In keeping with the theme of the last post, reading and publishing, I came across this article about (yes you guessed it) the situation of Arabic language in the publishing world. What’s nice about it is that, the writer is an author herself and so brings to the article experience and so much reality with regards to the struggle and challenges Arabic language faces, in addition to readers’ perceptions and preferences. I have just returned from the UAE after a conference and whilst I was there, I had the chance to attend the 30th Sharjah International Book Fair (it ends tomorrow). It was a wonderful experience and I could not choose what to buy and what to leave. Visitors were spoilt for choice, we had small seminars going on, workshops, book signings (which were so great because I got a chance to meet people I only read), cookery shows, open mic sessions and of course the activities they had for kids. The motto of the fair is “For the love of the written word” and the aim is to get people to love reading, I think it might just work, I was amazed to see so many children enjoying themselves around books, yes I know that’s normal, but these were Arabic books! There has always been this struggle on behalf of teachers and parents to get their children interested in reading Arabic books. But after seeing the atmosphere in the book fair, I had the feeling that perhaps the attitudes towards reading books in Arabic were changing. And that younger children have a better relationship with Arabic books than their older counterparts maybe?! Without doubt, there is a boom in the Arabic language publishing industry as a whole, and more specifically within the UAE children’s books are flourishing and the demand is becoming ever higher as parents know that they can realise their dreams of their children becoming competent readers in both Arabic and English. It was such a good atmosphere to be in, books from all over the world in English, Arabic, Hindi, German, French…etc..it seems that Sharjah has placed itself firmly on the map of culture and education, a place I suspect already becoming synonymous with advancement, something other cities only dream of.
In the article below, Rym Ghazal discusses the challenges facing Arabic language, in the sense that younger readers prefer to read in English rather than Arabic. She goes as far as saying that if her book had been published in Arabic (which it is by Kalimat Publishing House, UAE) and English- the young people would pick the English version. There are many reasons for this preference and many we have discussed on this blog in the past. However, I think one major reason is the education system and language of instruction. In reference to the UAE specifically, the majority of children attend private schools that teach either the American or British curriculum. Therefore, it makes sense to instruct in English, to use books in English and when it comes to reading books- well it’s done in English of course! How then do we expect students of those schools to easily pick up a book in Arabic and read it? It is a tall order and something unrealistic to say the least.
Even for those of us who can read Arabic competently and are confident to pick up books in Arabic in many genres; poetry, fact/fiction, short stories, novels and newspapers, still needed training to do it. We still needed to understand how to ‘understand’ written Arabic in its many forms. We needed to understand the meanings of one word in different situations, just like we were taught to do the same in English. The ability to read is taught, nurtured and consistent efforts are made to keep up the reading. It is not true that every literate individual is a reader, becoming a reader is a choice made by the individual (a topic for another post).
The writer does identify one issue that is problematic, and that is what type of Arabic to use when writing. Do we use Classical, Modern Standard (there are people who do not differentiate between the two) spoken Arabic? But which spoken Arabic? Egyptian, Levantine, Saudi, Yemeni, Omani, oh but even here which variety the urban or bedouin? You see the matter is somewhat complicated and can prove a challenge in the publishing world. I would personally say that Standard/ Classical Arabic is what should be used, and it always has been(though I am no publishing expert). But why now is there a problem? Simple, no one studies Classical/Standard Arabic as they used to, consequently they have no competence or confidence in doing so. Therefore those who can read English do so, those who cannot- do not read. This is of course in reference to some Arab countries and not all of them. There needs to be a direct relationship between the level of Arabic taught in schools the level of Arabic in the books written for children. Some of these books dubbed as ‘for children’ use such advanced Arabic, and their topics are not written with children in mind- so how can we expect children to read them? Having said that, I did see a change in this habit at the book fair, I skimmed through books that were fun, interesting and ‘child-centered’. In addition to it I saw books written with all vowel and case markings (this means that the Arabic letters are accompanied by small marks to tell the reader how to pronounce the letters), this helps the child in reading correctly whilst enjoying the story. I think that when this is achieved by all publishers, then children will not find it difficult to pick up a book in Arabic and read it with pleasure. This topic can go on and on, but I should stop….below is the article void of any editing on my part as usual- enjoy!
Rym Ghazal—- Nov 24, 2011
On a typical lazy Friday afternoon, Fahd, Fares, Sami and Nour decide to investigate the rumours about a haunted palace just a 100 kilometres away from their homes.
Little did they know that this trip would change each of their lives forever as they came face to face with something far more frightening than a few mischievous jinn.
Inspired by my visit to a real “haunted” palace in UAE, this is a quick synopsis of my new book Maskoon, or Haunted, published in Arabic for Arab young people by Kalimat. It took me a few seconds to write up those sentences in English – and a whole day (because I refused to use Google Translate) to write the same synopsis in Arabic. It took so long, and I introduced so many grammatical errors, that a translator was assigned to help me.
I can’t describe the shame I felt, with a family tree filled with poets and writers, and even an ancestor whose eloquence and writing was famous in a royal court. How did it happen that I, who spent my childhood in strict Arabic-language Islamic schools in Saudi Arabia and wrote pages and pages of Arabic poetry and letters, cannot do it anymore and feel more comfortable writing and speaking in English?
Ironically, I only learnt English from movies, and spoke like the actor Humphrey Bogart for the longest time, before a college friend made fun of me. The reason I ventured into this project was because of something I overheard my younger brother and his friends, all teenagers, complain about: there are no books in Arabic that appeal to them
“Arabic books are boring, and hard to read. They are just too preachy,” was the consensus.
As a consequence, the young generation, and many others, just read English books and our Arabic has slowly deteriorated. Now my brother’s group speaks “bad Arabic” filled with grammatical errors and loan words from other languages.
One of the biggest issues I have noticed is that Arabs perceive the Arabic language as “sacred” because it is the language of the Holy Quran. Immediately after my “horror/ fantasy” book came out, my conservative friends slammed me for writing in this genre in Arabic. “This stuff should be written in English, not Arabic. I hope they release a fatwa against you and using Arabic to write horror!” one friend messaged me.
I sent her a copy, and asked her to first read it before condemning it just because it is based on imagination. But it exposed a very thorny issue that other authors of Arabic books have shared with me.
“How does one find a balance between using classical Arabic, and the Arabic that the young are now speaking, without compromising the integrity of the language itself?” asked a prominent Emirati author who also writes for young people.
It is a struggle finding the “right Arabic” that will reach our younger generations.
This was the greatest challenge in writing my book. I ran it by friends who have teenagers to see their reactions. I was surprised at just how basic their Arabic was, and even the most common words caused confusion and disrupted the flow of their imagination as they read. So we ended up changing entire paragraphs to make it as easier to read.
Coming from a mixed background, I told myself that because my mother is not Arab, maybe that was the reason why Arabic wasn’t fully maintained in our home. But I found the same weakening of the language in homes where both parents are Arabs.
This really is a serious problem. How will future Arabs understand the oldest and perhaps the most difficult text out there: the Quran?
More and more Arabs are losing their intellectual strength as they lose fluency of their own native language. The sad reality is that, given the choice, if an English version of my book is next to the Arabic one, it will be picked up first. I have done it myself numerous times when I felt I just didn’t have time to read an Arabic book. But it is just more than my book that is at stake.
Good points made here and there is much work to do in this field with regards to the Arabic language. There are opportunities, and there are some important publishing houses addressing many of her concerns. Arabic books will be much easier to read and own when we have more authors who understand the art of writing and their audiences needs. It is difficult but not impossible and I look forward to the day that I can write a post saying that these challenges have been overcome and that Arabic publishing, is strong with its unique Arabian character and readers old and young are simply spoilt for choice on what to read ….