Israel: Arab - Speak Arabic

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Oct 5 13:48:52 UTC 2007

   w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
  Last update - 02:43 05/10/2007
Arab - Speak Arabic By Emmanuel Sivan

Good news for devotees of the Arabic language: Don't be discouraged, you are
not alone. An ally has arisen in the north: the president of Syria. In his
recent inauguration speech for a second term, he portrayed the spread of
foreign words as a national enemy. He outlined "instructions" designed to
prevent the deterioration of the Arabic language's status in advertisements,
the media and education. He also demanded assistance for Arabic, to allow it
to become more advanced "so that it can be integrated with scientific and
cognitive development."

Syria is an orderly country. The president speaks and the prime minister
acts on it. The latter ordered regional governors to conduct a system of
"Arabization," which mainly consists of removing signs from businesses that
bear non-Arabic names - concepts and brand names that became so popular in
the 1990s as globalization penetrated Syria. The governors received orders
to replace these with Arabic writing, with the non-Arabic names appearing
below in tiny letters.

In advertisements, pure literary Arabic must be used, without using
expressions from the colloquial language, which is a "murky and inferior
version." Whenever any doubt arises about a translation from a foreign
language, the Academy for Arabic's directives should be followed. The
Academy, of course, is in Damascus, "the beating heart of Arabism."

The regime has adopted a similar policy against high schools and private
colleges that specialize in foreign languages: They have received a
directive to focus on the core subjects, which are studied in Arabic. Much
has changed since the 1980s, when Damascus comedians used to tell about a
dialogue between two Alawi officers.

Officer A: "We won't be able to integrate into the global economy until we
learn foreign languages."

Officer B: "I don't agree. Just yesterday I saw a foreign tourist ask
passersby in Damascus, in five languages, how to get to the Kassioun market.
No one understood him. So what good did all his knowledge of languages do

Today young and old flock to learn foreign languages at embassies and
private institutes. Some are Alawis who work in government institutions and
the army.

This affair illustrates the sense of siege the Syrian regime is
experiencing. It is pitted against a Western cultural invasion. Al-ghazw
al-fikri is an instructive Arab expression. It comes from the Muslim
Brotherhood's vocabulary and is designed to take the wind out of the sails
of this large opposition movement, which does not enjoy legal status but is
being aided by the wave of religiosity sweeping the urban community. The
Baath slogan "Syria as the focus of Arabism" has been painted by Assad with
Muslim colors. Will this bolster his weakened legitimacy? Time will tell.
Perhaps it will help to affirm a shared external enemy, in the spirit of the
times and the "clash of civilizations."

But there is no guarantee, mainly because a second enemy of the regime is at
the gate. As noted, the regime is based on a combination of Syrianism and
Arabism. But the emphasis on the Syrian element, at a time when Syria
appears isolated in the Arab arena, comes up against an alternative vision.
Al-Qaida is now posing a challenge to the nation state - whether Syrian,
Algerian or similar. Its slogan is wataniya = wathniya (nation state =
paganism), and it expresses a vision in which the Islamic world returns to
the way it was divided before the 20th century. Al-Qaida makes a point to
refer to the area of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) as

Some of Al-Qaida's prominent ideologues are Syrian, and they disseminate
these ideas on the Internet. A possible interpretation: dismantling Syria
and integrating it into "liberated enclaves" in al-Sham. Soon the Syrian
volunteers will return from the jihad in Iraq, bringing ideas of this sort.
In short, the isolated Assad regime, whose base of legitimacy is weakening,
has reasons to be fearful. Also from within.
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