Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fusha: the Straussian choice?

I came across a review of a book called Why are the Arabs not Free? The Politics of Writing, by an Egyptian psychoanalyst. I haven't read it (nor Adonis, whom he discusses below) but the quote presents an interesting perspective on Arabic diglossia:
My understanding of the political significance of this divorce between political and demotic Arabic and the key place of writing in the perpetuation of despotism crystallised when I read the work of our great poet Adonis, entitled The Book. It is one of the most revolutionary books I've read in Arabic literature. Apart from its provocative title, it lays bare the truth of our political history as having been a series of assassinations in a struggle for power. But it's written in such a high style that it's a difficult text even for the educated, without taking into account the vast majority of illiterate folk. So, it's no wonder that The Book has remained a 'dead letter'. I may say that I once heard Adonis declare that he won't ever write except in 'grammatical' Arabic because he prefers writing in a 'dead language'. One may wonder if his choice doesn't also represent his method for dealing with the condition [the German-born American political philosopher] Leo Strauss describes in his Persecution and the Art of Writing. The authorities are happy to ignore such books because in the unlikely event that they themselves have understood them, they know that their message will only reach a very limited number of people.
A tempting hypothesis in some ways, this idea that Fusha acts to insulate the majority of the population from the debates of intellectuals, keeping the powers that be safer from ideologically-inspired opposition and the intellectuals themselves safer (in the short term!) from popular reactions to their speculations. But is the issue really that people have trouble with the language, or just don't read much? Both are true to some degree, but in an era where TV shows and news programs in standard Arabic command large audiences across the Arab world, it's not plausible to blame everything on the difficulty of the language.

Elsewhere in the article he is said to imply that giving the colloquial greater status will "reduce any feeling of powerlessness as a result of a lack of formal linguistic expertise". That seems harder to argue with, given that many (probably most) people who can understand standard Arabic fine can't put together more than a sentence or two without mistakes, and certainly can't sound as eloquent or clear or at ease in it as in their colloquial language. But then again, what power does speaking standard Arabic well actually entail, when plenty of ministers and millionaires can't? Only the power to take part in debates that seem to have remarkably little effect on the society around them?


Anonymous said...

I don't know if Classical Arabic versus street-Arabic pattern is the only case in the world or not, but the Arab elites in the Middle East and even in North Africa see the Classical Arabic mostly as a source of power, and as a show of class and status.

Poets and writers have the nostalgia for "The Arabic Era" when Arabs were "rulers of the World". Religious scholars can't imagine Classical Arabic going down like Latin and Old Greek. So they keep sustaining it and buying more and more time. The satellite channels like "Aljazeera" and "Alarabiya" seem to be doing a pretty good job in "preserving" and "modernizing" Classical Arabic, but there are hundreds of entertainment-oriented Arabic TV channels that are far more popular among the young because .. they don't really speak Classical Arabic!

Imagine that you watch the news on BBC in "Classical" English and right after it you watch Prison Break in different "Colloquial" English.. wouldn't it feel weird .. this is bilingualism..! :)

I hope Berber language won't follow this path.. I prefer 5 regional Berber languages over one artificially unified Berber that is totally disconnected from daily life.

Moubarik Belkasim

bulbul said...

I don't know... It's not like this is the first time this argument is raised, indeed many a 19th century debate on the introduction of colloquials / previously unwritten languages was based on this type of reasoning. But what it all comes down to is having one's opinion heard and respected. And there, I'm afraid, the choice of language doesn't matter much. As the Austro-Hungarian experience has shown, chosing a new language can create new elites and rally their supporters. But a real change can only be brought about the same way it has been done for millennia - force and money.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how the editors managed to go from the original book title _Pourquoi le monde arabe n'est pas libre_ to _Why are the Arabs not Free?_ Catchier?

The question of whether the people (in Egypt at least) have trouble understanding the Classical language or simply don't read much is addressed in Haeri's _Sacred Language_. She also addresses the relationship between language and the prevailing political culture. A good example she mentions is the Greek one, how the swtich to "demotic" Greek from "Katharevousa" (Greek fusḥa of sorts) was closely tied with the democracy movement in the 1970s.

Linguistic purism is always a fascinating topic for any language, not just for Arabic. But any treatment of Arabic diglossia should be done on a case by case basis. Egypt has a significantly higher illiteracy rate than many other Arabic-speaking countries, much of which can be attributed to diglossia and old rote methods. On the other hand, Egyptians tend to be much more at east with their dialect both in writing and broadcasting.

Some TV networks, like OTV Egypt, make a point of using Egyptian Arabic exclusively in all of their programs, including news reporting. There's even an Egyptian Wikipedia (Masry). The writer says that he translated Othello into EA to prove that the spoken language is capable of conveying even great works, but similar attempts were made almost a century earlier as someone above alluded. However, a lot of this would be unthinkable for speakers of many other Arabic varieties. Does the question even come up for them? Perhaps they have no need for it. I can't quite imagine anything like this in Saudi Arabia or Syria today.

But the other issue here that should have been addressed by Safouan is identity, which is always part of these types of discussions. A lot of Egyptians, if not most, still don't consider themselves Arabs despite years of living under Nasserism. Advocates of the spoken language ("Modern Egyptian") tend to be significantly represented in that camp. The urge to move from the Classical to the spoken language becomes an ideological war between different camps.

Whoever said a language is a dialect with an army and a navy was obviously on to something.

Also, I'm looking to read something by this guy:

Lane said...

Is it possible that the fusha-'amiya distinction just makes many middle-of-the-road Arabs feel like reading and writing just isn't for them? If the only language you could read in was a language you essentially learned as a foreign one in school (even if you were told it was the "real" version of your native language), wouldn't the written word seem like a distant thing, not to most folks' taste?

Think of the number of (say) Americans who can comfortably read a foreign language. These are worldly people who are proud of it and so live mentally in the wider world beyond the United States. But others, no matter how they might have learned basic command of a foreign langauge in high school or college, will always see foreign languages as something difficult and distant.

It's a very rough analogy, and I (despite my current study of Arabic) haven't logged a lot of time talking to Arabs in and about their langauge. But it's how I imagine I might feel if I learned a semi-artificial, classical version of my own language, and was never allowed to write how I spoke. I'd appreciate any more comments on this topic, since I'm working on a book that touches on it!

Anonymous said...

Hard to read = hard to do

jdm said...

As Mr. Belkasim states cursorily, religious scholarship and religious literature should be considered - I've heard that any Arabic book on a non-religious subject that sells more than 10,000 copies is considered a major success and a huge bestseller. On the other hand, religious subject matter flies off the shelves, relatively speaking. This is also seen as a major unifying factor across dialects and countries (ignoring the significant Christian Arabic minority communities), and an equalizer if you will. Someone who is not from a wealthy country or background can succeed if she or he can speak beautiful fusha - often even if they are not native arabic speakers. I think Arabic is actually expanding (into more localized forms) and contracting (into more formal classical speech) at the same time, but among different demographic groups - not necessarily divided between rich and poor, educated or not...

Anonymous said...

After reading some of the comments here, I just wanted to clarify that the fusha used today in written material and on major evening news (al-fusha al-asl) shows is *not* the Classical Arabic of the Qu'ran and early centuries (al-fusha al-turath). It is 'modern standard', 'literary' or written Arabic. There is a difference.