x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Arabic's importance should not require much translation

Arabic has to serve a vital role, even if it's simply a connection between the UAE and her GCC sisters.

Every night, Arabic cries herself to sleep. Jilted by her people, by those who come here to live, she finds herself a lonely old soul. She occasionally finds some company during the heritage festivals, but even those are for the most part populated by people who are more interested in dancing, singing, and good food. Arabic is important and has to serve a vital role, even if it's simply a connection between the UAE and her GCC sisters.

Who do you blame in a dilemma such as this? Demographics might be an issue, because non-Arabic speakers are the majority. Yet in the local market next to my house, Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, Filipinas and Tamil Indians use Arabic as the lingua franca to transact business. In this little shop, Arabic plays her duff drum and sings out loud. However, it's clear that Arabic is a marginalised language. Apparently, some think that it's better to keep her wrapped up in plastic, like my grandma used to do, whenever she got something nice. But the scenario above illustrates the possibility of Arabic becoming a language of the centre rather than the periphery.

Dr Abdullah al Karam of Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KDHA) says that Arabic is a national issue, and it is. What if all of the expats left and we had Arabic speakers who couldn't communicate with their illiterate compatriots? This would be a real tragedy. During a debate put on by the Dubai School of Government, I was bewildered when the parents' representative, Robert Lakos, suggested that in order to learn Arabic, kids spend hours watching Arabic cartoons and music videos, which means Dora the Explorer in Egyptian or Nancy Ajram in Lebanese. And yet the two most popular cartoons among the kids here are Tom and Jerry and Shaun the Sheep. Neither of them talk much.

He also suggested that the Emirati dialect become the standard and that Fusha be done away with altogether. What he was suggesting was a sort of Kemalisation of Arabic in the UAE, purging it of the variety of Arabic dialects that are rampant both on the streets and in the entertainment media. What then? Should everyone be given an Emirati Arabic entrance exam along with visa applications on arrival?

My "Aha!" moment came when Lina Wright of the Gems Wellington International School said that non-Arab employees who may not be here for long don't need that much Arabic and that "we should just give them a souvenir." Expatriates like Sunny Varkey might have been offended if they had been in the meeting. The owner of the Gems school management company built on his father's first effort, Our Own English High School, and turned it into one of the largest education corporations in this part of the world. Nevertheless, Ms Wright's attitude is the sort that has created the troubled waters we are waddling through today.

Looking at the amount of headphones used in the room, I found it particularly ironic that most of the audience were non-Arabic speakers. The panel of experts chose to speak in Arabic, despite their ability to speak English very well. Arabic thus became a symbol of affiliation instead of a vital language. Seeing this, the question crept over me: who needs Arabic? As we all stood up to leave, one woman, shocked, blurted out: "What? No solution?" Sorry habibti, no solution, yet. Then, I saw the tears well up in Arabic's eyes. I felt Arabic's heart breaking as she stumbled out of the room, watching others go home to speak their foreign tongues. She had been told that she had too many wrinkles (dialects) and that her pedigree (Fusha) had become obsolete; that her symbolic form (the alphabet) was too burdensome even to write; that she had poor organisation skills (grammar); that perhaps civilisation was not her strongest suit - she should look to becoming an oral tradition again and it was best to go back to the mountains of Fujairah and Ras al Khaimah to muse with the goats.

Some were ready to send her sympathy cards and some chided her and said it was her own fault. But it is evident that Arabic is becoming a Cinderella with no fairy godmother to save her with glass slippers and a prince. As she went home to cry herself to sleep, she prayed for the day when she wouldn't have to wander the alleys of this society and for the restoration of her voice. Maryam Ismail is a sociologist who divides her time between the US and the UAE Rym Ghazal will return next week