Writing & the revitalisation of Arabic through Sci-fi: why the future of Arabic is bright? Part 1

 Arabic language is going through many changes, like all other languages do all the time, but the case of Arabic is a unique one.  It is a diglossic language (see Ferguson 1959 and this) whereby it has one main language broken roughly into two main categories and each with its function. The FuSHa (Classical Arabic) is used for religious, and official uses (though some linguists see Arabic as a tri-glossic even quadra-glossic language! But that’s another story for another post). Then there is the ‘Ammiyah or ‘maHkee’ (informal/ spoken) which has perhaps over 30 dialects (even more if you count tribal dialects, and city vs. countryside, speakers of different socio-economic backgrounds) which spread over 22 countries whose official (supposed) language is Arabic. For some Arabic language researchers like myself, there is a feeling that Arabic language is stagnating (and has done so for a long while) and that those who claim it to be their native language will perhaps one day in the near future lose it (my work here with other authors documenting the fears speakers of Arabic language have over the loss of their language). I know I have been criticized in lengthy emails about my opinion, but based on my limited research carried out on native speakers, I found the Arabic proficiency levels to be even lower than I had imagined. What was even more shocking was that speakers of other languages (Hindi, Urdu, Uzbek, Turkish, Malaysian) were learning Arabic at more proficient levels (comparison based on age and education level, and these non-Arabic kids were learning in addition to their native language and Arabic, English) and were able to read and write with an ability that amazed me (there are schools in India that teach using Arabic as a medium of instruction, FuSHa Arabic!) no seriously…. really.

I started reading around and thinking about the whole issue and I came across many different suggestions, but an excerpt written by Gibran Khalil Gibran, which I posted in the last post here on Arabizi caught my eye. In this excerpt, without repeating what I said before, he suggested that the only way Arabic is to be revived is through the creativity of its writers and poets- because they are masters of the language. I went on a search for exciting authors writing in Arabic about modern issues/ new genres and using language in new creative ways, in a bid to investigate he idea that creativity is the way forward (my research is still ongoing so no firm conclusions yet). I do not dismiss writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, Hisham Matar, Ilyas Khoury (for more info on Arabic literature follow this blog) and others, and I have spent countless hours enjoying their writing and being transported into their different worlds. They do it for people who already love reading and can read well in Arabic, and for people like myself who love the challenge of translating or musing through the dictionary and being fascinated by lovely new words.  But I was looking for writing aimed at young people, a book(s) that might potentially have a similar genre in English, because then the author (s) would be pressed to write at such a creative level if they were to compete with their English-language counterparts; and get young people reading. Importantly, reading in Arabic and enjoying the story enough to feel pleased that they can read new concepts in their own language. I imagined these authors crafting new words, getting frustrated at not finding the adequate expressions in Arabic, and then creating new expressions and words (of course within the rules of Arabic, I was not looking for the equivalent of internet to be transliterated as ‘intar-nit’). I wanted creativity, innovation and a deep understanding of the Arabic language, to the point that the writer could spend days/months coming up with these novel expressions! I did eventually find some potential authors and subsequently wrote to them asking for interviews and they kindly obliged.I chose to focus on writers of young adults/children because they are the next generation of readers and of course speakers of Arabic. So the next four posts (broken into part 1 and 2 respectively) will discuss these issues in interview-commentary format of two authors- answering roughly the same questions. This is the theme for the Pioneers of Arabic language today©…. if you know any others please email me and I’ll do my best to interview them.

The first author is an Emarati, Noura Al Noman, who gained her BA English Literature from the UAEU (university of United Arab Emirates), the only university available for higher education at the time. She went on to work at a government school until 1991; and later for the Ministry of Information, a job she enjoyed saying, “ being paid to read books all day has got to be the best job in the world!” From 1996 onwards, she ran what she calls “…my one-woman “legal translation” business, after having acquired a license from the Ministry of Justice – I would not be exaggerating if I said I was the only female Emirati at the time to have such a business”. Her love for words and languages did not stop there, and she went on to obtain a Masters in translation in 2004, from AUS (American University in Sharjah). It’s clear to see the passion here and that what she in fact was doing would be in preparation for her to publish books in Arabic, some years later- even though at the time she did not realize it. You can see her blog here for more information.

She is the author of a two volume sci-fi book called “Ajwan”, which is a first for a modern author (as far as I know) aimed specifically at young adults (YA). It is often said that the first person in the history of Arabic literature to write science fiction was the great Syrian Ibn An-Nafees, in his book titled: ‘Ar-risaalah al kamiliyyah fil sierra an nabawiyyah’, which is also said to be the first theological novel. Some stories in the One thousand and one nights are also said to be sci-fi in genre, with jinns, flying carpets, exploring different worlds etc… There are other authors who have ventured into this paranormal genre such as Rym Ghazal who recently authored “Maskoon” a paranormal novel (which I have not read, but did write about on this blog) and earlier the Egyptian Nihad Shareef often called the father of Arabic sci-fi (you can read his books here in Arabic: http://www.neelwafurat.com/itempage.aspx?id=egb111551-5166710&search=books). But I think what’s different about ‘Ajwan’ is that it’s written in a post-Harry Potter modern-technologically-advanced-complicated world…. it’s clear to see the challenge of writing a book that will attract that impressionable age group.

Right I better start with the interview before you all get frustrated, in this first part I will put up five of the ten questions I asked her and add my commentary. Please feel free to email, comment on the post and both Noura and myself will be glad to reply.

—- Start (I have not edited any of Noura’s answers)

1. Why did you choose to write?

I’ve always been writing or translating, ever since I was in university.  A few years ago I started writing movie reviews for a local magazine, and people told me I had a very easy straightforward style of writing in Arabic – I think it was their way of saying that it was simplistic! But Al Qutta Qetna was written completely by accident as it took me 10 minutes to write about a subject I loved – cats and friendships. When that worked out, I recalled an incident which happened at our home, and also wrote “Al Qunfuth Kiwi”.  I discovered a long time ago that I can only write about things which I know and I am passionate about. I just didn’t know I can get published for it.

2. Are the youth in the Emirates struggling with their knowledge of Arabic language?  (If so, why? If not, how?)

Yes, and I am not sure exactly when this started. It is important to note here that not all the youth of the UAE can be lumped into one segment. UAE citizens are less than one million in a population of almost 8 million.  That one million is made up of a huge percentage of under 18 year olds – as far as the last statistics show. There are at least two segments: those who have received education in only government schools (read: bad education in all subjects in Arabic, and low-level English), and those who are educated at private schools (moderate to good education, where English is used for all subjects, while Arabic is the govt syllabus – pretty bad, taught by Arabs who have had little to no training in education.) The govt syllabus gets revamped almost every year, and there is no national educational strategy. If an “enemy” of the Arabic language were given the chance to destroy it, he would not have had the same success as our educational system.

There is no real research done on the subject; but if you look at media/social media coverage on the issue, you’d surmise that the youth have lost touch with Arabic (al fuSHa). It is simply the language of school text books and they consider grammar as complicated as quantum physics. The youth only use our dialect, and what is now known as Arabizi (for those who know a fair amount of English). Adults blame the youth and the educational system, while the youth are busy doing more interesting things and cannot be bothered to even discuss the subject. They don’t read Arabic outside of the classroom, and those who are interested in reading only read English novels.

3. Why did you choose to write sci-fi, as opposed to adventure or crime?

I’ve loved SF & fantasy since I was a teen, and have been heavily influenced by the genre(s) before I moved on to read other things (horror, thrillers, crime, etc). SF is almost non-existent in the Arab world; and yet you can see how popular it is when a movie is released in the theaters. I’ve heard that an author should write about what he knows and is passionate about if he is to convince the reader, and I know SF. In it, you get to construct new worlds and make the rules governing them, which can be anything your imagination can come up with – unlike crime or other genres where the real world may limit you.

Plus, it is great to write SF where you have little to no competition. Everything written in the genre after that will be compared to what I write today. Kind of cool, I thin

4.  Your book is in Arabic- which type? Emarati, modern standard or classical (FuSHa)? Why that type of Arabic?

Writing in the Emirati dialect would have been very difficult as my aim was to promote Arabic reading for YA, and there are a lot of people who warn against the pitfall of “aamiyya”. I wrote in the Arabic I know, which I guess could be categorized as MSA as opposed to the flowery, often compact text of FuSHa. It didn’t take a lot of effort on my part to write an easy text, as this is the only Arabic I know, to tell you the truth. I have attached to this email an excerpt to see what I mean.

5.  Why did you make the conscious choice to write in Arabic? You could have written a culturally friendly Arabic-themed novel in English.

Because of my love for books, I had acquired a fair-sized library (more or less since I was a teenager – I have lost a couple of hundred to moving or loaning to friends). My six children grew up looking at my library and then taking some of them to read. After every book, they would come back and ask me to recommend more. Needless to say, this was thrilling for me, because none of my adult friends ever read my books (with the exception of one), and I never had a chance to discuss my favorites with anyone. But I didn’t like the deficit in Arabic books for YA, and my husband and I looked around but didn’t find anything which could ever compete with what I had on my book shelves. My husband had often encouraged me to write a “novel” and I have always laughed at the thought. But in 2009, I began writing, knowing that my Arabic would never be good enough; but at the same time keeping in mind what kind of Arabic is out there which no YA would like to read. There are a million English SF books out there; but how many in Arabic?  What a great opportunity to be a “trail blazer”. Alright, I’ll admit it too – my self-esteem could never take the comparison ———-end

It was great to get an insight into the situation of Arabic in the UAE, from someone who had gone through the education system, taught in its schools, worked in the government, and is a translator. We can see the reiteration of the observation that formal Arabic is hard for young people to grasp, but what Noura has done is written in that formal Arabic, but with new concepts. So perhaps through such attempts we can say that the future of Arabic is bright? Making this language accessible to its younger speakers and if more authors venture into new genres and aim their writing at young people perhaps there will be a renewed interest in Arabic language… who knows? I’ll post part 2 in the next two weeks, that will give you time to read (and respond if you wish to) this first part. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and was awestruck at some of the things I learned not just about Noura but also about the situation of Arabic language in the UAE specifically. Stay tuned for part two……and a review of an excerpt I read from Ajwan!


See also: http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/books/science-fiction-for-young-adults-expands-in-the-uae


Ferguson, C (1959) (1959). “Diglossia”. Word 15: 325–340.