Sherif N’ the Bedouins

Five years ago in a Qatari public school, I was walking into my first class of middle school. New building, new teachers, new system, but the same students I was raised with. As is custom, I walked in and gave a blanket greeting before taking the last empty seat. It was special that time, though.

My classmates got a slightly different greeting than they expected. Sure, I used the usual “peace be upon you” that my generation of Arab Muslims was raised to use, but not the way they knew it. The speech they heard was light and smooth, almost cheeky compared to the hardness of their peninsular dialect.

What they heard, for the first time for many of them, is a kid in their class speaking a foreign dialect.

As a stranger among the citizens of a society as chauvinistic as Qatar, there was an immense amount of pressure on me and people like me to conform to the dominant culture. And unlike Subcontinental or Sub-Saharan African immigrants who lived in relative isolation and mostly within diaspora communities that shared the same language (or English), Arab immigrants operated in the larger Arabic-speaking network dominated by the native Qataris, allowing them the chance to assimilate but also exposing them to the intimidation associated with that.

Maybe you’ve already guessed, but before the day that I decided to greet my class in Egyptian, I spoke their dialect all the time (well, except at home). And so did everyone else; because nobody really had a choice. Bullying, in whatever forms these kids could discover, was a serious problem; and as a kid, how much of it you get was largely determined by your social status, which was mostly determined by race, nationality, and bloodline. As immigrants, we had the worst of each; and nationals of certain countries, like the dark-skinned Sudan, had it worse than others. Sometimes a neutral adjective would be used as a pejorative (“Sa’idi” and “Battani” are my personal favorites), as if ethnicity or national origin was something to be ashamed of.

Needless to say, this led to shame and self-hatred. I remember in primary school once sitting with myself and trying to figure out a way to assimilate completely, to immerse myself and others fully in the illusion that I am in fact a Qatari; It shouldn’t be too hard, given I’m brown like them and can speak their dialect like I’m one of them. It didn’t work, because my name is Sherif, and Qataris never name their kids that. Some of my friends were more successful. I looked down on them for it, but inevitably, also envied them for it.

I’m not entirely sure what exactly it was that prompted me to take the decision to get real that day, but it was bound to happen. I was growing more confident of myself then, and my tongue, as well as my spirits, were getting tired of it. I made that decision with a lot of uncertainty, and I was often teased for it – just as expected. But the teasing subsided, and the satisfaction of newfound liberation lingered.

Today I remember it as one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken in my life, and one of the things I’m most proud of. One thing I’m equally proud of is that I was the first immigrant that I know of in my grade to speak his own dialect, and that by the end of the year, about half of the immigrants in my grade had followed suit. And maybe I’m giving myself too much credit here, but I like to think that I was the inspiration for them too.

In the end, Sherif and the crew still had to wear the Qatari Thawb, because it became the school uniform. But that was okay.

We had already won.

Breakdown of the Arabics

Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with an estimated 290 million speakers across the board.

Except not really.

Arabic language is in reality more like a collective of languages, spoken in different ways in different parts of the Arab world. Like Germanic or Slavic languages, Arabic languages come in a variety of shapes and colors while retaining some core characteristics, such as sounding pretty much the same to foreigners.

ImageVarieties of Arabic in and around the middle east. Click for full size.

Historically (well, until 630 AD or so,) Arabic language and its mostly similar tribal dialects were limited to the Arabian peninsula, expanding and evolving within it. Non-Arabs in the middle east spoke their own indigenous languages; for example, North African Berber nomads spoke Berber languages. Until the Spread of Islam, that is, after which Arabic gradually replaced the indigenous language as the main language for governance and everyday life on the land, a process accelerated by Arabian (Bedouin) nomads migrating out of the Arabian peninsula and into North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant.

In non-Arabian areas ruled by Arabian chiefs, creoles of Arabic and the local language formed, creating what is today known as Arabic dialects, but like the relationship between Haitian Creole and French, distant dialects of Arabic are not very mutually intelligible. Having developed separately out of different combinations of languages, Arabic dialects have different vocabularies and accents (that are not necessarily mutually intelligible), each dialect effectively being a language in its own right. Some dialects are simple enough to be easily understood by non-native speakers, though (Egyptian and Levantine, for example), and geographically proximate dialects tend to have a lot in common.

The explanation for lumping such radically different creoles in the same pack is largely sociopolitical. Classical Arabic is a variety of Arabic that is no longer spoken at home but is understood by most educated Arabs (think Old English if it was taught in schools), and is the one used in writing the Qur’an, the Islamic holy scripture, back in the 7th century. The Qur’an played a great role in maintaining the status of Classical Arabic, which would have gone extinct if the Qur’an hadn’t existed. The study of Arabic language developed and became popular (even with non-Arabic speakers), and this preserved the status of Classical Arabic and contributed to its reputation with Arabs (or, speakers of Arabic creoles).

The other reason is Arab nationalism. As a response to colonial exploitation, Arabic peoples eventually came to see “Arabism” as a uniting banner (compare to this, or this). Needless to say, Arabic language rather than culture was the main uniting aspect. Pan-Arabism gained a respectable amount of traction in the 50s, becoming the state ideologue of quite a few Arab states, and eventually inspiring its “same but different” sister ideology: Pan-Islamism. Both are mainstream across the Arab world today, to varying levels across different communities.

All research credit goes to Wikipedia. Please let me know if there are any mistakes in this post.