The Step-Mother’s Tongue

Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. But under no circumstances, should we say: ‘As long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.’ He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscienceSati’ Al Husri (1882-1968)

The impossibly thin Algerian boy stood out among the hearty well-fed Egyptian school boys. The large head perched atop his reedy frame came with an impressive shock of wavy hair and a prominent mouth full of Houari Boumediene teeth. The cold, cruel logic of the boys dubbed him “Abu Sinan”, or “Toothy”. Toothy’s father was posted to the Algerian embassy, and in the post-independence days political correctness dictated that he must attend an Egyptian institution rather than the more congenial French Lycee. In the Lord-of-the-Flies school, he marked out his days in ticks of humiliation. Ill at ease with spoken Egyptian, he was defenseless against bullying that usually started with verbal assaults but rarely ended there. At home, he spoke French and a language that barely resembled Arabic. If silence is golden, then Toothy and the Egyptian boy who on rare occasions rose to his defense were each a Midas. The civics textbooks, written in Modern Arabic, instructed Toothy that he and his tormentors were one, bound by a common language, tradition, history, and future; all members of the “Arab Nation”. In class, the school boys were required to memorize the poem by Mahmoud Darwish “Identity Card”, which starts with the stirring words “Sajil ! Ana ‘Arabi” (Write! I am an Arab..) before it comes to end in a litany of accusations, complaints and threats. In the school yard, bullies put the poem to good use as well. The chief bully would yell with the hard Cairene “g”, “Sagil, Enta …” and expect the hapless boy from Oran to complete the sentence with a litany of derogatory statements about his own manhood and his mother’s virtue. More than a decade later the Egyptian boy would read the remarkable essay by the polymath Mirrit Boutros Ghali on Egyptian identity and find that, for all its evasions and care not to offend President Sadat, still managed to approximate the situation in the school yard.

In the 1920s, Salama Moussa proposed that colloquial Egyptian be made the official language of the country if only to slash the illiteracy rates with one sweep. It was the simplest solution to end the endemic diglossia that plagued Egypt for nearly a thousand years. He got nowhere with that idea. Even his friends mocked it (Moussa and one-time friend ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad parted company over such issues, and became bitter enemies, hurling painful insults at each other for nearly two decades). Others who followed his suggestions, such as the cartoonist and poet Salah Jaheen, also failed to make headway. The conventional wisdom is that Moussa’s attempt failed because of the resistance of obscurantist religious leaders who felt that devaluation of classical Arabic is tantamount to leading people astray from the language of the Qur’an. They certainly felt, and still feel this way. There is also a persistent rumor that Moussa encouraged various scholars to translate the Qur’an to the colloquial. But that does not explain why many of Moussa’s liberal friends found his efforts misdirected, even quixotic. Nor can we lay the blame entirely on Moussa’s Kemalist tendencies. In fact, the failure is largely that of Egyptian intellectuals of the so-called “liberal age” and tells of why it ended in Nasser’s tyranny. These intellectuals always devolved to populism, of one sort or another. Their populism sprang forth from a recognition of the power of the street rather than a desire to elevate it.  

Language is identity. The Greeks identified themselves by apartness from the foreigners who spoke unintelligible “barbaros”. Americans could not easily dispense with English but enriched it with a patois from dozens of ethnicities, beginning with the Scots-Irish and African slaves, to create a unique identity and become to England a “nation separated by a common language”. Many other examples abound. The rise of the West and of nations within it was occasioned by the refinement of indigenous languages. Had Europe stuck stubbornly to Latin, recalling the by-gone glory days of Rome as reason, it is likely it would not have achieved as much. One wonders what Egypt’s trajectory would have been if Moussa’s suggestion of translating the Qur’an to colloquial Egyptian. A pious Muslim laboring to replicate the eloquence and precision of the original would have done a great deal for Egypt; as much as Tyndale did for England, Luther for Germany or Calvin for France. Such an effort would have rendered Islam, and to some extent Christianity, a strong cornerstone of Egyptian identity and a springboard for progress. The work of building a nation is primarily cultural. Yet there has been few studies of how the struggle with language has endowed Egypt with a propensity for authoritarianism.

The common discourse is to label Egypt’s authoritarian leaders as “Pharaohs”. But its modern authoritarianism is rooted less in Pharaonic tradition than in the drift toward Arabism and Islamism. In fact, other “nations” in the region, who lacked such an identity, seem to have fared far worse, combining brutal dictatorships with state collapse. Al Husri’s formulation “He is an Arab regardless of his wishes” is the theme song of the current collapse. One can easily remove “Arab” and substitute “Muslim” and the formulation explains much of violent Takfiri thought. In fact, almost any other identity can replace “Arab” and lead to the same deadly dead-end. The only way out is to stipulate that identity is a personal choice, and one often arrived at after much soul searching, if at all. Men can not choose their mothers, and rarely their step-mothers. But at least they can choose their identity. Anything less is the road to bloody servitude.

— Maged Atiya

 


4 Comments on “The Step-Mother’s Tongue”

  1. Nevine says:

    What a senseless article…surprised you wasted your time writing it, and ours reading it. FYI, the Quran will never be in any language but classical Arabic… meaning is translated, but prayers are and will always be in Arabic, from China, to Russia, to India, to the USA… passing by all the in-between countries.

  2. Mary says:

    Can you relate this to the oft-repeated declaration that “We are Coptic; we are not Arab!” If indeed “language is identity” as you say, how does this relate to the import you (rightfully) place on being able to choose one’s own identity?

    • salamamoussa says:

      A common language is critical for any national identity. A language that can’t be spoken or written by the majority becomes a tool in the hands of the few to control, coerce and exclude.

  3. Dioscorus Boles says:

    You spent the first three paragraphs talking about a topic that is irrelevant to Husri’s quote. In the fourth and last paragraph of your article you seem to detect the problem in Husri’s statement.

    Arab nationalism, as defined by its Father, and taken by the Syrian Ba’athists and Egyptian Nasserists, is an offensive and oppressive kind of nationalism. One feels suffocated just by reading Husri’s statement.


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