Writer’s Project #1 “Autoethnography”

Final

Bewitched by Arabic

Being both Egyptian and Canadian, my world resonates in the languages I acquired Arabic, French, English, and Spanish. Everyday conversation with friends and family will be a mix of English, Arabic, and French with a dominance of Arabic. Yet my relationship with Arabic is as Facebook categorizes “complicated.” Arabic is still my language of prayer, kinship, family conversations, and arguments. But the Arabic I use isn’t Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) it’s Egyptian-Colloquial-Arabic (ECA).

MSA is the formal Arabic learned in schools while ECA is the language at home and in the streets of Egypt. The classical, literary orotund Arabic mould the MSA while the ECA is like an unruly child that doesn’t conform to all the grammar rules. It’s looked down upon as a deformity and shouldn’t be used in newspapers, literature, or textbooks. Yet ECA’s beauty, nuances and hyperbolic pitches can be felt in songs, TV-series, and movies. Its prominence is increasing so that now it is commonplace to pick up a book in ECA at a bookstore. Egypt and other Arab countries hold on to the formal MSA and resist its evolution because it’s the language of the Qur’an, which is considered by Muslims to be the words of God, and any change to it heretical.

The malleability and contemporary quality of ECA can be heard through Egyptian rappers and Hip-Hop singers. They transmogrified ECA to the extent that there have been libel cases against them. But their popularity proves that their vibrations are the pulse of the people to the dismay of what I imagine to be “the holders of the sanctity of Arabic.” In this imaginary stuffy room, men with ungroomed beards and long nails pour over volumes of hand-written-books. They try and preserve the language of God which Egyptians are shamelessly distorting.

The diglossic struggle between ECA and MSA isn’t unique to Egypt. The need for a unifying MSA emerges from the fact that there are twenty-two Arab countries, each one with their own vernacular, and some countries with more than one colloquial language.

Michael Erdman, a doctoral candidate in the Near and Middle Eastern Studies Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, explains how “Moroccan Arabic, for example, borrows from Berber, while Levantine dialects (spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan) have Aramaic elements in them. The dialects of the Persian Gulf area show the influence of Persian and Hindi, both of which were the languages of important trading partners for the region’s merchants.”

ECA has borrowed words from other languages too. By deciphering the roots of the words, Egypt’s historical influences are revealed and the influence of the various colonial periods. For example, names of clothing and parts of cars are mostly derivations of French words perhaps reflecting France’s modernizing effect on Egypt during its colonization.

Although I realize the differences between ECA and MSA. I try to unravel the differences between my own deficiencies. I want to clarify where the split lies between my spoken Arabic (Egyptian Arabic), and the written Arabic which is mostly MSA.

I can read both types of Arabic, the colloquial is easier to read than the MSA, but I can’t write it. I don’t have the confidence or the ability to write the language I speak. Not really. When I’m forced to fill-in any government issued paperwork, my fingers fiddle with the pen, and I write as if I’m drawing like a grade school student.

To express myself, without doubt, in Arabic I will write it in Latin letters. I wasn’t sure if it was due to laziness to switch keyboards to Arabic letters or if it was that I couldn’t think in Arabic in my head and that’s why I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t pinpoint where my hesitation emanated from. Then, I realized, it’s fear. I was afraid to make spelling mistakes. I wondered why I couldn’t spell in my mother tongue. I look at the word, I know how it sounds. I repeat it in my head. I use it all the time. I see it on billboards. I stare and try to figure out which letter makes the word. It shouldn’t be so difficult. I attempt once more, then I decide to take the easy way out, answer the text, Facebook message, tweet, WhatsApp, in English letters. I feel ashamed although this is not my problem alone, and the spelling of Arabic using the Latin script is in fact widespread and a regular occurrence among Egyptians.

The phenomena of spelling Arabic in English letters started when cell phones and computers weren’t equipped with Arabic keyboards. The problem persists and Yamli.com solves the problem by transforming any English lettered word into its Arabic equivalent.
For example:
“habibi” (my dear) will transform into
حبيبي
or “Allah” (God) will change into
الله

Yamli will even acknowledge the use of numbers instead of letters, which is another commonplace usage. The English alphabet is missing some of the Arabic letters, in order to create these sounds: numbers, dashes, apostrophes, and double letters replace the matching Arabic intonation, for example: “7” for “ح” (a strong H).
“3” for “ع” (Ein or 3ein). There is no English equivalent to this sound but it’s like when the doctor asks you to say “aaaa” but you have phlegm in your throat.

There is even a Wikipedia page for this called “Arabic-chat” alphabet. It all seems quite ridiculous, and I would imagine, non-Arabs thinking why don’t Arabs simply learn their own alphabet. Or perhaps they might say, Arabs are so spoilt, and lazy they can’t even learn their own alphabet. With today’s technology, it’s extremely easy to switch keyboards on cellphones, but still the habit hasn’t stopped. Myself included. I am one of the accomplices. I am contributing to the defamation of a pious language and disfiguring the beauty of its words.

I stare at my library, at my single Arabic shelf, the Arabic translations (in English) are at least double the number of books, followed by the French books, and then all the remaining shelves are English. I also have a handful of Spanish books in a corner. Therefore, anyone perusing my library could easily conclude that I read mostly in English. So, it isn’t just the spelling!

If I were to lie on a psychologist’s couch, I would admit that I also dream in English. When I am lost in thought, English words fill my head. I feel guilty, like I’m having an affair. It’s not a temporary affair either, it’s permanent. I have completely surrendered to English. I’m pursuing ways of perfecting this language. I want to write it creatively, beautifully, with melodious sounds, and fluidity. I’m using a language that isn’t mine. I’m loving, cherishing, devoting myself to a language that isn’t my mother tongue.

I still speak and use Arabic on a daily basis. Therefore, why am I so tormented? English has become the dominant language of cultural understanding, the language of education, and the standard business language. It’s not as if I’m contributing to the eradication of Arabic and aiding the globalization of English. One extra person loving English, or incompetent in their mother tongue, won’t make such a difference, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Therefore, I force myself to stop feeling guilty about it, embrace my love of the English language. I conclude that I struggle with Arabic because I never learnt it properly, that my limited communication abilities are because I haven’t invested enough time and effort to improve. Perhaps, I’m creating barriers that no longer exist. Since I started writing this article, I have switched to using Arabic letters and have answered two texts in Arabic using the Arabic alphabet. The handicaps are within us.


Rough Draft

Arabic

Today’s world has become a global melting pot. This is due to the ease of travel, immigration possibilities, educational and job opportunities abroad. There are also several countries that have repelling factors such as wars, environmental disasters, despotic regimes, high crime rates, or lack of hope and opportunity in their own country. This has resulted in a rich multicultural environment where we are citizens that have a multitude of identities, in a multi-lingual world. I am part of this rich textured world, I am both Egyptian and Canadian and my world resonates in the languages I acquired English, Arabic, French, and Spanish. I am devoted to my culture, I cherish, and adhere to most, if not all, traditions. Arabic is still my language of prayer, kinship, love, family conversations, arguments. My relationship with Arabic is as Facebook categorizes “complicated.” An everyday conversation with friends and family will be a mix of English, Arabic, and French, since most understand all three, with a dominance of Arabic.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with Arabic, my native tongue, or should I call it my mother tongue. Back to the subject at hand, we speak Arabic at home. It’s Egyptian Arabic which is easier, it has a more elaborate vocabulary (various post-colonial words, English, French, Turkish occasional Spanish, and Italian too, there might even be German words that have been incorporated) and Egyptian Arabic doesn’t conform to all the grammar rules of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). It’s considered colloquial, and shouldn’t be used in newspapers, literature, or textbooks. It’s used in songs, movies, TV (not the news), but that is gradually changing. It’s now common to pick up a book in colloquial Egyptian Arabic at the bookstore. The struggle between Egyptian Colloquial and MSA isn’t unique to Egypt. There is a whole resistance in the Arab world that Arabic shouldn’t evolve and should remain the formal MSA because it’s the language of the Qur’an. The only reason that I’m explaining this, is to point out that there’s a gap between my spoken Arabic (Egyptian Arabic), and the written Arabic. There are also variations of colloquial between countries, i.e. Moroccans, Tunisians, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Lebanese etc… all speak Arabic but each one with their own accent and their own colloquial version. This is true for all Arab countries, and the degree of comprehension will vary from one country to the next. In the same manner that the differences exist between American, British, and Australian English. Except that there are twenty-two Arab countries, each one with their colloquial, and some countries with more than one colloquial, now you might begin to understand the need for a unifying Modern Standard Arabic.

What’s the problem? I can read both types of Arabic, the colloquial is easier to read than the MSA, but I can’t write it. Not really. Believe it or not, and this is in fact a very common practice among Egyptians, I write Arabic in English or shall I say Latin letters. Why? I wasn’t sure at first, was it laziness to switch the keyboards at the bottom to Arabic letters? Where did my hesitation come from? Then, I realized, it’s fear. I’m afraid to make spelling mistakes. Why can’t I spell in my mother tongue? This frustrates me. I look at the word, I know how it sounds. I repeat it in my head. I use it all the time. I see it on billboards. I stare and try to figure out which letter makes the word. It shouldn’t be so difficult. Am I dyslexic? Could I be dyslexic in only one language? I attempt once more, then I decide to take the easy way out, answer the text, Facebook message, tweet, WhatsApp, in English letters. I feel ashamed. I bet you there isn’t a single originally Chinese, or originally French, who can’t spell in their mother tongue! Or maybe there is. I don’t know. I haven’t discussed this problem with anyone before. I do know that this is not my problem alone, and that it’s quite widespread. There even might be a campaign soon: “Save the Arabic language letters from becoming obsolete” or maybe it will be more like “Embargo on all those who don’t use Arabic letters to write Arabic. They are infidels!” We tend to be overly dramatic that way. The phenomena of spelling Arabic in English letters started when cell phones and computers weren’t equipped with Arabic keyboards. To prove to you that this is still somewhat a common problem among Arabs. There is a website called Yamli.com that transforms any English lettered word into its Arabic equivalent. For example, on yamli.com if you type:

“habibi” (my dear) it will transform it into

حبيبي

or “Allah” (God) it will change it into

الله

Yamli will even acknowledge the use of numbers instead of letters, which is another commonplace usage. What am I talking about now you ask? The English alphabet is missing some of the Arabic letters, we have resorted to using numbers, dashes, apostrophes, and double letters to create the matching Arabic sounds, for example: “7” for “ح” (a strong H)

“3” for “ع” (Ein or 3ein – no English equivalent)

There is even a Wikipedia page for this called “Arabic-chat” alphabet. It all seems quite ridiculous, and I would imagine, non-Arabs thinking why don’t you just learn your own alphabet, seems like such a hassle to write Arabic in English letters? Or they might say, you Arabs are so spoilt, and lazy you won’t even learn your own alphabet? We are in 2018 and it is extremely easy to switch keyboards on cellphones, but still the habit hasn’t stopped. Myself included. I am one of the accomplices. I am contributing to the defamation of a pious language and disfiguring the beauty of its words.

Is the spelling issue a veil for a larger issue? Doesn’t it reek of incompetence? Of a lack of fluency? Aren’t there thousands of foreigners who study and learn Arabic, read, write, and spell perfectly without hesitation. I stare at my library, at my single Arabic shelf, the Arabic translations (in English) are at least double the number of books, followed by the French books, and then all the remaining shelves are English. I also have a handful of Spanish books in a corner. Therefore, anyone perusing my library could easily conclude that I read English. So, it isn’t just the spelling!

If I am on the psychologist’s couch now, then I must admit as well that I also dream in English. When I am lost in thought, English words fill my head. I feel guilty, like I’m having an affair. It’s not a temporary affair either, it’s permanent. I have completely surrendered to English. I am pursuing ways of perfecting this language. I want to write it creatively, beautifully, with melodious sounds, and fluidity. I am using a language that isn’t mine. I am loving, cherishing, devoting myself to a language that isn’t my mother tongue. Is it betrayal? Am I turning my back on my culture, my identity? Isn’t culture language?  Aren’t the sounds, music, tones, that language creates unique to those who speak that language, therefore belong to that culture. Does this mean I don’t belong to Arabic?

I still speak and use Arabic on a daily basis. Therefore, why am I so tormented? Hasn’t English become the dominating world language? I know for a fact that Mandarin has the highest percentage of speakers. Yet, there isn’t a doubt that the standard business language for multi-national corporations is English. Even the standard for Education is becoming English; I have friends who have children studying in Spain, Holland, and Greece in English. I also remember reading a statistic that English is transforming because now the number of non-native speakers is outnumbering the number of native speakers. English has become the global language, the language of multicultural exchange. The language of communication. Did you know that if we add the native English speakers to the non-native English speakers we get almost one billion English language speakers? English has made the world a better place.

Am I contributing to the eradication of Arabic, and aiding the dominance of English? Will the world just give-up on different languages, and decide to speak one language? This seems far-fetched. There are still thousands of languages, and one extra person loving English, or incompetent in their mother tongue, won’t make such a difference, it’s a drop in the ocean.

Therefore, I force myself to stop feeling guilty about it, embrace my love of the English language. The Arabic language defenders in my head jump in and yell: “What have we gained by this English language dominance? More scientific progress? More technological advances? Better understanding? More tolerance? More humanity? More universal values? Less hatred? Less xenophobia? Less wars? Are we more open-minded? Do we have more empathy? It’s just a new form of colonialism.” I don’t have an answer to any of these. I am conflicted once more. Do I struggle with Arabic because I am limited in my communication abilities? Or is it something deeper? Or is it because I haven’t invested enough time and effort to improve? Or perhaps, I am creating barriers that no longer exist. Since I started writing this article, I have switched to using Arabic letters and have answered two texts in Arabic using Arabic letters. The handicaps are within us.

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