x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

What happened to our Arabic? Just open a book to find out

Our over-reliance on English means we are slowly losing our command of the Arabic language.

On a typical lazy Friday afternoon, Fahd, Fares, Sami and Nour decide to investigate the rumours about a haunted palace just a 100 kilometres away from their homes.

Little did they know that this trip would change each of their lives forever as they came face to face with something far more frightening than a few mischievous jinn.

Inspired by my visit to a real "haunted" palace in UAE, this is a quick synopsis of my new book Maskoon, or Haunted, published in Arabic for Arab young people by Kalimat. It took me a few seconds to write up those sentences in English - and a whole day (because I refused to use Google Translate) to write the same synopsis in Arabic. It took so long, and I introduced so many grammatical errors, that a translator was assigned to help me.

I can't describe the shame I felt, with a family tree filled with poets and writers, and even an ancestor whose eloquence and writing was famous in a royal court. How did it happen that I, who spent my childhood in strict Arabic-language Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia and wrote pages and pages of Arabic poetry and letters, cannot do it anymore and feel more comfortable writing and speaking in English?

Ironically, I only learnt English from movies, and spoke like the actor Humphrey Bogart for the longest time, before a college friend made fun of me. The reason I ventured into this project was because of something I overheard my younger brother and his friends, all teenagers, complain about: there are no books in Arabic that appeal to them.

"Arabic books are boring, and hard to read. They are just too preachy," was the consensus.

As a consequence, the young generation, and many others, just read English books and our Arabic has slowly deteriorated. Now my brother's group speaks "bad Arabic" filled with grammatical errors and loan words from other languages.

One of the biggest issues I have noticed is that Arabs perceive the Arabic language as "sacred" because it is the language of the Holy Quran. Immediately after my "horror/ fantasy" book came out, my conservative friends slammed me for writing in this genre in Arabic. "This stuff should be written in English, not Arabic. I hope they release a fatwa against you and using Arabic to write horror!" one friend messaged me.

I sent her a copy, and asked her to first read it before condemning it just because it is based on imagination. But it exposed a very thorny issue that other authors of Arabic books have shared with me.

"How does one find a balance between using classical Arabic, and the Arabic that the young are now speaking, without compromising the integrity of the language itself?" asked a prominent Emirati author who also writes for young people.

It is a struggle finding the "right Arabic" that will reach our younger generations.

This was the greatest challenge in writing my book. I ran it by friends who have teenagers to see their reactions. I was surprised at just how basic their Arabic was, and even the most common words caused confusion and disrupted the flow of their imagination as they read. So we ended up changing entire paragraphs to make it as easier to read.

Coming from a mixed background, I told myself that because my mother is not Arab, maybe that was the reason why Arabic wasn't fully maintained in our home. But I found the same weakening of the language in homes where both parents are Arabs.

This really is a serious problem. How will future Arabs understand the oldest and perhaps the most difficult text out there: the Quran?

More and more Arabs are losing their intellectual strength as they lose fluency of their own native language. The sad reality is that, given the choice, if an English version of my book is next to the Arabic one, it will be picked up first. I have done it myself numerous times when I felt I just didn't have time to read an Arabic book. But it is just more than my book that is at stake.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

'Maskoon' is now available in stores