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Samir Attallah And The Twitter Temptation: "There Is A Saying For Every Context"

20 May 2012

By Mshari al-Zaydi

Even veteran writer, Samir Attallah, who is also one of the symbols of the golden age of journalism, has issued statements about the "unruliness" of Twitter.

In his article published last Friday by Asharq Al-Awsat, Attallah avowed: "No to Twitter". This was the title of his column. This was a concise and well-written article, following the telegraphic and straight-to-the-point pattern of Twitter messages. In most cases, those short messages are akin to lightning from a clear sky.

The comment made by Mr. Samir Attallah were directed at well-known Saudi writer Ziyad al-Durais, the Kingdom's Ambassador to UNESCO. Contrary to the atmosphere that this organization evokes in terms of diverse and serious lectures and research, Mr. al-Durais was optimistic about the advent of the "Twitter" era. Attallah quoted al-Durais as saying: "I welcome the Twitter age", adding "I like abridgement in writing and hate digression. Now Twitter is applying the old saying: ‘less is more'".

In an intelligent and refined manner, Attallah remarked that: "When I read Ziyad al-Durais, I wish he would elaborate a little. Abridgement is not a principle or a rule. And just as there is an old saying which goes: "less is more", there is also an axiom that goes: ‘there is a saying for every context.'"

To be honest, Attallah was not the only one who was besieged by battalions of "Twitter" users. His style of writing – not to mention the length of his articles – were criticized, as well as everything that is linked in any manner to the style of writing that existed prior to the era of social networking sites, whether we are talking about Facebook or Twitter.

It is as if there are people lying in wait to try and bury any kind of writing style that is similar to the classical style of writing. Even journalistic parlance, which until very recently was looked down upon by masters of the Arabic language and Arab literature, being scoffed at as the "language of the press", was not exempted from the attacks launched by Twitter users.

The surprise is not in the satire that has been launched by the youths who have found – in Twitter – a chance to write without restrictions, pre-set conditions or even adherence to the standards of ascertainment or rhetorical aesthetics. Those youth regard journalism and writing in general as rhetorical embellishment and aesthetical formation garnishing the banks of opinion and information. In other words, any writing oriented toward the public, contains an aesthetical function in addition to a practical one. Otherwise, there would be no need for news-bulletins and respectable TV shows to have linguistic and stylistic editors; there would be no difference between those who rave, those who know and those who embroider what they know.

The strange thing is not the satire mounted by non-journalistic and non-literary youth against all forms of traditional journalism. I am using the term traditional here in a descriptive sense and not in a dispraising context. By traditional, I mean mediums like newspapers, TV and the radio. The strange thing is the participation of those whose fortunes have been made by traditional journalism; those who contributed to its establishment and achieved their fame via this medium. What is even stranger is that those people condemn journalism in their own newspaper articles!

A state of bedazzlement has blurred the eyes and overtaken these people.

Twitter is like "Facebook", printed journalism, television and radio; it is simply a medium which holds no intrinsic value in itself. The value is in what is conveyed via this medium.

A medium is not an object of praise or criticism; a medium is simply a medium.

Moreover, abridging one's message to just 140 characters – namely a tweet – should not serve a source of pride or evidence of powerful rhetoric or precision by any standard.

Several definitions exist within Arab heritage and rhetoric with regards to the art of abridgement. These determine when abridgement is an object of praise, and indeed when it is not. However, one of the clearest criteria for laudable rhetorical abridgement was what Abu al-Fateh Ibn Jinni stated. Jinni was a linguist and literary figure who died in the year 392 Hegira. As for the criteria for laudable abridgement, Ibn Jini described this as: "Hitting the core of the intended meaning with concise words."

As we have seen, this criterion is hard to meet. Hence, the art of rhetorical abridgement is one of the most sophisticated arts and requires consummate skill. In reality, the talents of the Arabic-speaking population with regards to the ability to acquire polished styles in writing, the gift to create figures of speech and the power to compile rich dictions, has dwindled significantly over the years.

Abridgement, which is the main reason behind people's praise for Twitter in comparison to the elaboration that exists in the press and TV, is not acceptable in its entirety. Even more, it is hard to say that many master the art of abridgement.

To be honest, we live in the age of speed where everything happens very quickly and there is a lack of patience, however good art can only be created via deliberateness and patience. Just like a magnificent painting will take time to be completed or a Persian carpet will take months to be weaved; a serious and useful book will also require a similar amount of time to be researched and written.

There is nothing wrong with Twitter having its position and role. The purpose of this article is not to cancel or refute the space occupied by Twitter. Nevertheless, it is wrong and even reckless to try and marginalize or replace all mediums and discourse – as well as other creative activities – with this. This mistake is compounded when it comes from something that is supposed to enrich the Arab culture, particularly as the majority of serious Arab cultural works come in the form of extended discourse, whether we are talking about novels, encyclopaedias, biographies, plays, scripts, etc.

We really don't know the secret behind this rush toward this website and the inclination to impart augmented roles to it. Is it because there are no regulations or limits governing it? Is it because tweets are confined to 140 characters, even though some have turned their articles or lectures into instalments, each consisting of 140 characters? Such a maneuver takes us back to square one as these 140-character tweets can then be viewed as an extended text.

It seems to me that the secret behind the chief temptation in "Twitter" is the ability to rally the masses. This guarantees that the subject is viewed by the largest possible number of people, regardless of the nature of this material. This is the heart of the matter, whether we are talking about the promotion of commercial goods, religion or works of art. Each of these categories wants to promote its own commodities via Twitter. The market is huge, especially amid the major state of politicization overtaking the Arab World during this particular year. There is also a desire to promote specific political orientations among the masses.

Is this nothing more than a trend, which will eventually come to an end? What is certain is that this Twitter trend will abate when a more tempting formula for interaction appears, just like the "Facebook" glow has started to dim.

Intelligent reading, which is a primary condition for forming awareness and serious critical independence, has begun to ebb and atrophy because of the "illusion" of knowledge provided by sites like Twitter. How could those "addicted' to this website find the time to read a serious book or even read for pleasure? How could they find the time to carefully read a newspaper or even watch a serious TV program till its end?

Last Friday, the Egyptian daily newspaper "Al-Ahram" published an interview with renowned Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher, a living legend of Egyptian literature. This interview was extremely touching, particularly when Taher said "anyone who still reads now deserves a reward because education does not encourage reading, and neither does our media or culture. Whoever still reads amid this atmosphere deserves a reward. I still believe that writing, despite everything, is capable of effecting change."

Thus, we are in dire need of encouraging reading with a vengeance and cutting down on gossip or idle-chatter that focuses on "trivialities", whether we are talking about Twitter or any other website.

The people who we most expect to increase their efforts to stimulate reading are those in charge of every apparatus related to cultural, pedagogical and educational affairs.

I could almost hear Mr. Samir Attallah heaving a sigh of disappointment whilst writing, in the conclusion of his abovementioned article, that "over the course of time, we shall discover that Twitter is only a transient means of interaction among people and that no matter how much its scope widens, it will never have the impact of the press, the book or TV. Twitter might be beneficial to some politicians or elite figures with messages to send to a limited group of users (whatever the number may be). However, these messages shall remain nothing more than a group of tweets in a vast and open space with no regulations, rules or even criteria for determining its literary levels and moral provisions."

I add my voice to Mr. Attallah's, who insists on clinging onto refined and meaningful arts of discourse:

It is true we are no longer in the age of epic poetry, but God forbid that we enter the age where such things are measured in seconds!

A Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism as well as Saudi affairs. Mshari is Asharq Al-Awsat's opinion page Editor, where he also contributes a weekly column. Has worked for the local Saudi press occupying several posts at Al -Madina newspaper amongst others. He has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism

 

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