Everyone expected that the regime would find a way to make Bashar president after Hafez al-Assad’s death. I thought maybe they would remove the age requirement altogether. And all they did, in five minutes, in front of our very eyes, it was put down to 34, his exact age. They might as well have said, ‘The president must be 34 and his name must be Bashar al-Assad.’
Rime Allaf is a Syrian-born writer and political analyst. In a wide-ranging conversation with Newlines’ Faisal Al Yafai, she recalls living through the end of the Hafez al-Assad era and traces the Bashar years from the initial optimism of Syrians, through the end of the Lebanon occupation and the Iraq War, to the start of the Syrian revolution.
The insistence on teaching Classical Arabic over modern dialects has hindered our linguistic and literary development
Reading with children is, or should be, an enjoyable act of bonding and education. But, in the case of Arabic, I have often found reading in the language I inherited to be an experience of mutual misery. My son and I speak Lebanese Arabic, which he understands well enough — and better every day. But we can only find a handful of books available in that dialect — or in other accessible, useful dialects, be they Egyptian or Iraqi. Conversely, although we find many more books in Classical Arabic, my son understands very little of it. Accessible books are rare, while common books are inaccessible. Children do not seek out books written in an old Arabic, because they are full of unknown words and unfamiliar grammatical structures; parents struggle to instill a love of language and learning, or even to access these materials themselves.
Arabs have done this to themselves, doubly damning their communication in diglossia, or linguistic variety, and denying their role in this. Diglossia is a situation in which two or more varieties of a language are shoved together through social circumstances; for Arabic, there are numerous spoken dialects that exist side by side with the formal, standardized al-fuṣḥā, or fus-ha, also known as Modern Standard Arabic or Classical Arabic. Arabs have tried to elevate the only so-called true or pure Arabic, while working to discredit, disable, and even destroy dialects. They have thus made an official language out of a form that nobody considers a native tongue, while making everyone’s different native tongues seem subpar, uncouth, and useless.
This emphasis on preserving Classical Arabic — itself an acknowledgement that the language needs protection, without which it will die out — has made such reading an unlovable experience for most speakers, who struggle to properly speak the language. More importantly, the fixation with or sacred view of the old language has directly affected the dialects.
Speakers can’t pass on their dialects fully because they lack institutional support, have few available tools, and suffer from sociocultural snootiness toward the spoken tongue(s). And they can’t access Classical Arabic — which everyone glorifies but no one speaks as a native — easily enough.
As it is used today, Classical Arabic is not even a complete or living language. Most people do not use it much and only do so in formal settings (or, perhaps, for official purposes). It lacks expressive qualities needed for everyday speech. This discourages wider uptake and use, which in turn creates a scenario where Arabs cannot develop such phrases. If dialects were to disappear tomorrow, people would struggle to use Classical Arabic as an everyday language.
Dialects are limited, too. Often mutually unintelligible, dialects divide people who might otherwise be part of a realm connected culturally by the Arabic language, such as somewhat standardized Arabic in the press and certain sociocultural traditions and practices. Lacking legitimacy and acceptance, dialects are less useful — at least now — in different spheres like education, law, and administration (areas that also involve precedent, meaning that future changes are constrained by the past).
Perhaps nothing illustrates Arabs’ contradictory approach to their language than the messages they give their children. On the one hand, parents laugh at their children when they pick up Classical Arabic words (from, say, cartoons). They chide their children with comments like, “Nobody speaks like that.” But they also implore their children to learn the language they have just exposed as useless and worthy of derision. Recalling a time when her kids were fighting, one Arabic professor laughed with exasperation at the thought of one yelling at the other: “tabban lak!” — an archaic and awkward phrase meaning “damn you.”
On the other hand, people degrade dialects all the time. Children who ask why a certain phrase is used are told they are speaking a “grammarless” or even “fake” language. Even worse, that language might be branded as vulgar. Parents might call someone who uses even the simplest, easiest words of their lexicon a “farmer” or a “barbarian.” In doing so, they attach shame to the language of their daily lives. Unlike Classical Arabic, nonetheless, dialects are unregulated and so better allow users to create new words or absorb new phrases from foreign languages or the old language.
Reviewing global literacy rates against money spent on education, the language professor John Myhill concluded that the focus on Classical Arabic in formal education hurts literacy rates in Arabic-speaking countries. Across the board, even in richer Gulf Arab states, Arabic-speaking literacy rates are lower than expected given the amounts these governments spend on education. The problem is worse than the numbers suggest, although an illiteracy rate of 28% in Egypt should be alarming enough. Exam results, a widely used metric of educational success, fail to convey an accurate picture of language proficiency given reports that people pay bribes to pass literacy exams (according to an article in Al-Fanar, an academic assessment, and my interviews with non-governmental organizations working on literacy in Egypt).
Arabic speakers admit to holding negative views of Classical Arabic — and, relatedly, their own skills in it. Everyone from high school students to adults expressed a “dislike of reading in general, especially ‘longer pieces’ like books,” during a study in Egypt by Niloofar Haeri, a linguistics professor at Johns Hopkins University. Finding Classical Arabic to be “heavy” and “scary,” Haeri’s participants “simply did not enjoy the activity” of reading and found writing to be even more difficult and “intimidating.” Suggesting that the official literacy numbers are shaky at best, she notes that “the majority of people do not attain a level of literacy that allows for participation in various creative or civic communities when these require proficiency in the official language. … Even grammar teachers, copyeditors, and university-educated people speak routinely of their fear of making mistakes.”
They learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school.
While other researchers have made different arguments, they ultimately misdiagnose and understate the problem. Helen Abadzi, a faculty member at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education, claimed in an article that Arabic is difficult for children because the script is complex. Echoing a complaint common among Arab scholars, she stated that reading tests in four Arab countries “have shown a widespread inability to understand written text.” Describing issues that children clearly face because they learn to speak one language at home and read or write another language at school, she concludes that the problem is the complexity of Arabic script. But the script, or the script alone, cannot be the problem. Other languages, such as Persian, use the same script as Arabic, but their users do not face the same reading and writing challenges.
Make no mistake. The problem is diglossia.
When I studied Arabic as a child, and when I restarted studying it as an adult, I didn’t know much about these issues. The more I learned, the angrier I became. Why did I, and millions of other children, have to go through a bad education system that left us frustrated and hating our own language, then go through it again while trying to relearn Arabic as adults, and then perhaps again while trying to teach our children?
If Arabs wanted to keep Classical Arabic and dialects, they could still develop an education system that took on the challenges of diglossia and even turned the presence of dialects and Classical Arabic into a strength.
The actors of the film ‘Let There Be Morning’, directed by Israeli Eran Kolirin, are boycotting the Cannes Film Festival, despite the fact that the film will premiere there this Saturday.
Palestinian actors boycott the Cannes Film Festival, as their film is presented as Israeli
The actors, who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, explained in a collective statement on social networks that this is a “political act of absence” to protest against the cultural erasure of Palestinians by Israel. “We cannot ignore the contradiction of the film’s entry at Cannes under the label of an “Israeli film” while Israel continues to carry out its decades-long colonial campaign of ethnic cleansing, expulsion and apartheid against us, the Palestinian people,” the casting team said in a statement. The production team further explained the prejudicial erasure that is done to Palestinians when their work is categorized as “Israeli” in the media.
“Every time the film industry assumes that we and our work fall under the ethno-national label of ‘Israeli,’ it further perpetuates an unacceptable reality that imposes on us, Palestinian artists with Israeli citizenship, an identity imposed by Zionist colonization to maintain the continued oppression of Palestinians within historic Palestine; the denial of our language, history and identity,” the actors wrote.
“[…] Waiting for us to stand idly by and accept the label of a state that has sanctioned this latest wave of violence and dispossession not only normalizes apartheid, but also continues to enable the denial and whitewashing of the violence and crimes inflicted on Palestinians.”
‘Let There Be Morning’ is a film based on a book by Palestinian journalist, screenwriter and author Sayed Kashua. It tells the story of Sami, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who returns to his hometown with his family to attend his brother’s wedding. After the wedding, Sami, his wife and son encounter Israeli soldiers who force them to stay in the village, and Sami is soon imprisoned and besieged in his hometown, not knowing why or for how long.
“The film, which is the result of our collective creative work, is about “The State of Siege,” a phrase coined by the revered Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich,” the release said. “The state of siege manifests itself in walls, checkpoints, physical and psychological barriers, and the subordination and violation of the Palestinians’ identity, culture, movement and basic human rights.
The film stars concluded their explanation by calling on international artistic and cultural institutions to amplify the voice of Palestinian artists and creators, as they “resist all forms of Israeli colonial oppression against the right of the Palestinian people to live, be and create. The statement was signed by actors Alex Bakri, Juna Suleiman, Ehab Elias Salameh, Salim Daw, Izabel Ramadan, Samer Bisharat, Yara Jarrar, Marwan Hamdan, Duraid Liddawi, Areen Saba, Adib Safadi and Sobhi Hosary.
Director Kolirin told Haaretz, “I understand [the reason for their action] and I support each of their decisions … It hurts me that they are not here to celebrate their amazing work, but I respect their position.”
What are you going to do there, the somewhat incredulous Ami had asked me ?
It must be said that in general, Syrians do not like to be sent to this region very much. Deir is a bit like the Wild West and last night, I thought so in a cyber crowded with kids, no one was surfing(way too expensive), but they use the computers to play. The people in charge give me their own pc to access the Internet. On my web page I intend to correct a title, when suddenly a cup flies above my head and comes crashing on the wall behind me. There ia a noise of broken dishes towards the entrance. A window is broken. A melee ensues that becomes more serious when knives come out and two boys (17 and 13 years old) try to cut the cyber managers. Their hands are slashed and when they call for help, they flood the phone with blood. I tell myself that my editing will have to wait and I hand out some Kleenex. Angry at their attackers, they scream in a language I no longer recognize. I don’t think the killers are aiming at me, but still, I’m afraid someone will die. The police arrive and the victims go to the hospital for treatment.
When I returned to the scene this morning, I didn’t see them anymore and I hope they didn’t lose their jobs because at first sight they had nothing to do with this mess. The little I understood of the situation made me think of Brussels and the Marolians’ raids at the Jambe de bois (a café near the Place Anneessens) that you are all too small to have known. At that time, the Marolians were underprivileged Belgians while the population of the Jambe was composed of students and it was regularly assaulted with a peak at the Saint V the big student feast.
Let’s go back to Deir. One reason for coming here is the Euphrates, whose name I much prefer in Arabic: el Fourati. There are also the remarkable ruins of some fortresses and especially of Dura Europos and Mari (already inhabited before the XXVth century B.C. and one of the strongholds of the Sumerians) towards the Iraqi border.
At the airport of Deir, no cab, no shuttle. With two other travelers we wait. One of them ends up going to a Rover and soon invites us to join him. An extremely kind gentleman is at the wheel and drives us to our respective destinations. Just like that. It was a good start and the rest is history.
I stay at a hotel that a friend told me was on the banks of the Euphrates. Not so, I am in fact at the edge of the canal. The river is 500 meters away towards the French bridge, a suspended footbridge.
Deir is close to Iraq not only geographically, but also by accent, music and affinity. Here, the war is felt even more painfully than elsewhere.
I have talked about them at length; some of them even make common cause with Saddam, even Ossama. Don’t rush to the conclusion that they are terrorists, but the Americans are pushing some Arabs towards these people because they need personalities who can rally them. They tease me about “old Europe” and I tell them that we have become the new Arabs.
The inhabitants speak a different Arabic than in Damascus; as for the music, I love it: harsh, it has desert accents.
I have to find transportation to visit the sites conveniently and as the hotel is very evasive, I take things in hand.When I boarded the cab of Hani, I knew at once that hewas the man of the situation. The symbiosis is total since he does everything I want which is not obvious in this country where the man often does not even listen to what the woman suggests. Except for MamnouA (verboten), nickname we gave to my sister during her visit; the driver not having lowered the radio after her repeated requests, she must have frightened him so much that we had peace during the rest of the trip. Same thing for the hotels that he suggested so insistently that it was hard to resist, except for MamnouA. It was convenient to have a sister who took the unpopular attitudes for me.
As for Hani, I spent three wonderful days with this very young man, dignified, classy, who was visibly interested in my visits himself. I even spent an evening at his home with his wife, his children and the mayor of Deir.
I even went as far as Qamishle to see the Tigris, but Ain Diwar is beyond what my back can handle and that will be for another time. Little did I know that I would soon see it in Baghdad.
Used by the nomads of the Middle East, the Arabic word zor refers to the scrubby vegetation that covers the lower terraces of the desert river valleys, especially those of the Jordan and Euphrates, says Universalis.
A look at the city
Qalat Rahba (on the road to Abou Kamal)
And above all, the people
Below is a crucial character: it is thanks to him that I am sending you these pictures. I had forgotten my camera in his car and he went looking for me to give it back.
I think the restaurant is called Sayag; the happy cooks
Filed under: Blog — annie at 3:22 pm on Thursday, January 30, 2003 Edit This
Translation: Time moves quickly; I’m almost halfway through my stay. I don’t realize I’m in Syria because I feel so at home. Everything is going smoothly; I feel transparent..
Springtime weather. Cat are in heat and you can hear them courting
They ended today (January 18). I did pretty well. I’ll be reunited with most of my classmates next semester. In the meantime, I’m going to treat myself to a real vacation because the pace has been steady for four months. However, stamina quickly increased use, and I was doing just fine studying six hours every day.
The Iraq War
In my class at the Institute, we decide to stay if the Americans invade Iraq. However, if the Belgian embassy told me to pack up, I would be forced to leave.
The Dutch received a pre-warning and the Germans have recensed their nationals in Jordan.
Saddam, and for that matter Osama, have few supporters here, but that doesn’t mean the Syrians support Bush.
The New Year’s Eve
I buried 2002 in a wonderful place, the Umayyad Palace, photos below.
What makes its charm is obviously the setting, but also Samir, the boss.
After restoring a real ruin, he wanted to turn it into a museum, but he finally decided to open a restaurant. Samir is Palestinian and his wife is Syrian. Palestinians are much better treated in Syria than in Lebanon, for example, where they are excluded from many professions. Here, although not having access to nationality, they have the same rights as Syrians.
This is the only place in Damascus where you will see a real whirling dervish. On the occasion of the new year, he is accompanied by his son who also spins.
Heart of gold, Samir is extremely generous, a quality much appreciated among Arabs. During Ramadan, he invites several groups of orphans to his restaurant. At his place, the atmosphere is simple, but the oriental buffet is excellent. For this New Year’s Eve, there were only Syrians accompanied by their families, including children.
Although frequented by tourists, the place was not deserted by locals.
One evening, I met a direct descendant of Charlemagne.
In search of Arabs
Who is an Arab here? You, my Syrian friend, you are Christian, but still Arab? No, I am Syrian. And you, my friend, you are Syrian? Yes, but I am an Arab. The others are Turks (500,000), Kurds (1 million), Armenians, Circassians, descendants of the Crusaders, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, a real melting pot in short. What unites them is the language, the nationality and for the 80% of Muslims, the religion. The great Saladin was a Muslim before he was a Kurd.
They are numerous in Damascus. Here is an Orthodox church, Holy Cross, near Bab Touma.
Working in the street
When I was growing up in Brussels, we used to take the woolen mattresses to him to wash and re-fluff them.
Besides the specialized stores, there are merchants who set up their business in the street before the first cold. In the houses, they clear the carpets when the heat returns.
A street office
We see small tables in the street where people fill out questionnaires. They are also public writers although the literacy rate is high.
He is a professional storyteller. He reads an episodic story that can be heard every day at 5 p.m. at the Nawfara cafe. He has his followers who come to watch the show daily.
Here is the path to the Nawfura (it skirts the mosque of Ommeyades) and a view of its terrace.
The storyteller’s name is Rasheed El Hallak /Abou Shadee, which means father of Shadee.
After a long preamble in which he pays tribute to the great men of the past, he gets to the heart of the matter.
I can distinguish a few words, but there is little hope that I will soon learn the twists and turns of his stories about Sultan Beybars among others (one of the heroes of the fight against the crusaders; he took the Krak back from them . My brother-in-law, who knows Arabic very well, hardly understands it any better than I do because the hakawati speaks in popular Syrian Arabic with a strong accent. However, he sometimes reads texts in Fou-ha. After the show, he will let me look at his antique notebooks, all handwritten, which come down from generations of predecessors.
The show is worth it: watching Abu Shadee’s exchanges with the audience, seeing him interrupt to ask for a glass of tea or to look down on the chatterboxes, watching the regulars pull on their hookahs (did I tell you that we say “drink” a hookah in Arabic?) and ESPECIALLY waiting for the moment when he swings his sword and hits the innocent stool . Everyone shouts HEY; there follows a delicious wait as there may be a second and third blow. Arabic coffee is served in small cups that are passed from one to the other.
Abu Shadee is unfortunately the last of his dynasty. Wouldn’t there be someone to take over the torch? My friend, a tour guide without work because of the state of affairs, asks him if she has a chance. He encourages her to go for it. And we are in Syria, and she is a woman!
Filed under: Blog — annie at 2:58 pm on Friday, December 20, 2002
Since I am going to travel, here is a map of the country
In Hama, I arrive in the middle of Eid El Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan and will last three days. Everyone is in the street; they catch up with smoking the cigarettes they could not smoke during the fast. In the evening, only boys are seen in the streets; almost all of them brandish a revolver (toy); but in the afternoon, one goes out with the family.There are merry-go-rounds; a bit like at the fair back home, but on a smaller scale. They are often swings or small rustic wheels operated manually; the kids are delighted. There is a refreshing joy. Here I am transported fifty years back in time; this sort of fun has not yet been spoiled by the consumer society. People are not blasé.
I get side tracked by a young entrepreneur selling foul (beans) cooked in water and seasoned with salt and spices. Delicious.
Kids love to be photographed and ask me lots of questions.
Back from Hama
So I had four days of vacations and I took the opportunity to go to Hama.
The journey first: by bus, with a lady who had a cold and slept the whole way.
I am just recovering from a cold . At the pharmacy, they give you antibiotics without a prescription and just what you need to get you out of trouble. Not the huge box that will age in your bathroom until the expiration date; the solution here is economical and anti-waste.
For the return trip, I will have as a companion an independent woman living alone (and single); she is a doctor and studied in England. I learn that the life expectancy is 70 years; indeed I did not see many old people in the streets.
We stop in Homs where I chat with some locals and they ask me the usual questions: are you married (now I say yes, it’s better, otherwise you get proposed to), do you have children? yes; where is your husband? at work. Where does he work? Damn! I say the only word that comes to mind: safar (the embassy); they immediately take out their passport and ask me for a visa for Belgium. What is this mania of wanting to immigrate? I tell them about the rainy Belgium, the fact that there is no work, that they have a family here; nothing to do. Dreams are tenacious. You only know your happiness by comparison.
At the hotel, I get a driver. When he comes to take delivery of his customer, he gives multiple kisses to the hotelier on the cheek and I deduce that they are relatives. Indeed.
He drives his purring Mercedes, which is 35 years old. He offers me small pizzas that women sell in front of their houses and in the afternoon, a delicious syrupy coffee also served at the side of the road, this time by a kid
The region is marvelous
Houses in the shape of beehives still inhabited..
Byzantine Qasr Ibn Wardan .
Apamea, where I had the ruins all to myself early in the morning,
Maara, a small town hosting a magnificent mosaic museum (and I who did not like mosaics, I am enthusiastic). Photos of the interior are forbidden. It’s market day. Cobblers are installed on the sidewalk. I guess they move from one market to another. In this little town, I am not very proud of our crusaders who, having conquered the town under the orders of Raymond of Toulouse in 1092, boiled people in pots to eat them and roasted children that they had impaled on a spit. It must be said that the besieged had no more food.
And finally, the highlight of my stay: the dead city of Serjilla where I walk alone in these immense ruins. One day, the inhabitants left, we don’t know why; a bit like the Anasazi in the American West. There is no trace of war. It is believed that trade routes had moved, depriving these villages of resources, or that the inhabitants fled after an earthquake. There are dozens of dead towns in the region, but Serjilla was the most impressive of the four I visited.
The others are smaller and close to villages, hence: garbage, nasty dogs, children who ask for pens (the day I hold the granny who from Morocco to Syria has distributed pens, I’ll send her back to the anthropophagous crusaders). In short, no splendid isolation. The pyramid is in Bara..
In several places, people have reclaimed a ruin to make their home and the laundry cooks on a wood fire next to the columns in front of which you see these three little girls.
Now some beautiful views of Hama, but first, my favorite sin: these white arms stuffed with cream. In Damascus I thought it was a Palestinian pastry, but I was wrong, it is the great specialty of Hama. Semolina is cooked with cheese and the dough is spread on tripods.
To the one who offers to come and make this wonder in Belgium, I get a visa right away; and so much for the Belgian rain and the family he will leave behind. ( Recipe at the bottom of this text)
Hama, views of the old city; norias only work in summer. So I didn’t hear their complaint that can be heard from far away.
Back to the workbench and language learning
As far as tenses are concerned, Arabic is less complicated than our languages because it has only three tenses: the accomplished, the inaccomplished (the present and the future) and the imperative. Its undeniable advantage is that it is pronounced exactly as it is written.
I’m starting to feel a little ridiculous around town when I speak my ‘fous-ha’ ; kind of like speaking Latin in Rome. Fortunately, most people understand me, but they laugh. This means that in four years time, when I am done with Fou-ha, I’ll have to start learning Amyia (the popular language). However, it is the fous-ha that is used on television and in the newspapers.
Our class is tight knitted; we love our teacher who is very devoted. We are the ones who have to remind him that the bell for recess has rung (Ya oustad, el djarass we whisper ). The atmosphere is very good. We laugh a lot. My results? Good. (I am in red at the back of the class).
Situation in the region
What is the matter with all of you that you are afraid to come here? This must be one of the quietest countries in the world.
We live in a bubble; we feel very safe. Syria is safe. Of course, what is happening in Palestine, and what is going to happen in Iraq, does not leave us, to say the least, indifferent, but we hardly talk about it.
I just spent an unforgettable Christmas with a Christian family . I often have this feeling of living totally in the present. We had a great time and no one mentioned Iraq; why bother? We are totally powerless to prevent anything.
Daddy dressed up as Santa Claus and came in with a bag and rang a bell. We did a farandole while singing: berim berim, arendous arendous (nobody knows what that means).
The midnight mass is certainly the most fervent mass I have attended since my childhood. It was in Arabic and the church was packed. “Although I am no longer a Catholic”, but at Christmas I wanted to get back to my roots and if I had problems with Rome, I have few issues with Jesus .
The two Damascus
For Christmas, I was in the Christian neighborhood. There are really two cities in Damascus, but they are not segregated. On Fridays, when almost everything closes in the Muslim neighborhoods, we go to Bab Touma where everything is open. And on Sundays, the reverse is true. At Christmas, the Christian quarter attracts Muslim visitors because of the illuminated houses. As for the relations between the two communities, they seem to be good; just like in our country, some people probably need to despise the other.
The Hama Cheese Pudding (Halawih bil jibin, by Karim El-Boustani) ~~~~~~~~ Ingredients: 1 pound shredded, unsalted, and fresh Mozzarella cheese 2 cups of water 1 cup of sugar 1 cup of wheat semolina flour 1/2 cup unsalted Ricotta cheese (optional) 1 teaspoon orange blossom extract/water (ma zaher)
Procedure: Start by boiling the water and adding the sugar. Once it starts boiling add the semolina slowly and mix. When finished, continue by adding the shredded Mozzarella cheese slowly and keep stiring until all the cheese has been added and melted completely. Then spread the entire mix on a dish and let it cool down for a few hours. Best eaten cold with some Ricotta cheese spread on top flavored with a touch of orange blossom water.