Colloquial vs. Classical: How Do You Write?

The most interesting things I’ve overheard from the Beirut39 festival (and it’s hard to overhear what’s going on in Beirut from Cairo—noisy here) have been about how young writers choose to reconcile the divide between classical (fos’ha) and colloquial (3meya) Arabic.

A generation ago, many writers switched to writing dialogue in 3meya, leaving the rest in fos’ha. Some writers continue to play around with the divide: In Elias Khoury’s most recent novel, Ka’anaha Nae’ma—which should be available in English from Archipelago next year—large chunks of the narrator’s internal monologue are in Lebanese 3meya.

But the relationship between standardized fos’ha and dialect 3meya is more fraught than the above would indicate. Palestinian author Adania Shibli talks about her relationship with 3meya in John O’Connell’s festival report in The National.

[Israeli Arab author Ala] Hlehel admits he experimented with writing “spoken” Arabic in a blog, but for Shibli this is a step too far. “I can’t write in dialect. And I feel the same taboo about speaking in classical Arabic. If I do then I feel embarrassed, as if I’m in a TV news report. This is especially a problem when I write dialogue – and so I don’t. My characters are basically silent.”

Yes! Shibli’s characters don’t speak. It had never occurred to me that the reason they are silent is because she won’t have them talking in colloquial. Fascinating!

Guardian editor Claire Armistead, also in Beirut for the festival, tweeted (twittered?) about her experiences, noting:

Big Beirut talking-point – how do you reconcile classical Arabic with desire to reflect modern, local lives (there may be no local readers)

For those of you unfamiliar with Arabic, learning to read and write is much more of a hurdle here than in the English-reading world, because of the divergences between fos’ha and 3meya. Many Lebanese apparently don’t know how to read—and don’t even know the Arabic alphabet.

This topic is addressed in Adania Shibli’s lovely novella Touch, out now from Clockroot Books, but perhaps some of the most interesting details are lost in translation. After all, it’s difficult to explain the difference between “written” and “spoken” words in English (without significant digression).