Starting Today, Party Like It’s World Arabic Language(s) Day

World Arabic Language Day — singular, in UNESCO’s estimation — isn’t until Dec. 18, but the events begin today. It’s a UN holiday that was designed as an annual celebration to “promote multilingualism and cultural diversity, as well as celebrate Arabic language’s role in and contribution to the safeguarding and dissemination of human civilization and culture”: 

The 18th was chosen as the date for World Arabic Language Day (WALD), as it’s “the day in 1973 when the General Assembly approved Arabic [singular] as an official UN language.” All this is fair enough. But if we’re celebrating multilingualism and cultural diversity, there’s no better place to start than with the Arabics.

At the recent #LitSummitQatar — a series of translation events, workshops, and seminars held this year in Doha — workshop leader Nariman Youssef observed:


Indeed, they were celebrated at the Literary Translation Summit. But these different Arabics also created issues:


Arab authors write dialogue — or occasionally entire works — in colloquial. (Unless they’re writing children’s books, but that’s another story.) But, Youssef said, it’s “different in translation as why would an English character sound egyptian/syrian/iraqi?”

Film translator Zeinab Mobarak added on Twitter: “As a dubbing translator,am for dubbing in colloquial.MS is just stifling when spoken by film characters!”

Dialect is also an issue when translating from Arabic to English, although a different one, usually solved on a case-by-case basis.

But back to English–>Arabics. While Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi may be sufficiently similar for audiences to get the gist of any unknown words, this does not necessarily mean they’re the same language, as Nadia Ghanem discusses in “What we talk about when we talk about Arabic“:

In Arabic, several words mean dialect or vernacular, Arabic is rich that way we know. 3amiyya is a term used by Egyptians to refer to the Egyptian ‘dialect’. Lahja is one of the terms used in the Levant to refer to the region’s ‘dialects’. Derja is the term used in North Africa to designate the Algerian and Moroccan ‘dialects’.  These different terms are used to mean a dialect yet they refer to a language.  What? Are they not languages for you? Let’s look at how ‘experts’ formulate the language/dialect concepts.

There are certainly reasons to hold Arabic together, into a singular-multiple entity: many of these reasons are given by children’s publishers when they discuss why they don’t publish books in Lebanese, Egyptian, or Emirati. Some are practical (we can’t sell into a large enough market), some nostalgic, some religious, and some political. But there are also reasons to encourage vernaculars, even (or especially) of vernacular children’s books: It certainly makes it easier for children to read.

Yet the issue is a fraught one. Recently, fierce debates have taken place in Morocco after head of an NGO recommended that children learn darija in their first years of schooling rather than fos7a, or Modern Standard Arabic.

According to Al FanarNoureddine Ayouch is an advertising mogul and head of the NGO Zakoura, which recently issued a report on the state of Moroccan education. According to Al Fanar, the report “revealed a deep divide over whether linguistic reform must be part of education reform.” Would teaching children to read in darija improve literacy?

It’s also a live issue among authors, some of whom believe that dialects don’t offer enough sophistication, others who worry that their works won’t find a wide enough audience. Moroccan novelist Sonia Terrab told Al Fanar that: “The most important thing is to find the language in which we express ourselves best. The argument to say that writing in classical Arabic is better to standardize Morocco with other Arab countries and have a chance to get noticed [as a writer] is wrong. Look at someone like Mohamed Choukri [best known for his autobiography For Bread Alone] who wrote in Darija and has gotten recognition simply because he was good.”*

Egyptian novelist Safaa Abdelmenem also recently discussed, in Qantarawhy she has started composing her novels in Egyptian Arabic.

Starting today, in Egypt, there will be two events celebrating WALD: 

On Dec. 16, the General Egyptian Book Organization is also holding a seminar entitled “The Arabic language in the Arab media.”

On Dec. 17, the Egyptian National Library and Archives will facilitate a conference called “The Problems of Arabic Language and the Issues of the Future.”

In the Emirates, they’ll wait until Dec. 18:

The “Bel Arabi” initiative, to promote the use of Arabic in social media, will kick off at midnight

Also, in India:

Kerala to host slew of events for ‘UN Arabic Language Day’ celebrations

*Choukri did not publish in darija.


  1. Interesting article. It article reminded me of an essay I read at University (I think it was by Chinua Achebe or a Caribbean author-can’t quite remember) about the different variations of English around the world and whether it was worthwhile for authors to write in the English they speak (such as pidgin) to preserve their language/dialect and for authenticity’s sake, or whether it was better to write in standard “proper” English and reach a wider audience. Difficult one- the issue with Arabic is even more fraught in my opinion because of the esteem that Classical Arabic and fus7a has throughout the Arab world, though it is judged as too formal and static for everyday use. I don’t need to remind everyone of the headache (and often heartache) that those of us learning Arabic experience trying to navigate through (and often getting hopelessly lost) amongst the different Arabic dialects and the tensions between the dialects and Fus7a. Will be interesting to see which turn the debate takes next.

    1. Indeed, and it seems to be turning differently in different countries…

  2. Mohamed Choukri never wrote (or at least published) in Darija.

    1. Added a clarification, thanks.

  3. but I think Paul Bowles’s translation was based on Choukri’s telling him the story in derja, on tape, right?

    1. That’s what I’d thought, too, but…sort of:

      “Because I have translated several books from the Arabic I want to make a clear differentiation between the earlier volumes and the present work. The other books were spoken onto tape and the words were in the colloquial Arabic called Moghrebi. For Bread Alone is a manuscript, written in classical Arabic, a language I do not know. The author had to reduce it first to Moroccan Arabic for me. Then we used Spanish and French for ascertaining shades of meaning. Although exact, the translation is far from literal.”

    2. Choukri used to say that Bowles’s Darija was too poor, so they usually turned to Spanish (cf. بول بولز وعزلة طنجة, Al-Kamel Verlag, 1997, p. 39, 148).

      1. Interesting that Bowles would say “reduce it” first to Moroccan Arabic. But yes, if they had to turn to Spanish and French for shades of meaning, then he must not have been getting it in darija. Although this is really a separate can of worms…

        1. “كنا أنا وبول بوولز نستغرق يومين أو أكثر في ترجمة الفصل الواحد إلى الانجليزية بينما أكون أنا قد كتبت الفصل الذي يليه. كنت أملي عليه بالأسبانية التي يجيدها، وأحيانا تسعفني الجملة بالفرنسية، أما اللغة الدارجة التي يذكر بول بوولز أنه نقلها منها فهو ذكر كاذب. ولا أذكر أننا استعملنا إلا بعض الكلمات، وهذا ليس احتقارا للدارجة التي يلم بها بول بوولز ولا يعرفها جيدا. ثم أنا نفسي عاجز عن الكتابة بالدارجة إذ أجهل جماليتها […]”

          (الكيان والمكان: مقابلة مع محمد شكري، Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics، عدد 6، 1986، ص. 72.)

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