Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
21 - 27 October 1999
Issue No. 452
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues


Advocating Arabic

A recent ministerial decree banning the use of foreign names in commercial enterprises has sparked a heated controversy -- yet again. Fayza Hassan looks back on 150 years of advertising allure, and the cultural territory at stake

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Madame Zouzou worked as the manager of a small clothing factory in Dar Al-Salam. She lived in a spotless two-bedroom apartment nearby with her husband, a government employee, and two teenage children. By the standards of the day, Madame Zouzou and her family were doing well, as a small, lower-middle class family bound on a slowly ascending course. She was considered lucky by her coworkers, because her flat was equipped with running water and electricity. She, however, thought there was more to life than the realities that confronted her every morning. She had come to the conclusion that with more money, her life could be made easier. She no longer wanted to ride on crowded buses, work long hours at the factory in an unhealthy environment (Dar Al-Salam had notoriously poor drainage) and do housework without the help of modern electrical appliances, which at present were far beyond her means. Nor was she very hopeful about her children's future, although she had been "killing herself to give them the best education". In another country, where living standards were higher, she would be able to do more than dream about worldly comforts and she had set her eyes on America, which she claimed she knew well from watching television.

"My husband has no ambition," she would complain to the women at the factory. "He doesn't want to go to America, where people are really living, not like us, barely surviving. He says he has nothing to do there as he does not speak the language. I told him to go to the British Council. He refuses, although I said I would pay for the course. Emad [her son] will be going there as soon as he finishes school." Madame Zouzou's plans for her son were obvious: she would do her best to send him to the US, where he would prepare the way for the family's move, since her husband was too stubborn to do so. Meanwhile, she had hired a private English tutor for the boy, who apparently was not doing too well at school.

Madame Zouzou's most precious possession was the television on which she watched, with unwavering attention, each episode of the American soap operas transmitted by Channel II. She could recount the plots and events of Dallas, Falcon Crest, or Knots Landing as if they were integral parts of her own life. Her children craved "hambourgers", take-away fried chicken, French fries and popcorn. Whenever there was some spare cash, she would take them for a treat to one of the newly established fast food outlets, where they gorged themselves on American-style fare smothered in ketchup. She was giving them a taste of what it was like in America, she would tell her friends.

"For most of the Egyptians who came to study at the British Council (or any of the other language schools dotted around Cairo), a fluent knowledge of English was a potential passport out of the country; a way of escaping Egypt's low-wage structure and lack of professional opportunities," writes Douglas Kennedy in Beyond the Pyramids, Travels in Egypt (Abacus, 1995).

What's in a name? A harem girl offering Pepsi Cola, popular singer Sabah touting Kolynos toothpaste: Advertisers shunned neither the "authentic" value of Orientalist imagery, nor the glamourous connotations of Western affluence

The average Egyptian, with no intention of applying for a ticket out to a "better life", usually looks down on people like Madame Zouzou and the would-be English speakers of the British Council. "They suffer from 'u'det al-khawaga: they think foreigners are better than us," most people say. "They try to identify with Western paraphernalia, which they regard as superior, as if a familiarity with these things could automatically confer higher status," they might add with amused contempt. Despite the criticism, however, it is a well-known fact that in a country where state universities have recently introduced the TOEFL exam -- and therefore a working knowledge of English -- as a prerequisite for earning a PhD, the best-paid jobs will invariably go to those who master at least one foreign language.

Many admirers of Western (now largely synonymous with American) "culture" have only experienced it second-hand, through television programmes like Madame Zouzou, from the accounts of returned migrants, or from meeting and befriending American tourists. They randomly pepper their conversation with English words that they have picked up: "say", "sorry" or "no way"; they eat at fast food outlets, or, if they can't afford to, simply hang out around them, wearing imitation Levis and T-shirts bearing printed messages that they are often not able to read. For them, the West is linked with luxury, decent housing, money, sexual freedom, worldly possessions and upward mobility.

"And while ferrying...'Egyptian Explorers' between Luxor and Aswan, Kamil made a discovery: he loved being in the company of khawagas. They introduced him to a social order that was previously alien to him-a place where marriages weren't arranged and where your family did not automatically choose your calling in life. They came from lands which he considered exotic: Britain, France, America...They came equipped with flashy accessories: Japanese cameras, Swiss watches, 'personal stereos'-and most surprising of all-they didn't adhere to traditional sexual roles... All that he had accepted in the past... now seemed like a prison in which he was condemn to remain for ever. He had none of the apparent freedoms enjoyed by his Western clientele. He possessed none of their luxuries. And he realised that, as long as he remained in Luxor, he never would," writes Kennedy.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Egyptian aristocracy has been only too willing to heed the call of the West and partake in its cultural manifestations, whether Italian, Anglo-Saxon or French. Mohamed Ali had made it clear that modernity hailed from Europe and promptly began to sow the seeds of a cosmopolitan society, which, despite some ups and downs, would thrive and indeed influence the entire country's life for the following century and a half, only beginning to wane after the 1952 Revolution. Some remnants of this period are the foreign-language programmes on the radio and television, and often misguided attempts to establish elitist "language schools".

During the 19th century, the Turkish elite sometimes learned Italian, but generally conversed in French, the language of the salons, of diplomacy and of the administration, the men -- especially in the early years of the 20th century -- using English on occasions when business was discussed. Arabic was the language in which one usually addressed subalterns and servants. Foreign schools, especially French, abounded and Egyptian families were prepared to make great sacrifices in order to give their children the benefits of a foreign education which would open doors for them in the future. Amina Rashid, professor of French and comparative literature at Cairo University, once translated an autobiographical short story written in the mid-'70s by a relatively unknown Egyptian novelist, Ismail El-Adli, in which he recounts how he decided to enroll his daughter in a foreign school. The idea thrilled him enormously. He informed his wife of his intention and warned her that they would have to save desperately in order to afford the tuition. The close-knit couple experienced their first fights over money during the period when the father was searching for the best school for his child. Finally he selected an institution and inquired about the cost. When he had painfully gathered the amount, he presented himself, only to learn that all his savings would barely cover the fees of the first term.

Even parents who did not encourage their daughters to pursue their studies made sure at least that they learned to speak French correctly, even if they remained ignorant of their mother tongue. Huda Shaarawi's account of her painstaking efforts to master the classical Arabic language is among the most famous passages in her memoirs.

Today, even though the manners and customs of the pre-Revolutionary Egyptian aristocracy are derided and discredited in the dominant discourse, the knowledge -- imperfect as it may be -- of a foreign language remains essential for those who hope to land a "good" job or marry into a "good" family. According to the tenets of the present elite, mastery of English and/or French is an unmistakable indication of a superior level of education and the guarantee of a genteel disposition, both attributes greatly appreciated by prospective employers and in-laws alike.

Amna works for an Egyptian family. "They are awlad zawat (aristocrats)," she says admiringly, "they speak afrangi (from Frank, and by extension European or foreigner) between themselves, not Arabic like us." Amna suffers from recurrent headaches and her employer has sent her to the family physician, "a real doctor, with his name written in English on the door," boasts Amna. The headaches have not abated, but she is convinced that they will disappear soon, because the doctor has prescribed a medicine from barra (outside, overseas). For Amna and many like her, imported medicine is endowed with healing qualities that no drug "made in Egypt" could possibly possess. For one, it is more expensive, therefore commanding more respect; more importantly, it is manufactured by people "who are not like us, you know, careless and without damir (conscience)."

Many Egyptians have little consideration for their national characteristics, and deprecating sentences like "we Egyptians are like that, we will never learn," or "we are not equipped to follow rules," are common complaints, heard on a daily basis. Consequently, the corollary is that non-Egyptians are the opposite: they have a conscience which forces them to perform their tasks correctly and are capable of following rules, with the obvious result that their work, professional advice, and/or products are inevitably better than ours. A foreign name attached to a commodity is therefore often regarded as a warranty of quality.

This pandering to the West, however, is not a prevalent attitude among members of the Egyptian intelligentsia, who have long been, and still are, calling for an Arabisation of our ways. Shunning the western-oriented technological revolution, they demand that methods of teaching Arabic be upgraded and that students become more familiar with their classical language, their history and their literature. They bemoan the existence of language schools, where children are introduced to an ersatz foreign culture to the detriment of their own, ending up as strangers in their own country. They also bitterly criticise the use of foreign words in common parlance and the extensive acceptance of western social and moral values, which they believe are actively encouraged by the media and its advertising policies. In general, they lament the development of a "supermarket" mentality, especially among young people, who are more vulnerable to peer pressure and quick to adopt fads which they believe can enhance their image.

These accusations are not new: Since 1927, the press has regularly published articles berating the use of foreign loan-words, a practice which, assert the writers, devalues Arabic. An entire issue of the Egypte/Monde Arabe, published by the CEDEJ, was recently dedicated to the topic, citing several examples from the local newspapers: A column by Mahmoud Abdel-Moneim Murad carried by Al-Akhbar of 23 April 1996 stated that the decline of the Arabic language "is a chronic problem linked to the use of words, expressions and phrases from foreign languages in our lives, schools, newspapers, radio, television and commercial outlets and enterprises -- in other words, at every level of the spoken and written language, including the use of foreign languages on commercial billboards, which reproduce alien names in Arabic characters." According to Murad, this constituted a setback to the national language and consequently Arab national sentiment.

A number of advocates of this trend affectionately remember that the call for the Arabisation of commercial and street signs, symbols and advertisements was a recurrent theme in the writings of renowned author and famous columnist the late Ahmed Bahaaeddin. They are always ready to cite some of these passages verbatim. The opposition paper Al-Shaab even published an article on 1 November 1996 in which Kamal Habib, subscribing to a conspiracy theory, claimed that the United Nations were planning to eliminate several languages, among them Arabic, which was utterly deprived of political support.

"Our beautiful Arabic language is raped in advertisements, on shop façades, in the streets, in schools and universities," the opposition press warned, often likening the present situation to the darkest days of the British occupation.

Champions of the Arabic language suggest that the extensive tendency to use foreign names and sentences is a symptom not to be taken lightly, the indication of an identity crisis afflicting Egyptian society. "Whatever is connected with money, modernity, trust and enthusiasm is written in English...The Arabic language is not associated with values of confidence, respect or pride," complained Ahmed Abdel-Mo'ti Hegazi in Al-Ahram of 3 July 1996.

Whatever the consequences of the new decree banning the use of foreign languages in our current commercial practices -- if and when it is applied -- there is little chance that it will solve the many problems with which Egyptian intellectuals are battling, and which run the gamut from the proper teaching of Arabic in universities and schools to the paucity of good translators.

The scarcity of good teachers, overcrowding in learning institutions, and the decision to teach English or French to six-year-olds whose parents are often illiterate play a crucial role in our attitudes towards foreign languages, asserts Madiha Doss, professor of linguistics at Cairo University's French literature department. Billboards are only the tip of the iceberg. There is much work to be done to reform our system of education before we attack some futile manifestation of ignorant snobism, she advises.

Regardless of the reasons behind the adoption of a foreign vocabulary by those dealing commercially with the public, however, one should not ignore the reality on the ground. Commercial enterprises are established primarily as money-making ventures whose sole aim is to rake in clients. If references to more '"modern", more affluent ways of life appeal to an aspiring consumerist society and attract more customers, businesspeople are likely to go along. Perhaps the new decree, and the concerns it reflects, are simply a case of putting the cart before the horse by trying to address one of the consequences of some of our problems, rather than their cause.

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