The Conditions of the Arabic Language in the Horn of Africa: Intersections of Religion, Identity, and Ethnicity

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published a new book by Elnour Hamad and Abdel-Wahab Al-Tayeb Bashir, The Conditions of the Arabic Language in the Horn of Africa: Intersections of Religion, Identity, and Ethnicity. The findings of field research on the Arabic language in situations encountered in four countries of the Horn of Africa, namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti, the book discusses the efforts of Arab states and Islamic organizations to promote the Arabic language and the Islamic religion – and illuminates the pros and cons of such efforts that have been seen in these states. The book spotlights the intersections of religion, ethnicity and identity – elements in continual flux amid the societal components of these countries – and how these bear upon the spread of Arabic, reviewing attitudes towards Arabic’s diffusion and the background to the range of perspectives.

Overall Perspective and Previous Writings on the Subject

In the first of the book’s eleven chapters, the authors identify the geo-cultural scope of any research incorporating the Arab Mashreq and the Horn of Africa, regions far more historically and culturally interconnected than commonly imagined among Arab political and cultural elites and the Arab public. In Hamad and Bashir’s perspective, correcting the erroneous images prevailing in minds today regarding the Horn of Africa necessitates cultivation of a perception of the region as a neighboring space of difference, compared to the Mashreq, indeed, but one of closely associated geostrategic and geopolitical importance.

In “Previous Writings,” Chapter Two, the authors present a statistical survey of most all of the published literature and studies that have dealt with the topic of the Arabic language in Africa, and conclude that Sudan is the Arab country that has demonstrated the greatest interest in the condition of the Arabic language in the Horn of Africa. They note that Arabic language institutions in all the countries of the Horn suffer from structural challenges, whether in the schools and institutes of Muslim groups or in private schools; these are related to weak curricula and lack of relevance to local circumstances and cultures of childhood. They identify an additional factor in the weakness of the Arabic language in the countries of the Horn of Africa: poor teacher training and a consequent lack of familiarity with the concepts and methods of teaching Arabic as a second language.

Ethiopia and its Origins

The authors present an exposition summing up recent developments in Ethiopia in the third chapter (“Ethiopia”), noting that a new atmosphere has now begun to take root in the country, possibly configuring a new era of exchange between Arab and African Horn cultural spaces: “a paradigm shift awakening shared but forgotten or neglected cultural roots and emotional bonds, connections that continue to manifest themselves with great clarity at the grassroots level, if not among elites – other than in political and academic circles working on both sides in intellectual and cultural fields.”

In Chapter Four, ”Ethiopian Roots,” the authors contend that notwithstanding differences of opinion with regard to Ethiopian ethnicities, there is overall agreement that Ethiopians derive from three main ethnic groups depending on their origins: Cushitic (Oromo, Somalis, and Afar); Semitic (Amhara, Tigrinya, Gurage, Siltʼe, and others); and Negroid (Anuak, Nuer, Qamz, Berta, etc.) The ethnic composition of Ethiopia is characterized by mixture, and the Arabic name al-ʾAḥbāsh (Ethiopians) itself denotes intermingled tribes or races; the Semitic people who migrated to the Abyssinian Plateau from the southern Arabian Peninsula intermixed with Cushitic Hamites from the Nile Valley who had preceded them, and subsequently with Negroid tribes living south of the plateau.

Languages and Religions of Ethiopia

Chapter Five, “Languages in Ethiopia,” outlines how the Arabic language diffused across in the Ethiopian plateau at different times. Faith has been a major factor in this spread, with religious centers, mosques, and Sufi venues historically playing a great role in spreading the Arabic language and reinforcing its status in the Ethiopian highland, linguistic diffusion primarily linked with religion and commerce. That said, in recent decades new factors driving the globalization movement have surfaced behind the scenes of the Arabic language in modern Ethiopia.

In Chapter Six, "Religions in Ethiopia," the authors expand on their discussion of the linkage of Arabic language in Ethiopia to the presence of Islam. Although Ethiopians are related to the Sabaeans who came to the Abyssinian Plateau in ancient times, "the language that prevailed in the north of the Abyssinian Plateau where Sabaeans settled was the Jaʿziyya language, and there are also many indications that the Arabic language was spoken to some extent in the Abyssinian Plateau before the arrival of the first Sabaean immigrants from the Peninsula. Given that the diffusion of the Arabic language in the Abyssinian Plateau was to a very large extent related to the dissemination of the Islamic faith, its spread there has been influenced by the ebb and flow of Christian—Muslim conflict."

Oromia and Eritrea

In Chapter Seven, "The State of the Arabic Language in the Ethiopian Oromia Region," the authors summarise conclusions of field research they conducted on the conditions of the Arabic language in the largest Ethiopian region, the Oromia. While these vary from one area and city to another within Oromia, “we can say the capital, Addis Ababa, is witnessing a strong movement towards Arabic language skills acquisition for many reasons – principally interest in the Islamic religion and in an Ethiopian economic boom that has attracted many Arab investors and opened up job opportunities in corporate offices, as well as the domains of hospitality and tourism."

Chapter Eight, “The State of the Arabic Language in Eritrea,” conveys the authors’ observations that the presence of the Arabic language in Ethiopian government media is much greater than its presence in the Eritrean government media, that Eritrean ruling authorities do not believe that Arabic merits the rank of second official language, and that intermittent government pronouncements on the necessity of the Arabic language may be viewed simply as constituting a provisional tactical device, ultimately aimed at ensuring the absolute sway of the Tigrinya language. Referencing the role of ideology and ideological misgivings and the pervasive conflict over national identity in the issue of the conflict over the official language in Eritrea, they additionally note the justifiable fears of old guard Eritrean secularists – leftists and communists who form the vanguard of ruling Popular Front organization in Eritrea – vis a vis their opposing numbers among the Islamic extremists, who effectively “saddle the Arabic language’s steed” in the journey into the Horn of Africa.

Djibouti and Somalia

In the ninth chapter, entitled "Djibouti," the authors note that the mostly Francophone elites in Djibouti have yet been unable to dismantle the French colonial legacy. These elites may find themselves conflicted, remaining in the grip of Western languages: on the one hand, given the status of Djibouti as a forward strategic bastion for many countries who have established military bases in it, they are dependent on foreign seaports and transit trade, and on the other hand they need to comply with the requirements of the regional environment and their linkage to Arab cultural space and the Arab League. Whenever popular demand for the Arabic language and Arab culture increases, confusion blurs the vision of elites and characterizes their policies. There can be no surprise at the unease of the elites of the Horn of Africa regarding all efforts to advance any Arabic language agenda presented in a form dominated by political ideology and religious sectarianism. If the cause of the Arabic language were instead to be advanced in terms of Arab culture and civilization, as well as those of modernization, development, and economic integration, then the attitudes of elites in the Horn of Africa would harmonize with those of the peoples of the Horn.

As for Chapter Ten, "Somalia,", the authors sketch a language map of Somalia, which has assimilated arriving foreign languages, either because of religious and historical connections to the Arabian Peninsula (as in the case of the Arabic language), or because of colonialism, as in the cases of English and Italian. They find the language map of Somalia reflects a linguistic pluralism influenced by the four languages, namely the country’s original Somali, and then English, Arabic and Italian, all of which are newcomer foreign languages; this pluralism takes on different modes and guises in popular usage and in interaction with Somali life in all its political, economic, social and cultural forms. Nevertheless –according to the authors – there can be no comparison between the presence of the Arabic language in Somalia and the presence therein of European languages, for the Arabic language is very old indeed in Somalia.

In the eleventh chapter, the authors present their "Final Conclusions," related to the issues discussed in the book.

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