I nearly gave up on Leila Ahmed’s memoir A Border Passage. After a lovely, quiet opening that describes the wind in the trees at the house on the edge of Cairo where the author grew up, the narrative shifted gears into several pages of rather dry political history. This is going to be too academic, I thought. I’m looking for something more personal.
By the end of the book, though, I understood that for Leila Ahmed the academic and the political could be as personal as anything that happened to her. Toward the end of the book she has two realizations about her own identity that are probably the most dramatic events of the narrative for her, and for the reader.
The first of these was her realization that for Egyptians to identify themselves as Arabs was a relatively new phenomenon, part of a scheme led by the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by the British to expand and solidify Arab-identified territory as a counterweight to the Ottoman Empire. Prior to that, she writes, Egyptians thought of themselves as having a unique blend of identities: African, Mediterranean, and pharaonic. The only “Arabs” were the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
The second realization, related to the first, was the idea that “standard” written Arabic was supplanting the many other and quite different varieties of Arabic, including the version spoken by millions of Egyptians.
Ahmed is nothing if not a serious academic, which makes it especially interesting to hear her voice such a strong defense of oral versus written expression. The passage below is long, but the ideas are so new to me (and so relevant to the work of Words Without Borders) that I think it is worth quoting.
I had always felt that English was somehow close and more kin to Egyptian Arabic than was standard Arabic. Until now this had seemed to me to be a nonsensical, unreasonable feeling. Now I realized that in fact English felt more like Egyptian Arabic because it was more like it: both are living languages and both have that quickness and pliancy and vitality that living spoken languages have and that the written Arabic of our day does not. I have yet to hear or read any piece of Arabic poetry or prose by a modern writer that, however gorgeous and delicate and poetic and moving, is not also stilted and artificial. There is a very high price to pay for having a written language that is only a language of literature and that has only a distant, attenuated connection to the living language.
I am not, I should say, implicitly arguing that we should do away with or stop teaching standard Arabic, for of course I recognize its usefulness as a lingua franca. And I know too how complicated the issue is, among other reasons because Classical Arabic (albeit different again from Standard Arabic) is the language of the Quran, and I know that many major writers of literary Arabic — including Naguib Mahfouz — consider literary Arabic, the Arabic of the educated classes, to be the only acceptable vehicle for literature. So I am certainly not arguing against our continuing to teach, study and learn literary Arabic. I am, however, making a plea for a recognition of the enormous linguistic and cultural diversity that makes up the Arab world. And I am arguing for our developing a creative approach that, instead of silencing and erasing the tremendous wealth that this diversity represents, would foster it and foster the development, on at least an equal footing with standard Arabic, of written forms of Moroccan, Gulf, Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian, and other Arabics, and also of the non-Arabic living languages of the region, such as Nubian and Berber. European nationalists have devastated their own local languages — Welsh, Scots, Breton — languages now struggling to make a comeback. Let us avoid that history. Let us find a way to celebrate, and rejoice in, this wealth and diversity that is ours, instead of setting out to suppress it.