Do you speak Lebanese?

It seems “In polyglot Lebanon, one language is falling behind: Arabic”.

The article starts with the following questions

-Have you ever seen a Hollywood movie dubbed in Arabic?
-Did you ever solve a math problem in Arabic?
-Did you eat in an Italian restaurant where the entire menu is written in Arabic?

If you answered “no” to all of the questions above, you’re probably Lebanese. A “yes” answer on the other hand means that you could be Syrian, Egyptian, Jordanian or a holder of any other Arab nationality.

That got me thinking. Back in the Grand lycee Franco-Libanais in Ashrafieh, it always seemed to us, students, that the “-Libanais” part of it was just there to recognize the geographical location of the premises, nothing more. While half the students were exempt of Arabic classes, a considerable chunk of the other half saw Arabic class as the only one in which competition was over who could get the lowest grade. The lack of interest in the subject even had us competing over who would get kicked out of class the fastest, or make up the funniest answer on the Lebanese history or geography test. As such, what got me the respect of the “cool kids”, was my answer to “describe geological properties of the Lebanese coast” in 3eme (or 9th grade). It involved (in very bad literary Arabic), a gay couple having sex on the sandy beaches of the north, and if memory serves me well, a bunch of geography teachers swimming to Cyprus by fear of getting beaten up by their students. While the importance granted to history, math or biology (taught in French) was personal, depending on how much each student liked the teacher, the class, or simply had a knack for the subject, as soon as a class was taught in Arabic, “on s’en fout” seemed to be the consensus.

I won’t get into explaining the symptoms of the tri-lingual phenomenon that still takes place in Lebanon, it is too well-known. I won’t go either into the responsibility of the school system and the grouchy, grouchy oily bitter-antique boniches we had as Arabic teachers. Because that’s not the main reason we didn’t find a use for Arabic in our daily lives. What makes up our language is, (beyond family and school) the media we are exposed to and the level to which we can relate to it.

I had all the Lebanese channels at home, as a kid, and I had cable too. In the evening when I sat in front of the TV, I had the choice between the Lebanese channels, who in their majority, offered a Mexican soap opera, dubbed not in “Lebanese” spoken language but in literary Arabic, which I could barely understand and for which I had no use whatsoever in my daily life. To top that, it told the story of a maid falling in love with her master and getting a kiss on the cheek from him once every 17 episodes.

At the time, I was already going out with friends on weekends, be it to the movies, restaurants, bars or clubs (I started early, but that’s not the point). I had the choice between the cheesy Mexican soap and (to take the simplest example), “Friends” (the sitcom). I don’t think I need to go much further with the explanation. Be it for the content of the show or its quality, I could relate. I lived similar situations with my friends. So when, at some point, I saw a chick checking out my friend, I very naturally said “that chick’s checking you out”. Couldn’t have dreamed of saying “inna hazihi el fatat toursilou nazraten ilayka”.

All this to say, you can’t really blame the kids for favoring western culture to, well, mostly Mexican-dubbed-in-Arabic culture. It’s good to see, on the other hand, the Lebanese that are attached to their mother tongue and actually export it abroad. A great example is the work of Tarek Atrissi who’s reinventing Arabic calligraphy through his design works in the Netherlands. (thanks @Bruz for the link)

Now this isn’t really the case anymore but that doesn’t stop the tri-lingual phenomenon. On my last trip to Beirut, I was sitting in front of my TV watching LBC commercials, and at one point, it struck me that during a Lebanese show, in Arabic, about 20% of the ads were either in English or in French. Not even subtitled. How would you, educated polyglot Lebanese, like it, if during your TV show, you had to sit through three minutes of commercials in German?? (And don’t you even dare changing the channel).

You wonder why other Arabs speak better Arabic? Countries like Saudi and Kuwait acknowledge their language and make even brands such as H&M translate their logo into Arabic characters to have the right to set up stores there. In France, on a billboard advertising McDonald’s McChicken, Chicken is translated into *poulet, right there on the billboard. In the meantime, we allow ads in English and French to air during a Lebanese show on a Lebanese channel, not even considering the many who are in front of their TV, in their homes, in their own neighborhood, in their own country and don’t even understand their local television!!!!!!! As proud as we want to be of our westernized, multi-cultural, polyglot people, this can never ever be at the cost of forgetting our own language.

This brings me to the definition of “polyglot”. While it may seem pretty obvious, a polyglot is one who fluently speaks several languages. One who could sustain substantial conversations in foreign languages with natives of these languages.

In that sense, very few of our educated Lebanese people are indeed polyglot. In Lebanon, the reason we all speak three languages is because we can’t speak any one of them properly. I dare any of you to have a 10-minute conversation in only one of these languages with a native speaker. My assumption is that 90% would be lost by the third minute.

Enno, for the record, “il y’a trop de 3aj’a” doesn’t count as a sentence in French. Neither does “I’m going to the centre-ville” count as an English one.

Here are a couple videos that summarize it pretty well


5 responses to “Do you speak Lebanese?

  1. What an excellent, excellent article, I agree with your logic 100% and am happily surprised to see an ex-lyceen support the use of our native tongue, Arabic.

    I am not an ex-lyceen, but also the product of a french prestigious school in our motherland, and also witnessed the “grouchy oily bitter-antique boniches we had as Arabic teachers”. It starts with them not being hip enough or in touch with the youth. They fail at connecting with the younger generation, and therefore create enough interest and “pride” in the younger generation for our very rich mother tongue.

    But it’s also the parents and society as a whole in Lebanon which puts tremendous pressure on “speaking french”: i still don’t understand why some people insist on talking to me in french when their fluency levels are appalling, it’s like they are trying too hard to prove they speak the language, when I wasn’t even talking to them in French.

    It’s also the educational system: why does Boston have a statue of Gibran Khalil Gibran, and I can only remember his platonic love relationship with Mai Ziade: how come this is the only thing that stuck in my mind (and I was a very responsible and quite good student)? the system definitely failed somewhere.

    Arabic is a very rich language and Lebanon has contributed tremendously to it through folklore (dabkeh, Zajal, etc Rachid Nakhle, Chahrour El Wadi), writers (Gibran, Mikhail Naaimeh, etc.) and TV (I love Al Mu3allima wal Ustaz). We have plenty to be proud of in terms of our mother tongue, so let’s start using it (ironic i know that I’m writing this post in English, I agree).

    Thank you for such a wonderfully insightful post. Keep them coming.

  2. Ali F. Hamdan

    Indeed! What an excellent, excellent article!

    As an ex-lyceen (promo 98), I always used to have this sad feeling for undermining our own Arabic language… We were put “ta7tal mijhar” if we pronounce any Arabic word, as the reaction would be: “Aiii ya yaiiii…. Mish ma32ool shoo vulgaire!!!”

    From a fairness standpoint, I recall very well the high calibers of “Arabic-Speaking” Instructors at Lycee: Amongst many others, I still remember the intellect of Mme Zablit, the sharpness of Mr. Jilwan, the vast knowledge of Dr. Abdulsater…. Even Mr. Conchon – the French citizen – he remained a phenomenal Arabic professor….

    Samzzz & Gaby, I strongly believe that today’s questions are triggered by the lack of proactive national educational and development plans by all the Lebanese Governments. Such gaps have adversely affected our passion for Lebanon: our pure belonging for ONE Lebanon, our passion for our traditions/ habits, our loyalty to our language… As a Lebanese living in Dubai, and here I have to be objective, Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians are much more patriotic than we think. Even the Gulf Nationals, they have evolved big time, unlike the perception of many Lebanese, while maintaining their key traditions, and with pride!

    Ironically speaking, if there is “anything” we should learn from our “great” political za3amet (men gheir sharr), that would be their Arabic speeches as a “maximum” (with the exception of Carlos Edde)… all parties without any exception!

    As a reactive plan, I will make sure that my kids will listen to Fairuz and Wadi3 el Safi, will read the books of Gibran Khalid Gibran, Mikhael Naimeh, and many others…and above all, keep loving Lebanon the way I was raised to do!


  3. Tres bel article en effet. Avec ces quelques lignes et coups de gueule, tu as su vise comme il faut la majorite d’entre nous.
    Etant ex-lyceenne d’ashrafieh too (arabe normal puis dispensee), tes commentaires m’ont fait trop sourire et m’ont replonge dans ces annees-la ou effectivement les cours d’arabe n’etaient pas ceux qui passionnaient le monde.

    Mais depuis que je suis a Montreal et depuis que je cotoie, contrairement au Liban, des personnes de plusieurs ecoles differentes, je remarque que c’est plutot un probleme aussi de Lycee, si j’ose dire, car tous les non-lyceens que je connais sont capables de parler un libanais “presque parfait” (la perfection n’existant pas vraiment) et meme du “fossha”… a mon grand desespoir.

    C’est vrai qu’il faut preserver notre langue, faisant grande partie de notre identite.
    Si je prend exemple du Quebec, noye dans ce grand Canada anglophone, ils ont su apres plusieurs luttes et manifestations instaurer la Loi 101, qui fait en sorte que la langue Francaise reste preservee et reste la langue du Quebec. Ainsi, toutes les publicites qui apparaissent au Quebec doivent etre soit francophones soit bilingues, donc le francais doit y etre obligatoirement.
    Meme les enseignes sont traduites (KFC devient PKF) et les mots sont autant que possible preservees en bon francais (stationnement au lieu de parking, presentement au lieu de maintenant, etc.)

    C’est peut etre notre envie d’etre occidentalise qui nous pousse a vouloir etre plutot francophone ou anglophone, c’est peut etre aussi le fait de voyager enormement et de s’ouvrir aux autres cultures qui fait ca… on peut trouver 1001 raisons pour expliquer ce phenomene social…
    Mais tot ou tard, on revient a ses origines et on a envie de s’y accrocher – comme le dit Ali, a un moment donne on revient aux sources en ecoutant nos grands chanteurs et en lisant nos grands ecrivains… car il ne faut pas perdre ce bout en nous qui fait notre richesse et part de notre identite.

    Cet article donne envie de repondre et d’ecrire plus longtemps… mais bon ca suffit pour le moment 🙂
    A tres vite!

  4. I was doing a research on the net about the the tri-lingual phenomenon in lebanon ..and pages led me to websites which led to your blog…I read the whole article with a smile on my face because it made me fell home and had the intention to share it by email with some friends and by pure curiosity I looked up the name of the author : Samer Ragheb…HOW SMALL IS THIS WORLD??
    and lebanese style ” b’ellak chapeau bas for your great writting skills ” my friend 😉

    Cheers Sam!
    xxxx Karine

  5. well… given the number of books published & read in Lebanon (compared to other arab countries), we are faring still well. And I disagree that other arabs speak a better arabic than the (normal) lebanese (except the manierism displayed by some). I dare you to understand one word when algerians, irakis, or saudis speak.
    and as an example of the benefits of multilinguism, note the fluency of Gebran in both arabic & english…

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