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The Qur'an was one of the first major works of...

In this second and final part of the interview, I focus the commentary on the situation of Arabic language and its use today and what it will be like in the future. Thank you for the emails and comments sent in about the post, I am glad some of you enjoyed the change in the blog. Below are the interview notes, and after that some commentary.

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6.Being that this is a new genre in Arabic literature, what struggles if any did you face during the writing stage? I had no point of reference when it came to writing fiction in Arabic. When I talk about Arab YA not finding it easy to read Arabic fiction, I am actually also including myself. I don’t feel comfortable reading Arabic fiction, it’s almost always about what goes on in the head of a character. The language, the style, so self-engaged and verbose. Sure, there are youths who like it; but more and more youths who are put off by it. It just doesn’t go anywhere, and in this age where movies and video games are so fast paced, who wants to spend time in the head of an insignificant character who is struggling with something inside of him and the story ends inside his head? It’s not even written for YA, it’s for adults.

My biggest challenge was how to start it – no Arabic creative writing workshop was available and certainly nothing for this genre. What were the Arabic words for the huge volume of terminology invented and well established by Anglo-American SF heavily used in books and movies? And the clincher was: if action words were the main tools of moving the plot forward, and I didn’t read much Arabic where there were a lot of action words, how do I do that in Arabic? Days were spent on taking pictures of things and sending them to friends to ask: what do you call this in MSA? One example was: “Hey, you know when you get scared, and your hand instantly goes to your throat? What’s that area called in Arabic?” After long debate, the verdict was: “na7r”. Another example: “How do you write “she clicked her tongue” in Arabic?” – that was more difficult. I ended up with: “a9darat 9owtan bifamiha yaddulu 3ala al2istiya2.” Yes, really! Such hurdles cost me days and weeks of writing.

7. The one question I really want to ask you is, did you make up new words? If so how?

Such opportunities kept cropping up from time to time. Ajwan (the main character) is an “Empath”. She has the awkward ability of being able to feel exactly what other people are feeling as if it is actually happening to her. I asked Ashraf Al Fagih, a Saudi author (Sci- Fi short stories) how he would translate it. He suggested “istish3ar” – that is not exactly an invention; but it is a new use of the Arabic word. I’ve struggled with traveling by space gates and worm holes, not to mention communication devices and other tools. Thankfully, there is a bit of that in subtitles of movies; but not nearly enough. In book 2 of “Ajwan”, I did get to finally “invent” a word. One character in the opening scene was using an anti-gravity bike (darajah meghnatisiyeh is what I could think of).. then I thought what an idiotic name.. so I mixed it up and came up with “meghrajah” (that is not to say it is ideal; but it’s a start). I am in chapter 2, so I am sure a new challenge will soon present itself.

8.Some people might say that your book promotes non-Arabic (traditionalist) ideas, is that a fair statement? (Given that this is a new genre, I presume you had no examples from Arabic books for young people).

Well, Ajwan is from another planet, and she breathes water too. Her name is Arab; but she isn’t. She comes from a peaceful, very conservative society; but is soon thrust into the reality of a huge universe which doesn’t live by the rules and traditions of her society. She has to live in the real world – something which our youth are finding out about now that our world has become a small village. They are taught a lot of ideals; but within a few years they discover that the rest of the world – the movers and shakers, don’t live by those ideals and this shocks them. It either turns them into extremists who want to impose these ideals on everyone else, or they become like everyone else and go with the flow. In both cases, they realize how naïve they were and perhaps even accuse their parents of being hypocrites. The reason why YA in the rest of the world love dystopian fiction is because it is real. It’s not the Little Mermaid or Snow White. They understand the world much more than we give them credit for, and trying to shelter them from all of it is not going to work beyond a certain age. It is the parents’ job to instill traditions in their children, so that when they grow up and read non-traditional material, they are already grounded and know what’s right and wrong and can enjoy the fiction, without other factors getting in the way.

 9.How do you ensure your book appeals to young Arabs? In reference to culture and language, but also in keeping up with trends in the English books they read?

This is a very important point for all authors of Arab YA fiction. Our youth live in a world where the Internet has given them access to just about anything we can think of, and beyond. They no longer wait at home for mommy and daddy to bring them books – they download them on their iPads. Language may have been a source of pride and identity for us; but to them it is a tool. Kids perceive tools as useful things which get them what they want. If the tool is broken or not up to date, they move on to another tool. They have no reverence towards old things the way we did. My expensive laptop is no longer working, buy me a new one, and then no one even knows where the old one was stowed away. Arabic and English are languages they use to get something else. Whatever gets them the most becomes their favorite “thing”. Once it no longer serves its uses, it is discarded like an old laptop. We have to constantly see what is grabbing their attention, and use that to provide them with the content we want them to see or read. If Arabic is becoming inaccessible, then we need to see how to make it more interesting. We can’t waste time crying over the loss of Arabic, our kids have moved on. We need to create content which competes with what is out there, so YA would deign to look at. I am trying to do that by writing in a genre which is almost non-existent in Arabic. That may grab their attention. It is in an easy form of Arabic – according to my 16-year-old daughters who told me: “this is not the Arabic they use in school. That one I don’t get at all!”

10.How do you see the future of Arabic in the UAE and the Gulf in general?

I think there is a consensus now that we’ve come to a point where enough is enough. Although the adults are all blaming the kids for their awful Arabic, they are also making the right noises which will force the Ministry of Education to look differently at the way it creates Arabic syllabus. Moreover, publishers are taking note and have started looking at YA as a huge segment completely different from children. I am also seeing more and more people finally realizing that at some point in the past Arabic was denied the right to evolve like other languages, and that linking it to sacred text (Qur’an) has harmed it considerably. So basically, it is a great time to be an author for Arabic YA fiction.

11. A personal question, how did you keep up your Arabic (I mean it’s no small feat to write a novel entirely in Arabic) and learn English proficiently at the same time? What can others learn from you?

Confession, my Arabic is not so great. It is enough to write for YA. Arab authors who have read Ajwan have commented on my simple style. However, I do owe it all to translation studies. If it were not for the fact that I studied under Dr. Basil Hatim at AUS in the early 2000s, I would not have been drawn back to Arabic, its beauty and its importance. It is never too late to start reading in Arabic – you automatically start acquiring new vocabulary and style. You can approach it like others have approached English. It’s a language, it has literature and that’s how you learn it. How else did I learn English?

12. My blog Arabizi© is about the situation of Arabic and how speakers use it, what would you say to those who say Arabic is dying amongst Arabic speakers today?

I am not sure why they say it is dying. There are 22 countries which produce Arabic books (and a stream of Arabic media every single day). Exactly how does one succeed in killing such a language, or dismissing that much content?! The important thing is that we do not sit on our laurels (?) and say here is Arabic, come and get it. The youth segment in the Arab world is huge and their attention span is miniscule; we need to continuously engage them with the right kind of stimuli so they love Arabic, protect it, contribute to its evolution, and pass it on to the next generation of shorter-attention span. Thank God that particular generation won’t be my problem!——–end

Interesting points raised here in the answers and this second part of the interview was my favourite because as Noura says I made “her think” about the process from a different perspective- a linguistic one. The issue of writing any type of literature is always governed by the audience for whom the text is being prepared for, and so issues of culture always come up. It would seem so far that Noura has dealt with these issues well and managed to produce a piece of writing that is novel yet in keeping with the readers’ cultural preferences.  Noura has in fact in the last week signed her contract with the publishers….congratulations Noura..now the world awaits!

The most interesting thing for me here is this creation/merging/coining of new words to express a new experience that the Arabic literature does not really contain. This is not  blaming the literature itself, for we all know that at different stages of the evolution of Arabic language and literature new words were made, even borrowed from other languages. But these new words represent whole new concepts that were until very recently absent in Arabic literature, typical sci-fi concepts and fantastic descriptions of other planets require a different type of vocabulary perhaps? It seems Noura is creating words because she is not satisfied with the current available expressions, this is both creative and exciting. If this picks up and these words are used by other authors in the future to write about sci-fi in Arabic, then it would be a great achievement and a huge step towards the revival of Arabic language (in the Gibran sense a process often referred to as neologism).

The second bit of the interview that caught my attention was the analysis of the situation of Arabic and the question of its death or demise. Noura maintains that the Arabic language is not being lost, not with the amount of material out there, or with the fact that 22 countries use it as their official (apparently) language. She does however acknowledge that something must be done to get the youth interested in the language (not in the communication sense but in the preservation sense) and that the education system and publishers are working hard to ensure Arabic becomes more practical for the youth to use. Good points raised and yet the same conclusion, something needs to be done if Arabic language is to enjoy an equal status with English (see previous post on bilingualism the UAE) because books of Arabic will always be there, we have books today in Arabic spanning 13 centuries but we can only access them with the right knowledge of Arabic. What will the Arab world look like in 50 years time if all the young people chose to read in English only? Knowledge of Arabic language will be the exception not the rule, and worse still in a hundred years it might be like what Latin is to English today. Yes…yes… yes I am quoting the worst case scenario, but you do not need to burn books to make people forget or lose their language (the Mongols did that in Damascus and Baghdad but that did not change anything because) as long as people know the importance of their language they will start over and even improve the way they use it. In specific reference to the UAE, I am sure the founding father and late leader Shaykh Zayed Al Nahyan would frown at the prospect that Arabic language is slowly being lost in his country when he was a champion of the Arabic. He encouraged people to learn their history and language and he would famously say that without those two (knowledge of a people’s language and history) a nation has no prosperous or meaningful future. He was no linguist but knew the value and symbolism of a person’s language, especially in today’s globalised world.

I agree with Noura that one of the reasons that Arabic language and/or literature has stagnated for a long time is this boxed in view that because Arabic is also the language of the Qur’an we are restricted in how we use it. What’s important is that the Qur’anic text itself is sacred, and the language is sacred, but it is also a language of a people. It therefore needs to be practical and easy to use, it should also be used in its highest forms in literature (which it was esp. in the 12/13th century and with superb results, new genres were created, new forms were made then it all stopped and many authors have just been in awe of the old, which is not all bad in a situation where the language is evolving well). Arabic must be ready to take on new concepts and new ideas in a new world with new problems and new challenges, the core will always remain the same but the language must be renewed in order for its speakers to have faith in using it to express their feelings, fears, aspirations, anger and hope.

Review of Ajwan: This is a very short section and highly speculative since I have only read two excerpts…I hope I will do the short sections some justice of course I will only comment on the language (since that was the whole idea of the interview).

The language I would say is easy not as complicated/complex as say Mahfouz (this is taking into consideration young people), the sentences flow easily and the whole picture comes together really well. The once thing I loved the most in the excerpts is the eye to detail Noura has, the description of small ants, sticks, posture of characters, of what something/someone looks like, the environment, the air, how Ajwan rests her head on a tree, how she takes a deep breath… you feel like you are there with her! There is also a description of the feelings of the characters, how they deal with certain events and the reader empathises with them. Action packed sections are fast paced though ironically descriptive and you move with the story and characters, and I think at times you are also surprised like they are at the outcome of certain events so perhaps that’s what brings the text to life?  Although Noura says she is not good at Arabic, I read it all understood it and got hooked on the book…so that to me was good. That’s all I can say for now…I hope the publishing goes well and I am sure many people are waiting for the book. Thanks to Noura once again and thanks for reading….my next post I hope will be a translation of an Arabic article discussing the current situation of Arabic and then I will post interview two with another author.