To celebrate UN Arabic Language Day, poet and professor Atef Alshaer shares the history, richness and possibilities for the lingua franca of the Arabic world.
The Arabic language has been destined to assume a role in the Arab — and indeed Islamic — world much larger than that of any other language. Arabic is an extraordinary site of historic importance. The 7th century saw Arabia revolutionised by language when Arabic became the medium through which the Qur’an, the principal scripture of Islam, was introduced to the scene. From the 5th century until then, metric poetry had reigned supreme and, by the advent of Islam, the highly developed and intricate Arabic poetic form Qasidah (‘ode’) had reached remarkable technical and metaphorical heights. This early poetic tradition heralded an extraordinary linguistic culture of orality and unique composition.
The Qur’an, endowed with a medley of prosaic and poetic qualities, established a consciousness centred on monotheism and religious unity. It signalled the first grand spiritual and sociopolitical change in Arabia. Soon enough, the change echoed resoundingly across far-flung corners of the globe. Communicated and reiterated in Arabic at least five times a day through prayers and invocations, Islamic practices confirmed Arabic as the language of religion and spiritual contexts for the majority in the Middle East, and in particular the Arab world. Christian Arabs and Arabs of other denominations also use Arabic for liturgical and spiritual purposes.
As well as the religious, there are many practical, educational and worldly uses of Arabic that have shaped its odyssey. It has developed from a minority language used by small populations in the Arabian Peninsula to being the language of diverse communities with longstanding native cultures and civilizations, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq, which all in turn came to be known as part of the Arab world. These communities enriched Arabic through philological and literary practices as well as artistic and philosophical advancements of global importance.
Arabic is a linguistic medium, a mark of identity and a field of artistic creations and explorations through its exquisite script. It is a spirit permeating the consciousness of the Arab peoples; an emblem of unity for nearly 300 million Arabs inhabiting the Arab world. But Arabic also embodies diversity and difference. This is manifested in a plethora of dialects and accents that distinguish each region or country in the Arab world from one another. So varied are these dialects and accents that for the uninformed, they seem to make independent languages in their own right. Yet Arabic is one: a diglossic language, as it has come to be described in linguistic circles.
It is a language that comes in several shapes, including Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Arabic, each associated with particular functions and contexts. Ideas invested in religion tend towards classical Arabic, some creatively and others jadedly. Secular ideas, on the other hand, belong to the realm of modern standard Arabic, with smatterings of classical expressions to enhance authenticity and roots in Arab cultures. All calls to formally acknowledge colloquial Arabic have not succeeded at the popular level. Nevertheless, colloquial Arabic remains the preserve of intimate conversations, daily exchanges, cinematic and televised creativity. It is used sparingly in novels, widely in songs and evokes particular cultural memories and codes for the community that shares it.
Meanwhile, the 20th century has seen an outburst of great writing in Arabic, informed by Arabic tradition, western innovations in literature, and the explosion of global communications. This new wave of literature has seen the expansion of possibilities for the Arabic novel, the flourishing of free and prose movements in poetry, the evolution of Arabic drama and an extraordinary array of calligraphic innovations that can be experienced in several Arab cities and in western museums.
In the hands of great literary masters such as the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1919-2006), the visionary Syrian poet Adonis (b.1930), the inventive Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) and many others, Arabic is a wellspring of revelation, universal warmth, dialectical reasoning and harmony. Alas, from the mouths of dictators or messianic Islamic fundamentalists and their followers, Arabic is shot through with bigotry and deception, whose dark venom has already devastated many once-magnificent Arab cities and communities. The language suffers doubly when western media repeatedly and narrowly associates it only with these hostile Islamic movements.
Today, I celebrate Arabic, in all its remarkable diversity, for its powerful rationality, warmth, intimacy and beauty. At every turn in life, the Arab peoples have found their deepest values and aspirations reflected in their language. In a time of dictatorships, destructive ideologies and twisted narratives that sustain domination at the expense of freedom, it is more important than ever for the inventiveness and poetry of this ancient language to shine through and provide hope.