x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fluency in classical Arabic is its own reward

With Arabs still trying to find themselves after years of imperialistic rule, I wonder how the changing style of Arabic affects this search.

His muscled body hovers over the Cairo highways these days. Drivers zip under his seductive gaze as he poses in a white tank top. The Egyptian superstar, Amr Diab, has a new album out this summer, and the billboards urge you to buy it ASAP. But after, ehem, appreciating his tanned self, I notice the title of his album and his name on the giant posters are written in a mix of English (or Latin really) and Arabic letters.

His first name for example is a combination of the letter "ain" in Arabic, and then "amr" in English letters. And almost all the other billboards for artists and movies are the same - the titles and names are Arabic but in Latin letters. This isn't really a new phenomenon - with the advent of SMS, instant messaging and computer lingo, Arabs have created a new written language. Letters that sound the same in English remain in their natural form, and letters that are unique to Arabic are replaced by numbers that look like them.

There are even websites such as yamli.com, where one can write Arabic in Latin letters and numbers into a box, press Enter, and the word gets rewritten in Arabic letters. While a friend at work scoffs at this kind of technology as the colonialisation of the Arabic language, I find it kind of useful when trying to write Arabic on an English-only keyboard. It's quiet uncanny. Language is known to be a big part of a community's identity, and with Arabs struggling with dual identities and still trying to find themselves after years of imperialistic rule, I wonder how the changing style of Arabic affects this search.

We are seeing many upper-class Arab children grow with better English or French and laughable Arabic because it is more prestigious and "useful" to learn western languages. And with the so-called democratisation of the language, we are seeing dialect Arabic - once only spoken - being used in newspapers, political campaign posters, and in newscasts, all typically classical forums. So what does that do to the Arab self-esteem? Is it carving a new niche for Arabs to re-explore their modern selves? Or is it slowly destroying the Arab identity, diluting the beautiful complexity and richness of the classical language and, in turn, the self-worth of the Arab?

I know that I can only speak for myself - but even then the jury is still out. Growing up in Abu Dhabi until I was 14, I received my education like the majority of expat kids in English, and my parents made sure I took private French lessons to supplement what I was studying in school. I spoke dialect Iraqi at home, and a mix of dialects, plus English, with my Arab friends at school, but I never read Arab novels or comics, and only understood classical Arabic from the few hours we studied in class and from the dubbed cartoons we watched (which are now being dubbed in dialect instead of classical Arabic). As I grew older, it became embarrassing to read Arabic out loud and tiresome to pick up a book in Arabic because it would take twice as long to read.

It was only when I moved to the Middle East and was forced to begin reading and listening to more classical Arabic for my work did it get stronger. I also became fluent in street language - which includes many English words corrupted by Arabic conjugation. Strengthening my Egyptian dialect in Cairo and my Iraqi voice in Baghdad also helped develop my identity as a person of Arab heritage. Compared with my other hyphenated Arab friends who have weaker Arabic, I definitely feel I can enjoy the culture and the nuances in this part of the world just that little bit more because of my language. My connection to the people I meet can be deeper and perhaps, yes, this has all played into the part of my identity that is Arab.

As technology continues to grow, and the West dominates popular culture, it is hard to imagine that there will be a sudden movement to return to the classical language - but who knows? Perhaps, people will get bored mixing letters and numbers and start learning to get a handle on Arabic keyboards. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo