International Event 4: Arabic Flagship Roundtable (20 Nov)

Event: Arabic Flagship Roundtable (Hester Hall, 20 November 2015)

For the final Flagship roundtable meeting of the year, Professor Aisha Mojan gave a presentation on her home country, Morocco. Her presentation focused in great detail on the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, known colloquially as Darija, and how it differed from and was similar to classical Arabic and other dialects. Darija is known for being vastly different from other Arabic dialects, up to the point where speakers of other dialects cannot understand Moroccans. Professor Mojan introduced the students (all of whom spoke either Egyptian or, like me, Syrian-Lebanese Arabic) to some basic Moroccan phrases. It is not only fascinating to see the vast differences between Moroccan Arabic and my “base” dialect (Lebanese), but also the similarities. Professor Mojan explained some of the connections of many Darija words to archaic classical Arabic, showing connections that tied Darija into the larger family of Arabic dialects. This was especially stunning for me because growing up I was always told that Moroccan Arabic was not actually Arabic because other Arabs could not understand it. But Aisha’s explanations of how Darija was connected to other versions of Arabic helped everyone obtain a new appreciation for how Darija was a fascinating variant on the versions of Arabic that we were already familiar with.

She also spoke at length on Moroccan culture, cuisine, and politics. She talked about the various culinary influences from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Europe that made Moroccan cuisine so unique. At the end of the presentation, when she was taking questions, I asked her what she thought were the biggest challenges facing Morocco today. She responded without hesitation that unemployment was Morocco’s greatest problem, as it prevented people from contributing to building up Morocco’s economy and also provided an opening for political unrest.


International Event 3: Lecture by Joseph Bahout: “Lebanon’s Christian Communities: Where Do They Stand Today?” (22 Oct)

It was fascinating to hear Doctor Bahout talk about the current state of Lebanon’s Christian communities and how they arrived at their current position. I appreciated his presentation of Lebanese history, especially during the past century, tracing the rise and fall of Christian power in Lebanon. He did an excellent job of explaining how Christians – and especially Maronite Catholics – literally drew the borders of Lebanon with the French to maintain a slim Christian majority while absorbing Muslim-majority ports (like Sidon and Tripoli) or rich agricultural valleys (such as the Beqaa) that would benefit Christian businesses. He then laid out the basics of the National Pact, which left the Maronites at the top of the national political hierarchy (with the presidency reserved for a member of that community) while including Sunnis, Shi’ites, and other Christians as junior partners, thus preserving Maronite dominance while giving everyone a stake in Lebanon’s politics. He excellently explained how this system ultimately buckled and collapsed in 1975 under demographic pressure, which in no small part a result of the presence of Palestinian refugees and militants after 1948. He concluded with what I thought was a very interesting take on Lebanese politics, lamenting the division of Christians between those that ally predominately with Sunni politicians such as the Hariris and those who align themselves more with Shi’ite groupings like the Hizballah and Amal. I found his perspective to be very unique because, although he has renounced his Lebanese citizenship in favour of French citizenship, his sense of disappointment about the situation of Lebanese Christians especially struck home because he is by background a Lebanese Christian. His frustration made the no-win situation facing Lebanese Christians today all the more palpable.


International Event 2: Professor Naima Boussofara on Registers of Arabic (23 Oct)

Professor Boussofara presented a lecture in Arabic on how Arabic is taught in terms of striking a balance between fusha, or classical Arabic, and ‘aamiya, or spoken Arabic. While she herself said she had no preference between various approaches at balancing (or not balancing) these two versions of Arabic, she said that for too long instruction on Arabic has been single-minded and lacking self-criticism. I found it interesting to hear her perspective, which was in part that teaching entirely fusha was dangerous, because my linguistic background is very much based in colloquial Lebanese Arabic, and so for me I would actually appreciate more of a focus on classical Arabic than what I have received from my Arabic class at OU. But, at the very least, it made me aware that OU’s emphasis on practical Arabic (i.e., speaking a lot in Arabic dialects, because classical Arabic almost entirely written and next to never spoken outside of very formal settings) is very rare across the US, and that most Arabic students in the United States have a limited ability to interact with people in Arabic-speaking countries because classical Arabic is much like Shakespearian English: applicable only in written form, and baffling to most people on the street. She also touched on how technology is changing the landscape of Arabic dialects by creating ways for, say, Saudis to be exposed to Moroccan Arabic and vice-versa that never existed in the past. She argued that the integration of the age of the internet has helped to reduce the dominance of Egyptian or Lebanese Arabic as a lingua franca between people of different nationalities, as their dominance on music, television, and film that was a defining characteristic of the Middle East in the twentieth century, is being challenged as the Gulf countries and the nations of the Maghreb begin to disseminate their dialects more and more through their own films, music, and television programming. I also found this interesting because it was my previous perception that the rise of mass communication had only reinforced Egyptian-Lebanese dominance, but I enjoyed listening to a different perspective.


International Event 1: Professor Naima Boussofara on the Fall of Ben Ali (23 Oct)

It was very interesting to hear Professor Naima Boussofara speak about how Ben Ali’s speaking style and delivery affected the outcome of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. I found it uniquely fascinating because it was a look at an aspect of Ben Ali’s fall that went beyond the typical explanations of unemployment and corruption. Boussofara, who has extensive background in linguistics and the Arabic language (she currently is the Arabic professor at KU), honed in on the way in which Ben Ali presented himself during his three addresses to the Tunisian public during the demonstrations that culminated in his ouster. His addresses appeared stilted in overly formal classical Arabic, making him seem distant, austere, and elitist to the Tunisian public. Even when he tried to speak in colloquial Tunisian Arabic, his language was still too heavily influenced by classical Arabic to sound anything like, say, FDR’s fireside chats or Ben Ali’s populist predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. Another interesting thing Professor Boussofara mentioned was the role of the presidential office telephone in his downfall. Ben Ali, while giving his televised address, had deliberately spoken from his austere, empty desk in the regal presidential office, giving off an air of power. However, a telephone rang – eight times – during his speech, which made him appear, to put it lightly, less than in control of his surroundings. After all, Boussofara pointed out, it was interpreted as a first sign of weakness that a man who had spent decades trying to silence critics had been unable to silence his own telephone, and otherwise distracted from his speech, making him seem almost laughable. The net result of this was that Ben Ali’s austere and powerful-looking façade, propped up by his use of classical Arabic, was proven to be just that – a façade – and each address that Ben Ali gave seemed only to weaken his standing with the people further. Overall, I found her analysis of an underreported and under-analysed aspect of the fall of Ben Ali to be a fascinating insight on the collapse of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.


Is Independence Coming to Catalonia?

When I first arrived in Barcelona this June, I tried to speak Spanish (or Castellano – Castilian – as the locals call it) with people that I met, thinking that it would be easier for people to understand than English or French. However, the first person I met, our taxi driver from the airport to our hotel in the heart of Barcelona, did not want to speak castellano (the language of Castilian imperialists) with me. Rather, he responded in halting but correct English. A few minutes into the ride it became quite evident that not only would he not speak Spanish, but on the passenger seat of his car was a large estelada, the symbol of the Catalonian independence movement. And when my mother asked what the flag was, we were given a nationalist’s version of Catalan history since the Fall of Barcelona in 1714.

1714 is a year of monumental importance to Catalan nationalists. Long story short, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the local administration of Catalonia, picked the wrong side in the Spanish War of Succession, and in 1714, Barcelona fell to the forces of King Felipe V and the Generalitat was abolished. The Fall of Barcelona is commemorated in the nondescript Fossar de les Moreres monument located near the centre of Barcelona, which appears on more than one tourist map as a “Catalan Independence Monument”. I even picked up on the sore wound from the internet passcode at my hotel, which was 1417.

Just over three centuries later, Catalonia has never been closer to becoming independent. The Generalitat, which was briefly restored by the Republican government during the early 1930’s, reemerged again after the end of the Franco régime and has been the functioning regional government ever since. Now, the head of the Generalitat, President Artur Mas, wants to make Catalonia independent.

Why now? The legacy of the Franco régime, when Catalan was barred from newspapers, books, and the streets, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Catalans who already felt overwhelmed by the castellano-speaking majority culturally and economically. Secondly, although democratic Spain has made great efforts to devolve powers to local autonomous regions, such as Catalonia or the Basque Country, many Catalonians feel that Madrid has still not been sufficiently generous to the region, and the policies that shape Catalonia’s future are still largely being crafted by the Spanish parliament. Furthermore, there is also a general sense that the Spanish government is using Catalan tax dollars to support the rest of the country, which is not as wealthy or prosperous as Catalonia. While the Catalan government held a low-turnout non-binding referendum on independence last year which elicited indignant scoffs from Madrid, Catalan and Spanish politics have moved in a direction that provides an opening for the separatists.

The regional elections to the Generalitat de Catalunya that took place on 27 September resulted in a victory for the nationalists, especially the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes [to independence]) list, a combination of Mas’ own Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia), the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, the leading party of the Catalan nationalist movement of the 1930’s), and smaller nationalist parties. As a whole, separatist parties, while just shy of capturing an absolute majority of the vote, captured an absolute majority of seats in the Generalitat, with Mas’ Junts pel Sí taking 62 of 135 seats, a full 37 seats ahead of the next largest grouping, the liberal, pro-Spanish Ciutadans (Citizens). Whether or not Mas himself returns to power, the bottom line of the election is that with almost 80% turnout, nationalist parties pledging to unilaterally declare independence were triumphant. And that has Madrid rightly concerned.

Meanwhile, the days of the Partido Popular (People’s Party) government in Madrid are numbered. Polls show that in the elections to be held this December, the PP will still be the largest party in the Spanish Cortes Generales, but with well below the number of seats required for an absolute majority. The other three largest parties, the PSOE, the mainstream socialists, Ciudadanos (the Castilian spelling of the aforementioned Ciutadans), and the far-left Podemos, may or may not take an absolute majority between them, but are fractious enough that forming a coalition including all three parties would be nearly impossible. However, they are not inclined to support the Partido Popular either. The most probable result will be either a second election (à la Greece in 2012) or a coalition of some sort that will be so enfeebled by infighting that it will not be able to present a decisive, united front.

And this presents Catalan nationalists with their greatest opportunity. If Madrid becomes mired in gridlock – and worse yet, if the balance of power in Madrid is held by Catalan separatists, as some polls suggest could happen – there is little the Spanish government can do to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence from the Catalan parliament, which would provoke a massive constitutional crisis that would divide Catalonia between Spanish-speakers, Catalan separatists, and Catalan third-way regionalists (who, sadly, did poorly in the elections to the Generalitat).

One of the most notable attributes of the streets of Barcelona these days is the ubiquitous estelada, the starred flag of Catalonian nationalism. The flag hangs from balconies and windows in peaceful defiance of Spanish claims to sovereignty over Catalonia. In one day alone I counted well over sixty flags, compared to just four Spanish flags (one on a bank, two on government buildings, and one lonely Spanish flag draped over the railing of an apartment balcony). Catalan nationalism is not just being pushed by a small minority: it has a deep, broad, and dedicated support base that is too large for Spain to continue to ignore. At a time when the Spanish government will be in its weakest, most fractious state since the restoration of democracy, Catalan nationalists, electorally victorious and with single-minded zealotry, have an opportunity before them that they could have only dreamt of just a few years ago.

No one knows for certain what will happen over the next year, but as of now, I wouldn’t bet against the nationalists. Just over three centuries after Barcelona fell to the forces of Felipe V, Catalonian nationalists have never been closer to being able to build a Catalan nation.