| This report presents a brief overview of and introduction to some of the discussions related to the theme of "Language and Identity", which formed a major part of the ACRPS' First Annual Conference on the Social Sciences and Humanities. A more extensive report on the event will be available in the form of a Doha Report in the following days.
Non-native students of Arabic are often taken aback by just how much the standard, written form of Arabic differs from the various vernaculars; being frustrated in their attempts to learn the written form of the language, it's usually quite difficult for them to appreciate how involved and emotional is the relationship between the written Arabic Language ("Modern Standard") and Arabic speakers from Morocco to Bahrain. Sentimentality aside, however, there is a growing sense of urgency amongst Arab scholars about the need to bring standards of written Arabic in line with contemporary needs; this palpable feeling came out in force during the three days of the ACRPS annual conference on the social sciences and humanities.
Lacking any kind of effective centralized political or cultural authority, it seems a wonder that there is anything even approaching a common Arabic language to begin with. So the pressing economic, social and technological demands for constant standardization of the language and its styles take up a major part of the public discourse within Arab countries. The multiplicity of cursive writing forms and the vocalizations (or lack thereof) in many Arabic language manuscripts have an aesthetic value which raises them to an art form, but often prove impractical in digitized texts. Long before digital record-keeping was imagined, a proto-Arabic language emerged in the area to the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Making matters more complicated, a large part of the higher education in almost all Arab countries (Syria being a notable exception) is conducted in a "colonial language", with English being the medium of instruction throughout most of the Middle East, and French taking prominence in the Arab Maghreb; a further obstacle to the formation of a cohesive Arab culture of the academy.
One of the speakers at the ACRPS meeting was the eminent Lebanese scholar and historian of the Arabic language, Ramzi Baalbaki. Baalbaki explained to his audience in Doha his position about the common origins of what are referred to as "Northern Arabian" (widely held to be the one reflected in present-day written language) and "Southern Arabian", which was otherwise viewed to be closer to Amharic. According to Baalbaki, the importance of his theory of a common origin for the two forms is that it highlights the way in which trade routes tied together dispersed communities along the eastern coast of Arabia, centered, according to Baalbaki, around the village of Al Faw where the oldest Arabic inscriptions (dating back to the Fourth Century BC) have been found. In other words, the Arabic language became the "DNA of a nation", becoming a repository of its common cultural lineage.
While an awareness of the central importance of the Arabic language to the future of a common Arab identity is widespread, use of Arabic is under constant attack in everyday life. The Palestinian hydrologist Abdulrahman Tamimi, whose intervention was focused mainly on political and economic themes in Palestine, took the time to explain how the education of the children of the economic elites in foreign-medium schools was leading to the social marginalization of the other sectors of society. Tying it to questions of the privatization of public utilities, Tamimi concluded that "what we need is not more economic re-structuring, but a reinvigoration of our national consciousness".
Another speaker at the ACRPS event was Idriss Maqboul whose paper was provocatively titled "Educational Institutions: Waging war on the Arabic language and identity". According to Maqboul, profit-driven educational institutions which dominate the landscape within Arab countries and are also incredibly culturally influential, have promoted the use of foreign languages and even foreign syntactic styles at the expense of the Arabic language.
Many dialects, one language
Within the Arab Homeland, much of the scholarly output concerned with issues of language and identity is produced in three countries of the Arab Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. This is-arguably-the result of the way in which the French colonial powers were ruthless in imposing a Francophone regime on those Arab countries which they occupied. In post-independence Algeria, which had technically been a one of the Department of France and not a colony, the newly freed country had found itself with a bureaucracy, military cadres and academics and educationalists who were far more comfortable in French than in Arabic. Alongside this was another French legacy of the promotion of minority languages and local nationalisms at the expense of single, homogenous national identities: Ironically, it was France, which had used blood and iron to impose a unified national consciousness on what had been a diverse community of dialects and localisms, had chosen to exacerbate localisms within the Arab countries which it dominated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion on the Arabic language within the ACRPS conference was led by scholars from Maghreb countries.
One of these was the Moroccan scholar Abdulkader Al Fassi Al Faheri, whose paper was titled "Politics and economics of linguistic identity and language of instruction: Case studies for the preservation of unity within diversity". Al Fassi's research depicts the situation of Morocco as one where the "national languages" of both Arabic and Amazigh (or "Berber") are in conflict against the language of the former occupier, France. Al Fassi Al Faheri echoed some of the concerns of Abdulrahman Tamimi, stating in his paper that, since the drafting of the new constitution (in 2011):
| "there are [efforts under way to] invest French ...officially...as the language of the ruling elites, of powerful economic, political and cultural groups, and, conversely, to keep Arabic in its present position of being the language of the toilers, which would be simply to recognize the de-facto situation as it stands."
In the view of Al Fassi Al Faheri, and countless others from, in particular, the Arab Maghreb, the problem began with the failure of the governments of Arab states to enact and enforce legislation which would protect the official status of the Arabic language*. Of course, one obvious observation would be to note that this in itself is a reflection of French influence on the way to solve these problems; France, with its Academe Nationale and its strict rules on translating foreign words which come into use within its territory, had done so much to undo the Arabic language in the territories it occupied Africa's northern shore. Yet all of these issues begged a double question: What role was there for grassroots initiatives? What happened of previous efforts to promote the Arabic language within the educational institutions of other Arab countries?
For the polyglot country of Sudan has some very compelling reasons to promote the teaching of Arabic as the de-facto national language of education and bureaucracy. As detailed in the presentation of Kamel Al Khider from Sudan, who spoke at the ACRPS Annual Conference, Sudan's efforts to integrate the Arabic language into public life came pre-date the country's independence, and were first enunciated at a 1938 conference of Sudanese graduates, which demanded the end of the Egyptian-British Condominium which had ruled the country since the mid-nineteenth century.
It is also worth mentioning here a fact often overlooked by many when looking at the history of Sudan: It had never been conquered as part of the wave of Arab-Islamic conquests which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula which fanned out from the Arabian Peninsula in the mid-seventh century. Instead, the Sudanese had adopted the Arabic language and come to identify as Arabs through a process of cultural osmosis. Despite this, Sudan became one of the first independent Arab states to Arabize its secondary school curricula, in 1965 as set out by Al Khider.
While efforts to Arabize the terminology and language of modern education and scholarship were to be found in a number of different countries and were motivated primarily by emotive considerations-at least on the individual level-self-criticism of these efforts and rational examination of the implementation has been a feature of Arabization efforts since the very beginning; Al Khider also cited in his paper the records of the deliberations between members of a committee set up to examine the hardships associated with creating Arabic language curricula for a variety of academic disciplines, including, most poignantly, the difficulty of preparing a competent cadre of teaching staff capable of teaching in Arabic.
Participants in the Conference convened in Doha from as far afield as Morocco, as far north as Syria and as far south as Sudan and Yemen, for three days of involved academic discussions about issues of language and identity, alongside the other topics. None reported having problems having difficulty understanding each other.
* For an example of such a discussion, see Mahmod Athawdi and "The Tunisian Revolution: whither the sovereignty of the Arabic language?" which was translated into English and published on the ACRPS website in July of 2011.