"Hi Kifak Ca Va" Pride

“Protecting” the Arabic language risks missing the entire points of languages and the modern Lebanese Identity.


A campaign to preserve Arabic in Lebanon (AFP)

First, some questions:
-Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie dubbed in Arabic?
-Did you ever solve a math problem in Arabic?
-Did you eat in an Italian restaurant where the entire menu is written in Arabic?

If you answered “no” to all of the questions above, you’re probably Lebanese. A “yes” answer on the other hand means that you could be Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian or a holder of any other Arab nationality.

To people like Suzanne Talhouk, founder of a new Lebanese movement that seeks to preserve the Arabic language, this is a problem. Her frustrations are laid out in an Afp article entitled “in polyglot Lebanon, one language is falling behind: Arabic

“Some of our youngsters are incapable of writing correctly in Arabic, and many university students we interviewed were not even able to recite the alphabet,” Talhouk told AFP.

To the extend that her campaign seeks to fight mediocrity, she could have a point: If you really want to speak and write proper Arabic, you have no excuse doing it half-heartedly. There is no shortage of places in Lebanon where you can learn good Arabic.

But if Ms. Talhouk seeks a government role to artificially “preserve” Arabic and frown at those who don’t speak it at home, we’ll have a problem.

Ms. Talhouk, like many who seek to protect languages all over the world (I’m looking at you France), has it backwards: It is not that people think it’s cool to speak French or English at home with their kids. It’s that they know that it will put their kids at an advantage when it comes to their education: All the centers of educational excellence in Lebanon are in English and French. Giving your children fluency at a very early age is the best way to secure them a good education.

You see, a language is not an end in itself, it’s a means to communication, education and development. If you want more people to speak Arabic, the best way is to have Arab breakthroughs in Science, technology and economics. If Facebook was invented by an Arab, “Facebook Arabic” will no longer be the insult Ms. Talhouk intended it to be.

There’s another reason why we shouldn’t lament the dilution of Arabic: The Lebanese have always had a complex relationship with their national identity. We have fought wars over which of our cultural ancestries is the dominant one, but we ended up concluding that we derive our richness from diversity itself, that we are Arabs and citizens of the world at the same time. In that context, the concept of a “mother tongue” becomes slightly obsolete.

We all know people of Lebanese ancestry who can’t speak a word of Arabic. Lebanon is a country with a huge diaspora: More people of Lebanese origin live outside of Lebanon than inside Lebanon. If they don’t speak Arabic, that doesn’t make them any less Lebanese. In an increasingly connected world, we should take pride in the fact that that we form that cliché bridge to the rest of the world.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a thought: This blog has always been about Lebanon and the Lebanese. Does the fact that it’s written in English make it any less authentic?

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  • http://identitychef.wordpress.com darine

    Spot on Mustapha,
    Another thing we need to note is that languages are constantly changing and evolving and sometimes seeking to preserve we prevent progress. As the world becomes more globalized more language will become extinct or trans-morphed. Aramaic was the language of the Christ, and yet it too has become a silent language. Language is always about self-expression and communication and I think the Lebanese have the biggest advantage compared to their Arab counterparts in this perspective even if knowing three languages weakens their knowledge of their native tongue. I’d rather have it this way, than the other way round.

  • http://www.kman.me Khaled Hakim

    Great post. Enjoyed reading. In this day and age Sir, I think the borders and barriers are melting across the globe. The age of the internet is a hot sun that is slowly melting the icicles of national identity, culture, and language. In Lebanon, I agree, it is more manifest than other Arab countries in the region, however, I think this phenomenon is taking place on a global scale… and as you said, language is not an end to itself, it is a means for communication. But at the same time, one cannot help but feel a little taken aback by how easily we are (as Arabs) freeing our hands from our own language to become better equipped in a this new day and age.

  • http://beirutspring.com Mustapha

    Exactly D,

    If the Lebanese are leaving Arabic, it is a warning sign to the rest… We are destined to be bellwethers..

  • http://beirutspring.com Mustapha

    Khaled,
    Very well said..

  • http://layalk.net nightS

    I do believe that learning multiple languages is mandatory in our area in order to know what the world is saying and to be heard as well..
    But it’s not okay for a Lebanese growing up in Lebanon (I’m not talking about a kid of a Lebanese ancestry) not to know the Arabic alphabet for example..

    I know Lebanese people living in Lebanon who do not even understand Arabic because of their parents (who speak fluent Arabic by the way)

    At the same time, the campaign’s argument is horribly pointless to me..The Arabic language should be preserved not because it’s our “mother-tongue” or for anti-globalization reasons(lol at that)..but because it’s the 5th most spoken language in the world and it is VERY difficult to learn for a non-native…so wasting the opportunity to teach your kids the language is a very horrible mistake..

    Teaching my kids English/French would get them into the best education institutes (it is 100% true and i won’t miss that opportunity)..And teaching them Arabic will not and should not affect that..International companies abroad actually look for Arabic speakers to work in their MENA based branches..

    Anyways, campaigns in Lebanon are drama queens..they’re good for nothing but whining..and they have no effect what so ever..
    Same as our mighty people of Lebanon :D
    So with the Lebanese “Hi, Kifak, Ca Va” or without it..the Arabic language is not going anywhere..

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  • http://www.dirtykitchensecrets.com Bethany (Dirty Kitchen Secrets)

    Well said! I think that Arabic is a great language and while I speak it quite fluently it’s not the language I express myself in at all. In fact, I need a combination of these languages that i grew up with and in this order (English, Arabic, French)…

    I also agree with Darine’s addition very much… we must evolve and allow for the changes to better empower us… And as Khaled said the borders and barriers are indeed melting and the Lebanese (especially our generation) are 3rd culture kids and global citizens- I definitely view myself as one. So knowing Arabic is a bonus but it won’t get me where I want to go… a good combination with strengths in English will.

  • http://beirutspring.com Mustapha

    Layal,

    Very good point! To add to it, even in Lebanon, advertisers (Like BHV) are beginning to understand that Arabic is the language most Lebanese understand. (I really never understood companies who advertise in French or English)

    Bethany,
    precisely the point of the post: We draw on all of our knowledge to express ourselves and communicate best…

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  • Simon

    I agree with you on most ideas in this blog, but unfortunately, in most cases speaking foreign languages is about being “tres cool” in lebanon.

    I was born and bread in Sydney Australia and went to a lebanese catholic school that tought me arabic. Every summer i go to lebanon, and pple there refuse to talk arabic even if i’m speaking fluent arabic to them. They will always reply in english.

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  • http://www.nadaakl.blogspot.com Na!

    Very well said Mustapha :)

    Fighting to preserve our Arabic language shouldn’t get in the way of acknowledging our cultural diversity. I’ve always lived in Lebanon but I can’t do without French and English.

    When it comes to Arabic, even as a child I felt confused by the fact that Fus7a Arabic as taught in classrooms, although a beautiful, rich language, is just too different from the Lebanese dialect I used with my parents (even without the foreign inserts). Maybe, instead of holding on to literary Arabic (with all due respect to Jahiliyya literature), we should try to find a way to bring modern Arabic into classrooms. Because that’s the language we really use.

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  • http://jilliancyork.com Jillian C. York

    I doubt I have anything to add that hasn’t been said already, but I agree with Layal very much. To be part of a society where bi- or trilingualism is almost expected is a great gift…in the US, we typically don’t start a second language until age 14 (unless we have bilingual or wealthy parents, that is), which as you all know is often too late.

    Morocco is very similar to Lebanon in this respect, except that the Arabic dialect everyone learns is well…a mess ;)

  • http://www.anasqtiesh.com Anas Qtiesh

    To answer your first 3 questions: Yes, Yes, and Yes.

    Arabs invented the fucking zero and “algebra” and “algorithms” are names of Arabic mathematicians. So even when you think you’re doing math in English, you’re doing it in Arabic.

    Now back to read the rest of your blog post.

  • http://www.anasqtiesh.com Anas Qtiesh

    Now for a better informed comment (I read the entire post).

    I don’t think a language becomes obsolete, its speaker do. I’ve been in so many discussions about this but the truth of the matter is: If you have power, wealth, and technological innovation your language becomes the de facto standard.

    Arabic has heavily suffered in the past (1600s onwards) but I believe today a renaissance is in the making.

    Then again bilingualism or trilingualism in Lebanon’s case (Jealous!) is a wonderful advantage to the people, I’m definitely not trying to deny that. My argument is that stigmatizing the 5th or 6th most spoken language in the world as obsolete is outrageous.

  • Dania

    What a great post Mustapha!I am all for the proper use of the arabic language and I resent when someone proudly says they cant speak/write arabic(specially those who lived their entire lives in Lebanon), but Ms Talhouk has gone and made a fuss over not sucha big deal. For heaven’s sake there’s nothing worse than dubbed movies(I should know I live in France)and linguistical monopolization. So what if we dont know the alphabet in arabic, it wasnt even in the programm when I was in school, we were taught syllables not letters at first… Maybe the emphasis should be made on more creativity to make the language more attractive like in arts or communication.

  • http://podarkis.ru/ Podarkis

    I like your blog! It’s very intresting.
    Thank you! Good luck!