11 April 2007
Special Feature:
Sibawayh’s fault

Chérif Choubachy, ex-director of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram's Paris office and a former news anchor in Egypt, recently published the book A bas Sibawayh, (Down with Sibawayh), which sparked an outcry in the Arab world.He asserts that one of the principle reasons for the difficult time Arabic society is going through is attributed to the Arabic language itself and its complex rules. APN met with Choubachy upon the publication of the French version of his book. An opportunity to talk about the controversial book, but also to sound out this journalist, who's dedicated 40 years to the profession, on the situation with Arab press.

APN: The original title of your book is Down with Sibawayh who is the greatest grammarian of the Arabic language. You write that Arabs are "riding a camel on a highway" and that Arabs cannot correctly write their own language. You're being pretty provocative.
No, but it turns out that when you speak the truth and it hurts and it involves a taboo, it automatically becomes provocative. Perhaps the title is deliberately provocative, but only the title, the rest, unfortunately, reflects my views.

APN: You were Vice-Minister of Culture in Egypt from 2002 to 2006 and you had to resign because of a wave of official protests following the publication of your book.
It isn't exactly that, but since I wrote this book, I've had nothing but problems. Its publication has provoked an outcry, horrible attacks in the Arab press, and a debate in the Egyptian parliament. I compiled over 1,200 pages of articles on my book, of which 97 %  are highly critical.

APN: What do you do today besides write books about controversial subjects?
I write for the Egyptian dailies Al Ahram and Nahdat Masr, and books.
APN: You're not one of those who think that Arabic should meet the same fate as Turkish and latinize itself. You're against the supremacy of dialects over the written language; what do you propose specifically?
I advocate simplifying the grammar and the syntax. The problem with Arabic is that, being the language of the Koran, it's considered sacred, hence untouchable. Arabic is the only language in the world which has not seen its grammar change in 1500 years. It's a unique phenomenon, but unfortunately, it's not a positive unlike what one might think. Take for example the dual form (al mouthana). Arabic is the only language to have kept it in addition to the singular and plural forms. People claim that it's the strength of Arabic. Yet that's not the case as the languages that existed when Arabic emerged in the 4th or 5th century A.D. all contained the dual. They have either completely disappeared, such as Syriac and Aramaic, or have evolved, as ancient Greek, and abandoned the dual. It's not by accident. This way of thinking no longer corresponds to the rhythm of life. Language is a reflection of a spirit, a culture and a civilization, and today we don't think in the same way as those who lived in the day of the prophet. They had a certain vision of the world that was represented by this complex language, whereas today we see the world differently. Today, the problem is that the rules of grammar, laid down centuries ago, are so complex that they encumber the brain, which is then less available to learn other things.

APN: Does the Arab press contribute to the modernization of the language? What role can newspapers play in this matter?
I don't think that the press currently has a role to play in the modernization of the language since because newspapers or journalists wouldn't have the courage to break the rules of grammar. They have, however, contributed to the modernization of both the language and the vocabulary, which is a natural and spontaneous process. It wasn't a goal or a plan, and it doesn't concern syntax or grammar at all. I feel it's the academia's job to create a consensus and once the new rules of grammar have been decreed, the press will be able to contribute to modernization of the language. These new rules have to be called for now, otherwise we'll never get them, and we'll live in a state of permanent regression.

APN: What do you think of the quality of the Arab press?
It isn't very good. The content is rather superficial. It's often biased and not very objective. It should reflect the Arab society it represents in a much better way. There is definitely a deficit in freedom of expression, but that doesn't justify everything. The other major point is that we have a misconception of the press. Its initial mission was to give pure information. Today, it must go beyond the factual and offer analysis. This is missing in Arab newspapers today.

APN: What is your feeling about freedom of the press in Egypt?
The independent press has a lot of freedom. It attacks the régime, President Moubarak.

APN: And it ends up in court. That's what happened to Ibrahim Issa (editor-in-chief of Al Dustur) recently.
He was acquitted.

APN: In the end, there was no prison sentence, but he was ordered to pay a fine.
That is normal. You think that people in the West don't pay fines? You know, every country has its taboo subjects. Having said that, it's for sure that Egypt could do better in terms of freedom of speech.