Celebrating International Arabic Language Day

15 February 2016

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

The Arab world recently celebrated International Arabic Language Day by organizing seminars and poetic evenings and by publishing articles, posting tweets and several other activities. Speakers and lovers of the Arabic language gathered around the world to mark the occasion.

Arabic is the language of the Holy Qur'an and of Islam. It is also said to be the language spoken in Paradise. The idea of establishing Arabic Language Day was first mooted officially by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) following a proposal presented by the representatives of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya and Lebanon. December 18 was chosen as International Arabic Language Day as it is the day in 1973 when the General Assembly approved Arabic as one of the UN's official and working languages.

The adoption of Arabic as an official language was the outcome of great efforts made from the early 1950s. During that period, Arabic was approved by the UN as a language for documentation with certain conditions. The conditions included that the pages of translated documents should not exceed 4,000 in a year, and that the beneficiary nation should meet the expense of translation. There was another condition which was that the documents for translation should have neither a political nor a legal nature.

As a result of intensified efforts, UNESCO decided in 1966 to strengthen the frequency of the use of Arabic. In 1973, the UN General Assembly approved Arabic as one of the official UN languages, thanks to the relentless efforts of Arab representatives at the global body.

The language enjoys paramount religious significance as far as Muslims are concerned as it is obligatory for them to pronounce Arabic text while performing daily prayers. Similarly, an Arabic text is used when finalizing the marriage contract or concluding a divorce.

It is unfortunate that we are not taking advantage of the status of Arabic as one of the official UN languages for which great efforts have been exerted. Some Arab representatives at the UN and other international bodies prefer to speak in another language rather than Arabic which is their mother tongue. It seems that they like to show that they know some foreign languages. We do not see the same happening with representatives of those countries whose languages also enjoy official status at the UN. Native English and French speakers as well as those speaking Chinese, Russian and Spanish would never speak any language other than their own under any circumstances. Most often, representatives of these states are well versed in more than one language, but they have a strong conviction that speaking in a language other than their mother tongue would devalue their official language.

The second unfortunate thing is that there is a lack of facilities for Arabic translation at some UN meetings, especially those meetings held outside UN headquarters. The Group of 77 meeting which was held in Columbia is an example. The Arab delegates at the meeting protested because there was no provision for Arabic translation at the meeting. They demanded an end to the proceedings and even threatened to boycott the session. Consequently, the G77 Secretariat apologized for not making Arabic translation available.

In the meantime, an official at the Secretariat commented: ''All Arab representatives speak English.'' These comments would have been acceptable had there not been any other languages except English used at the meeting. Subsequently, the proceedings of the meeting were disrupted for some time, and the issue was solved with the intervention of a Nigerian leader in his capacity as chairman of the meeting. As a result, the Secretariat promised that Arabic translation along with the translation of other major languages would be included in future meetings.

Designating a day in a year to honor the Arabic language is a nice step. Organizing seminars, delivering lectures and reciting poems to celebrate the day is very good. But the most beautiful thing would be working to spread the Arabic language in the world and in the Arab and Islamic world in particular.

It is also worthy to note that much significance has been given to the learning and memorization of the Holy Qur'an. There have been several societies established and a large amount of money is being spent to serve this purpose. Competitions and prize distribution functions are organized to honor those who have memorized the Holy Qur'an in full or in part. But, unfortunately, such memorization most often is without understanding the proper meaning or the underlying implications of the verses of the Holy Book.

Therefore, it is essential for officials of Holy Qur'an memorization societies to focus on having a proper understanding of the meaning of Qur'anic verses. I think that memorizing part of the Holy Qur'an with proper understanding and reflecting upon its meaning is better than memorizing 10 parts out of 30 parts of the Holy Qur'an without understanding its meanings and implications.

There should be facilities to teach the Arabic language along with memorization of the Holy Qur'an. Holy Qur'an learning circles for native Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers must be opened at all mosques to carry out this noble mission. Perhaps, this would help mitigate the negative approach to learning Arabic among non-Arabic speaking expatriates in general, and Muslim expatriates in particular.

Through this way, we can serve the Holy Qur'an and also become part of the efforts to spread the Arabic language so that many expatriates can take advantage of it.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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