Adventures in Libyan Arabic

[Correction: In an earlier version, I translated the term “سلال القلوب” as “basket of hearts”. The correct translation is “remover of hearts”]

The comic below is from “Itchy Feet: Travel and Language Comic“, one of my personal favorite webcomics.

Itchy Feet ComicAh, languages. The stitching that keeps the fabric of societies bound together and functioning. The skill that makes humans superior to other animals. The trait that enriches our cultures and heritages.

I’m horrible at them. As in, I got a D+ in my Arabic language course at university and it exceeded my expectations.

I mean, it’s not like I can’t learn a new language, it’s more about how much effort and dedication it requires. Some people have a natural bent for picking up new languages. I’ve met Libyans who’ve never left the country and yet know English better than native speakers. Valadmir Nabakov produced masterpieces in English and it was his third language.

But me? Nope. I’ve got about one and half languages under my belt, and I’m pretty satisfied with that. While I would love to speak with the flowing lilt of Italian or the animated babble of French, the moment I look up language guides and see the mass of grammar rules, I give up on the spot. If you’re not planning on writing epic poems and just want to learn up to a conversational level, the easiest way to do that is speak with natives or immerse yourself in the culture of your preferred language. It is, after all, as much a cultural thing as it is memorizing a new alphabet and vocabulary.

And as the comic above illustrates, sometimes learning the formal version of a language isn’t as useful as you’d think. There are numerous versions of Arabic, each differing based on the country or region you’re in. And within that country, you’ll find even more sub-languages. Take Libya, for instance. The Eastern and Western dialect are distinctly different. But within the Eastern dialect there are still further more dialects. A person from Benghazi can be distinguished from a person from Tobruk, or Derna, by the way they talk. I once saw someone joke about it on Twitter, saying Libya is a country where you encounter a new dialect every 40 km you go. This is similar to many Arabic-speaking countries.

I always feel like Libyans don’t fully appreciate the richness of our local dialect. We have some clever, fun and bizarrely interesting phrases and words. Take this one:

“ياهارب من الغولة يا طايح في سلال القلوب” (You’re either running from the monster or running into those who rip out hearts)

While that clearly sounds macabre to the average English speaker (more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than common idiom), the meaning is actually equivalent to ‘Caught between a rock and a hard place’. Ours is just a little more *vivid*.

Another (less morbid sounding) Libyan idiom is: “كلام الليل مدهون بالزبدة” (Words spoken at night are greased in butter), which means that it’s easy to say things and make promises at night (when you’re sleepy) when you might not do so while alert. The butter metaphor alludes to the ease with which butter can be spread.

Another saying, which is very pertinent to the situation in Libya regarding our infamous rumor mills, is “قاله شن علمك الكذب, قال اللي نسمعه انقوله” (He was asked where he learned how to lie, he responded, “I repeat everything I hear”). This is sort of a cautionary tale about the harm in spreading rumors, and yet, even though we have an age-old idiom about this very problem, it still persists. Go figure.

Along with these idioms, the Libyan dialect has a lot of Italian loanwords that we picked up during the colonization in WWII (along with some pretty rad Italian-style architecture). The words are given a Libyan-twist to make them more pronunciation-friendly. If a Libyan tells you to stop at the ‘sima-fro‘, he/she means the traffic intersection, if they tell you look nice in your ‘goun-a‘, they’re talking about your skirt. As Libya continues to become more exposed to the rest of the world, a lot of English words are also getting “Libyanized” and added to the colloquial vernacular. ‘Fanash-et’ literally means “I finished”, it’s the word finish with a ت added at the end.

So, you’re probably wondering if Libya is some kind of weird wonderland (which, yeah, it kinda is), but these examples serve to show you how colourful our local dialects are. Unlike Modern Standard Arabic, these dialects are more flexible and can be expanded, as shown by the quick adoption of words from other languages. [If you’re interested in learning more about Libyan sayings, there’s a pretty cool Twitter account that posts them, although not with translations, which you can check out here. I also found this neat blog post on common Libyan terms in West Libya, which you can see here.]

During the last writing contest my organization held, I wrote a blog post about how the majority of submissions were in English, despite the fact that most of the participants spoke Arabic as a first language. We had even received submissions in broken English, as though the participants would rather struggle to write with a language they weren’t proficient at, rather than write in the language they knew. As I mentioned in the post, it got me thinking about holding a writing contest in colloquial Libyan, the language we use everyday when interacting with one another.

The logo of the 'Write in Libyan' contest. The two red hat things are 'shennas', traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

The logo of the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest. The two blobs hanging on the letters are ‘shennas’, traditional Libyan hats (red for East Libya, black for West & South)

Well, we did end up hosting that very contest! And the results were as I had predicted; there was a larger level of participation, as well as more enthusiasm from our general audience. The essays themselves were also more emphatic, it seemed. You’ll definitely write best if you write in the language you communicate with the most, right?

We wanted to keep the premise simple; write an essay about one of three topics we had offered, in, of course, Libyan Arabic. The generous folks over at Libyan Youth Voices let us make a call for essays on their website, as well as the promise of featuring the best essay on their site.

Of course, this idea was not without it’s criticism and detractors. While the overwhelming majority of people told us that they liked the idea, others told us that they believed encouraging writing in a local dialect would push people away from the purer, more universal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA). Local dialects are, of course, corrupted versions of MSA with geographic and historical factors influencing them.

But my response to this is that people are already speaking in local dialects. No one in Libya talks to one another in MSA. We even use it online on social media. While MSA does have it’s place in the formal press and other professional settings, it’s the local dialect that is most often used by the average Libyan citizen. And since the goal of our organization is to encourage the average Libyan to express themselves, we might as well do it in the language they are most comfortable with.

Another criticism came from our use of the term “Libyan”, when we specifically meant Arabic Libyan. There are actually a number of other languages spoken in Libya besides Arabic, such as Tamazight (mainly spoken by Amazigh Libyans), Greetli (spoken by Libyans of Greek descent, but it’s dying out), Tamahaq (spoken by Tuareg Libyans), along with others.

Now, this is a legitimate criticism. Libya is more diverse than is usually admitted, especially by die-hard pan-Arabists, and to claim that “Libyan” only means Libyan Arabic is wrong. My only defense here is that we don’t have the resources include, for eg., a Tamahaq or Ghadamsi in the writing contest, since we don’t know how to read them.

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tifinagh, the alphabet of Tamazight. (Source: Wikipedia)

However, after some asking around, we got into contact with Libyan Amazighis who told us they’d be more than happy to help out with a Tamazight writing contest, and we are currently working to ensure that this becomes our next contest. While I’m way out of my scope here in terms of expectations for what impact this contest will have, I think it’s an important gesture nonetheless to encourage tolerance of different ethnicities and to really appreciate the cultural diversity we have. It would also move the organization near political territory, as Amazigh Libyans have been protesting for Tamazight to be recognized as an official National language. But hey, we gotta take risks once in a while, and this is a good cause.

Back to the ‘Write in Libyan’ contest, one of the organization’s team members had the brilliant idea of contacting Dr.Khaled Mattawa. Dr.Mattawa is a Libyan author and writer. He’s also a pretty big deal (as evidenced by his Wikipedia page). He’s won several awards, the latest being the MacArthur ‘Genius Prize’ for his work translating Arabic poetry into English. He was generous and gallant enough to judge the entries from the contest, and in record time (a mere day!).

The winning essay, as determined by Dr.Mattawa, was entitled “مختلفين مش متخالفين” (We’re Different, But Not Enemies), by Mohamed Ezawi, a Libyan from Tripoli. The essay was published on Libyan Youth Voices as promised, and you can check it out here or, to read the intro in Arabic, here. It’s an essay about the importance of difference of opinion and belief in Libyan society, and how we tend to make the erroneous assumption that those of a different mind are our adversaries. It’s an essay that strikes at the heart of the current Libyan conflict, and I hope the message reaches as many Libyans as possible.

The other winners are (you can read the essay on Wattpad by clicking on the name below):

2nd Place: “The Love of Ownership” by Hadeel Alfasay

3rd Place (two entries tied): Why Are You Smiling” by Mukhtar Al-Zlitni and “All We Have is Facebook” by Amel 

You can also read the 1st place winner on Wattpad here.

I believe it’s also noteworthy that the participants mainly focused on the ‘Libyan Culture’ option when writing their article, and chose a certain facet of Libyan culture to write about. I felt that this showed a profound level of creativity on their part for choosing those angles, as opposed to a traditional or cliche take on Libyan culture. (I personally would have written a long-winded piece on Libyan culture as reflected in our local architecture, because I’m a stuffy 50-year old academic trapped in the body of a young adult). There was also a level of humor and comic-relief in the pieces, which I loved because it captured that light-hearted aspect of Libya that I love so much. Libyans can find humor even in a war, which you can see in the multiple memes that have emerged since the revolution (side note: someone should make an archive of Libyan memes. Told you, I’m a stuffy academic). I think the hard times that have become the hallmark of Libyan existence for the past 100 years or so has led to this resilience of spirit, and finding the bright side in any situation. It’s not so much apathy in the face of difficulty as much as it’s a coping mechanism, Libyan style.

Keeping myself narrowly focused on these kinds of projects, along with my writing, is my own form of coping with the current situation. Libya’s now the flavour of the month for analysts and the news, and everyone’s talking about the war, but I’m frankly sick of wringing my hands (figuratively speaking, I’m not that old) and getting into a funk over something I can’t really change. I pray for the best, but I’m going to do what my ancestors have done before me and just adjust to the situation and try to find the bright side. And that’s as optimistic as I’m going to get for you guys for now.

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3 thoughts on “Adventures in Libyan Arabic

  1. If you are interested in other languages here is a link to “Droles d’alphabets”

    http://h2oo.over-blog.org/article-13066839.html

    but sorry this homepage is in French which I personally like much more than English. The graphic impression of the different global alphabets shown there is really unique and astonishing. And you may only observe similarities between these alphabets to some extent.

    Several years ago I also tried to learn Arabic, but without living in an Arabic country it’s quite useless and difficult, and as you normally will only learn the “Newspaper-Arabic” it is not very practicable while this is no spoken language.

    Diversity is an important human heritage which needs to be preserved and protected everywhere in the world!

  2. Pingback: Learning a new language | Saneeya Qureshi

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