CSI Beirut: Who murdered the Arabic language?

In Beirut, Lebanon, mock 'murder scenes' raise awareness that Arabic is ceasing to be a working language here. An Arabic-language festival wants to help change that.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

On a street in Beirut, Lebanon, yellow police tape surrounds a sprawling outline on the pavement. “Don’t kill our language,” reads the tape surrounding a curling Arabic letter.

Such “murder scenes” dotted the Lebanese capital for weeks, building up to an Arabic-language festival run by a nongovernment organization, Feil Amer. “Most students we surveyed told us they don’t think in Arabic anymore,” says Suzanne Talhouk, Feil Amer founder. “Arabic is ceasing to be a working language.”

Middle-class children often speak English or French at home. At school, many not only learn a second language, but are also taught in it. French has long conveyed high class and culture. English has infiltrated through pop culture and Hollywood films and has become the language of the blogosphere, spattered with transliterated Lebanese dialect. Arabic looks difficult and dowdy by comparison.

Identity is the issue, says Nadine Touma, a children’s publisher. Since the French carved this tiny state from greater Syria in the 1920s, the question of whether to emulate Europe or its Arab neighbors has divided its people.

For one day at least, Arabic shines at the festival. In a crowded cafe in an alley, Abdel Rahim al-Awgi tells an old Kuwaiti tale about pearl divers. The young author is reviving the tradition of the cafe hakawati, or storyteller.

“This is a traditional Arab art, but now we think of the hakawati as something exotic,” he says afterward. “We’re losing our jokes and our expressions and becoming like anyone else: just another culture about buying and selling.”


of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.