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Regional Outlook : The Arabs' Language of Discord : Once the great unifier, Arabic has strayed far from its roots. Is it now dividing its people?


ALGIERS — The imam at a mosque in one of this city's popular quarters was recounting the prophet Mohammed's last days on Earth. His rapid-fire Arabic began rising in pitch as the tale grew more dramatic. Then the holy man got to the part where the angel Gabriel summoned the prophet to heaven, and suddenly he broke into French.

"Prenez vos valises and partez tout de suite!" the imam exclaimed--"Take your bags and leave right away!"

This man is supposed to be one of the guardians of the language of Islam, yet no one blinked when he slid ingloriously into the language of Algeria's former colonial occupiers. Everybody does it.

Everyday Arabic here is a disconcerting mix of classical phrasing, colloquial variations and a liberal sprinkling of French words. The best Arabic in Algeria is the modern standard version used on evening newscasts--and most of the population can't understand it. They switch on French TV instead.

Also, the Algerian pattern is repeated with local variations through much of the Middle East. This from a language that once imposed itself as the everyday vernacular from Persia to Spain, supplanting in many places Coptic, Greek, Aramaic and Latin; indeed, a language that is at the heart of what makes an Arab an Arab.

Most sociologists have given up on any permanent definition of what constitutes the Arab world other than to describe it as that part of the globe in which Arabic is spoken as a mother tongue, tying the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula to the farmers of the Nile Delta and the mountain villagers of Lebanon in a spider web of verbs that for centuries has functioned as a living skeleton.

"Even in the midst of fratricidal wars, the feeling persists that, however painful the conflict, it is merely a temporary disagreement which sooner or later will be settled and which, even while it lasts, in no way infringes upon the principle of Arab brotherhood and Arab national unity," says Raphael Patai in his book on Arab culture, "The Arab Mind."

"There can be no doubt but that the Arabic language is the most potent factor in both the creation and maintenance of this overriding myth of Arab nation, Arab unity, Arab brotherhood," he adds.

Now, in many parts of the Arab world, the Arabic language is slipping further and further from its original roots, becoming not a unifier, but an object of political division.

In Morocco, the school of engineering in Fez was forced to close this year in a debate over whether teaching would be in Arabic or French. In Syria, teaching at the medical schools has been converted to Arabic, prompting doctors elsewhere to complain of a decline in the quality of Syrian physicians, and in Egypt, Islamic fundamentalists regularly challenge the teaching of university-level science and medical courses in English.

Nowhere is the issue more apparent than here in Algeria, where an attempt to reintroduce Arabic into the schools, universities and government ministries has become one of the flash points of the Islamic debate.

The issue became so heated last year that tens of thousands of Algerians took to the streets to challenge a new law banning the use of French in all government announcements, business communications and transactions and schools. The law established fines of up to $500 for private businesses and $10,000 for political parties.

Beginning this year, university level students must undergo all their course work in Arabic, despite the fact that many students completed their high school studies substantially in French.

"Language is a national symbol of every nation, and there is no doubt that the Arabic language is the national symbol of the Arab nation, and it has a certain holiness because it is the language of the Koran," said Saif Islam Banna, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman and son of the organization's founder, Hassan Banna. "It is the only language in the world that has that kind of holiness.

"The spirit of the man is the language," he added. "All his feelings and thoughts are expressed through his language. It is a crime to prevent any child from learning his own language. It is like you cut his tongue. You kill him."

In countries like Saudi Arabia, never colonized, it's the religious arguments that dominate, and university students increasingly are dealing with textbooks that have been translated into Arabic. In Syria, it is a question not of religion but of Arab nationalism, and Syrian scholars began the process of purifying the language from Turkish infiltration as early as the 1920s.

In the North African countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, the French and Italian languages represent more than a century of occupation, whose lingering cultural effects are increasingly the focus of anti-Western sentiment. Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi went so far as to change the street signs and require Arabic-language passports of anyone entering the country shortly after his revolution in 1969.

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