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1Young Voices from the Arab World
The Arabic Language: The Glue ThatBinds the Arab Worldby Zeina Azzam Seikaly*
*Zeina Azzam Seikaly is outreach coordinator at GeorgetownUniversitys Center for Contemporary Arab Studies inWashington, DC.
If an Algerian, an Egyptian, a Syrian, and aSaudi Arabian are asked the question, Whatmakes you an Arab? they will undoubtedlyall include speaking Arabic in their answers.This language is indeed the glue that binds theArab world, from Morocco to Kuwait. Arabichas played a significant role in the sharedhistory of all Arabs, and it continues to provideArab society with a cohesiveness and strongsense of identity.
Until the advent of Islam in the seventh centuryCE, Arabic was primarily an oral language. TheQuran, Islams holy book, was revealed to theProphet Muhammad in Arabic, thereby givingthe language great religious significance.Muslims believe that to fully understand themessage of the Quran, it must be read in itsoriginal language: Arabic. Thus, the importanceof the Arabic language extends well beyond theborders of the Arab world. There are over onebillion Muslims worldwide, and they all striveto learn Arabic in order to read and pray in thelanguage of revelation.
The First Word: Recite
Muslims believe that the first word revealed tothe Prophet Muhammad was iqra, or recite.This is the command that God gave toMuhammad when the Prophet began to receivethe revelations, which were later compiled intothe Quran. Literally, Quran means recita-tion. In fact, the verb iqra contains the three-letter root on which the word Quran isbasedQ, R, and A (see Root and PatternSystem, below). Muslims also interpret Godscommand as enjoining humankind not only tolearn to read and write, but also to gain adeeper understanding of life and spiritualitythrough learning.
Three Forms of Arabic: Classical,Modern Standard, and Colloquial
The Quran became the fixed standard forArabic, particularly for the written form of thelanguage. Arabs consider the Classical Arabicof the Quran as the ultimate in linguisticbeauty and perfection. The contemporaryModern Standard Arabic, based on theclassical form of the language, is used inliterature, print media, and formal communica-tions such as news broadcasts. ColloquialArabic, or locally spoken dialect, varies fromcountry to country and region to regionthroughout the Arab world.
The written and spoken forms of Arabic arehighly interrelated. In religious ceremonies orformal speeches or meetings, the written formof Arabic is employed orally. Modern StandardArabic is used in television and radio newsbroadcasts across the Arab world, thus allowingArabic speakers from countries as far apart asLebanon and Morocco to understand oneanother. In conversation, however, Arabicspeakers from different countries might encoun-ter problems understanding one another whenthey speak in their respective local dialects.They could communicate in Modern StandardArabic, a form usually reserved for formaloccasions, but it might feel a bit awkward or stiff.
Although written Arabic has changed compara-tively little since the seventh century, spokenArabic has assumed many local and regionalvariations. It has also incorporated foreignwords; for example, in the twentieth century,many new non-Arabic words have found their
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way into the language, particularly termsrelating to modern technology. Although thereare Modern Standard Arabic equivalents forcomputer, telephone, television, andradio, most Arabs, in speaking, will use theEnglish or French versions of these words.
At the same time, Western languages haveborrowed a plethora of words from Arabic.During its zenith, Islamic civilization wasconsidered a center for scholarship, and Arabicwas the medium for medicine and mathematics,philosophy, and astronomy. Words such asalcohol, algebra, admiral, alchemy, elixir, gauze,and magazine all derive from Arabic roots.Many of the names we call stars come fromArabic; examples include Betelgeuse and Rigel(both in the constellation Orion), Deneb (inCygnus), Altair (in Aquila), and Aldebaran (inTaurus). In addition, the Spanish and Portu-guese languages also contain a wealth of wordsof Arabic origin, owing to the flowering of Arabcivilization in the Iberian peninsula from theeighth to the fifteenth centuries.
Characteristics of the Language
Arabic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew,Aramaic, and Amharic. It has 28 letters, manyof which parallel letters in the Roman alphabet,and it is written from right to left (Arabic booksare held so that the spine is on the right-handside). Letters or sounds equivalent to P and Vdo not exist in Arabic. Conversely, many lettersounds in Arabic are unfamiliar to Englishspeakers. For example, the guttural `ayn isproduced by compressing the throat and has noequivalent in Western languages (in transliter-ated text it is often denoted by a backwardapostrophe or a superscript c). The ghaynresembles a French r, and the kha sounds likea deep German ch. Some Arabic lettersrepresent sounds that are written as two lettersin English, such as the sheen that makes an shsound, and the tha that makes a th sound. Infact, Arabic includes one letter for the soundth as it is pronounced in the word thin, anda different letter for the sound th as it ispronounced in the word the.
There are six vowel sounds in Arabic: a longee as in beet; a short i as in bit; a longaa as in man; a short a as in many; a
long oo as in boot; and a short u as input. The three long vowels (ee, aa, and oo) aredesignated by specific letters, and the shortvowels are denoted by accent marks. Therefore,many Arabic words are written as a series ofconsonants, with accent marks accompanyingthe letters to indicate voweling. In everydaywriting, these accents are often omitted; thereader recognizes the words as a result ofexperience as well as the context.
In addition to singular and plural constructs,Arabic has a form called dual that indicatesprecisely two of something. For example, a penis qalam, two pens are qalamayn, and pens areaqlaam. As in French, Spanish, and many otherlanguages, Arabic nouns are either feminine ormasculine, and the verbs and adjectives thatrefer to them must agree in gender. In writtenArabic, case endings are used to designate partsof speech (subject, object, prepositional phrase,etc.), in a similar fashion to Latin and German.
Arabic letters are strung together to form wordsin one way only; there is no distinction betweenprinting and cursive, as there is in English.Neither are there capital and lowercase lettersall the letters are the same. The form of theletter, however, changes depending on itsposition (beginning, middle, end) in a word.Some connect only on one side, others on both.The letter shapes include loops and dots andother features that lend an artistic quality to thescript (see Arabic Calligraphy, page 30).
Root and Pattern System
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Arabic isits regularity of form. Arabic words generallyderive from three-letter roots that are modifiedaccording to specific rules in order to constructgroups of words whose meanings relate to eachother. Extensive word families are constructedin Arabic by adding prefixes, infixes (lettersadded inside the word), and suffixes to a three-letter root in a series of set patterns. In fact,when using an Arabic dictionary, one does notsimply look up words alphabetically. The three-letter root must first be determined, and then itcan be located alphabetically in the dictionary.Under the root, the different words that belongto that word family are listed.
On the next page are some of the words formedfrom the three-letter root JLS.
3Young Voices from the Arab World
Many Arab families continue to follow tradi-tional naming customs. The firstborn son, forexample, will name his own firstborn son afterhis father. As Arab society is patrilineal, girlsand boys assume their fathers name for amiddle name and take his last name as theirs.The names themselves all have meaningsfrequently attributes of an admirable personal-ity (e.g., Kareema means generous or noble;Zaki means intelligent). As in many parts of theworld, Arabic names often denote a professionfor which the family was once known, such asHaddad (Smith) or Khabbaz (Baker). Familynames can also represent the familys city ortown of origin, such as Akkawi (from Akka, orAcre, in historic Palestine) or Homsi (fromHoms, in Syria).
When reading Arab history, one often encoun-ters the words Ibn (or Bin) and Bint, whichmean son of and daughter of, respectively.Thus, Ibn Khaldun or Ibn Battuta indicate theSon of Khaldun and the Son of Battuta, andZaynab Bint Jahsh means Zaynab, the Daughterof Jahsh. Banu or Bani is the plural of Ibn;therefore, Banu Hashim means the children (ordescendants) of Hashim, and Bani Adam meansthe descendants of Adam. Abu means fatherof and Umm means mother of; thus, AbuSalamah and Umm Salamah are the parents ofthe son named Salamah.
In Islam, God (Allah in Arabic) has ninety-ninenames, all describing His goodness and majesty.
JaLaSa to sit down
aJLaSa to seat [someone]
JiLSa manner of sitting
JuLuuS [the act of] sitting down
iJLiS! sit down!
JaLSa meeting or gathering
JaLeeS companion; participant in asocial gathering (feminine isJaLeeSa)
maJLiS session or council
muJaaLaSa social exchange or commu-nication
These are attributes that are mentioned in theQuran and Hadith (sayings of the ProphetMuhammad). Many Arabic names are con-structed by merging the word Abd (meaningservant of) with one of the ninety-nine names.Therefore, Abd Allah (often written in Englishas Abdallah, or Abdullah) means Servant ofGod. Here are some other examples. Note thatthe prefix al means the.
Abd al-RahmanServant of the MercifulAbd al-JabbarServant of the AlmightyAbd al-HakeemServant of the Wise One
When these names are Anglicized, often theyare written as Abdul Rahman and Abdul Jabbar.There is no right or wrong way to transliteratethese names, as long as it is understood thatAbdul does not usually stand alone as aname. Rather, it means servant of the andshould be followed by one of the ninety-ninenames of God.
Some other common Arabic names and theirmeanings are listed below.
Female NamesMunahope, wishLaylanightHanaantenderness, compassionKarmagrapevineSalwacomfort, consolationSameeracompanionNoorlight`Ayshaalive, prosperousAmeenabeliever, having faith, peacefulFatimadaughter of Prophet MuhammadKhadeejafirst wife of Prophet Muhammad
Male NamesShareefhonorableJameelhandsome`Umarlong life, thrivingRasheedrightly guided, sensibleSaleemsafe, faultlessFareedunique, unrivaledAmeentrustworthy, loyalKhaledeverlasting, immortalMuhammad, Ahmad, Mahmoudpraised`Aliexalted, elevatedHasan, Husaynhandsome, superior
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As mentioned earlier, the shapes of Arabicletters and the flowing style of the script endowthe language with great artistic potential.Indeed, Arabic calligraphy is ubiquitous in theIslamic world and is found in both religious andsecular environments.
A saying (hadith) attributed to ProphetMuhammad is, Beautiful calligraphy givestruth more clarity. As the Islamic communitygrew, calligraphy was adapted to different uses.For example, the writing of the Quran neededto be beautiful yet understandable. Becausepaper was expensive, compact script waspreferred for business and personal correspon-dence. Ornamental calligraphy on buildings,metalwork, and textiles could be embellishedextensively and rendered in a variety of styleselegant and flowing, or angular and geometric.Calligraphic styles thus proliferated andcontinue to evolve to this day.
Some of the characteristics of Arabic calligraphyare proportionality, symmetry, repetition, andembellishment. The horizontal letters, like baand seen, can be stretched out to fill a particu-lar space or shape, or to add a dramatic quality.The vertical letters, like the alef and lam, canbe elongated, slanted, or rendered in a perpen-dicular fashion. One can feel the scriptflowing in a particular direction. Loops, dots,and accent marks add interest, balance, anddecoration, and contribute to an overall sense ofregularity and harmony.
Arabic calligraphers sometimes constructcalligramswords or phrases that conform tospecific shapes or figures, such as a rectangle oran animal. A calligram can also include mirrorwriting, in which the calligraphy of the wordor phrase is a perfect mirror image on each sideof an imaginary line of symmetry. These some-
Biblical NamesIbrahimAbraham MusaMosesDawudDavid YusefJoseph`IssaJesus HannaJohnHawwaEve SarahSarah
times have a maze-like quality, at once enig-matic and aesthetically pleasing.
Ghazzawi, Sabah. The Arabic Language.Washington, DC: Center for ContemporaryArab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986.
Godlas, Sylvia. Doorways to Islamic Art: ACurriculum for Interdisciplinary Studies.Berkeley, CA: Arab World and IslamicResources and School Services, 1997.
Khatibi, Abdelkebir and Mohammed Sijelmassi.The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy. NewYork, NY: Rizzoli International Publications,Inc., 1977.
Khouri, Mounah A., Literature, in John R.Hayes, ed., The Genius of Arab Civilization:Source of Renaissance. Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 1978.
Sabbagh, Isa Khalil. As the Arabs Say:Arabic Quotations Recalled and Interpreted.Washington, DC: Sabbagh ManagementCorporation, 1983.
Shabbas, Audrey, ed. The Arab World StudiesNotebook, section on Language. Berkeley,CA and Washington, DC: Arab World andIslamic Resources and School Services, andMiddle East Policy Council, 1998.
Zakariya, Mohamed U. The Calligraphy of Islam:Reflections on the State of the Art. Washington,DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies,Georgetown University, 1979.
This beautifully embellished example of Arabiccalligraphy is the work of Mohamad Zakariya. It isan Arabic proverb that translates, In the midst ofdoubt, one finds certainty.
5Young Voices from the Arab World
The Arabic Language: The Glue That Binds the ArabWorld by Zeina Azzam Seikaly is excerpted from theguidebook that accompanies AMIDEASTs educationalvideo Young Voices from the Arab World: The Lives and Timesof Five Teenagers. This award-winning video conveyseveryday aspects of Arab culture and society through thelives of five young people from Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt,Kuwait, and Morocco. They take you into their homes,schools, places of worship, and favorite entertainmentspots. Narration by noted radio personality Casey Kasemprovides historical, geographical, and other backgroundinformation. This excellent introduction to the Arab worldwas developed especially for classroom use in grades fivethrough eight, but its lively presentation will appeal to amuch broader audience.
The teachers guidebook includes the script, a video summary, country data andstatistics, informational handouts on topics introduced in the video, an annotatedbibliography of selected print and internet resources, regional recipes, a glossary ofterms, and other supplementary information.
Established in 1951, AMIDEAST is a private, nonprofit organization that seeks to improveunderstanding and cooperation between the peoples of the Middle East/North Africa and theUnited States. Programs and services include the production and distribution of educationalmaterials, educational exchange between the Middle East and the United States, anddevelopment assistance in the region. Headquartered in Washington, DC, AMIDEASTmaintains offices in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, West Bank/Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria,Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
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