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