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Eloquent, Elegant Arabic

Le Monde diplomatique
August 2004

Should Arabic be reformed by using the elitist classical language
instead of colloquial tongue? That idea fails to appreciate how the
daily experience of living in Arabic is echoed in the everyday
language of the street.

By Edward W Said

The speaking and writing of Arabic is thought of as controversial,
especially in the United States. This is mostly for ideological
reasons that have nothing to do with the way the language is lived,
used and experienced by native speakers. I don't know where this idea
of Arabic as a language essentially expressing blood-curdling and
incomprehensible violence comes from. But surely all those 1940s-50s
Hollywood screen villains in turbans who snarl at their victims with
sadistic relish have something to do with it, as does the fixation on
terrorism in the US media to the exclusion of everything else.

Rhetoric and eloquence in the Arab literary tradition go back a
millennium, to Abbasid writers such as Al-Jahiz and Al-Jurjani, who
devised complex schemes that seem startlingly modern for understanding
rhetoric, eloquence and tropes. But all their work is based on
classical written rather than demotic spoken Arabic. Written Arabic is
dominated by the presence of the Qu'ran, which is both origin and
model for everything linguistic that comes after it.

This needs some explanation. It is an unfamiliar idea to users of
modern European languages, in which there is a rough correspondence
between spoken and literary versions and where scripture has lost all
its verbal authority. All Arabs have a spoken colloquial language that
varies considerably between one region or country and another. I grew
up in a family whose spoken language was an amalgam of what was common
in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria: there were small variations between
those three dialects - enough for a resident of the mashriq, as the
Eastern Mediterranean Arab lands are known, to identify another as
coming from, say, Beirut or Jerusalem, but never enough to prevent
easy, direct communication.

Because I went to school in Cairo and spent most of my early youth
there, I also was fluent in colloquial Egyptian, a much faster, more
clipped and elegant dialect than any I knew from my parents and
relatives. Spoken Egyptian spread widely because nearly all Arabic
films, radio dramas and later television serials were made in Egypt;
their spoken idioms became familiar to and were learned by Arabs
everywhere else.

As part of the oil boom of the 1970-80s television dramas were
made in other places, which went in for spoken classical Arabic drama;
it rarely caught on. They were heavy costume dramas meant to be
elevated and suitable for Muslim (and old-fashioned, puritanical
Christian) Arab tastes put off by racy Cairo films, and designed to be
improving in ways that seemed hopelessly unattractive. Even the most
hastily put together Egyptian musalsal (serial) is more fun to watch
than the best classical-language dramas.

Only Egyptian dialect has this currency. If I were to try to
understand an Algerian I would get nowhere, so different and varied
are the colloquials once one gets away from the shores of the Eastern
Mediterranean. The same would be true with an Iraqi, Moroccan or a
deep Gulf dialect. Which is why all Arabic news broadcasts, discussion
programmes and documentaries - also meetings, seminars, mosque sermons
and nationalist rallies, as well as daily encounters between people
with different spoken languages - are conducted in a modified,
modernised classical language or an approximation of it that can be
understood across the Arab world from the Gulf to Morocco.

The reason is that classical Arabic (as did Latin in the European
Romance languages until a century or two ago) maintained a living
presence as the common language of literary expression, despite the
lively, readily available resources of spoken dialects which, other
than Egyptian, have never attained much currency beyond the local.
These spoken dialects don't have a large literature in the classical
lingua franca (1). Even writers considered regional use the modern
classical language most of the time and only occasionally resort to
colloquial Arabic for snippets of dialogue. An educated person has two
distinct linguistic personae. It's common to be chatting with a
newspaper or television reporter in the colloquial and then, when the
recording is switched on, to modulate into a streamlined version of
the classical language, inherently more formal and polite.

Not that the idioms lack connections. Letters are often the same and
the word order is roughly equivalent. But words and pronunciation are
quite different. Classical or educated Arabic as a standard language
loses every trace of regional or local dialect and emerges as a
sonorous, carefully modulated, heightened and inflected instrument
capable of great and often (but not always) formulaic eloquence.
Properly used, it is unmatched for precision of expression and for the
amazing way in which individual letters within a word (especially
endings) are varied to say distinct, different things.

The language has a matchless centrality to the whole culture. As
Jaroslav Stetkevych, author of the best modern book on the language
(2), wrote: "Like Venus, it was born in a perfect state of beauty and
it has preserved that beauty despite all the hazards of history and
corrosive forces of time." To the western student, "Arabic suggests an
idea of almost mathematical abstraction. The perfect system of the
three radical consonants, the derived verb forms with their basic
meanings, the precise formation of the verbal noun, of the participles
- everything is clarity, logic, system and abstraction." It is also
beautiful to look when written: hence the enduring centrality of
calligraphy in Arabic, an art of combinations, an art of the highest
complexity, ever closer to ornament and arabesque than to discursion
and communication.

During the early days of the war in Afghanistan I watched the
controversial al-Jazeera Arabic-language satellite channel for
discussion and reporting unavailable from US media. What was striking,
besides what was said, was the high level of eloquence among the
embattled and even repellent participants, Osama bin Laden
included. He is (or was) a soft-spoken, fluent speaker who neither
hesitates nor makes the slightest linguistic slip, surely a factor in
his apparent influence. On a lower level non-Arabs such as the Afghans
Burhaneddine Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar clearly know no
colloquial Arabic but sped forward with remarkable ease in the
classical (Qu'ranic-based) tongue.

What has come to be called modern standard (classical) Arabic is not
exactly that of the Qu'ran 14 centuries ago. Although the Qu'ran
remains a much-studied text, its language is antique, even stilted,
and unusable for daily life. Compared with the modern prose used
everywhere today it has a high-flown poetic sound. The contemporary
classical results from a fascinating modernisation of the language
started in the last decades of the 19th century - the period of the
nahda or renaissance - by groups of men in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine
and Egypt, many of them Christian. They set themselves the collective
task of bringing Arabic into the modern world by modifying and
simplifying its syntax, through Arabising (isti'rab) the 7th-century
original: introducing such words as train, company, democracy and
socialism that didn't exist in the classical period. They excavated
Arabic's immense resources through the technical grammatical process
of analogy (al-qiyas). These men forced on classical Arabic a new
vocabulary, roughly 60% of today's standard language.

Arabic grammar is so sophisticated and logically appealing that it is
perhaps best studied by an older pupil who can appreciate the niceties
of its reasoning. As it is, the best Arabic teaching is actually for
non-Arabs at language institutes in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and

When the 1967 Arab-Israeli war pushed me unwillingly into political
engagement at a distance, the first thing that struck me was that
politics weren't conducted in 'amiya, or people's language, as
colloquial Arabic is called, but more often in the rigorous, formal
fusha or classical language. Recalling my childhood attitude to the
formal language, I felt that political analyses as presented at
rallies or meetings were made to sound more profound than they were.
This, I discovered to my chagrin, was especially the case with
approximations to Marxist and liberation-movement jargon in which
descriptions of class, material interests, capital and social struggle
were Arabised in long monologues addressed not to the people but to
other sophisticated militants.

In private, popular leaders like Yasser Arafat and Gamal Abdel Nasser,
with some of whom I had contact, used the colloquial to much greater
effect than the Marxists (who were better educated than the
Palestinian and Egyptian leaders). Nasser addressed his masses of
followers in the Egyptian dialect mixed with resounding phrases from
the fusha. Since eloquence in Arabic has a great deal to do with
dramatic delivery, Arafat usually emerges in his rare public addresses
as a below-average orator, his mispronunciations, hesitations and
awkward circumlocutions sounding to an educated ear like an elephant
tramping through a flowerbed.

Al-Azhar University in Cairo is not only the oldest institution of
higher learning in the world, it is considered the seat of orthodoxy
for Islam, its rector being the highest religious authority in Sunni
Egypt. More importantly Al-Azhar essentially, but not exclusively,
teaches Islamic learning: its core is the Qu'ran, plus all that
follows it in methods of interpretation, jurisprudence, hadith (3),
language and grammar.

Mastery of classical Arabic is the heart of Islamic teaching for Arabs
and other Muslims at Al-Azhar since the language of the Qu'ran -
considered to be the uncreated Word of God that descended (the Arabic
word is munzal) in a series of revelations to Muhammad - is sacred. It
has rules and paradigms that are considered obligatory and binding on
users although, paradoxically, they cannot by doctrinal fiat (ijaz) be
directly imitative of it or, as in Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic
Verses, in any way challenge its divine provenance.

Sixty years ago orators were listened to and commented on for the
correctness and felicity of their language as much as for what they
had to say. When I gave my first speech in Arabic in Cairo two decades
ago, after years of speaking publicly in English and French but never
in my native language, a young relative came up after I had finished
to tell me how disappointed he was that I hadn't been more
eloquent. "But you understood what I said?" I asked him plaintively,
since being understood on sensitive political and philosophical points
was my main concern. "Oh yes, of course," he replied dismissively, "no
problem: but you weren't rhetorical or eloquent enough."

That complaint still dogs me when I speak since I am unable to
transform myself into an eloquent orator. I mix colloquial and
classical idioms pragmatically; I was once told that the results were
like someone who owned a Rolls Royce but preferred to drive a
Volkswagen. Only in the last 10 or 15 years have I discovered that the
finest, leanest, most steely Arabic prose that I have read or heard is
produced by novelists (not critics) such as Elias Khoury or Gamal

Or by our great poets Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish, both of whom in
their odes soar to rhapsodic heights and drive their huge audiences
into rapture. They use prose as a razor-sharp Aristotelian
instrument. Their knowledge of the language is so immense and natural
that they can be eloquent and clear; they do not need fillers,
verbosity, or display for its own sake.

Edward Said was professor of comparative literature at Columbia
University, New York, and author of works including Orientalism
(Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), Culture and Imperialism (Vintage
Books, 1994), Peace and its Discontents (Vintage, 1995) and The End of
the Peace Process (Granta Books, 2002)


(1) A mixed language close to Italian, which aided
communications between Christians of diverse origins
and the Muslim population all over the Mediterranean
for several centuries.

(2) Reorientation: Arabic and Persian Poetry, Indiana
University Press, Bloomington (US), 1994.

(3) The words and actions of Muhammad and his

Original text in Englis

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