Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

I demand… A course in Arabic rhetoric


Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 12 seconds

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I demand a course in Arabic rhetoric!

I am sick of not being able to translate my own English articles. I know translation is a different skill, but I also am ashamed I cannot write eloquently in Arabic in the first place!

I am sick of feeling uncomfortable with speaking publicly in Arabic. People say I did well yesterday, and it’s great that some people appreciate my speaking from the heart colloquially, but I don’t think that is enough professionally. I need something more, I need the confidence, the eloquence, the ability to do it seamlessly, not to struggle through it.

I was having a discussion with colleagues the other day about this: about whether one identifies oneself as “Arab” vs other aspects of one’s identity. Because I grew up in an Arab country other than my own, the “Arab” aspect of my identity is pretty strong, as is the Muslim, though the Egyptian is often (but not always) stronger and more central. African? Not so much.

We took an undergrad course called Arab Society in which we questioned what makes someone “Arab”… And we asked whether it was geography, language, culture, etc? We also asked whether people pf Arab origin who do not speak Arabic “belong” (my view? It is up to each person how they want to identify themselves), and whether the culture in Arab countries is really monolithic (it’s not, of course, but it has more in common than e.g. Other African countries or Western or Asian ones). There is a lot more Arabs have in common (including some really annoying social and political issues that I wish we did not have) but we also share a lot with other postcolonial societies.

But there is something extremely powerful about this common language we have. Sure, the colloquial is a confusing jumble but if you live long enough in an Arab country or deal long enough with someone speaking the dialect, you’ll pick it up (or maybe that is just me, living in Kuwait and learning a mix of dialects there). The North African ones are a bit harder to grasp but I am sure if we tried we would get there.

But still: there is the written Arabic we all share in common. When a Saudi or Jordanian speaks their colloquial, it is naturally closer to classical or modern standard Arabic. Egyptian is not. And i think that is why Egyptians struggle more with this. But still, our edu system can do better. Our univs can do better

Should i go the uni route for the Arabic RHETORIC course, or the MOOC route? Or both?



  1. I wonder, within your network, do you have arab academics who studied primarily in Arabic rather than English? Maybe participating in the Arabic MOOC will help, but my sense is that you need to be conversing more with academics, so that you integrate the academic language and thought processes, which may not be clearly articulated in a MOOC, but might be better articulated in a graduate course or seminar (or whatever the equivalent concept is within an Arabic institution).

    • Well, i don’t work at an Arabic institutuion (an American one where we speak English) but yes, sometimes (rarely, like yday) I find myself in an environment wit academics who speak Arabic. Most circumstances allow bilingualism as in speaking a mix, which most ppl understand, where the jargon is in English but the rest is in Arabic. But ur right, the MOOC is a start but more direct conversation f2f is prob better. Reading alone doesn’t cut it, interaction is needed

  2. Dear Maha, one of my students (I think) explained that you had to have an eloquent, poetic rhetorical style in the Arab world when speaking truth to power – otherwise you would be executed! So – perhaps we all need some lessons in Arab rhetoric! On the other hand – eloquent rhetoricians just seem to twist words into beautiful lies (viz. Earl Spenser at the funeral of Princess Diana – oh the rhetoric – oh the beauty of his words, the rhythm, the eloquence… and the lies – the damn lies!)… so perhaps we need to be more proud of an eloquent honesty? Best and good luck! Sandra

    • I am thinking the execution story (which i had never heard of before) must be centuries old? But i like ur ‘eloquent honesty’ idea.. And a few ppl told me the simplicity of my speech reached them, so I guess ur right about that part: being honest is more important than being rhetorically eloquent. Now if i could be both (some people are, one of whom was right beside me)

  3. Hi Maha. You raise very interesting questions about language and identity and suggest that some type of language policy might be a solution. Inevitably, the impetus behind national language policy is national identity. When these efforts succeed – and this is usually not the case – it is due to overbearing central government control.

    Usually, central power sees such policy as vital to their continued control over a territory or population. The two most obvious examples I can think of is the creation of modern French, from around 1870 to the First World War (1914-1918) – throughout the Third Republic. This period is brilliantly described by Eugene Weber in his book Peasants into Frenchmen, the modernization of rural France. The other example is the creation of modern Turkish following the Kemalist revolution and the break up of the Ottoman Empire, beginning about a century ago. In both of these cases, success was utterly dependent on overbearing government control.

    Arabic, as a significant world language, is, of course, a direct result of the advent and spread of Islam. Simply being the language of the Quran is not enough to explain this. Latin did not spread from the Vulgate, and Hebrew and Aramaic did not spread from the Torah and the Mishna. The spread of Arabic was equally due to the declaration of Arabic as the official language of the Ummayad State by the Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan – the same man who commissioned the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Until then, the official language of the Ummayad State had been Greek, that state having simply taken over control of the former Byzantine civil service in Palestine, Syria and Anatolia.

    Once Arabic became politically central, the language of administration, law, and religion, it began to spread from the initial Arab settlements to surrounding areas occupied by the non-Arab majority. This process of “Arabization” may be what lies behind the perception you note today that an Arab is simply someone who speaks Arabic, which superimposes culture over ethnicity. The Quran also makes a distinction between settled Arabic speaking folks /a3rab/ and desert Arabs /a3raab/.

    But, as we have seen in English, media and culture provide another powerful and standardizing force and this model could also apply to Arabic. This standardization is not by design, however, but is a by-product of people talking to each other in new ways and by using new technologies. By new ways I mean that increasing acceptance of social differences, and a willingness to transcend these barriers, means that people who did not speak to each other before, now do. In the US, radio and television had a major impact on the emergence of a national “standard” of American English which was supported by high levels of social and geographical mobility and later, routine communication among far-flung folks using the Internet.

    So, I think that what you’re looking at now – the emergence of a similar standard of Arabic that can be used in a wider range of contexts from informal to academic – really depends on people just beginning to explore their language in this way. Success here, too, may depend on the same two factors: submergence of social barriers and acceptance of diversity, and access to communication channels, and lastly, on something that we take for granted in the West – protected speech. That is, the ability to say what we believe without fear of reprisals whether those be personally or politically directed.

    I know for a fact that people in the country where I live feel more at liberty to speak in English than they do in Arabic. Different rules apply to each language. This impedes their ability to express themselves clearly in Arabic. Of course, Arabs have always been very good at expressing themselves obliquely. The medieval poet, translator, and political commentator Ibn al-Muqaffa did this in his translation of Indian Fables, Kalila wa Dimna. When the animal stories were perceived as being negative commentary on the government of the time, Ibn al-Muqaffa – whose name means the one with the cut-off (hand), found his missing hand joined by his missing head. But he is remembered today while his murderers are long forgotten.

    • Wow, amazing comment, Mark (a blogpost or wikipedia entry, even!) i am learning so much from you, in the way you frame things together and pull info from different places to make a clear argument. The part about protected speech struck me! In Egypt before 2011, people often felt more able to critique government in English and it was allowed even on Ahram weekly (English version of state-run newspaper). Starting 2011, more of “us” (Anglophones) have increasingly started writing our facebook statuses in Arabic (whether colloquial or standard), especially political ones. Wonder if that will achieve one of the factors you mention related to pop culture. No good reason for folks to feel “protected” though, is there?

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