Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 February 2004
Issue No. 677
Culture
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Living in Arabic

The debate on the need to reform Islam, the Arabs and their language -- by adopting demotic rather than classical Arabic -- continues. Before his death last September Edward Said argued such a debate reflects an extraordinary lack of the quotidian experience of living in Arabic

The word eloquence is not much in use today. What I have in mind is the sense that it once conveyed of distinguished verbal (both written and spoken, but mainly the latter) practice, a skill with words that may be partly due to an innate gift but which also needs to be developed and schooled in ways that will mark an eloquent person as possessing something that others do not. Oratory comes to mind immediately, as does having a good memory. The unforgettably brilliant study of the art of memory by the late Frances Yates shows the connection, but shows also how much that kind of skill has more or less disappeared, or at least isn't taught as such any more. I've often wondered whether there was some implicit link in my own mind between my fascination with eloquence and the fact that Giambattista Vico, the 18th century Italian philosopher, has been such an important figure for me and that he was professionally a Professor of Rhetoric with a specialty in eloquence at the University of Naples.

When today one reads Vico's almost comically antiquated work -- before he came out with the first version of The New Science in 1725 -- you quickly notice that most of it is taken up with the philological and historical study of how ancient authors used language formally in ways that could be detailed and subjected to minute scrutiny. For generations the humanistic study of language required a knowledge of rhetoric and all sorts of figures of speech that were taught as recently as three or four decades ago in the context of college, and maybe even school courses, of composition, as well as in curricula that tried to teach young men and women how to read and appreciate literature according to the tropes, figures of speech, and rhetorical devices that had very specific names and uses that originated in giving speeches of the kind that Vico himself gave, studied and wrote imitations of. There is no doubt that display and virtuosity are part of eloquence, although most classical rhetoricians, including Vico, warn against pompous or frivolous display for its own sake.

Awing your listener with your verbal cleverness, and even your sheer mastery of rhetorical technique, isn't quite the same thing as real eloquence. Vico has this to say in his autobiography about his own ideas concerning eloquence: in the teaching of his subject Vico was always most interested in the progress of the young men, and to open their eyes and prevent them from being deceived by false doctors he was willing to incur the hostility of pedants. He never discussed matters pertaining to eloquence apart from wisdom, but would say that eloquence is nothing but wisdom speaking; that his chair [of rhetoric and eloquence] was the one that should give direction to minds and make them universal; that others were concerned with the various part of knowledge, but his should teach it as an integral whole in which each part accords with every other and gets its meaning from the whole. No matter what the subject, he showed in his lectures how by eloquence it was animated as it were by a single spirit drawing life from all the sciences that had any bearing upon it. (198-9).

This highly organic view of what eloquence is anticipates Romantic interest in poetic form, the topic of a great deal of Coleridge's writing on the role of the imagination, as well as similar concerns among his German contemporaries such as the Schlegel brothers. Vico's interest, however, is in a peculiar way highly antiquarian, or rather antiquarian and contemporary at the same time, and was enabled, I think, because his students were all assumed to have a working knowledge of an older non-demotic language, namely Latin. Perhaps one reason we have lost the capacity for appreciating that now seemingly old-fashioned eloquence is that Latin is no longer taught or assumed to have been learned as a pre-requisite for a well-rounded university education. No one today even tries to emulate the orotund, Latinate manner of Dr Johnson or Burke, except perhaps as a comic affectation. This is probably why there is such emphasis instead on communication, immediacy of persuasion, and the ability to "sell" ideas, and why the often stilted and grandiose manner of contemporary Southern orators such as Barbara Jordan or Billy Graham seems overdone and out of place, as if they are trying to do something verbally without adequate background or audience. The existence of a distant model, as well as one that is difficult to access without a considerable discipline of attention and rule-learning, illuminates the considerably ornate and elaborate verbal performances that Vico and his contemporaries considered eloquent.

There is a rough modern equivalent to all this in the practice of the speaking and writing of Arabic, which in the US (alas) is considered to be a highly controversial and quite fearsome language for entirely ideological reasons that have nothing to do with the way the language is lived in, deployed, and experienced by native speakers and users. I don't know where this conception of Arabic as a language essentially expressing blood- curdling and incomprehensible violence comes from, but surely all those 40's and 50's Hollywood screen villains in turbans who snarl at their victims with sadistic relish have something to do with it, as does the fixation on terrorism to the exclusion of everything else about the Arabs in the US media. To a modern educated Arab anywhere in the Arab world, eloquence in fact is much closer to what Vico experienced and talked about than it is for English-speakers.

Rhetoric and eloquence in the Arab literary tradition go back a millennium, to Abbasid writers like Al-Jahiz and Al-Jurjani, who devised incredibly complex schemes for understanding rhetoric, eloquence and tropes that seem startlingly modern. But all their work is based on classical written, not demotic spoken Arabic: in the case of the former, that is dominated by the presence of the Quran, which is both origin and model for everything linguistic that comes after it (as of course a great deal did). This needs some explanation, and is, I think, quite unfamiliar to users of the modern European languages, where there is a rough correspondence between spoken and literary versions, and where scripture has lost its verbal authority entirely.

All Arabs have a spoken colloquial that varies considerably between one region or country and another. The written language is quite different, however, and I will return to it in a moment. I grew up in a family whose spoken language was an amalgam of what was commonly spoken in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria: there were small variations between those three dialects (enough for one resident of the mashriq, as the Eastern Mediterranean Arab lands are known, to identify another resident as coming from either, say, Beirut or Jerusalem) but never enough to prevent easy and direct communication. But because I went to school in Cairo and spent most of my early youth there I also was fluent in that colloquial, a much faster, clipped and more elegant dialect than any of the others that I knew from my parents and relatives. Spoken Egyptian was made even more widespread by the fact that nearly all Arabic films, radio dramas and, later, TV serials, were made principally in Egypt, and thus their spoken idioms became familiar to and were learned by Arabs everywhere else; I remember very clearly that young people my age in Lebanon or Palestine could sing the ditties and mimic the patter of Egyptian comedians with considerable panache, even though of course they never sounded quite as fast and as funny as the originals.


Click to view caption
'Nasser in particular did, in effect, address his masses of followers in the Egyptian dialect mixed with resounding phrases from the fus-ha'
During the 1970's and 1980's, as part of the oil boom of those years, TV dramas were made in other places as well, and they went in for spoken classical Arabic drama, which rarely caught on. For not only were they heavy costume dramas of the kind that were meant to be elevated and suitable for programmatically Muslim (and old- fashioned, usually more puritanical Christian) Arab tastes that might have been put off by the racy Cairo films, they were also designed to be beneficial in ways that to me at least seemed hopelessly unattractive. For the inveterate surfer of today, even the most hastily put together Egyptian mousalsal (or serial) is infinitely more fun to watch than the best of the best-regulated classical-language dramas. Only Egyptian dialect has this kind of currency. Thus, if I were to try to understand an Algerian I would get more or less nowhere, so different and widely varied are the colloquials from each other once one gets away from the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. The same would be true for me with an Iraqi, Moroccan, or even a deep Gulf dialect. And yet paradoxically, all Arabic news broadcasts, discussion programs, as well as documentaries, to say nothing of meetings, seminars, and oratorical occasions from mosque sermons to nationalist rallies, as well as daily encounters between citizens with hugely varying spoken languages are conducted in the modified and modernised version of the classical language, or an approximation of it which can be understood all across the Arab world, from the Gulf to Morocco.

The reason for that is that classical Arabic, like Latin for the European colloquial languages until a century ago, has maintained a living presence as the common language of literary expression despite the lively and readily-available resources of a whole host of spoken dialects which, except in the Egyptian case I mentioned earlier, have never attained much currency beyond the local. Moreover, these spoken dialects don't at all have the large literature in the classical lingua franca, despite the fact that in every Arab country there seems to be a substantial body of colloquial poetry, for instance, which is liked and often recited if only to other speakers of that colloquial.

Thus, even writers who are considered regional tend to use the modern classical language most of the time and only occasionally resort to colloquial Arabic to render not much more than snippets of dialogue. So in effect then, an educated person has two quite distinct linguistic personae in the mother-tongue. It's a common enough thing to be chatting with a newspaper or television reporter in the colloquial and then, when the recording is switched on, to modulate without transition into a streamlined version of the classical language, which is inherently more formal and polite. Thus "what do you want?" in Lebanese or Palestinian is, when addressed to a man, very informally, shoo bidak? In classical it would be madha to reed?

Not that there is no connection at all between the two idioms. There is of course -- letters are often the same, word order is roughly equivalent, and personal accents can be conveyed in the same tone. But words and pronunciation are quite different in that classical or educated Arabic as a standard version of the language loses every trace of the regional or local dialect and emerges as a sonorous, carefully modulated, heightened and extraordinarily inflected instrument capable of great, often (but not always) formulaic eloquence. Properly used, it is unmatched for precision of expression and for the amazing way in which individual letters within a word (but specially at endings) are varied to say quite distinct and different things.

It is also a language the centrality of which to a whole culture is matchless in that (as Jaroslav Stetkevych, author of the best modern book on the language itself has put it), "Venus-like, it was born in a perfect state of beauty, and it has preserved that beauty in spite of all the hazards of history and all the corrosive forces of time". To the Western student "Arabic suggests an idea of almost mathematical abstraction. The perfect system of the three radical consonants, the derived verb forms with their basic meanings, the precise formation of the verbal noun, of the participles -- everything is clarity, logic, system, and abstraction. The language is like a mathematical formula." But it is also a beautiful object to look at in its written form; hence the enduring centrality of calligraphy in Arabic, which is a combinatorial art of the highest complexity, ever closer to ornament and arabesque than to discursive explicitation.

And yet I have only known one person who actually spoke classical Arabic all the time, a Palestinian political scientist and politician whom my children used to describe as "the man who speaks like a book" or, on another occasion, as "the man who sounds like Shakespeare" -- a designation to Arabs not fluent in English symbolising the pinnacle of classical English, which of course Shakespeare was not, given the presence of so many clowns, peasants, sailors, and jokers in his plays. (Milton would be a better example of the weightily sonorous classical language). All of this Palestinian academic's friends used to ask him whether he made love in the classical language (which has always seemed an impossibility, as the spoken dialect is invariably the language of intimacy), but he afforded them no more than an enigmatic smile by way of response. Somehow there is an implicit pact that governs which Arabic is to be used, on which occasions, for how long, and so forth.

During the early days of the war in Afghanistan I watched the controversial Al-Jazeera Arabic- language satellite channel for discussion and news-reporting unavailable in the US media. What I found striking, quite apart from what was actually said, was the high level of eloquence among the more embattled and even repellent of the participants, Osama Bin Laden included. He is (or was) a soft-spoken, fluent speaker who neither hesitates nor makes the slightest linguistic slip, surely a factor in his apparent influence; but so too, on a lower level, are non-Arabs like Burhaneddine Rabbani and Hikmat Gulbandyar, who clearly know no colloquial Arabic but who pedal forward with remarkable ease in the classical (Quranic-based) tongue.

This is not to say that what has come to be called modern standard (ie modern classical) Arabic is exactly the same as that of the Quran, 14 centuries ago. It isn't the same: although the Quran remains a much-studied text, its language (as in the example of the classical speaker I gave above) is an antique, even stilted and for daily life unusable, and compared to the modern prose used everywhere today resembles a very "high" sounding prose-poetry.

The modern classical is the result mainly of a fascinating modernisation of the language that begins during the last decades of the 19th century -- the period of the Nahda, or renaissance -- carried out mainly by a group of men in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt (a striking number of them Christian) who set themselves the collective task of bringing Arabic as a language into the modern world by modifying and somewhat simplifying its syntax, through the process of Arabising (isti'rab) the 7th century original, that is introducing such words as "train" and "company" and "democracy" and "socialism" that couldn't have existed during the classical period, and by excavating the language's immense resources through the technical grammatical process of al-qiyas, or analogy (a subject brilliantly discussed by Stekevych who demonstrates in minute detail how Arabic's grammatical laws of derivation were mobilised by the Nahda reformers to absorb new words and concepts into the system without in any way upsetting it); thereby, in a sense, these men forced on classical Arabic a whole new vocabulary, which is roughly 60 per cent of today's classical standard language.

The Nahda brought freedom from the religious texts, and a surreptitiously introduced new secularism into what Arabs said and wrote. Thus contemporary complaints by New York Times idiot-savant Thomas Friedman and tired old Orientalists like Bernard Lewis who keep repeating the formula that Islam (and the Arabs) need a Reformation have no basis at all, since their knowledge of the language is so superficial and their use of it non-existent as they show no acquaintance whatever with actual Arabic usage where the traces of reformation in thought and practice are everywhere to be found.

Even some Arabs who for various reasons left the Arab world relatively early in life and now work in the West repeat the same nonsense, though in the same breath they admit to having no serious knowledge of the classical language. I was struck that Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian woman who was a close friend of my sisters in Cairo, went to the same English schools that we attended and came from an Arabic-speaking educated family, got her PhD in English Literature from Cambridge, wrote an interesting book on gender in Islam almost two decades ago, has now re-emerged as a campaigner against the classical language and, oddly enough, a Professor of religion (Islam in fact) at Harvard. In her memoir A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey (1999), she waxes eloquent on the virtues of spoken Egyptian while admitting that she really doesn't know the fus-ha (classical Arabic) at all; this doesn't seem to have impeded her teaching of Islam at Harvard even though it scarcely needs repeating that Arabic is Islam and Islam Arabic at some very profound level.

Because of an extraordinary lack of quotidian experience or living in the language, it doesn't seem to occur to her that educated Arabs actually use both the demotic and the classical, and that this totally common practice neither prohibits naturalness and beauty of expression nor in and of itself does it automatically encourage a stilted and didactic tone as she seems to think. The two languages are porous and the user flows in and out of one into another as an essential aspect of what living in Arabic means. Reading Ahmed's pathetic tirade makes one feel sorry that she never bothered to learn her own language, an easy enough thing for her to have done if she had an open mind and was so inclined.

For the first 15 years of my life I lived exclusively in Arabic-speaking countries, although I went only to English-speaking colonial schools, administered either by one or other church missionary group or by the secular British Council. Classical Arabic was taught in my schools, of course, but it remained of the order of a local equivalent of Latin, ie a dead and forbidding language (and hence, the sense that Leila Ahmed had of it). I learned to speak Arabic and English at my mother's knee, simultaneously, and was always able to switch in and out of both, but my classical Arabic was soon outstripped by the much greater investment made in school by attention to English. During my early years the classical language was symbolic of parentally and institutionally enforced, not to say imprisoning, circumstances, where I would have to sit in church regaled by interminable sermons, or in all sorts of secular assemblies preached at by orators proclaiming a king's or a minister's or a doctor's or a student's virtue, and where as a form of resistance to the occasion I would tune out the droning and gradually come to gain a sort of dumb incomprehension. In practice, I knew passages from the hymnal, the Book of Common Prayer (including the Lord's Prayer) and such similar devotional material by heart, and even some (to me at the time) intolerably smarmy and usually patriotic odes in classical poetry, but it was only years later that I realised how the atmosphere of rote-learning, lamentably ungifted and repressive teachers and clergymen, and a sort of enforced "it's good for you" attitude against which I was in perpetual rebellion undermined the project altogether.

Arabic grammar is so sophisticated and logically appealing, I think, that it is perhaps best studied by an older pupil who can appreciate the niceties of its reasoning; as it is, ironically enough, the best Arabic teaching is done for non- Arabs at language institutes in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Vermont. What I never really easily mastered, however, was what I referred to above, the ability to switch from one mode to another, colloquial to classical, informal to formal linguistically speaking. So alienated was I from the layers of repressive authority blanketing my person as a child and teenager that rebellion took the form of keeping to the language of the streets, reserving the respectable classical language solely for use as all-purpose mockery, savage imitations of tedious pomposity, and imprecations against church, state and school.

But when, having already been in the US (with frequent visits to home in Cairo and Lebanon) since 1951, and having only studied European languages and literatures during my entire 16- year school and university career here, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war pushed me unwillingly into political engagement at a distance, the first thing that struck me is that politics weren't conducted in the 'amiya, or language of the general public, as colloquial Arabic is called, but more often in the rigorous and formal fus-ha (pronounced fuss- ha, the double "esses" and the "h" deriving from deep gutturals that have no European equivalent), or classical language. Recalling my childhood attitudes to the formal language I soon felt that, as presented at rallies or meetings, political analyses were made to sound more profound than they were, or that much of what was said in these rather-too-pedantic approximations of formal speech were based on models of eloquence that had been rote-learned as emulations of seriousness, rather than the thing itself. This, I discovered to my chagrin, was especially the case with approximations to Marxist and liberation-movement jargon at the time, in which descriptions of class, material interests, capital, and social struggle -- with all the trappings of contradiction, antithesis, and "wretched of the earth" that had been Fanon's legacy to us -- were Arabised and turned to use in long monologues addressed not to the people but to other sophisticated militants. In private, popular leaders like Arafat and Nasser, with some of whom I had contact, used the colloquial to much greater effect than the Marxists (who were also better educated than either the Palestinian or the Egyptian leader) I thought at the time; Nasser in particular did, in effect, address his masses of followers in the Egyptian dialect mixed with resounding phrases from the fus-ha. And, since eloquence in Arabic has a great deal to do with dramatic delivery, Arafat usually emerges in his rare public addresses as a below- average orator, his mispronunciations, hesitations and awkward circumlocutions seeming to an educated ear to be the equivalent of an elephant tramping aimlessly through a flower-patch.

In a few years I felt I had no alternative than to commit myself to a re-education in Arabic philology and grammar (incidentally, the word for grammar is the plural qawa'id, the singular form is qua'ida, also the word for a military base, as well as a rule, in the grammatical sense). I was fortunate in having an old friend of my father's, retired professor of Semitic Languages Anis Frayha at the American University of Beirut, as my tutor and who, like me, was an early riser; for almost a year between the morning hours of seven and ten he took me on daily explorations through the language without a text-book, but with hundreds of passages from the Quran, which at bottom is the foundation of Arabic usage, classical authors like Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Mas'udi, and modern writers, from Ahmed Shawki to Mahfouz. An amazingly effective teacher, his tutorials disclosed the workings of the language for me in a way that suited my professional interests and philological training in Western comparative literature, in which roughly at just that time I was giving seminars on speculations about language (I called it the literature of language) by 18th and 19th century authors such as Vico, Rousseau, Herder, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Humboldt, Renan, Nietzsche, Freud and de Saussure. Thanks to Frayha I was introduced to, and later introduced into my own teaching and writing Arab grammarians and linguistic speculators, including Al-Khalil ibn Ahmad, Sebawayh, and Ibn Hazm, whose work antedated my European figures by seven centuries.

As illuminated and explained by Frayha, the passage between colloquial and classical Arabic was a riveting experience for me, especially as I made mental comparisons with vocabulary and grammar in French and English. In the first place, since Arabic is a minutely inflected language, one can learn the nine most commonly used formal derivations of a verb -- the core of the language -- from a three-consonant root, which syntactically makes available those commonly-used forms (most Arabic sentences begin with a verb) from which the writer-speaker must choose, although over time this becomes automatic. Then, secondly, Arabic vocabulary is the richest part of the language, since words can be formed by a dizzyingly logical method from roots, and roots of roots more or less endlessly, and with what seems to be perfect regularity. There are of course variations in expression that have occurred over time, but archaisms and modern slang in the classical discourse do not present the same problems they do in modern English or French, for example.

Classical Arabic, its rules, inflections, syntactical modes, and overpoweringly beautiful richness seems to exist in a sort of abiding simultaneity of existence that is quite unlike any other linguistic state that I know of, even though when colloquial conversations take a turn for the serious or complex one then resorts to it as a momentary or intermittent episode: the need for personal small talk like "pass the sugar," or "it's time for me to go" returns one to the demotic. But, on the occasions when it is declaimed at a public gathering that could be a business meeting or a seminar or an academic panel or lecture, speakers are transformed into the bearers of this other language, in which even expressions like "I am happy to be here today" or "I don't want to take too much of your time" can be rendered in classical formulas that function as an organic part of the whole discourse itself.

Parenthetically, I should mention that the Al- Jazeera channel, much maligned in the US media by pseudo-experts and which I can easily watch on my satellite dish receiver, not only conveys a far wider range of political opinions than any available in the mainstream US media, but because of the use of classical standard there is none of the dreadful verbal tough-guy vulgarity that disfigures talk-shows and panel discussions here, even when discussants hotly dispute major issues in politics and religion.

I have never escaped the amusingly dissonant jolt that comes with hearing a commonly used word that has totally incompatible meanings in the two languages. The name Sami, for example. In English one immediately thinks of Sam Weller, or Sammy Glick, a comic, or at least an inelegant nickname or a shortened, familiar form of the much grander "Samuel" with its biblical resonance not quite appropriate to our time. In Arabic Sami is also a common first name for a man (the feminine is Samia, which is also the word for "semitic"), but it derives from the word for "heaven", sama, and therefore means "high" or "heavenly" which is about as far from Sam or Sammy as one can get. They co-exist in the bilingual ear, unresolved, never at peace.

Unlike English, spoken Arabic -- either the standard or the local dialects -- is full of polite formulas that comprise what is called adab al lugha, or proper behavior in the language. An individual who is not a close friend is always addressed in the plural, and questions like "what is your name?" are always asked indirectly and with honorifics. Like Japanese and, to a lesser degree French, German, Italian and Spanish, Arabic users make all sorts of distinctions in tone and vocabulary as to how to address each other in given situations and on special subjects. The Quran is always referred to as al-Quran al- kareem, the honorable Quran, and after saying the Prophet Mohammed's name it is obligatory to say a phrase meaning, may God pray and deliver him; a slightly shorter version of the same phrase applies to Jesus, and in regular Arabic conversation God's name is invoked dozens of times in an extraordinarily varied arsenal of phrases that recall the Latin deo volente, or Spanish ojala, or English in God's name, but many times more.

When one is asked how one is feeling or doing, the immediate response is invariably al- hamdulillah, for example, and what can follow is a whole series of questions, also invoking God, that concern members of the family none of whom is usually referred to by name but by position of love and prestige (a son is not referred to by his name but as al-mahrouss, the one whom God preserves). I have an uncle who, when he worked as a bank executive, had a positive genius for going on and on with polite indirection for 15 minutes of courtly wool-gathering, unimaginable in English but learned early in life and concentrated for use in situations when there is more verbally to say than there is substance to treat. I always found it miraculously entertaining, particularly because I found it very hard to do myself, except for a moment or two.

One of my earliest memories of how much is expected of the classical Arabic speaker, or khatib, the word for orator, in a formal situation was a story told to me many years ago by my mother and my great aunt, a teacher of Arabic, after attending an academic speech in Cairo given by a well- known Egyptian personality, who might have been Taha Hussein or Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid. The occasion may have been political or it may have been commemorative, I have forgotten which, but I do remember them saying that there were a number of Azhar sheikhs in attendance. Punctuating the very solemn and elaborate speech, my mother had noted, one or another sheikh would stand up and say "allahoma", then sit down immediately, the one word expression explained to me as showing approval (or disapproval) for fineness of expression (or a mistake in vocalisation).

The story itself illustrates the great significance attached to eloquence, or conversely, failures in it. It helps to know that Al-Azhar University in Cairo is not only the oldest institution of higher learning in the world, it is considered to be the seat of orthodoxy for Islam, its Rector being for Sunni Egypt the highest religious authority in the country. More important is that Al-Azhar essentially, but not exclusively, teaches Islamic learning of which the core is the Quran, and all that goes with it in terms of methods of interpretation, jurisprudence, hadith, language and grammar. Mastery of classical Arabic is thus clearly the very heart of Islamic teaching for Arabs and other Muslims at Al-Azhar since the language of the Quran -- which is considered to be the uncreated Word of God that "descended" (the Arabic word is munzal) in a series of revelations to Mohammed -- is sacred, with rules and paradigms in it that are considered obligatory and binding on users although, paradoxically enough, they cannot by doctrinal fiat (ijaz) be directly imitative of it or, as in the case of The Satanic Verses, in any way challenge its entirely divine provenance.

Sixty years ago orators were listened to and commented on endlessly for the correctness and felicity of their language as much as for what they had to say in it. I myself have never witnessed such an occurrence as the story told to me, even though I recall with some embarrassment that when I gave my first speech in Arabic (in Cairo again) two decades ago, and after years of speaking publicly in English and French but never in my own native language, a young relative of mine came up to me after I had finished to tell me how disappointed he was that I hadn't been more eloquent. But you understood what I said, I asked him plaintively, since being understood on some sensitive political and philosophical points was my main concern. Oh yes, of course, he replied dismissively, no problem: but you weren't rhetorical or eloquent enough. And that complaint still dogs me when I speak since I am unable to transform myself into a classical faseeh, or eloquent orator. I mix colloquial and classical idioms pragmatically, with results (I was once amiably told) that resembled someone who owned a Rolls Royce but preferred to use a Volkswagen. I'm still trying to sort the problem out because, as someone who works in several languages, I don't want to be accused of saying one thing in English that I don't say exactly the same way in Arabic.

I must say that, despite my pleading that my way of speaking avoids the circumlocution and ornamental preciosity (often consisting mostly of endless synonyms, and the use of either of "and" as a device for elaborating thoughts without regard for logic or development, or the use of an array of rote-learned formulae for indirection and euphemism of the kind that Orwell mocks in "Politics and the English Language," but which are to be found in every language) endemic to the decline of contemporary political, journalistic and critical writing in Arabic, it is also an excuse I use to cover my sense of still loitering on the fringes of the language rather than standing confidently at its centre.

It's only in the last ten or 15 years that I've discovered that the finest, leanest, most steely Arabic prose that I have either read or heard is produced by novelists (not critics) like Elias Khoury or Gamal El-Ghitany, or by two of our greatest living poets, Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, each of whom in his odes soars to such lofty rhapsodic heights as to drive huge audiences into frenzies of enthusiastic rapture, but for whom each of which prose is a razor-sharp Aristotelian instrument the elegance of which resembles Empson's or Newman's. But their knowledge of the language is so virtuosic and natural that they can be both eloquent and clear by virtue of their gift for not needing fillers, or tiresome verbosity, or display for its own sake, whereas for a relative latecomer to the classical idiom such as myself -- someone who did not learn it as part of a specifically Islamic training, or in the national Arab (as opposed to colonial) school system -- I still have to think consciously about putting a classical sentence together correctly and clearly, with not always elegant results, to put it mildly.

Because Arabic and English are such different languages in the way they operate, and also because the ideal of eloquence in one language is not the same as in the other, a perfect bilingualism of the kind that I often dream about, and sometimes boldly think that I have almost achieved, is not really possible. There is a massive technical literature about bilingualism, but what I've seen of it simply cannot deal with the aspect of actually living in, as opposed to knowing, two languages from two different worlds and two different linguistic families. This isn't to say that one can't be somehow brilliant, as the Polish native Conrad was, in English, but the strangeness stays there forever. Besides, what does it mean to be perfectly, in a completely equal way, bilingual? Has anyone studied the ways in which each language creates barriers against other languages, just in case one might slip over into new territory?

I often find myself noting aspects of the experience and gathering evidence from around me that reinforces both the tantalising imperfection (for me) and the dynamic state of both languages, their perfect inequality that is, which is so much more satisfying than a frozen, completed but in the end only theoretical attainment such as the kind professional interpreters and translators seem to have but in my opinion don't since they cannot by definition be eloquent. Having left behind locales that have either been ruined by war or for other reasons no longer exist, and having very little by way of property and objects that come from my earlier life, I seem to have made of those two languages at play, as experiences, an environment that I can carry about within me, complete with timbre, pitch, and accent specific to the time, the place and the person. I remember and still listen to what people say, how they say it, what words carry the stress and exactly how and this, I think, is why in English poetry it is Hopkins and Shakespeare's comic characters who have marked my ears so indelibly.

I think of my earliest years, therefore, in terms both of striking images that seem as vivid to me now as they did then, and of states of language in Arabic and English that always begin in the intimacy of family: my mother's strangely accented and musical English, acquired in mission schools and a cultivated Palestinian milieu early in the century, her wonderfully expressive Arabic, vacillating charmingly between the demotic of her native Nazareth and Beirut, and that of her long later residence in Cairo, my father's eccentric Anglo-American dialect, his much poorer Jerusalem and Cairo melange, the sense he gave me both of admonishment and an often unsuccessful search for the right word in English as well as Arabic. And then, more recently, my wife Mariam's Arabic, a language learned naturally in national school without the disturbance of English and French at first, although both were acquired a little later. Hence her ease in moving back and forth between classical and colloquial, which I could never do as she does or feel as completely at home in as she does. And my son's amazing knowledge of the Arabic language as a magnificent, somehow self-conscious structure which he painstakingly got on his own at university and then through long residence in Cairo, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, noting down every new expression legal, Quranic, poetical, dialectical that he learned until he, a New York city kid now a lawyer whose obvious first language was English, has in effect become a learned user of his great-great-grandfather's (Mariam's grandfather) "matter," the Arabic language which he taught as a university professor in Beirut before World War One; or my daughter's perfect ear as accomplished actress and as a precociously early literary talent who, while she didn't do what her older brother did and go out and make herself master the strange quirks of our original Muttersprach, can mime the sounds exactly right, and has been called on (especially now) to play parts in commercial films, TV serials, and plays, roles that are of the "generic" Middle Eastern woman, and which has slowly led her to an interest in learning the common family language for the first time in her young life.

* Published by permission of Mariam Cortas-Said

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 677 Front Page
Egypt | Region | Focus | International | Economy | Opinion | Press review | Letters | Culture | Living | Features | Heritage | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons | Crossword
Batch view | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map