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Language: Bridge or Divide?

During the 50s of the last century, there was a law that forbade any shop from writing its name using a foreign language instead of Arabic. Any business that did otherwise was given a hefty fine and demanded to replace it with another. The law states all names need to be written in Arabic, and should a name be written in another language, it must be done below the Arabic name with a smaller font. How the days have changed since then.

I have often wondered if that law actually exists. Logically, I think there should have been a law like that back then and even now. Maybe it still exists today but it is blocked from implementation by a corrupt government that could not care less for the Arabian language or its preservation. Most Lebanese people, whether consciously or unconsciously, do not wish to speak the Arabic language. In most countries, it is a sign of unity, but in Lebanon, it has been morphed into a class and ideological discrimination tool.

The crisis is not because of the language we speak; we have an identity crisis that spills over into the language we speak. There are plenty of Lebanese citizens that were born and lived in Lebanon that refuse the Arabic language on the account they refuse to be referred to as Arabs. They claim they have Phoenician ancestors and therefore believe this Arabic identity is being forced upon them. This is despite there being no discernable Phoenician identity or language. In fact, there was a huge scandal a few years ago when the Phoenician letters were printed on the 1,000 LL bill in reverse, and it was only discovered by an esteemed archeologist. Most call upon this mystical personality without any knowledge or realization of its components.

And what was the substitute for this adamant rejection? In the past, they decided to adopt the language of the nation that conquered them and ruled for years under a thin veneer of democracy: the French language. They relish in being considered part of the Francophone countries when this entire concept was designed to give colonies the sense of belonging. It is still paddled today as a tool for political interest. It became another barrier that separated the warring Lebanese faction and added fuel to an already roaring fire of hate and divide. It is regarded as a discriminating sign between the nouveau riche, and they are many, as well as the nouveau riche prospectors, who count for significantly more. The technological advancement dealt the Arabic language another severe blow when the Lebanese Phoenicians invented their own hybrid form of letters and number that amalgamated into some dreadful concoction that further insults the Arabian language.

The problem goes deeper than any of us would imagine. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that writes its menu in Arabic. Take a look at your mobile phone and you will note that the majority of the advertisements you receive are written in English and French. Those advertisers are confident their message will be conveyed even if they do not write it in Arabic. I even recall receiving messages in English and French when I was responsible for the community page in a newspaper. I was outraged, so I made it explicitly clear that any message issued to an Arabian newspaper such as us written in any other language will be ignored. What was the result? The only apology and cooperation I got were from foreigners. The Lebanese people simply did not care. It shouldn’t be surprising because we even view a man speaking an effeminate version of French and English to be a sign of social refinement.

Then again, how can we blame the general public when even journalists are using foreign words in their headline under the guise that some things cannot be translated. Of course, sometimes editors make the decision to use the expression to make an impact, but those occasions do not rise often. What is shocking is the calm acceptance of having talk shows made for an Arabian audience would be using foreign languages. One of my French colleagues found it dumbfounding that his language is used especially when he imagined the polar opposite of a French announcer using the Arabian language to address French people.

The Christian factions and the Maronite Church, in particular, were pioneers of the Arabian language and long sought to refine it. Perhaps it was for ideological reasons such as distinguishing themselves from the Ottoman ruling or because it was a better way to belong to an Arabian nation. It could be that this love affair was killed by the lack of unity among the nations. And neither do I offer magical solutions except perhaps trying to implement certain rules for our schools and public places. I do not know who else would be willing to disown their own identity, but I accept that such a society deserves nothing but sarcasm and perhaps some pity from other nations. As with regards to self-loathing, we have enough of that to go around without needing to import even more.

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