world, facilitated trade, and allowed Islam in turn to spread along the trade routes. Islam, Arabic, trade, and the globalisation of the Old World all reinforced each other with a kind of cultural feedback. How else did Islam reach Indonesia, and Zanzibar, and Xinjiang? They were far beyond the reach of Umar’s armies.

And the Arabs of the Golden Age did exactly what the Japanese do today: they took the best of foreign culture, improved it, and sent it back out again. They took chess and decimal numerals from India and sent them on to Europe; they took mathematics and astronomy from Greece, added algebra and hundreds of star-names and technical terms, and sent them all back out again. It was a “healthy linguistic culture”, as I said of Japan a few paragraphs ago, and all sides gained. So surely globalisation was always an integral part of Arabic culture at its strongest and best? Whatever is wrong with the Arabic language, it’s not going to be globalisation.

I’m actually very puzzled by the whole tone of the Minister’s statement (at least as reported by bikyanews.com), and especially by the slogan “Partners in Protection”. He sounds as if he is speaking for a tiny Amazonian tribe under threat from global logging and mining companies. For a small tribe whose safety has always depended mainly on isolation and keeping out of sight, then yes, the shrinking of the world would indeed bring threats. They would need “protection”, probably in the form of reinforced and managed isolation.

But what on earth does this have to do with Islam, which always used to be so outward-looking? Surely long-distance trade and pilgrimage were a way of life for the very first Muslims, even before Umar’s conquests? Why should Arabic and Islam (please note that it’s the Minister who is bracketing them together, not me) suddenly need isolation and “protection” now, when for so many centuries they didn’t?

Anyway, that’s enough about globalisation. And I’ll leave the question of whether a “threat to the Arabic language” is the same thing as a “threat to Islam” (as implied by the Minister’s statement) for another occasion.

In the next post I’ll get back to the parallel with Greek.

SLC

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globalisation and language

Thank you SLC once again for a detailed response and a wonderfully-informed discussion on the topic. I will not make the response long, So I will address your response in a point-by-point format so that I address the issues I think may help us understand how similar or different to one another Arabic and Greek are in their diglossic natures, and the role of globalisation:

1. You are right, globalisation usually receives much negative press mainly due to the role it has played in the “killing off” of minority languages around the world. Hence, it becomes a charged word and cannot be viewed for its benefits (if any) and it that carries the connotations of taking away but not of giving positively. Your example of Japanese is perhaps one of the positive effects globalisation may have in certain situations. The way the Japanese have embraced English (and before that Chinese) is not only practical, but may even be seen by some as a revolt against English. How? Well, instead of speaking English, they bend, change, transform and manipulate English words into their own language and grammar so that they remain authentically Japanese. But by embracing and using English in this way, they modernise themselves and are able to then discuss and express ideas about modern-day phenomena in their own tongue. Arabic did that with Persian, Hebrew & Abyssinian words (some of which are in fact in the Qur’an itself), and English did the same with Arabic, French, Latin and Spanish words and so on because it is a consequence of language contact. This way children, and new learners of Japanese still have to learn the strict grammar regardless of whether the word has English or Chinese or indeed origins from any other language. Arabic speakers still have to decide how they will embrace English words, they have, and the process is being done, but I don’t think to the level of how Japanese has done it.

2. You are right again, and I have said this before- that during that time of the Arabian Golden Age Arabic thrived in a multilingual, multicultural and definitely a globalised environment. It did take what it saw as beneficial and good from other cultures and languages and adapted it to suit its own needs. There are also other historical, cultural and political aspects of language and religion that we do not have the space to go into, that also contributed to this strong fearless linguistic tradition. The situation of Arabic today, is most definitely not that of the Golden Age, and neither do today’s speakers possess the same view held by those at the time. We must also remember that the power has now shifted and those Arabs of the Golden Age were (in today’s terms) advanced and part of the first world, they were the trendsetters. Arabic language for the modern Arab world is more than just words, more than just Classic or spoken forms- it’s an identity, a culture, a history that for many cannot be forgotten. They fight for the Classic because it defines their history and cultural heritage, and they fight for the Spoken because it is the most authentic way in which to express themselves. As the notable Egyptian writer Naguib mahfouz said in a letter he wrote to luwis Awad: “Language duality is not a problem but an innate ability. It is an accurate reflection of a duality that exists in all of us, a duality between our mundane daily life and our spiritual one” (taken from Reem Bassiouney, 2009, Arabic Linguistics, p.28). So you see the struggle and reality! (I know you’ve read the book). Many Arabic speakers think that any new introductions will only contribute to the destruction of Arabic, that mind and view obviously needs to change.

3. As for the tone of panic for the loss of Arabic and it’s need for protection as if “it’s an Amazonian” tribe (your words!) is perhaps because the minister has had first hand experience of young Arab children not being proficient in their mother tongue. I think for a long time many policy makers were under the impression that as long as children learned to read the Qur’an and as long as they had Arabic speaking parents, then their children would obviously learn Arabic. They did not (esp. in the case of the Gulf) consider the effect of maids (who by the way are not proficient in both Arabic or English, and instead speak a form of pidgin) and other contributing factors during the early stages of language acquisition. And so when they are faced with the true linguistic situation, it may come as a shock, and they lament that Arabic will die and with it Islam! That’s the only reason I can think of why there may be a panic or alarm every time the future of Arabic is spoken about. As for why Islam is also under threat from globalisation, I don’t know, and I don’t think it is. But, it maybe because the Qur’an is in Arabic, and if Arabic dies they think the Qur’an will too; but you are right it is a topic for another post.

Finally, I wanted to address this paragraph you wrote, I am pasting it here: “But is there anything similar in, say, Egypt? A well-defined language level that foreigners can learn, and everyone can use, half-way between the formality of CA and the alleged street-slang of ECA? Well, if the ‘official’ position were true, and CA and ECA were simply different registers of a single all-embracing fuSHa, there would be. But there isn’t. A foreigner like Haeri (or me) has to learn CA and ECA as two different languages, and then learn how to mix them”

There is a variety that is not so formal and not so street-like either, we refer to that as educated Arabic. It uses words from both registers, and speakers usually pronounce most of the case markings, it makes a person look educated yet not too superficial through the use of CA only, and not too informal by using only “spoken” words. You would simply learn how to mix them from how other speakers use this variety, but it does exist. Which brings us back to the question, are they varieties of one language or are they two different languages? I still say they are varieties and not two different languages and that Arabic is in fact diglossic. But it is something as Arabic sociolinguistics, that we are constantly concerned with and interested in, so I think that with more research we may one day fully understand the relationship between the varieties. Thank you again for contributing to this interesting and fruitful discussion about Arabic and globalisation. Please feel free to add your comments below.

I should also welcome new readers and new subscribers, welcome to Arabizi and I hope you will find the posts useful. Wishing everyone a prosperous and wonderful 2014.

“Scorching hot like the heat of the sun on stone!” The etymological origins of the word ‘Ramadan’

scorching hot by Micheal FarruggiaIn previous posts I have written about the importance of Ramadan in relation to the Arabic language (because the Quran was revealed in Ramadan and of course in Arabic). But I’ve been thinking recently, “what does the actual word ‘Ramadan’ mean?” So yesterday morning I took out my Lisaan al Arab (by Ibn Mandhuur) and looked it up, and my goodness what a treasure I found! The intricacy of the word, how it relates to other words and more importantly how it relates to fasting left me amazed.

The word Ramadan, like many other Arabic words based on a three-letter-root template, is derived from ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ which means ” to be scorching hot” (notice that I have made all root letters bold, so we can see the root even in different derivations). How hot? Well Ibn Mandhuur was specific and made sure to describe it, as hot “as the scorching heat on stone under the hot sun” The earth can also be described as scorching hot (Ra-Ma-Du), and he goes on to give examples and similar derived nouns and adjectives to describe the “unbearable heat of the sun on stones and sand”. When inflected (to suit, gender, number and tense which is typical of Arabic) the word Ra-Ma-Du can be used to describe “unbearable heat on a people” or to describe “scorched or sunburnt hands or feet as a result of being exposed to the very hot sun”. Then when derived as iRMaa-Du it means “pain all over” both physical and that “which unmercifully eats the mind away with worry”. When inflected it can refer to an “upset stomach” and as a noun aRa-Ma-Diyyu it refers to the clouds and rain. Why? aha why indeed? Because rain is produced “as a result of heat from the sun” which causes evaporation and so on (the water cycle), who would have known? That’s why I said above that words almost always make sense to be ‘those’ words and those words only! Alternatively, it can also refer specifically to “rain just before Autumn at the end of summer that falls to hit the scorching hot ground” it’s that water that is produced that brings relief.

And finally, the next entry is the month of Ramadan, and Ibn Mandhuur mentions it as a name of a month (obviously), he quotes an account from a source named Ibn Durayd who says, “when the names of the months were being decided upon from the language of old, they named them based on the seasons in which they fell, it so happened that Ramadan fell during the season when it was scorching hot with unbearable heat”. It seems that at the time of naming the months Ramadan fell in the summer, but because the Arabic/Islamic calendar is based on the lunar system, the months move each year by a week or two, so the months are not fixed like the solar ones (January, February etc…). So in a period of about twenty years Ramadan will fall in the summer only 3 times (as it doing right now), and it will take another decade or so for it to fall in the spring/summer again.  Another source named Al-Fara’ says that “Ramadan is derived from ‘Ra-Mi-Da’ which refers to a fasting person’s feelings of heat and dryness inside the mouth due to thirst”. Finally (because I could go on), the word ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ means to “wait for something”, it also refers to the “blunt blade of a knife that needs sharpening”. Interestingly though, none of the meanings contradict one another, it shows the versatility of the root and the many similar meanings it can carry.

dates

In summary, the word Ramadan refers to, the month, the heat, the thirst, the waiting and the eventual ease (like that of rain after a hot day) of whatever may be the problem. An almost metaphorical way of describing the fast and the month in which it occurs is that, it’s not easy, not especially if it falls in the summer months, and people observing the fast wait until they can eat and drink, at which time they experience ease. Their beings are blunt and so need sharpening through the hardship of the fast (sounds a bit Yoga/meditation like!) and ultimately they experience relief (like the rain on the scorching hot ground) that will come with great benefits (Ibn Al ‘Arabee and others). Who would have thought that one word, would have so many associations and meanings, and yet all be suitable? I know this is not my usual post style, I wanted to share with you all another dimension of the Arabic language. It would be a shame if such a language were to be lost or unstudied, the treasures we’d lose would be irreplaceable. Your thoughts and ideas are most welcome as usual.

Sources:

Ibn Mandhuur (2000) Lisaan al Arab volume 6 pages 224-225. Beirut: Dar al Sader  (note: in the 1975 version the pages are slightly different 225-226).

Muhammad Al Bartajee (2002) Al Yaqoot wal Marjaan fee I’iraab al-Quran (Syntax of the Quran) Amman: Dar al-I’ilaam

Another struggle: what happened to our Arabic? Just open a book to find out

A number of books written in Arabian language.
Image via Wikipedia

 In keeping with the theme of the last post, reading and publishing, I came across this article about (yes you guessed it) the situation of Arabic language in the publishing world. What’s nice about it is that, the writer is an author herself and so brings to the article experience and so much reality with regards to the struggle and challenges Arabic language faces, in addition to readers’ perceptions and preferences. I have just returned from the UAE after a conference and whilst I was there, I had the chance to attend the 30th Sharjah International Book Fair (it ends tomorrow). It was a wonderful experience and I could not choose what to buy and what to leave. Visitors were spoilt for choice, we had small seminars going on, workshops, book signings (which were so great because I got a chance to meet people I only read), cookery shows, open mic sessions and of course the activities they had for kids. The motto of the fair is “For the love of the written word” and the aim is to get people to love reading, I think it might just work, I was amazed to see so many children enjoying themselves around books, yes I know that’s normal, but these were Arabic books! There has always been this struggle on behalf of teachers and parents to get their children interested in reading Arabic books.  But after seeing the atmosphere in the book fair, I had the feeling that perhaps the attitudes towards reading books in Arabic were changing. And that younger children have a better relationship with Arabic books than their older counterparts maybe?! Without doubt, there is a boom in the Arabic language publishing industry as a whole, and more specifically within the UAE children’s books are flourishing and the demand is becoming ever higher as parents know that they can realise their dreams of their children becoming competent readers in both Arabic and English.  It was such a good atmosphere to be in, books from all over the world in English, Arabic, Hindi, German, French…etc..it seems that Sharjah has placed itself firmly on the map of culture and education, a place I suspect already becoming synonymous with advancement, something other cities only dream of.

In the article below, Rym Ghazal discusses the challenges facing Arabic language, in the sense that younger readers prefer to read in English rather than Arabic. She goes as far as saying that if her book had been published in Arabic (which it is by Kalimat Publishing House, UAE) and English- the young people would pick the English version. There are many reasons for this preference and many we have discussed on this blog in the past. However, I think one major reason is the education system and language of instruction. In reference to the UAE specifically, the majority of children attend private schools that teach either the American or British curriculum. Therefore, it makes sense to instruct in English, to use books in English and when it comes to reading books- well it’s done in English of course! How then do we expect students of those schools to easily pick up a book in Arabic and read it? It is a tall order and something unrealistic to say the least. 

 Even for those of us who can read Arabic competently and are confident to pick up books in Arabic in many genres; poetry, fact/fiction, short stories, novels and newspapers, still needed training to do it. We still needed to understand how to ‘understand’ written Arabic in its many forms. We needed to understand the meanings of one word in different situations, just like we were taught to do the same in English. The ability to read is taught, nurtured and consistent efforts are made to keep up the reading. It is not true that every literate individual is a reader, becoming a reader is a choice made by the individual (a topic for another post).

The writer does identify one issue that is problematic, and that is what type of Arabic to use when writing. Do we use Classical, Modern Standard (there are people who do not differentiate between the two) spoken Arabic? But which spoken Arabic? Egyptian, Levantine, Saudi, Yemeni, Omani, oh but even here which variety the urban or bedouin? You see the matter is somewhat complicated and can prove a challenge in the publishing world. I would personally say that Standard/ Classical Arabic is what should be used, and it always has been(though I am no publishing expert). But why now is there a problem? Simple, no one studies Classical/Standard Arabic as they used to, consequently they have no competence or confidence in doing so. Therefore those who can read English do so, those who cannot- do not read. This is of course in reference to some Arab countries and not all of them. There needs to be a direct relationship between the level of Arabic taught in schools the level of Arabic in the books written for children. Some of these books dubbed as ‘for children’ use such advanced Arabic, and their topics are not written with children in mind- so how can we expect children to read them? Having said that, I did see a change in this habit at the book fair, I skimmed through books that were fun, interesting and ‘child-centered’. In addition to it I saw books written with all vowel and case markings (this means that the Arabic letters are accompanied by small marks to tell the reader how to pronounce the letters), this helps the child in reading correctly whilst enjoying the story. I think that when this is achieved by all publishers, then children will not find it difficult to pick up a book in Arabic and read it with pleasure. This topic can go on and on, but I should stop….below is the article void of any editing on my part as usual- enjoy!  

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My Books
Image by Jennerally via Flickr

Rym Ghazal—- Nov 24, 2011 

On a typical lazy Friday afternoon, Fahd, Fares, Sami and Nour decide to investigate the rumours about a haunted palace just a 100 kilometres away from their homes.

Little did they know that this trip would change each of their lives forever as they came face to face with something far more frightening than a few mischievous jinn.

Inspired by my visit to a real “haunted” palace in UAE, this is a quick synopsis of my new book Maskoon, or Haunted, published in Arabic for Arab young people by Kalimat. It took me a few seconds to write up those sentences in English – and a whole day (because I refused to use Google Translate) to write the same synopsis in Arabic. It took so long, and I introduced so many grammatical errors, that a translator was assigned to help me.

I can’t describe the shame I felt, with a family tree filled with poets and writers, and even an ancestor whose eloquence and writing was famous in a royal court. How did it happen that I, who spent my childhood in strict Arabic-language Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia and wrote pages and pages of Arabic poetry and letters, cannot do it anymore and feel more comfortable writing and speaking in English?

Ironically, I only learnt English from movies, and spoke like the actor Humphrey Bogart for the longest time, before a college friend made fun of me. The reason I ventured into this project was because of something I overheard my younger brother and his friends, all teenagers, complain about: there are no books in Arabic that appeal to them

“Arabic books are boring, and hard to read. They are just too preachy,” was the consensus.

As a consequence, the young generation, and many others, just read English books and our Arabic has slowly deteriorated. Now my brother’s group speaks “bad Arabic” filled with grammatical errors and loan words from other languages.

One of the biggest issues I have noticed is that Arabs perceive the Arabic language as “sacred” because it is the language of the Holy Quran. Immediately after my “horror/ fantasy” book came out, my conservative friends slammed me for writing in this genre in Arabic. “This stuff should be written in English, not Arabic. I hope they release a fatwa against you and using Arabic to write horror!” one friend messaged me.

I sent her a copy, and asked her to first read it before condemning it just because it is based on imagination. But it exposed a very thorny issue that other authors of Arabic books have shared with me.

“How does one find a balance between using classical Arabic, and the Arabic that the young are now speaking, without compromising the integrity of the language itself?” asked a prominent Emirati author who also writes for young people.

It is a struggle finding the “right Arabic” that will reach our younger generations.

This was the greatest challenge in writing my book. I ran it by friends who have teenagers to see their reactions. I was surprised at just how basic their Arabic was, and even the most common words caused confusion and disrupted the flow of their imagination as they read. So we ended up changing entire paragraphs to make it as easier to read.

Coming from a mixed background, I told myself that because my mother is not Arab, maybe that was the reason why Arabic wasn’t fully maintained in our home. But I found the same weakening of the language in homes where both parents are Arabs.

This really is a serious problem. How will future Arabs understand the oldest and perhaps the most difficult text out there: the Quran?

More and more Arabs are losing their intellectual strength as they lose fluency of their own native language. The sad reality is that, given the choice, if an English version of my book is next to the Arabic one, it will be picked up first. I have done it myself numerous times when I felt I just didn’t have time to read an Arabic book. But it is just more than my book that is at stake.

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Childrens' booksGood points made here and there is much work to do in this field with regards to the Arabic language. There are opportunities, and there are some important publishing houses addressing many of her concerns. Arabic books will be much easier to read and own when we have more authors who understand the art of writing and their audiences needs. It is difficult but not impossible and I look forward to the day that I can write a post saying that these challenges have been overcome and that Arabic publishing, is strong with its unique Arabian character and readers old and young  are simply spoilt for choice on what to read :)….

Source: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/what-happened-to-our-arabic-just-open-a-book-to-find-out