This weekend, Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, met with Syrian President Assad in Damascus. It was a historic visit for many reasons, perhaps most of all because of the very personal ramifications involved. As The New York Times explains, "the trip epitomized a national story with anguished, almost operatic dimensions: a young leader forced to shake hands with the man who he believes killed his father."
And yet, the story circulating around the blogosphere has nothing to do with that, or Syrian interference in Lebanon's politics, or Hezbollah's arsenal, or anything political at all. Rather, it's a video of Hariri attempting - and failing - to deliver a recent speech in front of the Lebanese Parliament. Quite simply, he doesn't speak Arabic very well.
Now, we Americans know what it's like to have a President who doesn't speak very eloquently We like politicians who are "folksy" and "speak to the people." After all, it's the policies that matter...right?
But in Arabic culture, literacy is extremely important. The Arabic language, with its case endings and its beating rhythm, is meant to be spoken, not read. Poets are revered as noble, and everyone worth his hummus writes the occasional verse or two. In fact, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is well known for his poetic ability - so much so that his official webpage features an entire section on poetry. Even the holy Qu'ran, literally meaning "The Recitation," is not meant to be read, but spoken and heard.
But, as usual, Lebanon is a bit different. Due to its history and politics, the Lebanese people speak a mixture of Arabic, French, and English. Or, for the people I met, they often speak a mixture of all three, mixing and matching vocabulary and even grammar willy nilly. For an American Arabic student who knows a little French, everything sounded familiar and yet incomprehensible at the same time.
The result is that while many Lebanese speak all three languages very well, they don't speak any of them extremely fluently. Usually, a person's most-fluent language indicates what kind of education he/she have received (e.g. American University in Beirut, Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut Arab University, or none at all). Meanwhile, there are many minority groups, like the Armenians, who speak their own languages all together. In this way, language can reveal the religious, ethnic and socioeconomic stratification in Lebanese society.
For example, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement campaigned this summer with English slogans like "I vote for change" and French slogans like "Sois belle et vote" (Be beautiful and vote). In comparison, Shi'ite Hezbollah campaigned in Arabic with the slogan "Not your Lebanon, not our Lebanon, not their Lebanon, but Lebanon."
While Hariri's Future party campaigned in Arabic, Hariri grew up outside of Lebanon and received his education in America. As such, like so many other elite Lebanese, he speaks some combination of Arabic, English, and French. He speaks the unique Lebanese dialect of Arafrenglish.
So let's give Hariri a break. So he's no Khalil Gibran. Big deal. Neither am I, and I can only speak English. Sorta.