It’s World Arabic Language(s) Day

This year, UNESCO is celebrating the first ever “World Arabic Language Day”:

Plate out of ‘Aja’ib Al-MakhlouqatWaGhara’ib Al-mawjudat (The Wonders of Creation and Their Singularities). Mamluk period (late 13th century). Courtesy Museum of Islamic Art
Plate out of “The Wonders of Creation and Their Singularities.” Mamluk period. Courtesy Museum of Islamic Art

UNESCO suggests six ways to celebrate, including with calligraphy, poetry, by learning Arabic, or by reading in Arabic to one’s children. They also suggest “acknowledging the tremendous contribution of its writers, scientists and artists to universal culture. These are the Arabic language authors who enabled the transmission of Greek knowledge to the Latin of medieval Europe, weaving indissoluble ties between cultures through time.”

These are all very lovely and celebratory, but ArabLit’s Nadia Ghanem is also asking today: “What do we talk about when we talk about Arabic?

So, amidst the celebrations, it’s as good a time as any to talk about language vs. “dialect,” about writing in Algerian, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Iraqi (Arabics). Indeed, it was only a few days ago that International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) administrator Fleur Montanaro said that this issue was one of the key debates during the determination of the 2013 IPAF longlist:

There was debate about the use of dialect in novels. Usually that’s fine in conversation, but where it becomes extreme, as one judge said, that can be off-putting, as one Moroccan person won’t understand an Iraqi necessarily[.]

Meanwhile, at his recent book-launch talk in Newcastle, Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim said:

Treatise on Astronomical Instrumentation by Najm al-Din al-Misri. 14th century. Museum of Islamic Art.
Treatise on Astronomical Instrumentation by Najm al-Din al-Misri. 14th century. Museum of Islamic Art.

I know it’s a rich language but for a long time the one spoken in the street has been different – one day I want to write just in colloquial. I like film because I can just use normal language. If you use fus7a (Modern Standard Arabic) you’re scared of the language all the time. When you write in fus7a you are like something from history, how can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?

Also, since UNESCO suggests that I read to my children today (I will! no worries!), there is the fraught issue of whether children might read in Lebanese or Egyptian or Sudanese, or if they should only be introduced to books that are written in fus7a.

In addition to the socio-political aspect, this has complicating economic factors. One children’s book author who wanted to write in “dialect” told me: Publishers haven’t necessarily wanted to bring out books that can only be sold in one Arab country.

Anyhow, as good a day as any to think and debate.