Arab, Culture, Language

The Slow Dilution of Arab Culture

By Ali Khaled
27 November 2018
Just what is the fate of a society whose language is left to fall by the wayside?

Are we living though a time of the self-loathing Arab? It’s a question I’ve been increasingly asking myself of late.

A few decades ago, the mere suggestion of such a thought would have prompted fierce indignation. Today, probably not so much. There’s a reason for that.

But first, a story.

Abu Dhabi, sometime in 1977. The VCR industry is in its infancy and I’m sitting on a sofa at my friend’s house watching a bootleg copy of the legendary Egyptian comedy Shahed Ma Shafsh Haga, a play starring arguably the greatest Arab actor of all time, Adel Imam.

It was funny. Very funny. Funnier than anything I had seen in my seven years on the planet. Every scene was a riot and the one-liners swiftly became part of our everyday lexicon. I laughed until I cried that day, and to my mind, no form of entertainment has come close replicating its influence on Arabic culture since.

But back then, we lived in an environment that made it easy to fall in love with Adel Imam. We spoke Arabic at home. We studied it at school and could read and write it fluently. We watched Arabic TV shows and read Arabic books. It was our language.

Then things started to change.

As the pop culture explosion that had gripped the rest of the world gradually filtered into the Middle East, the English language that was becoming increasingly dominant in our communication and education took over our lives.

The same VCR industry that brought us Adel Imam on stage was now a source of the best that Hollywood had to offer: Star Wars, Rocky, Eddie Murphy and MTV. Arabic content, for so long the epicenter of our influence, seemed parochial, low-quality and, well, dull by comparison.

Year by year, the erosion of Arabic language and culture continued unchecked.

By the late 1980s, along came CNN and 24-hour news cycles. The ’90s brought The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Friends, the Internet! Harry Potter, the literary phenomenon of the new millennium, had no rival either, although by that point Arabic books had long been left behind.

Jump forward to the present and the numbers are damning. According to the annual Arab Youth Survey of 2015, 36 per cent of those surveyed agreed that they used English more than their own language on a daily basis. That number was up to 56 per cent when only taking into account respondents in the GCC. In 2017, the numbers rose to 54 and 68 per cent respectively. The reality? Arabic has become a second language for more than one in every two Arab youth.

The stats should come with a caveat, of course, as a realistic appreciation of any good statistic almost always should. Arabic remains king in many parts of the Middle East and Africa – particularly when you venture away from the major cities. But the reality is, a downturn in language that shows no sign of reversal any time soon. And where there is a loss of language, a loss of identity is sure to follow.

For some, the changes are slow and perhaps even unintentional. I’ve seen the children of Arab friends and family grow up speaking – and crucially being spoken to – almost exclusively in English. Some barely speak a word of their mother tongue, a byproduct of overseas study and international schooling. But if parents are bearing little responsibility for the passing on of language and heritage, then really: what hope is there?

Other changes have been quicker and more willful, a reaction to an anti-Arab sentiment that has simmered and grown over the past two decades.

These are the born and bred Arabs who have acquired alternative citizenships and are now depressingly eager to identify themselves as British, or American or Canadian, aligning with their shiny new passports rather than with the land of their ancestors.

In some cases, I’ve seen some Arabs take pride in not looking, well, Arab-ish. Lucky is the one who is mistaken for a westerner, for he shall not be profiled at airports.

It’s particularly disheartening to hear friends openly admit, even boast, of giving their sons and daughters “foreign-sounding” names as some sort of precaution against an inevitable future of discrimination. The refrain of wanting to give their child “every advantage in life” may contain a kernel of truth but it comes at the cost of identity, and in this case, no little pride.

Of course this is not a new phenomenon. Immigrants from Europe docking at Ellis Island in New York would often register American-sounding names to avoid discrimination, as did many of the Windrush generation landing in Britain from the Caribbean. But in an age where we have all but volunteered our privacies away through Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and many other personal information-gathering platforms, is a non-Arab-sounding name really a panacea against the cancer of racism?

So, now we stand at a fork in the road for Arab language, culture and identity. In this post-9/11, post-Facebook, post-Trump world, where discrimination and populism around the globe are on the rise, do Arabs choose the path of least resistance, of further drifting from what once defined them, or is this where things change?

Perhaps redemption will come from the most unlikely of sources and in the form of a second popular culture kick from the west? Having played a prominent role in its dilution, maybe greater regional pride will now be fuelled by the people who shape our cultural landscape via the screens that play such a prominent role in our daily lives. People with Arab roots and that see the region from afar.

Rami Malek, GQ Middle East’s inaugural cover star, fiercely defended his Egyptian roots, dismissing what he called the “first or second generation removed” notion, while supermodel sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid, are always quick to highlight their Palestinian origins. How about DJ Khaled, the Arab-American musician and producer whose family hails from the West Bank? His is a message that promotes love and positivity for the region in everything he does. Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah, the man known as ‘the king of Egypt’, has Liverpool fans singing about wanting to be “a Muslim too” thanks to the heroics on the football pitch that have made him a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

Of course the question remains, is it too little too late? While I would dearly love to see Arab culture play a more prominent role in the lives of people growing up here, my biggest fear is this: even if there was something that came close to the recreating the genius and impact of Adel Imam’s work in 2018, honestly – would anybody here still be watching?

Ali Khaled is a Palestinian journalist living in the UAE