x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A poem I wrote as a child reminds me of the power of verse

Learning Arabic will be easier if students embrace the beauty and utility of the language.

Recently I came across a poem I had written during my school days. It was a eulogy to an old American car that had once been driven on the roads of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Riddled with double meanings, the poem was satirical with a touch of dark humour about how many times the car would fail its passengers and what we would have to do to change a tyre in the middle of a road.

What amazed me about the poem was how I was able to write in classical Arabic at the age of 11 or 12, whereas today I can barely compose anything of this depth in strong Arabic? What happened?

I laughed as I read that I always looked forward (sarcastically) to the daily ritual of almost being killed because my driver never signalled when changing lanes, ran red lights, never bothered to park properly and always swore at other drivers. It was “always” their fault.

It is a long poem, with many layers to it, and it was just one of many that my friends and I would compose in our spare time. The amount of wit and creativity we would come up with as a group remains unchanged to this day.

Looking over the poem, I feel disappointed; I want to revive that Arabian poet within me.

We can’t all be great orators or writers, but sitting, composing and discussing poems is an old tradition that, until the past decade or so, had helped preserve the power of the Arabic language.

Not every Arab is a poet, but every Arab should at least be able to read one and understand Arabic literary pieces. It is a shame that most of us never bother to discover our great poets and writers of the past or even the present.

Today, in general, people don’t write or even read long poems. We tend to write short, fast and to the point in a world of social media and connectivity.

Discussion of how the Arabic language is struggling is nothing new. There have been so many conferences and initiatives lately to revive Arabic, especially in the UAE. Arab parents in general are struggling to teach their children Arabic, as some of them have forgotten the language or simply feel more comfortable speaking in English.

Until recently, there weren’t many great books in Arabic for children and teenagers. Now there are many selections, and children can’t complain that Arabic books are boring or difficult to read.

It’s a serious issue, given how strongly Arab identity is tied to its language. We always like to say we are “exotic” with images of us sitting in the desert or some mountain, riding horses and seducing everyone with Arabic lines.

An old Saudi poet once told me: “Always try to sound like you are giving a secret promise when you are talking to people. They will always come back to find out what that secret was.” What he said sounded better in Arabic.

The push to embrace Arabic language must start in the earliest school years. Getting children to write and read books once they are in high school is too late.

Start off with just a line or two they have to compose each morning and then that will slowly evolve into a habit of thinking and writing in Arabic.

There are so many dialects and accents in Arabic that it is a difficult task.

I overheard a group of young Arab women talking about how they miss getting “wooed” by poetic verse, and that what they get now are copy-and-pasted pieces from the internet.

When I brought this up with a group of young Arab men, they said that they can still write such poems, that most Arab women can’t understand their compositions. Perhaps there should be some kind of a poetry majlis to help both genders get together.

At the end of the day, everyone wants a bit of poetry in their life, regardless of what language. Yes, some can be very cheesy and lame, but overall, with a bit of effort, you can say through a poem or prose what you can’t say directly.


On Twitter: @Arabianmau