“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.


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.


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

Naming rights: Why star names will always be in Arabic

I have finally found some time to write-up this post that I have been thinking about for a while now since being shown a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium discussing something I had never given much thought to. Something that he calls “naming rights” the idea of who has the right to name something, in their language and more importantly to name it first? Why do they have that right? And how does language fit into all of that? It is a loaded idea both politically and linguistically but it is something that illustrates the ubiquitous and ever-important nature that language carries more than just simple communicative messages (like the ball is green for example). By simply naming something in one language and not in another and by virtue of people using that same name to refer to it regardless of their language is an indicator of how human civilisation works and is built and again more importantly how language is an indicator of the power of knowledge and discovery. As DeGrasse says, “if you get there first you get to name it first” and others have to accommodate themselves, he gives two simple examples: first, the internet and that it was the Americans who exploited its use first and so they get to have the  default web address of .com but all other countries are forced to use other endings such as,  .co.uk/ .ae/ .fr/ .au/ and so on. Secondly, he  says that because the British were the first to make the postage stamp we until today are the only country who do not have to say where the stamp originates from, whereas all others must indicate country of origin. That’s naming rights, it’s about getting there first and doing it well so that it stands the test of time, and no one can take that away from its original creators.

DeGrasse mentions in the clip that almost 2/3 of all star names are in fact in Arabic! The numbers we use today (in English and most languages) are referred to as “Arabic numerals” and there is whole host of English words that originated from Arabicto not only English but many other world languages! How? and Why? That is the question. DeGrasse points out important reasons of why not only Arab scholars but more importantly why Arabic language was once a language of inquiry, reasoning, genius and innovation and also offers his explanation of why it no longer is.

At the beginning of the video he correctly reminds the audience that there are many cultures in the world that excelled and superseded other nations in one subject or another, but that there comes a time when they reach a peak and then sometimes it drops off and other times they manage to hang on. But what he is interested in is what allows for that to take place? Of course I will not transcribe the whole video but I think the reasons are important to dwell over. He points out that between 800AD and 1100 AD Baghdad was the centre of knowledge and learning because it opened its doors up to all people, Christians, Jews, doubters (atheists/agnostics) and everybody was allowed to excel regardless of their background and this according to him is what made that time so unique, fertile and we still feel the effects of that success today. For example the discovery of the zero, algebra, algorithm, establishment of advanced hospitals (where some were diseases specific something unprecedented at the time) and many other contributions (see http://www.1001inventions.com/ or videos on that here).

Why am I talking about this on Arabizi? Simple really because many Arab scholars of today are not sure how to get Arabic language to be one of advancement, education, knowledge or simply to be one of practical use by its speakers. Which is something I discuss a lot here on Arabizi, is it diglossia, it is the English language, is it the dialects, or is it poor education that has put the Arabic language in this situation? In that 300 year period in Baghdad they questioned everything with a curious mind and welcomed everyone –perhaps that is the solution? Use both English and Arabic in education (which some Gulf universities are implementing right now which is exciting) that way Arabic can be used academically and use English because it is undoubtedly the language of knowledge today, allow people regardless of their background to have access to all the appropriate facilities and maybe, just maybe we might see something changing in the current path that the Arabic language is taking. It will never be like Baghdad because we live in different times and different political and social environments but Arabic still has the ability to be a language of real inquiry and research in its own right. Naming rights are only for those languages whose speakers have excelled and benefitted humans in knowledge that’s it…you offer something your language is not only used but preserved…… what do you think? I will not spoil it by telling you what caused this so-called “golden-age” to end you’ll have to watch the video for that I’m afraid…but it was disastrous, completely uncalled for and detrimental to the Arabic and Islamic societies the world over and I dare say it has impeded and disabled these societies from looking at the pursuit of knowledge (for the benefit of human beings and even religious knowledge [which has its own crazy issues]) the way they once did in great Baghdad…….enjoy

If you have any comments to add please do so, it is controversial and some people may not like what he is saying but being open- minded is the first step to solving so-called problems right?  I’ll be posting next in September (guest post on humour and Arabic I have a treat in store for you)….Ramadhan (month of fasting) is round the corner please feel free to read my Ramadhan and Arabizi post here in the archives since its relevant right now…..thanks for reading.

Arab Linguistic Imperialism and the Decline of Arabic: Does anyone speak Arabic? Part 2

in Arabic language. The book was written by th...
in Arabic language. The book was written by the end of 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This second part of the post is much more provoking and may anger some readers because of the analysis Franck makes as to why the Arabic language is in the situation it finds itself in today. But like any researcher he has to explore all the possible reasons and possible “solutions” to the problem and do so in a constructive manner. The Arabic language has a unique, complex and complicated linguistic situation wherever it exists as a “native language”; and because of this, in the postcolonial globalized era the language loss/shift debate is further complicated. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did and that it gets the minds of sociolinguists or those interested in Arabic to think on a much deeper less defensive level about the way in which we use Arabic today.—–start

Foreign imposition or self affliction?

Playing into the hands of keepers of the Arab nationalist canon—as well as Arabists and lobbyists working on behalf of the Arabic language today—the AP article adopted the cliché that the decline of Arabic—like the failure of Arab nationalism—was the outcome of Western linguistic intrusions and the insidious, colonialist impulses of globalization. “Many Lebanese pride themselves on being fluent in French—a legacy of French colonial rule,” Karam wrote, rendering a mere quarter-century of French mandatory presence in Lebanon (1920-46) into a period of classical-style “French colonial rule” that had allegedly destroyed the foundations of the Arabic language in the country and turned the Lebanese subalterns into imitative Francophones denuded of their putative Arab personality.[18] Alas, this fashionable fad fails to take into account that French colonialism in its Lebanese context differed markedly from France’s colonial experience elsewhere. For one, the founding fathers of modern Lebanon lobbied vigorously for turning their post-Ottoman mountain Sanjak into a French protectorate after World War I.[19] And with regard to the Lebanese allegedly privileging the French language, that too, according to Selim Abou, seems to have hardly been a colonialist throwback and an outcome of early twentieth-century French imperialism. In his 1962 Le binlinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban, Abou wrote that the French language (or early Latin variants of what later became French) entered Mount-Lebanon and the Eastern Mediterranean littoral at the time of the first Crusades (ca. 1099).[20] Centuries later, the establishment of the Maronite College in Rome (1584) and the liberal (pro-Christian) policies of then Mount-Lebanon’s Druze ruler, Fakhreddine II (1572-1635), allowed the Maronites to further strengthen their religious and their religion’s ancillary cultural and linguistic ties to Rome, Europe, and especially France—then, still the “elder daughter” of the Catholic Church. This unleashed a wave of missionary work to Lebanon—and wherever Eastern Christianity dared flaunt its specificity—and eventually led to the founding of schools tending to the educational needs of the Christian—namely Maronite—communities of the region. Although foundational courses in Arabic and Syriac were generally taught at those missionary schools, European languages including French, Italian, and German were also part of the regular curriculum. French, therefore, can be argued to have had an older pedigree in Lebanon than suggested by Karam. And contrary to the classical norms in the expansion and transmission of imperial languages—the spread of Arabic included—which often entailed conquests, massacres, and cultural suppression campaigns, the French language can be said to have been adopted willingly by the Lebanese through “seduction” not “subjection.”[21] It is true that many Lebanese, and Middle Easterners more generally, are today steering clear of Arabic in alarming numbers, but contrary to AP’s claim, this routing of Arabic is not mainly due to Western influence and cultural encroachments—though the West could share some of the blame; rather, it can be attributed, even if only partially, to MSA’s retrogression, difficulty, and most importantly perhaps, to the fact that this form of Arabic is largely a learned, cultic, ceremonial, and literary language, which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively, and which seems locked in an uphill struggle for relevance against sundry spontaneous, dynamic, natively-spoken, vernacular languages. Taha Hussein ascribed the decay and abnegation of the Arabic language primarily to its “inability of expressing the depths of one’s feelings in this new age.” He wrote in 1956 that MSA is difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language, and employs his time in pursuit of any other occupations that would divert and soothe his thoughts away from this arduous effort … Pupils hate nothing more than they hate studying Arabic.[22]

Yet, irreverent as they had been in shunning Arabic linguistic autocracy and fostering a lively debate on MSA and multilingualism, Lebanon and Egypt and their Arabic travails are hardly uncommon in today’s Middle East. From Israel to Qatar and from Abu Dhabi to Kuwait, modern Middle Eastern nations that make use of some form of Arabic have had to come face to face with the challenges hurled at their hermetic MSA and are impelled to respond to the onslaught of impending polyglotism and linguistic humanism borne by the lures of globalization. In a recent article published in Israel’s liberal daily Ha’aretz, acclaimed Druze poet and academic Salman Masalha called on Israel’s Education Ministry to do away with the country’s public school system’s Arabic curricula and demanded its replacement with Hebrew and English course modules. Arabophone Israelis taught Arabic at school, like Arabophones throughout the Middle East, were actually taught a foreign tongue misleadingly termed Arabic, wrote Masalha

The mother tongue [that people] speak at home is totally different from the … Arabic [they learn] at school; [a situation] that perpetuates linguistic superficiality [and] leads to intellectual superficiality … It’s not by chance that not one Arab university is [ranked] among the world’s best 500 universities. This finding has nothing to do with Zionism.[23]

Masalha’s is not a lone voice. The abstruseness of Arabic and the stunted achievements of those monolingual Arabophones constrained to acquire modern knowledge by way of Modern Standard Arabic have been indicted in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development reports—a series of reports written by Arabs and for the benefit of Arabs—since the year 2002. To wit, the 2003 report noted that the Arabic language is struggling to meet the challenges of modern times[and] is facing [a] severe … and real crisis in theorization, grammar, vocabulary, usage, documentation, creativity, and criticism … The most apparent aspect of this crisis is the growing neglect of the functional aspects of [Arabic] language use. Arabic language skills in everyday life have deteriorated, and Arabic … has in effect ceased to be a spoken language. It is only the language of reading and writing; the formal language of intellectuals and academics, often used to display knowledge in lectures … [It] is not the language of cordial, spontaneous expression, emotions, daily encounters, and ordinary communication. It is not a vehicle for discovering one’s inner self or outer surroundings.[24]

And so, concluded the report, the only Arabophone countries that were able to circumvent this crisis of knowledge were those like Lebanon and Egypt, which had actively promoted a polyglot tradition, deliberately protected the teaching of foreign languages, and instated math and science curricula in languages other than Arabic. Translation is another crucial means of transmitting and acquiring knowledge claimed the U.N. report, and given that “English represents around 85 percent of the total world knowledge balance,” one might guess that “knowledge-hungry countries,” the Arab states included, would take heed of the sway of English, or at the very least, would seek out the English language as a major source of translation. Yet, from all source-languages combined, the Arab world’s 330 million people translated a meager 330 books per year; that is, “one fifth of the number [of books] translated in Greece [home to 12 million Greeks].” Indeed, from the times of the Caliph al-Ma’mun (ca. 800 CE) to the beginnings of the twenty-first century, the “Arab world” had translated a paltry 10,000 books: the equivalent of what Spain translates in a single year.[25]

But clearer heads are prevailing in Arab countries today. Indeed, some Arabs are taking ownership of their linguistic dilemmas; feckless Arab nationalist vainglory is giving way to practical responsible pursuits, and the benefits of valorizing local speech forms and integrating foreign languages into national, intellectual, and pedagogic debates are being contemplated. Arabs “are learning less Islam and more English in the tiny desert sheikhdom of Qatar” read a 2003 Washington Post article, and this overhaul of Qatar’s educational system, with its integration of English as a language of instruction—”a total earthquake” as one observer termed it—was being billed as the Persian Gulf’s gateway toward greater participation in an ever more competitive global marketplace. But many Qataris and Persian Gulf Arabs hint to more pressing and more substantive impulses behind curricular bilingualism: “necessity-driven” catalysts aimed at replacing linguistic and religious jingoism with equality, tolerance, and coexistence; changing mentalities as well as switching languages and textbooks.[26] This revolution is no less subversive in nearby Abu Dhabi where in 2009 the Ministry of Education launched a series of pedagogical reform programs aimed at integrating bilingual education into the national curriculum. Today, “some 38,000 students in 171 schools in Abu Dhabi [are] taught … simultaneously in Arabic and English.”[27] And so, rather than rushing to prop up and protect the fossilized remains of MSA, the debate that should be engaged in today’s Middle East needs to focus more candidly on the utility, functionality, and practicality of a hallowed and ponderous language such as MSA in an age of nimble, clipped, and profane speech forms. The point of reflection should not be whether to protect MSA but whether the language inherited from the Jahiliya Bedouins—to paraphrase Egypt’s Salama Musa (1887-1958)—is still an adequate tool of communication in the age of information highways and space shuttles.[28] Obviously, this is a debate that requires a healthy dose of courage, honesty, moderation, and pragmatism, away from the usual religious emotions and cultural chauvinism that have always stunted and muzzled such discussions.

Linguistic Schizophrenia and Deceit

Sherif Shubashy’s book Down with Sibawayh If Arabic Is to Live on![29] seems to have brought these qualities into the debate. An eighth-century Persian grammarian and father of Arabic philology, Sibawayh is at the root of the modern Arabs’ failures according to Shubashy. Down with Sibawayh, which provoked a whirlwind of controversy in Egypt and other Arab countries following its release in 2004, sought to shake the traditional Arabic linguistic establishment and the Arabic language itself out of their millenarian slumbers and proposed to unshackle MSA from stiff and superannuated norms that had, over the centuries, transformed it into a shrunken and fossilized mummy: a ceremonial, religious, and literary language that was never used as a speech form, and whose hallowed status “has rendered it a heavy chain curbing the Arabs’ intellect, blocking their creative energies … and relegating them to cultural bondage.”[30] In a metaphor reminiscent of Musa’s description of the Arabic language, Shubashy compared MSA users to “ambling cameleers from the past, contesting highways with racecar drivers hurtling towards modernity and progress.”[31] In his view, the Arabs’ failure to modernize was a corollary of their very language’s inability (or unwillingness) to regenerate and innovate and conform to the exigencies of modern life.[32] But perhaps the most devastating blow that Shubashy dealt the Arabic language was his description of the lahja and fusha (or dialect vs. MSA) dichotomy as “linguistic schizophrenia.”[33] For although Arabs spoke their individual countries’ specific, vernacular languages while at home, at work, on the streets, or in the marketplace, the educated among them were constrained to don a radically different linguistic personality and make use of an utterly different speech form when reading books and newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, or drafting formal, official reports.[34] That speech form, which was never spontaneously spoken, Shubashy insisted, was Modern Standard Arabic: a language which, not unlike Latin in relation to Europe’s Romance languages, was distinct from the native, spoken vernaculars of the Middle East and was used exclusively by those who had adequate formal schooling in it. He even went so far as to note that “upward of 50 percent of so-called Arabophones can’t even be considered Arabs if only MSA is taken for the legitimate Arabic language, the sole true criterion of Arabness.” [35] Conversely, it was a grave error to presume the vernacular speech forms of the Middle East to be Arabic, even if most Middle Easterners and foreigners were conditioned, and often intimidated, into viewing them as such. The so-called dialects of Arabic were not Arabic at all, he wrote, despite the fact that

like many other Arabs, I have bathed in this linguistic schizophrenia since my very early childhood. I have for very long thought that the difference between MSA and the dialects was infinitely minimal; and that whoever knew one language—especially MSA—would intuitively know, or at the very least, understand the other. However, my own experience, and especially the evidence of foreigners studying MSA, convinced me of the deep chasm that separated MSA from dialects. Foreigners who are versed in MSA, having spent many years studying that language, are taken aback when I speak to them in the Egyptian dialect; they don’t understand a single word I say in that language.[36]

This “pathology” noted Shubashy, went almost unnoticed in past centuries when illiteracy was the norm, and literacy was still the preserve of small, restricted guilds—mainly the ulema and religious grammarians devoted to the study of Arabic and Islam, who considered their own linguistic schizophrenia a model of piety and a sacred privilege to be vaunted, not concealed. Today, however, with the spread of literacy in the Arab world, and with the numbers of users of MSA swelling and hovering in the vicinity of 50 percent, linguistic schizophrenia is becoming more widespread and acute, crippling the Arab mind and stunting its capacities. Why was it that Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans, and many more of the world’s transparent and linguistically nimble societies, needed to use only a single, native language for both their acquisition of knowledge and grocery shopping whereas Arabs were prevented from reading and writing in the same language that they use for their daily mundane needs?[37]. As a consequence of the firestorm unleashed by his book, Shubashy, an Egyptian journalist and news anchor and, at one time, the Paris bureau-chief of the Egyptian al-Ahram news group, was forced to resign his post as Egypt’s deputy minister of culture in 2006. The book caused so much controversy to a point that the author and his work were subjected to a grueling cross-examination in the Egyptian parliament where, reportedly, scuffles erupted between supporters and opponents of Shubashy’s thesis. In the end, the book was denounced as an affront to Arabs and was ultimately banned. Shubashy himself was accused of defaming the Arabic language in rhetoric mimicking a “colonialist discourse.”[38] A deputy in the Egyptian parliament—representing Alexandria, Shubashy’s native city—accused the author of “employing the discourse and argumentation of a colonialist occupier, seeking to replace the Arab identity with [the occupier’s] own identity and culture.”[39] Ahmad Fuad Pasha, advisor to the president of Cairo University, argued that the book “was added proof that, indeed, the Zionist-imperialist conspiracy is a glaring reality,”[40] aimed at dismantling Arab unity. Muhammad Ahmad Achour wrote in Egypt’s Islamic Standard that

Shubashy has taken his turn aiming another arrow at the heart of the Arabic language. Yet, the powers that seek to destroy our language have in fact another goal in mind: The ultimate aim of their conspiracy is none other than the Holy Qur’an itself, and to cause Muslims to eventually lose their identity and become submerged into the ocean of globalization.[41]

Even former Egyptian president Husni Mubarak felt compelled to take a potshot at Shubashy in a speech delivered on Laylat al-Qadr, November 9, 2004, the anniversary of the night that Sunni Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad received his first Qur’anic revelation. Mubarak warned,I must caution the Islamic religious scholars against the calls that some are sounding for the modernization of the Islamic religion, so as to ostensibly make it evolve, under the pretext of attuning it to the dominant world order of “modernization” and “reform.” This trend has led recently to certain initiatives calling for the modification of Arabic vocabulary and grammar; the modification of God’s chosen language no less; the holy language in which he revealed his message to the Prophet.[42]


This then, the recognition and normalization of dialects, could have been a fitting conclusion and a worthy solution to the dilemma that Shubashy set out to resolve. Unfortunately, he chose to pledge fealty to MSA and classical Arabic—ultimately calling for their normalization and simplification rather than their outright replacement.[45] In that sense, Shubashy showed himself to be in tune with the orthodoxies preached by Husri who, as early as 1955, had already been calling for the creation of a “middle Arabic language” and a crossbreed fusing MSA and vernacular speech forms—as a way of bridging the Arabs’ linguistic incoherence and bringing unity to their fledgling nationhood:

MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely, what we refer to as “dialectal Arabic” is in truth a bevy of languages differing markedly from one country to the other, with vast differences often within the same country, if not within the same city and neighborhood … Needless to say, this pathology contradicts the exigencies of a sound, wholesome national life! [And given] that true nations deserving of the appellation require a single common and unifying national language … [the best solution I can foresee to our national linguistic quandary] would be to inoculate the dialectal languages with elements of MSA … so as to forge a new “middle MSA” and diffuse it to the totality of Arabs … This is our best hope, and for the time being, the best palliative until such a day when more lasting and comprehensive advances can be made towards instating the final, perfected, integral MSA.[46]

This is at best a disappointing and desultory solution, not only due to its chimerical ambitions but also because, rather than simplifying an already cluttered and complicated linguistic situation, it suggested the engineering of an additional language for the “Arab nation” to adopt as a provisional national idiom. To expand on Shubashy’s initial diagnosis, this is tantamount to remedying schizophrenia by inducing a multi-personality disorder—as if Arabs were in want of yet another artificial language to complement their already aphasiac MSA. Granted, national unification movements and the interference in, or creation of, a national language are part of the process of nation building and often do bear fruit. However, success in the building of a national language is largely dependent upon the size of the community and the proposed physical space of the nation in question.[47] In other words, size does matter. Small language unification movements—as in the cases of, say, Norway, Israel, and France—can and often do succeed. But big language unification movements on the other hand—as in the cases of pan-Turkism, pan-Slavism, pan-Germanism, and yes, pan-Arabism—have thus far been met with not only failure but also devastating wars, genocides, and mass population movements. Moreover, traditionally, the small language unification movements that did succeed in producing national languages benefitted from overwhelming, popular support among members of the proposed nation. More importantly, they sought to normalize not prestige, hermetic, (written) literary languages, but rather lower, degraded speech forms that were often already spoken natively by the national community in question (e.g., Creole in Haiti, Old Norse in Norway, and modern, as opposed to biblical Hebrew in Israel)[48] Shubashy’s call of “down with Sibawayh!” meant purely and simply “down with the classical language” and its MSA progeny. Overthrowing Sibawayh meant also deposing the greatest Arabic grammarian, the one credited with the codification, standardization, normalization, and spread of the classical Arabic language—and later its MSA descendent. Yet, calling for the dethroning of one who was arguably the founding father of modern Arabic grammar, and in the same breath demanding the preservation, inoculation, and invigoration of his creation, is contradictory and confusing. It is like “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” to use Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity. Or could it be that perhaps an initially bold Shubashy was rendered timid by a ruthless and intimidating MSA establishment? After all, there are few Arabs doing dispassionate, critical work on MSA today, who do not ultimately end up being cowed into silence, or worse yet, slandered, discredited, and accused of Zionist perfidy and “Arabophobia.” Salama Musa, [49] Taha Hussein,[50] and Adonis [51] are the most obvious and recent examples of such character assassinations. Ultimately, however, it is society and communities of users—not advocacy groups, linguistic guilds, and preservation societies—that decide the fate of languages. As far as the status and fate of the Arabic language are concerned, the jury still seems to be out.

Wow! Ouch! Some important issues raised, I suspect that some of the points he mentioned in this second part could produce a dozen PhD thesis’ that’s no exaggeration.  The issue is that complex, it’s that multi-layered, it’s not about panicking or playing down the importance of Arabic….it’s about finding a real solution for how Arabic can be a productive language for its speakers and a language which can be used to account for new and modern discoveries. It does not mean we have to agree with everything he writes, but these are issues/points to think about. I think most Arabic speakers want Arabic to be their language of knowledge where they do not have to translate or learn a new language to understand and appreciate knowledge alongside English and other major languages. Currently it’s taken a back-seat in many spheres of world knowledge and many speakers do not feel empowered using Arabic. In my next post I will discuss naming rights and how language is an indicator of civilisation and knowledge.
Source: http://www.meforum.org/3066/does-anyone-speak-arabic
(You can also find all the footnotes there)

Arab Linguistic Imperialism and the Decline of Arabic: Does anyone speak Arabic? Part 1

In trying to understand the sociolinguistic situation of Arabic all avenues and opinions must be considered, I have pasted below an article/paper by Franck Salameh a professor at Boston College, with interest in Arabic, nationalism and in particular Lebanese politics and history.  He is concerned with presenting a clear picture of what Arabic language means to Arabic speakers and considers issues not from a panic-stricken premise but from a thoughtful stance informed by facts, history, experience and research. He connects language with important social variables like Arabism, identity, and what it means to speak Arabic, which is ideal if one is trying to understand a linguistic situation of language said to be in decline.  He questions and provokes the reader in general, and the Arab linguist in particular his ideas are important in any debate on the future of Arabic language. I have broken the article into two separate posts, I enjoyed reading it and thought to share it with everyone even though I did not agree with everything he wrote (the map above shows the countries in which Arabic is the official language).


Does Anyone Speak Arabic?

Middle East Quarterly
 Fall 2011

In August 2010, Associated Press staffer Zeina Karam wrote an article, picked up by The Washington Post and other news outlets, that tackled a cultural, and arguably political, issue that had been making headlines for quite some time in the Middle East: the question of multilingualism and the decline of the Arabic language in polyglot, multiethnic Middle Eastern societies.[1] Lebanon was Karam’s case study: an Eastern Mediterranean nation that had for the past century been the testing grounds for iconoclastic ideas and libertine tendencies muzzled and curbed elsewhere in the Arab world.[2] However, by inquiring into what is ailing the Arabic language—the nimbus and supreme symbol of “Arabness”—the author aimed straight at the heart of Arab nationalism and the strict, linguistic orthodoxy that it mandated, putting in question its most basic tenet: Who is an Arab?

Arabic and Arabism

For most of the twentieth century, Arabs, Arab nationalists, and their Western devotees tended to substitute Arab for Middle Eastern history, as if the narratives, storylines, and paradigms of other groups mattered little or were the byproduct of alien sources far removed from the authentic, well-ordered, harmonious universe of the “Arab world.”[3] As such, they held most Middle Easterners to be Arab even if only remotely associated with the Arabs and even if alien to the experiences, language, or cultural proclivities of Arabs. In the words of Sati al-Husri (1880-1967), a Syrian writer and the spiritual father of linguistic Arab nationalism: Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker or with an Arabic-speaking people is an Arab. If he does not recognize [his Arabness] … we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand … But under no circumstances should we say: “As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.” He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes, whether ignorant, indifferent, recalcitrant, or disloyal; he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feelings, and perhaps even without conscience.[4] This ominous admonition to embrace a domineering Arabism is one constructed on an assumed linguistic unity of the Arab peoples; a unity that a priori presumes the Arabic language itself to be a unified, coherent verbal medium, used by all members of Husri’s proposed nation. Yet Arabic is not a single, uniform language. It is, on the one hand, a codified, written standard that is never spoken natively and that is accessible only to those who have had rigorous training in it. On the other hand, Arabic is also a multitude of speech forms, contemptuously referred to as “dialects,” differing from each other and from the standard language itself to the same extent that French is different from other Romance languages and from Latin. Still, Husri’s dictum, “You’re an Arab if I say so!” became an article of faith for Arab nationalists. It also condensed the chilling finality with which its author and his acolytes foisted their blanket Arab label on the mosaic of peoples, ethnicities, and languages that had defined the Middle East for millennia prior to the advent of twentieth-century Arab nationalism.[5] But if Husri had been intimidating in his advocacy for a forced Arabization, his disciple Michel Aflaq (1910-89), founder of the Baath Party, promoted outright violence and cruelty against those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform to his prescribed, overarching, Arab identity. Arab nationalists must be ruthless with those members of the nation who have gone astray from Arabism, wrote Aflaq, “…they must be imbued with a hatred unto death, toward any individuals who embody an idea contrary to Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists must never dismiss opponents of Arabism as mere individuals … An idea that is opposed to ours does not emerge out of nothing! It is the incarnation of individuals who must be exterminated, so that their idea might in turn be also exterminated. Indeed, the presence in our midst of a living opponent of the Arab national idea vivifies it and stirs the blood within us. And any action we might take [against those who have rejected Arabism] that does not arouse in us living emotions, that does not make us feel the orgasmic shudders of love, that does not spark in us quivers of hate, and that does not send the blood coursing in our veins and make our pulse beat faster is, ultimately, a sterile action.”[6] Therein lay the foundational tenets of Arab nationalism and the Arabist narrative of Middle Eastern history as preached by Husri, Aflaq, and their cohorts: hostility, rejection, negation, and brazen calls for the annihilation of the non-Arab “other.” Yet despite the dominance of such disturbing Arabist and Arab nationalist readings, the Middle East in both its modern and ancient incarnations remains a patchwork of varied cultures, ethnicities, and languages that cannot be tailored into a pure and neat Arab essence without distorting and misinforming. Other models of Middle Eastern identities exist, and a spirited Middle Eastern, intellectual tradition that challenges the monistic orthodoxies of Arab nationalism endures and deserves recognition and validation.

The Arabic Language Debate

Take for instance one of the AP article’s interviewees who lamented the waning of the Arabic language in Lebanese society and the rise in the numbers of Francophone and Anglophone Lebanese, suggesting “the absence of a common language between individuals of the same country mean[s] losing [one’s] common identity”—as if places like Switzerland and India, each with respectively four and twenty-three official, national—often mutually incomprehensible—speech forms, were lesser countries or suffered more acute identity crises than ostensibly cohesive, monolingual societies. In fact, the opposite is often true: Monolingualism is no more a precondition or motivation for cultural and ethnic cohesiveness than multilingualism constitutes grounds for national incoherence and loss of a common identity. Irishmen, Scotsmen, Welsh, and Jamaicans are all native English-speakers but not Englishmen. The AP could have acknowledged that glaring reality, which has been a hallmark of the polyglot multiethnic Middle East for millennia. This, of course, is beside the fact that for many Lebanese—albeit mainly Christians—multilingualism and the appeal of Western languages is simply a way of heeding history and adhering to the country’s hybrid ethnic and linguistic heritage. Cultural anthropologist Selim Abou argued that notwithstanding Lebanon’s millenarian history and the various and often contradictory interpretations of that history, the country’s endogenous and congenital multilingualism—and by extension that of the entire Levantine littoral —remains indisputable. He wrote: From the very early dawn of history up to the conquests of Alexander the Great, and from the times of Alexander until the dawning of the first Arab Empire, and finally, from the coming of the Arabs up until modern times, the territory we now call Lebanon—and this is based on the current state of archaeological and historical discoveries—has always practiced some form of bilingualism and polyglossia; one of the finest incarnations of intercultural dialogue and coexistence.[7] So much, then, for linguistic chauvinism and language protectionism. The Arabic language will survive the onslaught of multilingualism but only if its users will it to survive by speaking it rather than by hallowing it and by refraining from creating conservation societies that build hedges around it to shield it from desuetude. Even avid practitioners of multilingualism in Lebanon, who were never necessarily talented or devoted Arabophones, have traditionally been supportive of the idea of preserving Arabic in the roster of Lebanese languages—albeit not guarding and fixing it by way of mummification, cultural dirigisme, or rigid linguistic planning. Though opposed in principle to Arab nationalism’s calls for the insulation of linguistically libertine Lebanon “in the solitude of a troubled and spiteful nationalism … [and] linguistic totalitarianism,” Lebanese thinker Michel Chiha (1891-1954) still maintained that: “Arabic is a wonderful language … the language of millions of men. We wouldn’t be who we are today if we, the Lebanese of the twentieth century, were to forgo the prospect of becoming [Arabic’s] most accomplished masters to the same extent that we had been its masters some one hundred years ago … But how can one not heed the reality that a country such as ours would be literally decapitated if prevented from being bilingual (or even trilingual if possible)? … [We must] retain this lesson if we are intent on protecting ourselves from self-inflicted deafness, which would in turn lead us into mutism.?”[8] Another fallacy reiterated in the AP article was the claim that “Arabic is believed to be spoken as a first language by more than 280 million people.”[9] Even if relying solely on the field of Arabic linguistics—which seldom bothers with the trivialities of precise cognomens denoting varieties of language, preferring instead the overarching and reductive lahja (dialect/accent) and fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, MSA) dichotomy to, say, the French classifications of langue, langage, parler, dialecte, langue vérnaculaire, créole, argot, patois, etc.—Zeina Karam’s arithmetic still remains in the sphere of folklore and fairy tale, not concrete, objective fact. Indeed, no serious linguist can claim the existence of a real community of “280 million people” who speak Arabic at any level of native proficiency, let alone a community that can speak Arabic “as a first language.”


Part two will follow next week, I think many of the points raised are quite controversial and I din’t agree with everything he writes. But such provocations are needed if any real debate of Arabic will take place and if any real solution to the current situation of Arabic can be agreed on.  Some of the people he quotes were analysing the situation of Arabic over a decade ago, and some of their insights are applicable today and some are not, so Arabic sociolinguists need to step up and continue where those scholars left off. Technology, travel, politics and media play major roles in how languages survive, thrive or begin a decline, and Arabic is no different-real authentic research is needed and soon.

I did promise that I would be interviewing a second author for the Pioneers Of Arabic series, unfortunately it seems the author is very busy and has not been able to follow through with the interview which is unfortunate. Therefore in the meantime I am on the search for a new author and as soon as I find one I will post the interview here, thanks for recent comments and welcome to new readers in Malaysia- salamat detung :)!!


Franck Salameh is assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Boston College and author of Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010). He thanks research assistant Iulia Padeanu for her valuable contributions to this essay.

[1] Zeina Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic in Polyglot Culture,” The Washington Post, Aug. 16, 2010. For more on Arabic language decline, see Mahmoud al-Batal, “Identity and Language Tension in Lebanon: The Arabic of Local News at LBCI,” in Aleya Rouchdy, ed., Language Contact and Language Conflict in Arabic: Variations on a Sociolinguistic Theme (London: Curzon Arabic Linguistics Series, 2002);Al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis, Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), Aug. 1, 2000, Aug. 28, 2001; Zeina Hashem Beck, “Is the Arabic Language ‘Perfect’ or ‘Backwards’?” The Daily Star (Beirut), Jan. 7, 2005; Hashem Saleh, “Tajrubat al-Ittihad al-‘Urubby… hal Tanjah ‘Arabiyan?” Asharq al-Awsat (London), June 21, 2005.

[2] Fouad Ajami, “The Autumn of the Autocrats,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2005.

[3] Elie Kedourie, “Not So Grand Illusions,” The New York Review of Books, Nov. 23, 1967.

[4] Abu Khaldun Sati Al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi-l-Qawmiyya al-‘Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1985), p. 80.

[5] Franck Salameh, Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 9-10.

[6] Michel Aflaq, Fi Sabil al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali’a, 1959), pp. 40-1.

[7] Selim Abou, Le bilinguisme Arabe-Français au Liban (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1962), pp. 157-8.

[8] Michel Chiha, Visage et Présence du Liban (Beirut: Editions du Trident, 1984), p. 49-52, 164.

[9] Karam, “Lebanon Tries to Retain Arabic.”

Source: http://www.meforum.org/3066/does-anyonespeak-arabic

“The revival of Arabic lies in the creativity of writers”: Gibran Khalil Gibran

Khalil Gibran - Autorretrato con musa, c. 1911
Image via Wikipedia

Gibran Khalil Gibran that forward thinking writer, poet, philosopher and artist had a view, then before the 1930s on how Arabic language might be revived. Yes, it was the that long ago that people worried about the state of the Arabic language, it is not something new, and the fact that we are still talking about it today shows that the confusion and turmoil continues still. I am sure you all know Gibran, and if you have not read ‘The Prophet‘ then you’d better :), to say it’s superb, is understatement you have to experience reading it yourself. He is a deep writer who has foresight, a gift he possessed and used very well. I chose to use his essay here today because I feel that we have much to learn from it and ponder on.

This post is a copy of a translated version of his essay “The future of the Arabic language” in which he discusses solutions and ways that Arabic can be sustained and maintained by its speakers in the then new 20th century. I think many of those points are still applicable today and like I always say, it is up to the speakers themselves, no system or law can enforce the revival and maintenance of Arabic language.

He says that writers and poets have a huge role to play in the revival of Arabic language, that they must not be afraid to explore words and expressions. Which I think is brilliant and it has inspired me to look for individuals today who take seriously the writing of Arabic language in our modern-day. I am fascinated by writers or poets who write authentic Arabic materials and work hard to come up with Arabic words to describe a novel idea. Over the next few posts I will be posting up interviews that I am conducting with these authors/ publishers and I will hopefully be able to find out and share with you how it is challenging and at the same time rewarding to write a novel in Arabic today. Languages evolve and remain in use only when creativity is involved, without creativity speakers feel the need to find a new code than can better explain their feelings and views. Can Arabic ever make its speakers feel that way?  Below is the essay, without editing as usual- enjoy!


What is the future of the Arabic language?

Language is but one manifestation of the power of invention in a nation’s totality or public self. But if this power slumbers, language will stop in its tracks, and to stop is to regress, and regression leads to death and extinction.

Therefore, the future of the Arabic language is tied to the presence or absence of invention in all the countries that speak Arabic. Where invention is present, the future of the language will be glorious like its past, and where it is absent, the future will be like the present of its two sisters—Syriac and Classical Hebrew.

And what is this power we call invention?

It is the nation’s resolve to move ever forward. It is in the nation’s heart, a hunger and thirst for the unknown, and in its soul a chain of dreams that the nation seeks to realize day and night, and every time one of the links in the chain is realized, life adds another one. It is, for that individual, a yearning for brilliance and for the group enthusiasm. And what is brilliance save the ability to mold the group’s hidden tendencies into clear and tangible forms. In the Jahiliyya* the poet was always prepared because the Arabs then were in a state of readiness. Likewise, in the period bridging the Jahiliyya with Islam, the poet prospered and expanded his talents because the Arabs then were in a state of growth and expansion. In the post-classical period the poet split his loyalties because the Islamic nation was in a state of disunion. And the poet kept on progressing, ascending and changing his color, appearing at times as a philosopher, at other times as a physician, and at still other times, as an astronomer, until the Arabic language was lured to drowsiness and then to sleep. And in its deep sleep the poets reverted to versifiers; the philosophers metamorphosed into scholastic theologians, the physicians into quacks; and the astronomers into fortune-tellers.

If the above is correct, the future of the Arabic language is closely tied to the power of invention in all the nations that speak Arabic. And if those nations together were possessed of a private self or unity of spirit, and if the power of invention in that self were to wake up after a long sleep, the future of the Arabic language would be as glorious as its past. And if not, it will not happen.

What kind of influence would the European Civilization and the Western Spirit have on it?

As for the Western Spirit, it is but a stage in man’s life and a chapter of his existence. For man’s life is a formidable procession that forever moves forward. And out of that golden dust arising from the roads he travels, languages, governments and sects are fashioned. The nations that walk in the forefront of this procession are the inventive ones, and that which is inventive is that which influences. On the other hand, the nations that walk last in the procession are the ones that imitate, and the imitator is the one who is influenced. So when the Easterners were ahead and the Westerners were behind, our civilization had a great influence on their languages. But now, since they are in the front and we have lagged behind, their civilization has necessarily exerted great influence on our language, our thinking and our morality.

Whereas the Westerners in the past consumed what we cooked, partaking of our food, swallowing it, and transforming what was useful to their very being, the Easterners, at present, consume what the Westerners cook; they swallow their food, but it does not become part of their being. Rather, it transforms them into something similar to their counterparts in the West. This is a result that I fear and complain about because it presents the East, at times, as an old man who has lost his molars and at other times, as an infant who has not yet sprouted them.

The Western Spirit is at once our friend and our enemy. It is a friend if we can vanquish it and an enemy if it can vanquish us, a friend if we can open our hearts to it, and an enemy if we offer it our hearts, a friend if we borrow from it what suits us and an enemy if we place ourselves in situations that suit it.

What influence does the present Arab political scene have on our language?

All writers and thinkers in both the East and the West agree that the Arab countries are in a state of political, psychological, and administrative confusion, and most of them agree that this confusion is the harbinger of destruction and extinction. I, however, ask: Is it confusion or boredom?

If it is boredom, it will spell the death of every nation and the end of every people. Boredom is dying in the form of drowsiness, and death in the semblance of sleep. And if it is in reality, confusion. I believe that confusion is always useful because it brings to light that which was hidden in the nation’s soul, changing this soul’s intoxication to sobriety and its stupor to wakefulness, precisely the way a powerful storm shakes the trees, not to uproot them, but to break their dead branches and scatter their yellow leaves.

And if confusion appears in a nation that still possesses some inborn qualities, that will be the plainest proof of the presence in its individuals of the power of invention and the power of initiative in its public soul. Is not mist the first word in the book of life, not the last? And what is the mist save a life rife with confusion?

Therefore the influence of political development in the Arab countries will change these countries’ confusion into order and their ambiguities and their problems into harmonious organization. But it neither alters their boredom to passion nor to excitement. For the potter may be able to fashion from clay a jug for wine or vinegar, but he cannot fashion anything from sand and pebbles.

What is the best means to revive the Arabic language?

The best and only means is to be found in the poet’s heart, on his lips, and at his finger tips. The poet is the mediator between the power of invention and humanity. He is the cable that transfers what the world of the soul conceives to the world of research, and what the world of thought determines to the world of retention and writing.

The poet is both the father and the mother of language; language travels the same roads he travels and stops to rest where he stops to rest, and if the poet dies, language sits on his grave crying over the loss, wailing until another poet passes by and extends his hands to it. And if the poet is both the father and the mother of language, the imitator is the weaver of its shroud and the digger of its grave.

By poet, I mean every inventor, be he big or small, every discoverer, be he strong or weak, every creator, be he great or humble, every lover of pure life, be he a master or a pauper and everyone who stands in awe before the day and the night, be he a philosopher or a guard at a vineyard. The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who does not discover or create anything, but rather the one whose state of mind is borrowed from his contemporaries and whose conventional garments are made from the tatters of garments worn by his predecessors.

By poet, I mean that farmer who plows his field with a plow that differs, however little, from the plow he inherited from his father, in order that someone will come after him to give the new plow a new name; I mean that gardener who breeds an orange flower and plants it between a red and yellow flower, in order that someone will come after him to give the new flower a new name; or that weaver who produces on his loom patterns and designs that differ from those his neighbors weave, in order that someone will give his fabric a new name. By poet, I mean the sailor who hoists a third sail to a ship that has only two, or the builder who builds a house with two doors and two windows among houses built with one door and one window, or the dyer who mixes colors that no one before him has mixed, in order to produce a new color for someone who arrives later on to give the ship of the language a new sail, the house a new window, and the garment a new color.

As for the imitator, he is the one who travels from place to place on the roads that a thousand and one caravans have traveled, making sure he does not deviate from his course for fear he will get lost; he is the one who earns his living, eats, drinks, and wears the clothes of a thousand generations before him, and so his life remains a mere echo, his whole being a mere shadow of a distant truth he neither knows anything about it, nor cares to know.

By poet, I mean that worshipper who enters the temple of his own soul and kneels down crying of joy, wailing, rejoicing, listening. And when he comes out, his lips and tongue articulate nouns, verbs, letters, and new meanings for the various patterns of his own adoration which renew themselves everyday, and for the many types of his own supplications that change every night. Thus he adds with this effort a silver string to the lute of the language and a perfumed branch to its hearth. The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who repeats the worshippers’ prayers and their supplications without an act of will on his part, without even an emotion, and thus leaves the language where he finds it and keeps his personal rhetoric where there is neither rhetoric nor distinctive character.

By poet, I mean that lover who, when he falls in love with a woman, his soul isolates itself and walks away from all that is human in order to drape his dreams with embodiments of the day’s splendor, the night’s terror, the tempests’ rage and the valleys’ calm, then goes on to fashion from its experiences a wreath to grace the head of the language, and mold from its contentment a necklace to adorn its neck.

The imitator, on the other hand, is the one who copies others even when he loves, or flirts or celebrates his beloved in verse. So if he happens to describe his beloved’s face or neck, he says “moon” and ““gazelle”; if he thinks of her hair, her figure and her glances, he says “night,” “bent branch,” and “arrows”; and if he complains about his love, he says “a sleepless eyelid,” ““a distant dawn,” and “close rebuker”; and if he decides to come up with a rhetorical feat, he will say “my beloved sheds tears of pearls from her narcissus eyes in order to water her roseate cheeks, and bites her fingers of gum-arabic, with her hail-like teeth.” And so our friend keeps on aping this hackneyed song, not realizing that he is poisoning with his stupidity the richness of the language and insulting, with his abuse, its honor and nobility.

I have talked about the “innovative” and its benefits and the “barren” and the harm that comes from it, but I have yet to mention those who spend their lives writing dictionaries and founding language academies. I have not said a word about them because I believe that they are like the beach between the ebb and the flow of the language and that their job is limited to functioning like a sieve. Now sifting is a good job, but what can the sifter possibly sift if the nation’s innovative power plants only chaff and harvests only straw, and hoards in its threshing floors only thorn and thistle?

Again I say the life of the language, its unification, its propagation and all that has any relationship to it have been and will always be the product of the poets’ imaginations. But do we have poets?

Yes we do have poets, and every Easterner can be a poet in his field, in his garden, before his loom, in his temple, on his pulpit, and in his library. Every Easterner can free himself from the prison house of imitation and tradition and come out to meet the sun and walk in the procession of life. Every Easterner can submit to the power of innovation that lies hidden in his soul—that eternal power that transforms rock to God’s children.

As for those who have devoted themselves to versifying and setting in prose their talents, to them I say: Let your personal aims prevail over your attempts to follow the tracks of those who preceded you, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to build a poor hut made of your humble selves than to erect a lofty palace made of your borrowed selves. Let your self-esteem prevent you from composing eulogies, elegies, and occasional poems, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to die despised and cast out than to burn the incense of your hearts before the idols and the monuments. Let your national zeal spur you to depict the mysteries of pain and the miracles of joy that characterize life in the East, for it is better for you and for the Arabic language to adopt the simplest events in your surroundings and clothe them with the fabric of your imagination, than to translate the most beautiful and the most respected of what the Westerners have written.

*Jahiliyya: “The Age of Ignorance.” A reference to the period in Arabia before the rise of Islam.

From Al-bada’ic wa al-tara’if. Translation copyright 2010 by Adnan Haydar. All rights reserved.—————– end

Notice that the chapter is taken from the book Al-bada’ic wa al-tara’if which means “the new and marvellous”, titles say a lot and he was looking for renewal and sustaining of Arabic through new ventures, which in his opinion were marvellous! His style of writing just flows and although this is the translation, I think the translator did a good job of bringing to the English reader the ease and lucidity of Gibran’s writing, that style that keeps the reading yearning for more and more.

Gibran was a renewer someone who never saw modernity as an obstacle for Arabic language to take on new concepts and ideas and by extension new words. Not borrowed or Arabized, he believed Arabic had enough depth to create new words that could encompass the concept in question. There are cases however in which the original word just has to be Arabized because it cannot be exchanged. There are words in Classical Arabic that have a Hebrew, Persian or Sanskrit origin and that’s how languages are, when cultures meet this is inevitable. Gibran’s point is that this can only happen authentically if there is a truly creative way of writing and use of Arabic to its full potential. The future is bright and there are writers doing this right now, I have the same hope that he had. But we need to ensure speakers are educated well otherwise we cannot have readers however creative writers are;  so it seems we go back to the education system..mmmm…food for thought.

I hope you enjoyed the article as much as I did and if you get the Arabic version then it’s even more fun because of his superbly artist way of writing.  Watch out for my blog posts- Pioneers of Arabic© over the next few months, comments are welcome as usual, and a huge thank you and welcome to new readers.

source of article: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/from-the-future-of-the-arabic-language

The need for more books in Arabic- not just translations of foreign novels

Legs up and reading a book
Image by Gael Martin via Flickr

Good morning everybody, hoping everybody has a nice weekend the weather seems to be getting nicer, I hope it stays that way so on the Race for Life day it can be pleasant. There is one dilemma that exists for Arab speakers and that is uninteresting material to read, and then people end up not reading at all. I found an article in The National addressing the issue of the availability of reading material in Arabic. There is a plethora of translations of all our classics such as Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin and even George Orwell. It’s always my habit that when I go on holiday I like to visit the main bookstores and over the years as I have visited the Middle East I noticed the book stores are more apparent and there are more of them which is a good thing and maybe an indicator that someone somewhere is reading! Of course until you go in then you can tell the contents and usually the materials they sell are; post cards, key rings, factual books about the country in question, magazines (plenty of them on everything from cooking, furniture, make-up to computers mainly in Arabic but some in English too) self- help books (many are translations from English), and novels in English, their translations and other wonderful Arabic novels. There is of course the canonical works of Arabic grammar, literature, and Islam that are always available and some of the printing is beautiful with their wonderful calligraphy-pressed covers and exquisite borders in the inside pages; you have to hold yourself otherwise you might end up buying the same book three times! Children’s books are mainly in English and the ones in Arabic are in Classical Arabic which most kids can’t read. I know that whilst doing my degree many of my colleagues would buy kid’s books in Arabic to revise grammar and help themselves learn Arabic- that shows the level of Arabic (children’s books in Arabic are so fun you don’t need to be a kid to read them!). This article below is the story of a mother who struggled to buy suitable reading books for her kids…. have a read to see what she had to do (no editing was done)


Why are so few reading Arabic books? Tahira Yaqoob and Shadiah Abdullah (Writer) 

Last Updated: Apr 23, 2011

As an Arabic-speaking mother of three, Abir Ballan was eager that her children be familiar with their mother tongue. Yet when the 35-year-old public health worker scoured libraries and bookshops in search of entertaining children’s books in Arabic for her oldest son, Zein, then seven, she came up against an unexpected stumbling block: although plenty of translations of adult English literature filled the shelves, there was very little in the way of original, engaging fiction for young inquiring minds.

Undeterred, Ballan, who is originally from Beirut but lives in Dubai, set about writing a children’s book herself, turning the “crazy stories I used to tell my children to make them laugh” into lively printed form. Today she has six hugely popular picture books in print, including Fie al Ittihad al Quwa (United We Stand), which tells the story of National Day in the Emirates through a child’s eyes, and Ahlum An Ankoun (I Wish I Were).

But while her success story has inspired other writers and created a fan base of youngsters hungry for more creative fiction in their mother tongue, the obstacles she was forced to overcome represent just a fraction of a widespread problem: why are so few people reading Arabic books?

The scale of the problem was spelt out in a recent survey on reading habits in the Middle East. Commissioned to mark World Book Day last month, it produced depressing results for any Arab writer or publisher: only one in five read on a regular basis and among those under 25 – nearly 65 per cent of the 3,667 questioned by Yahoo! Maktoob Research – about one in three seldom or never read a book for pleasure.

Broken down by country, the results make equally uncomfortable reading. In an Arab League table of readers by nation, the UAE comes fifth behind Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq. In the Emirates, just 22 per cent of people regard themselves as regular readers. Most of those were well into their 40s and older.

Behind the figures is a sense that Arabic, at least in written form, is in serious trouble. The causes are complex and much debated. A diaspora, particularly among young educated professionals, means many young Arabs educated and living abroad are more comfortable writing in English.

A general lack of educational opportunities, particularly among poorer Arabs, is also to blame. Research for the Arab League estimates that about 100 million people – almost one in three – struggle to read and write. A recent Unesco report found that in the UAE, one in 10 people is illiterate.

Then there is something more intangible but equally damaging: a culture based on globalisation that is increasingly dominated by foreign-language products. Films, magazines, TV programmes, the printed word – everything that is culturally shiny and enticing to young minds. Among young Emiratis, the most popular section at the Book World superstore in Dubai Mall is English translations of Japanese manga comics. One result is that, as Ballan found, there are simply not enough books being published in Arabic, particular for children and teenagers. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. The market is not big enough to make it worthwhile, so there are not enough people writing.

“The quality of Arabic books is not of the standard of English books, which are nicely illustrated and cater to children’s emotional needs,” she says.

“Arab culture does not promote reading. I do not think parents see the importance of reading to their children in Arabic unless they are learning the alphabet. They do not see that books need to be read for fun, too.”

———The article continues…..please feel free to read it at the link below.

It’s great that she did something about it. If there is no incentive to read or a culture (as is claimed here) that does not push for kids to read they will not read, not as kids and not as adults. As linguists like to say, it’s always the attitude a good and positive attitude promotes better language learning and so on. The attitude must change, and if it does not then they will always say that Arabic is in danger of dying! I can go on and on about the benefits of reading not just for social gains but psychologically, for intelligence purposes etc… but it’s not the place and most people know this anyway. I can’t imagine what the world would be like without books!? There are efforts to address this lack of Arabic books for children, many publishing houses are taking this seriously, I am hoping that in a few months time when I go, the bookstores will have a better variety in the kids’ section. It might be a few years until a shift takes place, and I am sure it will (how that will impact or change things is to be seen) so we’ll see how that goes.


The power of words- a lesson from Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali

The power of words? Yes, words have power, power to move our emotions, power to make us think differently, and even to shape the way we see the world {in the loose sense or if you like in the Linguistic Relativity sense}. All through? Yes, you got it, through language. Which begs the question, what would we lose if we had no language? Apart from culture, ways of doing things or seeing the world, we’ll lose the power to influence others {positively of course} in an easy and natural way.

I like poetry and one type that really fascinates me is spoken word, and one of my favourites is one by Taylor Mali called ‘what teachers make’. Recently, I came across a CNN clip that shows how through Taylor’s poetry, many people have become teachers [to be precise 499]. So the question that came to mind for me was, how did he do it? Did he describe the excellent financial reward of being a teacher? Or maybe the glorious praise and respect from students? NO, all he did was show the passion he had for being a teacher, and showed the true nature of how important teachers are even though society does not acknowledge it. All this was done through the use of words, through the use of language, he moved people to change their lives forever- the true power of words and it doesn’t get better than this. He in effect not only changed the life of those 499 individuals but the also the lives of their many thousand students, because these teachers have passion, and when you have that anything you do will be no less than excellent. Here is the CNN clip.

Once we acknowledge the power of words and hence the importance of language preservation then we will understand why language ecologists are running and working hard to save languages from extinction- without words and language we are quite literally- nothing. That’s why the proper use and learning of Arabic is very important because if future generations lose the ability to understand and use language, they cannot therefore be affected by its power or influence others through it. Without language we could not function, we could not make our points clear, you would not be reading this post and digesting its meaning, negotiations could not take place, peace talks could never happen…..and the list continues.  Arabic may not be dying but it might one day and if it does so much will go with it and so much will be lost without it, or any other language for that matter. Language is power- a power we underestimate.

 Below I have put the original poem Taylor read at the Def poetry for HBO- enjoy and your comments are always welcome.