I’m always listening with wonder to my friends in Cairo chatting amongst themselves in English. ‘They’re all Egyptian, why don’t they just speak Arabic?’ is what I catch myself thinking. But what they are actually speaking is American English, with the occasional ‘ya3ni’, ‘begad’ and ‘yala’ thrown in sporadically. It reminds me of being on the bus in Paris and hearing teenagers use “au revoir insha allah” to end their telephone conversations.
It seems that this mixture of colloquial Arabic and English has become the normal, everyday dialect of Egypt’s youth. Not just restricted to conversations between friends, most of the popular magazines and radio shows are in English. My question is why is it that so many young Egyptians have abandoned their mother tongue?
I was shocked. I had traveled thousands of miles from the UK to learn this ancient language, understand the script, and listen to the poetry and music. “Why are you learning Arabic,” my puzzled friends here asked me when I arrived, “everyone speaks English!”
One of the factors that pushed English into the lives of Egyptians was the introduction of Western technology. When mobile phones and computers appeared in the Arab world they came complete with English letters. To keep in touch with the rest of the world, it was necessary to use these letters, and from this, Arabish was born – the transliterated version of Arabic.
Not only did I have to learn the traditional Arabic script, but I learnt the art of chatting to my friends on Facebook and MSN using a complicated system which involved spelling the sound of the Arabic word and inserting numbers for the letters Arabic has and English has not.
Does this mean that speaking English in Cairo is something that aids the separation of the classes? Does this make English something that belongs to the ‘upper classes’?
Simply being a native English speaker here perhaps seems to automatically propel me into the ‘upper classes’ in the eyes of some Egyptians. It is as if I have become a member of an elite group, one with restricted access – and one that implies I have lots of money.
Speaking English also gives you an edge in the job market in Cairo. In a city of approximately twenty million, with a lot of graduates, those with a fluent second language will rise to the top a lot faster leaving those with less language skills behind.
I’ve been to job interviews where they’ve asked me what passport I have and then told me if I’m Egyptian I can’t apply for the job. Why should I get better treatment because I have a British passport? I’ve looked for flats with male friends where they have insisted he mustn’t have an Egyptian passport. Any other nationality seems to be acceptable.
Rather than exercising discrimination in staff selection, it is important to train and promote people from all walks of life, to recognize the latent talent there rather than relying on simply their education and or origin. Perhaps most importantly, this improves self confidence and a belief in individuals own abilities. Utilizing people’s real talents rather than acting from prejudice will lead to the realization that we cannot afford to ignore people’s true abilities because otherwise society cannot advance.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers declared that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would be allowed to host domain names utilizing the Arabic script. Until now, the computer programs that have been developed allowed people to type words in
But while the ability to communicate with the rest of the world is important, so is the upkeep of a culture, and with the constant use of English, there is a fear that some of the original Egyptian culture will be lost.
This is not the only possible negative effect of the introduction of English. If a considerable amount of Egypt’s media is conducted in English, it is certainly not reaching the masses. Who, then, is its audience?
Those who finish their education equipped with fluent English are usually graduates of a British or American school, and even better, have studied as undergraduates at the American University. But with high fees, it is only a small section of Egypt who will finish with this golden certificate.
English letters which then convert the script into Arabic. It has become popular on blogs and social networking sites, but it is all in Franco-Arabe form. Hopefully this will allow a re-introduction of the Arabic script, and as the internet is such a popular resource for discovering information, it will reach a wider audience and help to close the gap between those who can and cannot access information and knowledge.
Originally published in Campus Magazine
Published in Campus Magazine