Rayyan Al-Shawaf / Jun 04, 2007

With all the political turmoil that has engulfed Lebanon since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the Lebanese have paid scant attention to the cultural ramifications of the Syrian withdrawal from their country. No sooner does one find occasion to ponder cultural issues, it seems, than Lebanon is beset by new political crises. Yet allowing politics to dominate all other aspects of life is unfortunate—today more than ever. After all, conditions in Lebanon are propitious for a cultural renaissance, particularly the rejuvenation of the much-abused Arabic language.

Indeed, not since its heyday in the swinging 1960s has Lebanon enjoyed the kind of cultural freedom afforded by the recent demise of Syrian tutelage. Aside from economic prosperity, pre-1975 Lebanon boasted vibrant experiments in Arabic literature. For example, the stylistically bold poetry popularized by Iraqis Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Nazik al-Malaika exploded into free verse with the trailblazing journal Shi'r, edited by Yusuf al-Khal and Adonis. Given its distinctly non-Islamic themes, indebtedness to Western trends, and complete break with the conventions of classical Arabic poetry, Shi'r could only be published in Lebanon. Lebanon's Civil War ended that golden era, destroying the environment that nurtured an uninhibited and boundless Arabic.

In other Arab countries, however, the curtain had descended much earlier. With the advent of Arab nationalism in the decades following World War I, Arabic entered its Blut und Boden phase. Before long, a civilizational language was provincialized and forced to serve as mouthpiece for the perceived interests of a single ethnic group. Of course, the belief that art, literature, and even language itself should be subordinated to ideology figured prominently in other forms of nationalism in the Middle East. Antun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, insisted that in order for Arabic literature to be meaningful, it had to serve the cause of Syrian nationalism. 

Yet it was the Arab nationalists who enjoyed political success. Their capture of power in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria led to the institutionalization of the new creed. The faithful acolytes of Arab nationalist theorists such as Sati al-Husri, Michel Aflaq, and Zaki al-Arsuzi officially wedded Arabic to ethnic chauvinism, martial values, and the macabre exaltation of death. Generations of Arabs imbibed an Arabic that vilified Jews—not just Zionists—while in countries like Iraq, the word "Persian" became an insult. Crucially, dissenting views were denied publication, and thereby effectively banished from the language. 

To complete the transmogrification of Arabic, the entirety of its vocabulary had to be conscripted into the service of ideology. A new bombastic form of Arabic developed, one unwittingly self-parodying, its grandiloquence mocking the expressive richness of the language.

Much of this was in evidence when Lebanon was a Syrian satrapy. How not, with the country governed by the Syrian Baath? In Syria, the Baath extirpated French and—in true Arab nationalist fashion—"ethnicized" Arabic. In Lebanon, the corruption of Arabic was more insidious, but left its mark nonetheless. This was apparent in discussions of Arab political causes, and in references to the heroic stoicism of Lebanon's "Syrian brothers" in defending the honor of "Sister Syria" and the entire "Arab nation."

That period has fortunately come to an end. Notwithstanding all its other challenges, Lebanon now faces the thorny issue of how to define its relationship with the Arab world, and indeed with Arabic itself. In the first half of the 20th century, a number of primarily Christian thinkers like Salamah Musa in Egypt and Anis Freiha and Said Akl in Lebanon argued for the standardization and transcription of the local vernacular, which would replace modern standard Arabic. In Lebanon, such calls became increasingly political over time. The movement reached its zenith during the Lebanese Civil War, when several prominent Christian intellectuals called for Lebanon to dissociate itself completely and finally from the Arab world. Though such calls were mooted by Syria’s de facto annexation of the country in 1990, today Lebanon is once again free to make its own decisions regarding its ties to the Arab hinterland.

In certain respects the fate of Arabic hangs in the balance. The past few years witnessed the deaths of the two remaining Israeli authors who chose to write in Arabic. The passing of novelist Samir Naqqash and memoirist Ishaq Bar-Moshe, both of Iraqi origin, marked the end of an era. Arabic has ceased to be the literary language of choice among Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews, its use now entirely confined to academic and intelligence work. The loss of yet one more Arabic-speaking community, in this case the Lebanese, would further impoverish the Arabic language.

Throughout the centuries, Christians and Jews ensured that Arabic was not simply a Muslim language, non-religious writers of all faiths kept Arabic from being a purely devotional medium, and non-Arab Muslims secured for Arabic its status as the language of high culture in much of the Islamic world. These multifarious and often conflicting phenomena infused Arabic with a suppleness and vitality seldom found among liturgical or strictly ethnic tongues. After all, language is enriched by ideological diversity and debate; conversely, the monopolization of language by a single ideology inevitably leads to its desiccation. During those periods in which Arabic came to be identified exclusively with Islam or Arabs, the religious, ethnic, or ideological "other" always fared badly, and often cast about for an escape route. 

Yet removing oneself from the equation means forfeiting the chance to effect change. Perhaps this was not adequately understood by Lebanon's Christian separatists, or else they considered Arabic—and the Arab world—beyond salvation. Today in Lebanon, there is no influential movement to sever ties with the Arab world. Yet the country appears oblivious to the fact that a golden opportunity has arisen for the rejuvenation of Arabic. 

Paradoxically, only once Lebanon is free from coercive attempts to annex or control it will it be able to offer Arabs something of substance. At long last, that moment has arrived. There is a historic opportunity to make heard the voices of those Lebanese who espouse religious, cultural, and literary views that fly in the face of prevailing Arab orthodoxies. It remains to be seen whether the publishing industry and the media will take full advantage of the situation. Multi-sectarian, multi-lingual Lebanon, with its heady and contradictory mix of Western and Eastern influences, has always been perfectly suited to injecting Arabic with original as well as foreign themes, and shaking the language free of a single, overarching ideology. Indeed, this may be Lebanon's true calling.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut, Lebanon. A slightly different version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2007 edition of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

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