Identity, Life

My mother tongue and I have a complicated relationship

I am an Egyptian who has been raised and educated in her home country and I happen to have a complicated relationship with Arabic, my mother tongue.

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I am an Egyptian who has been raised and educated in her home country and I happen to have a complicated relationship with Arabic, my mother tongue.

You won’t be able to understand my dilemma before I give you a brief background about the language and educational situation in my country.

Egyptians know two versions of Arabic. There’s standard Arabic, a modernized form of classical Arabic which is the language of the Holy Quran, and there’s the colloquial Egyptian version we speak every day.

Standard Arabic is used for all official documents, written forms of media, official governmental speeches, as well as anchored news. Cairene Arabic is a simple adaptation of standard Arabic. It includes the same vocabulary more or less, but involves different pronunciation, and sentence structure.

However, our relationship with the two Arabic versions is not that simple, thanks to decades of political and social turmoil.

 The rise of Arab nationalism in Egypt during the ’50s entailed the glorification of standard Arabic and its adoption as the official language of Egypt. It was done in an overly sensationalized manner, and any attempts at attributing any formality to the Egyptian dialect were dismissed. Standard Arabic had existed for centuries, but with this newfound sense of nationalism, the language was dragged in to help resurrect a long lost sense of identity, following decades of Western imperialism. Cairene Arabic was limited to daily conversations, media, and entertainment, but was never given any importance in terms of writing. As a consequence, my generation thought it was not worthy of representing us.

From a very young age, I was socially conditioned to respect standard Arabic, a language I do not speak. But, I just could not and still cannot relate to it. I as well as the rest of my generation are blamed for not identifying with our language and we now feel like language infidels when we text in English or Anglo-Arabic characters.

'We now feel like language infidels when we text in English or Anglo-Arabic characters.' Click To Tweet

But did the government provide Egyptian schools students with a proper education in standard Arabic so they may help them live up to such expectations? Were they staying true to us and to themselves? Not really. Actually, not at all. Our Arabic language school curriculum was severely outdated, old fashioned and not tailored to today’s changing world. We studied old, difficult and boring texts – texts we could not relate to, with the newest text last written in the 60s. Poetry and literary texts written in colloquial Egyptian were not included in our education. It was so ironic that the only thing that would have made me relate more to my national culture, was not supported by the Arab nationalist movement itself.

Since Cairene Egyptian dialect is not a written language, it is not the language of education, and therefore not the language of the educated. It has been neglected for so long, that it’s turned stale in terms of catching up on tech terms and higher forms of thought. Something had to fill in the void of speech when you wanted to discuss complex concepts, and for me, English was my solace.

Our sense of nationalism is an anchor that keeps us grounded, but should not keep us from sailing into the universe. Click To Tweet

Knowing the woeful situation of Egyptian public school education, my parents had me join a private language school to provide me with a balanced education. Something that would still tie me to my culture, yet prepare me for an age dominated by the English speaking world. And so, I received an Egyptian national education at this private school that placed larger emphasis on English without undermining Arabic.

I became better versed in the English language than I was in my own. I feel that it’s funny that I speak a language and write another. I cannot stick with one, because they are both complementary to me. They are essential parts of who I am.

I could never really bring myself to commit to a monogamous relationship with it. Click To Tweet

There is nothing wrong with identifying with both, but given how badly I was made to feel about my language orientation, I am one of many who treat their language like scum yet put it high up on a pedestal, regarding it with looks of forlorn reverence. I feel like I cheat on my language with a younger, more beautiful one. I abandon Arabic and abuse it, yet I love it to pieces and cannot imagine a life without it.

I became better versed in the English language than I was in my own. Click To Tweet

I am expected to hinge my entire identity on Arabic, yet I could never really bring myself to commit to a monogamous relationship with it, because it does not represent me in full.

I believe that is it about time that we start including material written in our dialect in school curricula, while updating standard Arabic textbooks to include the importance of second languages, since practical involvement in this globalized world is crucial to raising psychologically sound Egyptians who can identify as citizens of the world. Nationalism is good, but with the unhealthy saturation we have been experiencing, it has messed us up. It is an anchor that keeps us grounded, but should not keep us from sailing into the wide oceans of the universe.

 

Mona A. Moneim

Mona A. Moneim

Mona Abdel-Moneim is a full-time copywriter at a branding agency and a former university teacher with an MLitt in the study of Muslims, Globalization and the West from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Besides learning the guitar and polishing her writing skills, she is now focused on her voluntary work in Education. She loves cats, Cadbury's Crunchie, deep conversations and everything indie.

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