Arabic is a language spoken by over 250 million people ‘from the Ocean to the Gulf’ as the Arabs say, that is, from Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara in the West to Iraq, the Gulf states and Somalia in the East. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. It is the sacred language of somewhere around 1.5 billion Muslims across the world, and also the language in which some of the world's greatest works of literature, science, and history have been written.
Classical Arabic is the language in which Allah chose to speak to mankind through Prophet Muhammad in the Qur'an, Islam's Holy Book, in the 7th century of the Christian era. This same language is still very much alive today, not only in Islamic and classical texts but also in a constantly adapting form as Modern Standard Arabic, the language of books and news broadcasts, poetry and political speeches across the whole Arab world, the language that every Arab primary school child learns to read and write in. It is the language of the Arabic poetical tradition, from the mighty odes of the pre-Islamic desert Arabs through the witty poetry of the 'Abbasids, the tender nostalgia of the garden poems of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), and the passionate speculations of the Sufis, to the wizardry of present-day giants such as Adunis and Mahmud Darwish. It is the precise language of the jurists and the theologians, the dazzling rhetoric of the orators and the preachers, the subtleties of the writers of fiction and essays – and that of the internet. So to understand Arabic gives an opportunity not only to communicate with the richness and passion of the contemporary Arab world but also to explore almost 14 centuries of one of the most sophisticated, varied and rich intellectual heritages.
You may well have noticed a problem here: nobody speaks Standard Arabic as their native language. They learn it at school, but the mother tongue of a native Arabic speaker is the dialect of their own country. The Cambridge classroom attempts to mirror the Arab world, using Syrian dialect to speak and Standard Arabic to read and write. Syrian has the advantage of being a central dialect which Arabs from other parts can readily understand, and which can easily be adapted to speaking in other dialects as the need arises. When students spend their year in the Middle East, they come back speaking the dialect of whichever country they have chosen to spend their time in, so that the fourth-year language classroom, like the Arab world itself, is a mix of dialects. Just as Standard Arabic gives access to the thought and literature of the Arabs, so the dialects give access to their everyday lives, with their stress on the importance of social relationships and honourable behaviour, and with all their warmth and hospitality and vigour.
Photo: Aieman Khimji, Wikipedia