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Encounters With Arabic

March 8, 2011

The Arabic language has been a constant, though often distant, companion throughout my years in the Middle East. Mournful intonations from the mosques. Quranic incantations on the radio. Sharp conversations on the street corner. Hectoring broadcasts from leaders and imams.

You could argue that I am utterly unqualified to write about this language of 300 million people, given my rudimentary familiarity with it. Yet in a way, I feel that I can appreciate Arabic as a means of communication in a way many fluent speakers perhaps cannot. 

Just as a person who cannot see compensates for his blindness by hearing what the sighted cannot hear, and by an enhanced sense of taste, touch and smell, it is possible to look beyond the words of a language one cannot understand. The distinctive nuances of facial expression, tone of voice, gesticulation and body language convey a meaning that sometimes transcends those words.

And just as one does not need to understand French to appreciate the beauty of a passage from Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, so one can appreciate the beauty of the Quran when spoken or sung. It has often been said that Arabs are more openly emotional than the buttoned-up people of Northern Europe and North America. Listen to Arabs interacting, both in anger and in jest, and you will see the evidence.

A couple of nights ago I had the pleasure of listening to Hamid Al-Qaed, a prominent Bahraini poet who writes both in English and Arabic. He was speaking at a meeting of the Bahrain Writer’s Circle at La Fontaine Cultural Centre – a large villa in the centre of Manama that has been converted by its owner into a arts centre and restaurant drawing from traditional and contemporary architectural styles. Stone pillars, cloisters, fountains and open performance areas.

Hamid has had four books published, and he read a selection of poems in English and Arabic – about love, life, nature and much else. His poems were short and emotional, and I enjoyed listening to him speaking in Arabic as much as his English work. You can visit Hamid’s website here.

Most Westerners do not understand the importance of poetry in the Arab world. How many 16-year-old, internet-savvy kids in England would admit to their pride in the poems they write, as did a bunch of young people I encountered recently in Saudi Arabia? In the royal courts of the region, especially among the gatherings attended by Bedouin tribespeople, it is still common for guests to stand up and recite odes in praise of the host – and receive a small gift as a reward.

In a previous post I had lamented the apparent decline of Arabic literature. Perhaps I was a little unkind in suggesting that Arab countries could do more to support and encourage their authors.

This week sees two major literary events in the region. The first is the Emirates LitFest in Dubai. Besides hosting stellar participants from the English-language literary world – Michael Morpurgo, Margaret Atwood, Lionel Shriver and Michael Palin to name a few – there is a host of Arab literary figures in attendance, including poets, novelists and non-fiction writers from Syria, Egypt, the UAE, Lebanon and Tunisia.

And earlier this week I made a flying visit to the Riyadh Book Fair. Leaving aside the kerfuffle over the disruption caused by conservative “activists” objecting to certain aspects of the proceedings, to which I referred in my previous post, the Fair was an eye-opener.

A hall full of stands manned by publishers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, Sudan and North Africa. I was there to check out a few publishers about the feasibility of launching an Arabic version of a book that I have co-authored. Although there were thousands of titles on display, in a way, I was disappointed. Many of them were textbooks and religious works.

I expected that given the setting and local sensitivities, the range of subjects would be somewhat circumscribed. But as I looked at the books, I was surprised how unimaginatively they were laid out. Endless streams of text, few illustrations except where the subject demanded them, and very few photos or artwork.  Yes, there were some lavish coffee-table books, but by and large, the books on display were far less varied than those you would see at Barnes and Noble or Waterstones. One of the publishers explained that the reason for the absence of pictures was cost. Most of the books sold at the fair are bulk purchases of textbooks for schools and universities, although I did see a number of individuals buying for their own use.

Still, an interesting experience, despite the slightly threatening aura of the young men corralling everybody off to prayer at the appropriate times. But this was Riyadh, after all.

If there is to be one positive outcome from increased freedom of speech across the Arab world, I hope it will be a renewed flowering of Arabic literature. Free speech liberates creativity, and literature is one of the lasting legacies of a culture.

6 Comments
  1. Hi Steve,
    interesting post, but there is much that’s quite amazing being written by modern Arab poets today. As an ad copywriter I sometimes read these to get into the mood for a particular piece of communication. Check out this site it’s but a small sample of how modern some of the poetic styles are. Sorry don’t know if I’ve put the hyperlink in correctly.
    Rohini

  2. stephen harrison permalink

    As another Westerner – albeit one who speaks and reads Arabic – I agree that it is not just Muslims and Arabs who can appreciate and enjoy “lughat al malaa’ika” (the language of the angels). I too was entranced by its sounds before I knew what they meant; multiple that my five or more for poetry!

    In days gone by, Arab poets were even more highly prized than today. In the absence of modern media and freedoms of speech, clever poetry became one of the few means of expressing dissolute thoughts. One former (deceased) Saudi Ambassador to Bahrain from a well-known family there was sent here reportedly after writing satirical Arabic poetry about the energetic love-life of the Saudi monarch of the day, using all fifteen forms of the Arabic verb reserved for poetry, as opposed to the ten in everyday life. But the beauty of Arabic is that it’s a song even to those those who don’t interpret the words. Truly, that must make it a divine work….l

    • Ah yes! I saw a tribute to that very same ambassador at the Riyadh Book Fair… He was much respected.

  3. It is through Hameed’s books that my own eyes have been fully opened to poetry and I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to read some of his beautiful poems aloud, some of which crackle with wry, ironic humour and poignancy in just a few superbly crafted lines.

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