Language, Ethnicity, and Tradition in the Middle East

A great tension exists between different ethnic groups in the Middle East. In South Asia, for example, Pashtuns, Punjabis, Sindhis, Hazaras, Tajiks, and other groups are in constant conflict. In 1988, this author went to a small Afghan hospital in Peshawar to visit one of my Afghan students who'd developed typhoid fever. I was wearing Pakistani clothes, including a tope, a Pakistani hat. When I announced to the Pashtun chokidar (gatekeeper) in my flawed Urdu of my intentions to visit a patient, he abruptly informed me in his equally flawed Urdu that visiting hours were three hours off. Because I'd walked about 45 minutes to get there, I decided to squat down beside the chokidar, wait, and practice my Urdu on him. After I finally succeeded in getting the reserved Pashtun gatekeeper to talk about his family, tea, upcoming Ramadan holiday, and other small talk, he asked me where I was from. When I told him the United States, he leaped up, shook my hand, expressed his pleasure in meeting me, and informed me that I was free to enter the hospital. He added that he was sorry for the delay, but said, "I thought you were Punjabi."

This article on ethnicity is designed not to express the scope of tension between ethnic groups across the region (an endless topic touched upon throughout the historical sections), but rather to help explain the importance of language and its link to ethnicity.

The importance of Arabic: The language of the Quran

What's an Arab? This question is a good place to start. Arabs are individuals who speak Arabic as a native tongue. For this reason, you could say you are what you speak. Arabic describes the language they speak, whereas Arab refers to the people. So for instance, you can say an Arabic (language) newspaper, but Arab food or Arab customs.

Even more diverse than the different English dialects spoken in Australia, Ireland, England, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, Arabic has a vast array of dialects so distinct that an uneducated farmer from Morocco likely couldn't communicate with an illiterate farmer from Lebanon. The literary language of pre-Islamic poetry, the Quran, and classical Arabic literature has survived today in a version called Modern Standard Arabic, or fusha. This formal Arabic is in many ways an artificial language because almost no one really grows up speaking Modern Standard Arabic at home (although most Arabs try to convince you their dialect is closest to fusha).

Modern Standard Arabic is used primarily for official speeches, television newscasts, newspapers and magazines, books, and so forth. The language barrier between dialects, therefore, is overcome through the medium of Modern Standard Arabic. If the Moroccan farmer and Lebanese farmer have graduated high school, they're likely well versed in fusha and could communicate with one another, read the newspaper, and comprehend television newscasts from other Arab countries.

Fewer than half the world's Muslims are Arabs. Most Muslims grow up speaking any number of languages other than Arabic. In Iran, most Muslims speak Persian; in Afghanistan, Pushtu, Dari (a dialect of Persian), or Uzbek; in Pakistan, perhaps Sindhi, Baluchi, or Punjabi; in India, Hindi, Kashmiri, or Urdu; in Bangladesh, Bengali. . . You get the picture. Because Muhammad handed down the Quran in Arabic, you can only appreciate the resonant eloquence of the Quran when you recite it. In fact, even today a superb Quranic recitation can drive Muslims to tears.

From the first generation of Muslims, the duty of preserving the Quran has fallen to a Quranic specialist called hafiz (meaning one who memorizes). These specialists memorize the Quran by heart, recite it, and pass it on orally to others. In this way, Muslims have maintained the holy text's resonant eloquence and assured themselves that no part of the Quran has been altered (a huge concern for Muslims). For these reasons, the prestige of Arabic and oral recitation have remained an essential component of Islamic tradition.

The Muslim dilemma of Arabic stems from the fact that the majority of Muslims don't speak Arabic. Given Arabic's special status in Islamic tradition, the consensus among Muslims is that any translation of the Quran into another language dilutes the meaning and full impact of the Quran's message, not to mention the loss of resonant eloquence that you can only attain in Arabic. Many Muslims believe that reading the Quran in translation to understand it is less of a blessing than reading it in the original Arabic, even if you can't understand the meaning. Therefore, reading for prestige (or blessing) takes precedence over reading for meaning. Today you can find children all across the non-Arab Muslim World reading and reciting the Quran in an almost flawless Arabic under the patient guidance of a mullah (who has normally donated his time) even though these young children don't have a clue what they're saying.

Persian and other Middle Eastern languages

The you-are-what-you-speakparadigm works pretty well for Berbers (speaking Berber), Pashtuns (speaking Pashtu), Panjabis (speaking Panjabi), Uzbeks (speaking Uzbek), Kurds (speaking Kurdish) and so on. But the pattern begins to break down with Persian. The term Persian generally refers to an Iranian who speaks the Persian language, also known as Farsi. Not all Iranians are Persian though. Some are Arabs, Turkish, Kurdish, or Baluchi. In Tajikistan, most people speak Tajik, which is a dialect of Persian. Also a large number of Afghans speak a dialect of Persian they usually call Dari. In both cases, we refer to those people as Tajiks. Afghan, on the other hand, is a term generally used to refer to any ethnic group in Afghanistan, although some use it to refer specifically to Pashtuns. When we get to Modern Hebrew, the whole theory falls completely apart because the native speakers of Hebrew are Jews, (primarily Israeli Jews). In fact, before the late 19th century, almost no one grew up speaking Hebrew at home.

Waking the dead: The revival of Hebrew

When the Romans destroyed the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jews dispersed to the Diaspora ceased speaking Hebrew in everyday life and used it mostly in prayers and literature. The revival of spoken Hebrew is due in great part to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1881, and promoted the use of Hebrew in everyday life. The use of Hebrew became a defining trait of Zionism, and Jewish youngsters in Eastern Europe studied Hebrew when preparing to immigrate to Palestine. Jews returning to Israel in the 20th century spoke Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic, as well as the many languages of their countries of origin. However, intensive efforts were made to teach all of them Hebrew, and the revival of the language became complete. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, Hebrew was decreed as one of its two official languages (the other one, Arabic, being the language of the Arab Palestinians who remained in Israel).

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