Bahaa Taher, the Decline of Arabic, and Local Respect for Literature

Ali Abdel Mohsen has a delightful report on what must’ve been a pretty dreadful book event featuring acclaimed (Arabic Booker-winning) author Bahaa Taher and a pair of literary critics.

Says Mohsen:

Of course, the events of the evening unfolded to the usual medley of polyphonic phone warbling and stage-whispered side conversations, proving that an audience of 12 “intellectuals” can make just as much noise as a school field trip. Reporters sent to cover the event were roaming back and forth, experimenting freely with the room’s lights for the sake of their photography. Even employees of the cultural center displayed the same tactlessness, disrupting the proceedings with ridiculously loud high-heels and slamming doors.

The evening, which began with a two-hour talk mostly by the critics, ended with a brief Q&A session. The session sounds much like Q&As at a literary event anywhere in the world: some fans repeated one another’s (and their own) questions, others stood to give long-winded talks about their own life and projects.

According to Mohsen, there were at least two references to the decline of the Arabic language, to which Taher apparently replied, “I agree with you 100 percent.”

I was interested to see his reply to a question about literary agents in Egypt:

After briefly contemplating, the author replied, “I think they play an important role. I believe in them very strongly, but the problem is in this part of the world the vast majority of them are untrustworthy. There are no firm laws to regulate those types of transactions and agreements.”

“Egyptian authors are denied their rights both in Egypt and abroad.”

Mohsen also reviews Taher’s latest collection of short stories, I Did Not Know Peacocks Could Fly.

These are, Mohsen says, “six deceptively simple tales full of loss, mystery, and the occasional symbolic animal.” Taher’s prose is here, as elsewhere, clear and concise:

Perhaps the best thing about I Did Not Know Peacocks Could Fly is the ease with which it reads. Taher’s style is instantly accessible, incorporating familiar settings and characters into his intriguing and dreamlike narratives. As a result, the book flows like good conversation between old friends, complete with warmth, humor, and the occasional hint of regret.

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5 comments

  1. Sorry about the delayed response, but I am so sick of hearing this conversation in Arabic time and time again. It is the same conversation every subsequent generation of uptight Americans have when they bemoan the decline the English. It is a relative decline. I honestly believe every society reflects on their language in this way. Not sure if sociological can confirm this or not.

    Anyway, getting back to the point. I would encourage Bahaa Taher et alia, really anyone who makes naive statements like this, to look at their own use of even Modern Standard Arabic when they write. Even its grammar, if you can believe this, has been this way. Guess what Taher, it has been that way since the incumbent rise of the Arabic press in the early twentieth century and their importation of European grammar and stylistics in acceptable bounds to get what they needed out of the language (if I was less busy, I would find you sources; but trust me, this is what I was taught as common knowledge in graduate Arabic sociolinguistic courses).

    So, let’s look at an example, shall we? In Classical (Qur’anic) Arabic, the phrase below would be stylistically unacceptable, and I am not sure if you can say this is even grammatical:

    الاقتصاد والسياسات والقوانين الامريكية كذا
    The American economy, policies, and laws . . .

    Now, the translation seems perfectly clear. However, Classical Arabic would strongly discourage the adjective (American; الامريكية) coming at the end of the phrase when it modifies the first word and subsequent words. I think a pure approach to grammar insists you translate that as “The economy, the policies, and the American laws,” which is obviously not meant when you see this structure in Arabic newspapers daily. It is very proper to actually say this:

    القتصاد الامريكي وسياساتها وقوانينها كذا
    The American economy, policies, and laws (literally: The American economy and its policies and its laws) . . .

    Now, you will never see the latter anymore. First off, it is tedious. People “rear-end” modifiers to a noun phrase in Arabic, even though this was not correct in Arabic for a long time. When did it become proper? Gee, before and through the era of Taher’s writing career? What a coincidence.

    Now, you might think this is a minor point. This is one of many. When I first started to notice it, teachers gave me numerous examples where the import of the mass media style from Europe seriously impacted the style, or maybe grammar if you like to exaggerate me, from the early twentieth century on. I am not even discussing vocabulary, you have noticed. Taher and his ilk are complicit in this (check his books for mention of the word telephone, I doubt he uses the proper word haatif هاتف instead of the common transliteration). That is the way it is, and your parents generation would be disgusted with your contribution to the decline of Arabic. Do you get where I am going with this, Mr. Taher?

    So, in short: Taher and everyone else are full of it. They are just as responsible. Everyone does this, and language is not static. It upsets me when literary artists, not just novelists, think their medium is static. It is overwhelmingly naive and too nostalgic. And so concludes my rant.

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  2. Oh, I think there must be some historian or social historian who can confirm that people always bemoan the “loss of language,” as language is ever-changing (and thank goodness for that! can you imagine a language that didn’t change along with people’s lives and cultures?)

    In fact, maybe someone should write a novel where language stays static but people change. Or perhaps people can’t change if their language is forced to stay the same?

    Although I DO take seriously the claim of some scientists that we are losing small languages at a newly rapid rate. Species have always died off; now they’re dying off in massive chunks. Languages have always died off; ditto.

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