Defending written Arabic

New Statesman - The talking cure

This is a review by Samir el-Youssef, a regular in the New Statesman, attacking a new book entitled Why Are the Arabs Not Free? by Moustapha Safouan (a slim volume at only 128 pages), which seems to blame the problem of repressive Arab world politics on the fact that the language of the educated people, standard written Arabic, is inaccessible to the masses:

The disparity between written and spoken Arabic is so great that talking to an audience is often a discouraging test for Arab writers. To use the vernacular, one would probably have to avoid sophisticated arguments and deep thoughts. But to talk in standard (written) language is to risk sounding pompous and rhetorical - and, worst of all, to fail to reach those who have had no school education. Given the high level of illiteracy in the Arab world, this means losing the attention of a great proportion of the public.

The dilemma is particularly daunting for those of us bilingual Arab writers who, through writing in English or French, have become used to the idea of written and spoken language being the same. The Franco-Egyptian writer Moustapha Safouan’s solution to the problem is a call for writers to abandon standard Arabic and use the spoken dialects instead. Safouan claims that writing in rarefied standard Arabic is a major cause of the absence of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. He calls this the “politics of writing” - written language is the privilege of the elite, the educated few who are faithfully in the service of their paymasters: the despotic Arab rulers and their political regimes.

However, the reviewer has no time for Moustapha Safouan’s proposal:

Arguing for writing in Arabic dialect, Safouan makes many refutable claims. He claims standard Arabic is a dead language - so how do we explain the fact that poets such as the Syrian Nizar Qabbani and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, both elegant writers of standard Arabic, have been read and recited by millions of people across the Arab world? His claim that Arab rulers prevent the use of dialects is also absurd: many poets of the vernacular were and have been pampered by Arab regimes; the Egyptian Salah Jaheen was a star during the Nasser era, the Iraqi Muzafer al-Nouab has been a most welcome guest at the court of leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi and the late Hafez al-Assad.

Safouan’s call for writing in dialect is familiar and has long been discredited; apart from using it in the performing and popular arts, attempts to write in spoken Arabic have proven to be a miserable failure. Above all, standard Arabic has for decades served as a potent means of political dissent for Arab opposition movements and individuals. Thousands of writers and journalists have been prosecuted in the Arab world not because they tried to write in the spoken language but because of what they have tried to say in, quite often, an eloquent standard Arabic.

Given that the peoples of Europe mostly speak derivatives of Latin, German or Norse and Slavonic which are far more divergent from each other than the various dialects of spoken Arabic are from each other or from written Arabic, and that all these languages have spoken variants which are distinct from the written (Geordie and Scots from written English, for example), and yet our politics (at least right now) are generally liberal and democratic, I do not see how abolishing standard Arabic could contribute to anything but the disconnection of Arabs from different parts of the Arab world from each other. I’m not familiar with this Moustapha Safouan and don’t know what his attitudes to religion are, but proper Arabic is a vital key to maintaining access to Islamic knowledge. Surely the key to fostering understanding among Arabs is improving education, not dumbing-down their language.

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