Egypt has always been a cosmopolitan country, tolerating within its culture many other nationalities. Other languages besides Arabic have always also been part of Egypt’s culture as a result of foreign influences, most recently the English and French languages.
However, recent decades have witnessed a deterioration in the use of Arabic in schools, universities, conferences, scientific panels, and the media, among the reasons being the use of other languages such as English and French instead.
There have been various initiatives to revitalise Arabic as a result, reminding us of its beauty and lodging it more firmly in our hearts and minds. One of these is an initiative being carried out in Alexandria by professor Nagwa Saber, a literature professor in the Arabic Department of the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University.
“I had the idea of the initiative some time ago when I realised that the Arabic language was deteriorating in all aspects of our lives,” Saber said, recalling when she had been sitting with one of her relatives who was telling her that for his children the Arabic language had little meaning.
Her love of the language meant that she was determined to find ways of revitalising the language among young people. Her great fondness for it does not only stem from her being a professor of Arabic, but also from her conviction that Arabic is a language that has an enormous intrinsic value.
She started the initiative two years ago with an announcement at the university for students and colleagues. It was called “Revitalising the Arabic Language Nights”, an idea loosely based on the model of the famous One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, because each night would contribute to the ongoing effort.
The initiative also does not rely on conferences and seminars, sometimes used by people wanting to draw attention to the beauties of Arabic. Instead, it relies on the artistic aspects of the Arabic language, including by listening to classical Arabic poetry, attending classical and modern plays, and listening to music.
“Each night, we surprise the audience with classical Arabic plays and songs that might appeal to different tastes. Some people think that classical Arabic is difficult to understand, but at our initiative they are amazed to find that they can easily understand classical Arabic. More importantly, it is beautiful and music to the ears,” Saber said.
There have been four successful nights at some of Alexandria’s largest musical, cultural and artistic hubs such as the Alexandria library, the Alexandria Opera House and the Herrera Creative Centre. The initiative is collaborating with the Alexandria Opera House, whose head, Magdi Saber, is enthusiastic about the idea and has facilitated the administration and logistics, providing the hall and equipment for free.
The initiative has collaborated with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Faculty of Special Education in Alexandria, which has recruited musicians and singers. Its main funding has been provided by Alexandria University, where Wael Nabil has found sponsorship and administrative support for the project.
Some of the nights are aimed particularly at children from five to 15 years old.
Mai Ibrahim and her seven-year-old daughter Lily were among the performers, and though the idea of singing and performing on stage had never occurred to them before, they dazzled the audience with their performances in October and December.
Together, they sang a duet called Atadreen? (Do you know?), a song released last year by the Zein production company. “I never thought Lily and I had good voices or would be able to sing in front of an audience. But when the idea was suggested by professor Nagwa, we realised we had hidden talents,” she said.
Ibrahim is a PhD candidate in English literature at Alexandria University, “but our experience with the classical Arabic language has been awesome, especially as we encouraged each other to practice together,” she said. The experience also made the mother-daughter relationship much stronger and brought them closer together.
“The stereotypes we might have about the classical Arabic language are totally wrong. It is easy, and it flows from the heart. It is easy to memorise. It is there, deeply buried in our hearts and minds. We just need to get at the gem inside us,” she added.
Lily did not have any difficulty with the Arabic and loved it more after the experience. This was because its use was accompanied by creativity, she said. “I discovered that the Arabic language is not difficult at all. We watched plays in classical Arabic, and we could easily understand it,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“I am happy I shared this experience with my friends at school who sometimes think Arabic is difficult,” she added. Though Lily is an international school student, she feels proud that she is using Arabic and that the language is helping her to achieve something by herself.
Other parents have also become involved in the initiative. Mai Abdel-Razek, a theatre director who works in the Theatre Department at Alexandria University, said that parents have a great role to play when it comes to encouraging their children to use classical Arabic.
“The children’s nights were difficult because we were training children on different levels and in the language. Their mothers helped us. They made them pronounce the words better, perform perfectly, and overcome any stage fright,” Abdel-Razek said.
She herself wrote a play called Mahkamat Al-Ashgar (The Trees Trial) that helps children understand how to protect the environment through a simple story told in classical Arabic.
One of the most challenging experiences was directing musical theatre in classical Arabic and making it appeal to the audience. “Though I have been a director for almost 20 years, that was the biggest challenge I had,” she said.
Each night included more than one short play, with songs and poetry performances also taking place on stage. Arabic classics such as Magnoun Laila (Layla and Majnun) and Antar wa Abla (Antar and Abla) were performed regularly over several nights.
“The idea of having musical drama performed in classical Arabic may seem a bit arcane at first. The last time such plays were presented was in the National Theatre in Cairo,” Abdel-Razek said. Terminology had to be explained and meanings clarified. Nagwa Saber helped out with this, drawing on her expertise as a professor of the Arabic language.
The initiative did not have a lot of funding, especially at the beginning, and so Abdel-Razek used modern theatre techniques such as video mapping and projection. Different lighting techniques were also used to convey the messages, feelings, and emotions of the plays.
There are preconceptions about works in classical Arabic, with some young people finding them hard to relate to, even when it comes to simple stories and cartoons.
Karim Ibrahim, 20, says that these are wrong, as he fell in love with the Arabic language because of the dubbed cartoons using classical Arabic he used to watch as a child.
Schools also have an important role to play in bringing back the Arabic language. “I took part in many poetry competitions in the classical language at school. Unlike other students, I never had any difficulty in understanding classical Arabic or modern standard Arabic. On the contrary, I used to use words that were only understood by adults, with my friends asking me what they meant,” Ibrahim, a third-year student at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University, said.
To Ibrahim and many other young Arabic lovers, citing classical and contemporary poems makes people fall more in love with the language as they can see the beauty that lies in its structures, metonyms, and metaphors.
“Such initiatives address a problem we all face when we try to make people love the Arabic language as they used to,” said Hager Saad, a fourth-year student in the Arabic Department.
Saad, who loves Arabic literature and criticism, joined the Arabic Department hoping that she can later have a career in radio. She is working on her language in the department, which she says is blessed with great professors and teachers who have made her think differently.
She has taken part in classical Arabic plays such as Magnoun Laila, where she was astounded to find a great number of fans. “Many people are fans of songs sung by singers like Angham or Kazem Al-Saher without realising that these are actually poems in classical Arabic. This shows how much people love this kind of songs. It shows that people love Arabic when it is used in a creative and artistic way,” she said.
“We chose the scripts for the nights based on their simplicity and creativity, not on how sophisticated they might be,” Saad added, saying that now there is a wish to see the initiative growing outside Alexandria and reaching as many governorates as possible.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.