Saturday, 28 May 2016

Arabic Language, Bedu Poetry and Frozen.

Arabic is quite a poetic language I think.  This epiphany was reached while visiting a Saudi friend one day and she was attempting to teach me Arabic via the phrase 'the sky is blue'.  Only the sky wasn't just blue.  It was shades of blue, depths of blue and sounds of blue depending on which grammatical notes, words or purposes were added to complete the idea of how blue the sky may be.  I might get the basics of this language while I live here, I thought to myself then and there, but it will take a lot longer to learn the poetry of it.

From discussions with my friend and tutor I gathered that poetry elements are mostly found in classical Arabic which is, as my friend described it, proper Arabic.  This comment naturally led to a discussion on the types of Arabic out in Arab world.  She speaks both Saudi and classical Arabic, her situation determining which and when - Saudi at home and with friends, classical for more formal times.

Within Saudi there are numerous differences  in the local language depending on what tribal region you hail from.  And there is also Bedu Arabic, different again.  She said Egyptian Arabic is the most popularly spoken Arabic outside of Saudi while Quranic Arabic is in the Quran.

 Added to that are the other regional differences in dialect - Lebanese, Syrian, North African not to mention the variations in Gulf Arabic and so on all with their own specific vernacular and it becomes clear, very quickly, to a Kiwi attempting to learn, and possibly travel the Middle East with my Arabic For Dummies book, (hailed in the book blurp as the only Arabic Language book you'll need), that the Arabic language is anything but standard.

This morning I Googled Arabic Language and poetry (yes I'm at a lose end today), and came across a fair amount of information on the topic.  What I found basically confirms that Arabic has made use of  metaphor, simile and idiom to create verbal imagery, flowery phrases and even exaggeration - a.k.a. poetry - as a normal part of the language for centuries. There was an understanding, researched aeons ago by Arabic scholars apparently, of the relationship between words spoken or read and the pictures the brain could see if you were descriptive enough. 

It stands to reason that if poetics makes up so much of the Arabic language, that same emotion and sensitivity would spill over into the culture, though we expats tend to label a Saudi beating round the bush as 'avoiding the issue' or an emotionally charged conversation about something quite minor as 'typical Arab crazy'.   Who'd of thought it's all just poetry in motion. Compared to Arabic, English is quite literal and direct. Directness isn't a big thing in Saudi. 

One article I found says that as time marches on and as more western influences arrive and the world modernizes with language apps doing the talking the poetic language of Arabic is at risk of being lost by today's generations.  Language is a moving changing thing and one day if Arab nations aren't careful, much like Latin or even Shakespearean English, Classical Arabic could wind up a thing of the past, studied by the few. 

Another article said that Modern Standard Arabic (another name for classical arabic) is only limited in its ability to express everyday experiences but is perfectly suited to in-depth conversations on politics and philosophy.  I'm not sure how that works, but they are sure it does.  Basically, the feeling in this article was that, instead of linguists treating modern standard and vernacular arabic as two different things, they should look at them as supporting each other.  Modern Standard Arabic can be made more  relevant by incorporating colloquial words and phrases, colloquial language can have more substance and expression using Modern Standard Arabic.  A debate for the linguists that I'll leave right there. 

The other thing I found in my Google search was the song 'Let It Go' from Frozen.  Disney, or somebody, has recorded the song in numerous languages and Arabic is one those.  Elias Muhanna wrote an article in the New Yorker, 'Translating “Frozen” Into Arabic' that was an interesting read on the changing of Arabic in this modern day and age and how translating this movie using classical language instead of the more popular colloquial language somewhat shifted the experience of the film.  I'm presuming that means made it more 'stuffy'.  Sort of like the movie Romeo and Juliet with Leonardo Di Caprio, set in the modern age with automatic weapons as fire power, but spoken with Shakespearean English.  Not a movie I enjoyed very much I have to say.

Although all those years ago (six to be more precise) my friend had made me aware that Arabic oration is akin to poetry, I never thought any more of it till we met Marcel Kupershoek in Ha'il, at a celebration of his work.  He is from the Netherlands and, while posted to Saudi with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office he fell in love with the oral traditions of the Bedu and spent a few years studying their language and poetry.  Then he wrote books on the subject, as you do. According to Amazon's synopsis of his book Arabia of the Bedouins'

...he was posted to Saudi Arabia where, 'he started exploring the country's vast deserts and hunting in the Rub 'al-Khali , the Empty corner. Three years later, having familiarized himself with the Bedouin dialect and poetry, he set out to do five months of fieldwork among the tribes of central Arabia, travelling the Saudi desert in search of the living chronicle of the Bedouins.

He established contacts with tribesmen and Bedouins in this remote corner of the desert and discovered the powerful tribes of Utaybah, Qahtan, Subay and Dawasir, whose poets celebrated bravery and feats of arms. His host, Khalid, a Utaybah Sheikh, told him all he knew of his ancestors' chivalrous feats and daring raids when the tribes were a law unto themselves. He also became the first Westerner to visit ad-Dakhul and Hawmal, two mountains mentioned in Imrul Qais' famous pre-Islamic ode. His encounters are recorded in this part travelogue, part book of poems and study of traditional Saudi society'.
There are actually five volumes of Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia. And you can find all of them on Amazon. If you want to listen to the poems on which these books were based, you will find the original recordings of the poets and transmitters can be downloaded for free as MP3 files from Brill’s web site at

I admit I haven't yet read the books.  It just seemed a good idea, as we have met the bloke, and this post is about the poetry of Arabic language, to give them a mention here.  I did, however, have a quick listen to the poetry.  I find it helpful, while attempting to learn Arabic, to listen to people speaking to try and pick up on sounds and words or phrases.  It is obvious  I have a long way to go yet to learn Arabic.  

It's late and I'm rambling.

Ka Kite...


1 comment:

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