Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon
By Franck Salameh
(Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2010.) 332pp.

Reviewed by Richard Saltzburg, Arabic liaison, University of Florida

The popularity of “taking” Arabic on college campuses has almost reached the level of being a fad. Many young students “take” Arabic in their first semester and in many universities there are now Arabic majors and minors. “Taking Arabic” in the university usually means studying MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) which in Arabic is known as (Fusha) and is often referred to as literary Arabic. It isn’t until later on when the student begins to communicate with others in their newly acquired language that they realize that what they have been studying is a dead language, akin to a European or American student studying Latin. Literary Arabic is not spoken in the “Arab Street” while colloquial (amia) is. I am reminded of an encounter with a Kuwaiti, one evening, who I asked, “maismuka” to which I received a puzzled look. After a moment, he said “oh, you mean ismak, meaning, what’s my name?” I said, yes, that’s what I asked you and he advised me to “drop all that grammar” because I was speaking biblical Arabic. The importance of language is central to Franck Salameh’s well-researched book and he believes it is the cause of many of the problems in the Middle East and North Africa.

In this fascinating read, we learn that MSA has come to mean the language spoken in the Arab world, when in fact, each country, historically, has had its own dialects, culture, and customs. According to the author, MSA is a strict, rule-based language that does not allow for creativity, progress, or modification. It is supposed to be a unifying language that raises the Arab people on high but in reality, it has held the Arab people back.

An American university student studying Arabic has a view of the region which comes from Western scholarship and the current media. Great misunderstandings exist because of how the Arab World has defined itself as well as how Western intellects have chosen to characterize the region. Franck Salameh’s “Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon” is a must-read for anyone who wants an exciting and modern look at this geographic area.

The author has researched the languages, politics, and history of the region and offers an alternative interpretation to long-held views of the Middle East. As previously mentioned, the central focus of the work is language and we get a well-documented analysis of how Arabic was imposed on conquered lands in the seventh century and has since been an impediment to development. Continued use of the classical version (MSA) is no longer current and cannot compete in the modern world. Despite these shortcomings, Arab nationalists have adopted MSA as a national language and have created various ideologies to support its use. The author provides researched explanations as to why MSA does not qualify as a lingua franca in a region that already has individual linguistic and cultural identities. However, Arabists continue to use common language and religion as a way to keep the Arab world united. In truth, MSA is an administrative language and understood only by those who have had training while the vast majority of people speak amia and would not know how to conjugate the dual or use many common features of MSA grammar. It is for this reason that Arab countries cannot be identified with language as we would a European country such as France where the people speak French. A Frenchman is French and an Egyptian is Egyptian, not an Arab. So much of what goes on in the Middle East is done for political reasons.

We are also treated to a thorough and updated version of Middle East history which is easy to follow and clearly explained. Here we learn how various disorganized tribes were brought order and a common religion by Mohammed while personages such as T.E. Lawrence and Edward Said acknowledged that any attempt to unite the “Arab” people would not work. Said, who was the voice of the Middle East, often blamed the West for much of what had gone wrong in the region and in response the author uses his considerable knowledge to set the record straight and to put the right pieces of the puzzle in the right place.

To Franck Salameh, Lebanon is not part of the Islamic Middle East and points to strong voices like Said Akl and Georges Naccache, who spent their lives protecting Lebanon’s patrimony, as a Mediterranean country not Arab.