The Fragility of a Deteriorating Arabic?

Let’s set aside whether Arabic(s) is/are really deteriorating — or whether they’re in a process of change — and focus on novelist Iman Humaydan’s other arguments, about schooling, censorship, and how many students don’t believe that “their mother tongue is capable of reflecting their inner selves”:

_548896_i0Humaydan, an award-winning novelist whose beautiful novel Other Lives was recently published in translation by Michelle Hartman, recently taught a seminar in Arabic at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program for teens, Between the Lines.

The Lebanese novelist told the Daily Star that, “The Arabic tongue is deteriorating, not only because of globalization and the mainstream English language, but because the educational system in the Arab World is connecting the language to social values that are no longer convenient for the youth.”

If we walk around the first argument — since it would take a great deal yet to really show change is deterioration — the second is certainly an important one. The Daily Star writes that Humaydan taught writing skills this summer to students from at least nine different Arab countries, and that many of them were initially resistant to writing in Arabic. Some even believed that “Between the Lines” would be an English-language writing program.

“What really was a serious issue was to make these students believe that their mother tongue is capable of reflecting their inner selves,” Humaydan told the Daily Star.

She laid the blame on educational systems across the region, which have associated Arabic literature not just with religion, but more importantly with outdated, stiff-sounding, or boring material. The Egyptian Ministry of Education textbooks can also add “ludicrous-sounding” to the list.

The elimination of contemporary Arab writers from most Arabic curricula across the region has also had a bad impact, Humaydan said. The lack of dearth of creative opportunities in some countries was also a factor. Among the elite students who participated in the Iowa workshops, almost none planned to live in their home countries — most intended to relocate abroad.

The piece in the Daily Star ends hopefully however, with a suggestion that some students changed their minds about English and decided to write in Arabic.

The “Between the Lines” workshops, which took place between June 21 and July 5, were for students from across the region. They were divided in to two sessions each day. The morning session was in English, and the afternoon creative-writing seminar was in the student’s “native” language. (Although in the case of Arabic, of course, the seminars likely had a focus on Modern Standard Arabic.)

If you’ll be between the ages of 16 and 19 next summer — or know a talented writer who will be — you can check the Between the Lines website in January 2015 to apply for the next session.

A video from last year’s Between the Lines seminar:


  1. He sounds as though he means it’s ‘the use of Arabic(s)’ that is deteriorating :). I’ll also take it that he means the students’ mother tongue is their mother tongue, not MSA.

    In Algeria, people who prefer to use another language than Algerian to write point out to at least two main hurdles that have put them off using their mother tongue and made them favour another language for written expression. First, it is very difficult to simply write down one’s mother tongue: 1) because there’s no former practice for this, and it slows down the actual process, 2) because we don’t have a dedicated alphabet and haven’t agreed upon characters that represent the sounds of Algerian (for us there’s the additional debate about using a Latin-script-based alphabet or an Arabic-based one). The second problem potential writers raise is the vocabulary problem. I’m either told a) there is a lack of vocabulary in Algerian to express certain abstract ideas, concepts (a good friend @tayfou, always tells me he can think of no word in Derja that means or directly expresses heartache – chagrin d’amour), b) there is a lack of technical vocabulary so then one has to resort to writing the foreign word (usually a Latin-lettered one) and this becomes another headache for a writer because the said word will have to be written in what is perceived as a problematic alphabet, c) will all readers understand the vocabulary we use when we use our mother tongue (local varieties). I’m quite certain these hurdles could be sorted out practically overnight by the education system if it finally decided to work for us and not against us. But…

    I wonder if the real problem isn’t just the form. By form I mean the novel, novella and short story, because in theatre, when a writer writes a play, these obstacles suddenly recede. Theatre in Algeria is thriving and very productive, has been for decades. And it is composed in Algerian Derja. Yet a play constitutes a text as much as a novel. The barrier between mother tongue and text is gone in theatre, and it can’t just only be because of this medium’s focus on orality, a novel in English for instance can be entirely or for the most part built on conversations. Isn’t it the case that in most novels in MSA, few are the familiar sounds (few dialogues) and few are the familiar visuals transferred from text to imagination (descriptions of environments are in a vocabulary taken from MSA)? I use the word ‘familiar’ for its reference to family/intimate not to mean ‘well-known’. MSA is both well-known and not familiar.

    Perhaps the problem isn’t the writing, it’s the hearing. Writing is only the transcription of sounds, and our imagination is noisy.

    1. Sorry, the transliteration of إيمان as Iman is confusing. But she’s a she.

      1) I get that, although it’s also such a privelege, in writing, to be a pioneer….

      2a) is something I hear regularly. BUT it seems like writers could get out there and invent words. I mean, they don’t just invent themselves! @tayfou should get to that. 🙂

      2c) Agreed 100% and yes, I’ve tried to fight that battle…

      Great point about the theatre, although I think (think?) it’s more lively in Algeria than anywhere else in the region.

  2. Oh, my apologies to her 🙂 Yes, pioneering is what’s needed! I always assumed Egyptian and Syrian theatre were very productive given the amount of cinema and tv productions. Hmm, I wonder what theatre is like in the MENA then.

    1. Question for you…! Egyptian theatre (like film) is much more vulnerable to censors because it’s public/spoken, vs. books which they assume few people read. What role does censorship play in theatre vs. “written” work?

  3. I wonder especially about the amount of READING in Arabic that the participants in these workshops have done…from what I’ve seen, there’s no practice in Arabic elementary-high schooling that is equivalent to American “English” classes which are normally combination literary appreciation/essay writing courses. There might be some exceptions – my Jordanian friends’ recommendations for books all seemed to come from their tawjihi readings, so there might be some amount of required literary reading, but still my colleagues’ experiences sound like “Arabic” class was mostly figuring out i3raab on Classical poems. Not having lots of exposure to reading makes it harder to write, since you’ll have less exposure to the kinds of expression used in written styles and registers. I bet many of the participants do most of their reading in non-Arabic languages, for various reasons, and that may play a large role in what language they feel comfortable writing in.

    1. Well, since the applicants had to submit samples both in English & in Arabic, I’d say that’s quite likely.

    2. Hi mlynxqualey, NG and Skander,

      I’m the Program Coordinator for Between the Lines, and I love the discussion and points everyone is bringing up. I thought what NG said about theatre was interesting because one of our cultural exchange activities is a Cinematheque where students show an iconic film/cartoon/tv show/etc from their region to the others. Most of our Arabic-speaking students suggested plays, which were funny and smart (the assistant coordinator speaks Arabic and watched some of them), but since they weren’t subtitled we couldn’t use them, and the students chose a movie instead.

      Skander, your observations largely mirror why we have creative writing workshops in students’ ‘native’ languages (although in the case of the Arabic-speakers their dialects vary widely, and many of them speak other languages primarily, in the case of the Moroccans and the Tunisians). While there’s a great literary tradition of Arabic writings, especially poetry, and there is an active literary scene, it has been noted that the teaching of contemporary literature and creative writing especially is often not a part of secondary school curriculum in the region. The International Writing Program’s (the host of BTL) mission is to seek out and promote great writing in languages other than English, so creating BTL seemed like a natural extension to hopefully create more writers and readers in Arabic. However, each year we have a large amount of pushback from students when they realize they will be writing in Arabic. They do a lot of writing in English during the program, of course, and overall the program is run in English out of necessity, but it’s interesting to see how many of our Arabic students initially resist writing in Arabic. Our Russian students also often like writing in English, but the Arabic reaction is notably stronger and more vehement.

      Mlynxqualey is right, the students must submit creative pieces in both Arabic and English, but participants are chosen for the program based on the strength of their writing in Arabic, not English. This usually surprises them, since many of them only wrote the Arabic part because they had to, and focused instead on the English section (the old ‘This must be an English-language camp’ problem we have every year). In some ways, Iman has the toughest job in the program, because the Arabic-speaking students come from such a range of cultures and countries, and also diverse socioeconomic, religious, ethnic and academic backgrounds. Some students resist working in Arabic because they have gone to British international schools their whole lives, and are more comfortable with English. Some students feel they are less censored if they write in English. One student this year was Berber, and so didn’t want to write in Arabic because historically that is the language of her people’s oppressors, Underlying all of these arguments is the tension of neocolonialism and different countries’/territories’ relationships to the West, which the teenagers may not be able to articulate (yet), but which weaves through many of the ideas. Which is what makes the program so interesting. The participants are literally in the West, but talking and writing about Arabic literature in a way that might not be possible in their home towns. Our ultimate goal at BTL is foster young writers of all languages, who will then have connections to other writers of their generation both in their own region and abroad.

      Anyway, I wanted to say that I am grateful for the discussion and intelligent attention all of you are bringing to how our program is run. It deepens my understanding of what is happening with contemporary Arabic literature, and has the potential to enrich the program (I’m thinking it could be interesting to do an activity where the students work on creating words for gaps in their language – this would work for every language). NG, if you know of any young Algerians who are interested in writing, please send them to our website and the US Embassy in January! We haven’t had any Algerian applications in a while, which is really a shame. Actually, I would like to ask all of you to please reach out to any contacts who know youth interested in being writers. They must submit stories and poems, NOT school essays (this is another problem we have every year, since many students haven’t written a lot of creative work, and worry about the quality of their English). Again, thanks.

      1. Hello !

        Thank you for your reply Kmorsewriter ! There are many aspiring writers who want to write in Arabic and can also write in English, including of writers of Berber origin who don’t want to write in French because it is the language of their most recent oppressors 🙂 The publishing scene for novels written in Arabic is quite lively here. There is a fantastic school of English (the British Institute for English) which recently opened (last October) in Algiers who work in coordination with the British Council, we have students who will no doubt be interested in this program. I’ll let them know! All the best!

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