Monday, April 04, 2005

Language Barrier: The Problem with Using Arabic to Reach Arab Audiences

Since September 11, the U.S. government's bid to promote democracy and improve America's image in the Arab world has consisted largely of countering anti-American pan-Arab media with pro-American pan-Arab media. In 2003, the State Department launched a glossy magazine called Hi, which it distributed in 13 Arab countries. The U.S.-backed Al Hurra television network--which recently celebrated its first anniversary--offers programs resembling those of Al Jazeera in nearly every local market reached by its rival. The former chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Harold Pachios, has written, "Now more than ever, the United States needs it own voice in the Arabic language." And these efforts go beyond government programs. Witness the Global Americana Institute, which seeks "to engage in translation, publication, and distribution of books on the United States in Arabic. The initial volume will be the key works of Thomas Jefferson."

But there's a problem with these initiatives. Just as you won't win over a crowd of Mexican villagers by speaking Latin, the United States can't sell democracy and reform to Arab populations by speaking to them in modern standard Arabic--and ignoring the Middle East's more widely understood vernacular languages.

The challenge of winning hearts and minds among populations with high illiteracy rates is doubly complex in the case of the Arab world. Not only are 70 million Arabs unable to read or write; a much larger number of the region's 280 million people do not fully speak or understand the standardized Arabic language (known as "Fus'ha") that is used in broadcast news as well as official discourse and the academy. Fus'ha was introduced in schools across the region beginning about 90 years ago as a component of pan-Arab nationalism. It is a formal construct, gleaned from classical Arabic grammar and wholly consistent with Koranic syntax, designed to unite the 20-odd Arab countries culturally and politically. But nine decades later it unites, in effect, only the region's elites.

Most everybody else prefers to speak a version of their country's vernacular. Ninety percent of Moroccans, for example, can only understand their unique brand of Arabic, which is heavily infused with Berber phonics and French vocabulary--testimony to the country's multiethnic and colonial history. The Moroccan language, in turn, is barely comprehensible to, say, Iraqis, whose unique idioms and usages reflect more ancient Mesopotamian tongues as well as the country's proximity to Turkey, Iran, and the Kurdish mountains. These vernaculars, derided by pan-Arab ideologues as "dialects," are in fact the region's major living languages. They are the contemporary Middle Eastern equivalent of Romance languages, which, of course, were all derived from Latin and were also once known as dialects--but now are known as Spanish, Italian, and French.

The Arab world today stands at a crossroads--between an old-fashioned allegiance to the contrived political agenda of a single Arab nation (or a single Islamic nation) and a new twenty-first-century emphasis on distinct, democratic national polities that focus on their own social and political challenges. But the latter will not be possible if a country's majority does not understand the language of government. Thus where countries have grassroots movements calling for mother-tongue media and education--the list includes Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco--the United States should support their efforts. The renowned Beirut linguist Sa'id A'il plans to publish the first ever "dictionary of Lebanese" this summer for a small group of scholars, but there is no program in place to develop his life's work into a curriculum. An independent newspaper began publishing in "Moroccan" in May 2003 and has won a large following among the working class but requires investment in order to expand.

Might the Middle East Partnership Initiative--founded with great fanfare by the Bush administration in January 2003 to promote discourse and civil society in the Arab world--consider supporting projects like these? One of the Initiative's existing projects, which subsidizes the translation and publication of children's books by Scholastic, predictably does so in Fus'ha--a one-size-fits-all approach for every Arab country. Not an encouraging sign. On the other hand, the U.S.-backed Radio Sawa, which broadcasts locally on FM dials across the region, has begun to include some local vernacular content in five separate Arab markets. More work along these lines is needed.

Meanwhile the natural evolution of new media in Arab countries is bolstering the use of local vernacular all by itself. The proliferation of Arabic-language blogs means thousands of webpages are updated daily in the versions of Arabic spoken in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunis, and so on. Rather than fall behind this curve, the United States should adjust and adapt its strategy for reaching Arab audiences. We stand to gain considerably from speaking to the Middle East in languages that Arab majorities, not just elites, can understand.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay originally appeared in The New Republic Online on February 22, 2005.

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