A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Arabic Diglossia Debate Yet Again

An old debate revisited:  Via Arabic Literature (in English),  and an interview by Kaouther Jellassi with Galal Amin, some comments on Classical versus colloquial by Amin, Chair of the International Prize for Arabic fiction:
KJ: Another question was raised in an interview that Fleur Montanaro, the prize administrator, gave shortly after the longlist was released. She indicated that nominated books were a tough sell if they used a lot of 3ameya. Could you clarify your thoughts on that? 
GA: I am not aware that this was ever an issue. With regard to the use of 3ameya, or colloquial  there is you know a very big difference of opinion on that. And it is a problem which is very difficult to solve. You know, sometimes the use of 3ameya ranks very high. You can produce something exceedingly beautiful and appealing and useful by using 3ameya. But also 3ameya could be terribly low and vulgar and does not achieve what a good literary work should. So we have to be very careful. But we never discussed this in our discussion, and the reason is — I remember — that one person once mentioned that in one particular novel, he did not object to the use of colloquial, but that it was too heavy.
You know, I mean, the use of colloquial also can vary. There are some colloquial words or phrases which are very close to the fos7a. Or to the classical Arabic. And there are others which are too colloquial, too local, to be understood, and to be even accepted. You see what I mean? This was sometimes raised, but we never spent too much time on it. We luckily, we found that that novel that creates the problem was weak on other grounds.
As Arabic Literature (in English) main blogger M. Lynx Qualey notes on a separate post at the same site,
Contrast this — Amin, in a very official position adjudicating what is “good” and “better” in Arabic literature — with an interview Iraqi short-story writer (and filmmaker) Hassan Blasim, a decidedly non-institutional figure, gave with New Statesman  . . .
In that New Statesman article, Iraqi writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim  spoke with Phillip Maughan, and had this to say:
You’ve said previously that you’re not interested in preserving the beauty of Arabic language. What did you mean?
There's a continuing debate in the Arab world about the problems of the Arabic language, which has not kept up with the times because of censorship and the lack of strong and serious institutions working to breathe new life into it. Classical Arabic needs a revolution against its rules, its grammar and its “sacred” status. For example, for hundreds of years we haven't used fusha (standard literary Arabic) in the Arab world, other than in writing and publishing. We haven’t used it in our everyday lives. In the Arab world we use many local dialects, and this great disconnect between the language we write in and the language we speak has led to one aspect of the widespread ignorance in the Arab world, which already suffers greatly in the field of education (the education system uses fusha in books while the teacher speaks in colloquial Arabic).
By my comments I meant that the secret to breathing new life into Arabic lies not just in using the colloquial, but also in standing up to the tedious and nauseating refrain about the beauty and sanctity of the Arabic language because it is the language of the Quran and of the great tradition of Arabic poetry. Very well, put the language of the Quran and of old poetry in the museum. But we need to express the disaster of our lives in the Arab world in a language that is bold, up-to-date and not afraid of grammar or of Arabic's sanctity.
Linguistic daring in the Arab world is associated with filth and pollution, while the constrains of the linguistic heritage are associated with beauty and sanctity.
As Qualey points out, these two interviews encapsulate the Classical/Colloquial debate, at least in the field of literature, quite neatly. For many earlier posts on aspects of this debate (which is an ancient one by the way), see the diglossia tag on this blog.

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