The Future of Egyptians

Between official narrative and the official language

Sarma Jan 2014English

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Contextual note
This essay is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt), edited by Adham Hafez and Ismail Fayed, and produced by ARC.HIVE with the additional support of Sarma.

“Do the tree” is an Egyptian slang expression that appeared recently, meaning “stick to your ground and ignore what is happening or pretend not to take notice nor to understand what is going on”. Not many Egyptians know the origin of this expression and I cannot ascertain knowing either, but after a lot of curiosity and searching and excavating, it sounds right to me that the expression started appearing among expatriate Egyptians in the late nineties or the beginning of the second millennium, maybe in London, specifically. Legends say that the first one to hear that expression was one of the Egyptian visitors to Hyde Park. The two visitors did not want to leave the park, at the time of its closing. Maybe because of how much they were enjoying the place, or because they didn’t have a place to spend the night. And there were security personnel checking the place to make sure the park is empty of any visitors. So one of them thought that the trees are the only creatures allowed to stay at night in the park, and he told his friend with this expression joking “okay, make yourself a tree!” because this is the only way that they would allow them to stay during the night at the park.

The new slang – maybe superficial – expression tells the story of the features of three civilizations that fused inside the mind of a contemporary Egyptian citizen. The first civilization is the civilization of the trees of Hyde Park, the land that he emigrated to, and it is the symbol of the place of displacement. More than 8 millions left Egypt, the reasons varied between temporary economically justified emigration for work, and chronic social abandon. The numbers of immigrants have increased in a big way to the extent that Egypt’s nineties songs chronicled this. Songs like ‘A Travelling Bag’, ‘Greetings, greetings, our beloved, from our home town’, or ‘Stay here, Stay here, Don’t travel’ narrated the stories of the grand exodus of the 20thcentury Egyptian. And despite the pleadings, the Egyptian took his travel bag and left his fellow countrymen and his beloveds and travelled: to the land that has trees, that welcomes his creativity, and rewards his efforts, a land that accepts man as he is and even if his nature goes against the general order. As for the second civilization, it is the civilization of contemporary Egypt, that expelled its sons in increasing numbers in the last forty years, the other side of this story that explains the decision for self-exile. The reasons that the Egyptians left such as his homeland refusing creativity, denying effort, and abandoning man if he violates the general order, drove him to the privileges of the first civilisation mentioned in this anecdote.

As for the third and last narrative for the expression “do a tree” or the third “civilization”, which is the most important aspect, is the word “tree” itself in the Classical Arabic language. And it is a word that preserves its roots in Classical Arabic language, as the word “Shagara” (tree) in its original meaning in the Arabic dictionary has the root “that thing which is different”. For the existence of trees was something strange for the Bedouin desert land that spoke the Arabic Language, to the extent that they referred to it as “that thing which is different”. And today Egyptians use the word “tree” to describe the green plant that is rooted and that is abundant in their original habitat after the triumph of the Ancient Egyptians over the mighty sands to cultivate the banks of the river nile, creating an agricultural industry and a habitat bound by life and by trees. Egyptians would still use the word “Shagara”:”that thing which is different”, although it is not. But in truth they are using a language that is not of their making and did not arise on their land; and their lives are not reflected in it.


Our life: The Official Narrative and the Official Language

Since language is the narrative in which our life is reflected with all the conditions of its idiom making and its developments, therefore the official language is the reflection of our official life – ideal – that we like to see ourselves as. And the more the official language is close to the shape of our daily speech, then our images and our mental ideal about ourselves become close to our real image: we become free and self-fulfilled, enjoying our existing idealism in the here and now, expressing what we really feel, not what we should feel, beautifying and oppressed.

The more the gap between our used colloquial version in talking and the official version that we document in gets wider, that same gap in our minds between our real position and our ideal image about “what we should be”, gets wider. And with the passing of time, the developments of our lives become as if they are external events that happened on their own, passing by us, and we watch them from a distance, accidents “foreign” to our minds, with the names and the conditions of their formation.


What is the size of the gap?

All the recent developments in the shape of ideas, inventions or innovations, necessarily precede their archived and documented forms, and they even need a wide social consensus before they are officially approved among any language. This social consensus can happen in days or centuries, depending on the vitality of the society and the discussion for new ideas, whether rejecting them or positively integrating them. In the English language for example, a thousand new words are being added every year to the Oxford dictionary of the “official” English Language. This means that societies that speak English exchange at least a thousand new ideas or aspects or affects or new inventions every year. After this, the developments move from the general, popular and random level to the official documentation as part of the language. The dictionary provides an example of how the colloquial is being documented as part of the language.

In spite of this, it appears that updating the Oxford dictionary every year still is considered a slow and conservative progress in response to the flow of social consciousness of the users of the English Language. And it appears that their rich lives produce ideas much faster, even faster than the rate of a thousand new words a year. The weight of this fast flow appears in the urban dictionary and it is a universal dictionary that documents the ever-changing language of the “city” around the world, not just English, despite its dominance, but terms from the thoughts of youth starting from Rio De Janeiro, to New York, to Paris, to Rabat, passing through Cairo, Beirut and arriving to Islamabad, Beijing, and Tokyo. The Urban Dictionary contains 7.2 million words since its founding in 1999. This means more than 500,000 words a year are being added, approximately at the rate of one thousand and five hundred words a day.

As for the speakers and users of Arabic, I don’t recall one modern word that was approved by the Academy of the Arabic Language (which is based in Egypt) that evolved in an Arab environment and that is not translated from another language, but that is strictly colloquial and urban, from Arab cities. Yet, I do recall a lot of the colloquial Egyptian slang words that are stuck in our memories only without documentation, that evolved originally in our lives without translation from other languages.And in spite of this, their approval does not happen officially in the Arabic Language institutions, in order to “preserve” the purity and dignity of the latter from any deviation to the level of the “common”, and maybe so not to shake our ideal image of ourselves.

The Danger of the Gap

I work in the field of development, and it is a field that is fundamentally concerned with elevating the current situation to a better life reality. And it depends on creating new tools to implement that. I remember that I participated in founding one of the organizations that do advocacy for development projects, and we succeeded, although with difficulty, in winning the trust of a few local partners to work on an educational project for children. But during registering the activities of the project in official documents in Egypt, we had to translate the term “advocacy” as “spreading the call”, since there is no other accurate word that is approved for that term in the Classical Arabic language. And after finishing the journey of founding this initiative legally, the investors refused to cooperate with us, thinking that “spreading the call” meant proselytizing for children, and hence the investors’ refusal to have their names associated with such activity. It is a legitimate excuse, since historically this was the only allowed kind of activity around the form of “spreading the call” (advocacy) in our country, in excess or in oppression, and it was not allowed to “spread the call” to any new kinds of thought except religions, and especially the official religion of the state: Islam. Hence, the word “advocacy” in Arabic evokes another politics of advocating, that some may not want to be associated with. Evidently, we have needs and actions and activities that we can not express or name precisely in our lives and our official language, because the official language is an institution that governs the “ideal”, just as it governs the “purity” of the society the way it protects its own purity and idealist image of itself, while it looks down upon the daily lives.

This deficit will lead to depriving our children from developing their ideas and capacities and depriving us from other rights because of our incompetencies in generating an actual description of our lives in its modern form and its developing conditions where a word is or could be created. And, what’s more, the most dangerous consequence of all within this context is the appearance of the same gap between the texts of the law and the real life of the citizens. Law is written and propagated in Classical Arabic, but people live in Modern Egyptian, that is the colloquial. This gap is paving the way for the spread of corruption in the state and maybe even for its complete collapse with the fall of its laws; but also for the flourishing of an informal life, of paralegal realities and undocumented histories that people live in parallel with an imaginary, hypocritical life fashioned to us by the wise leadership, about an ideal world that actually only exists in such texts, in legal rules, and in state institutions.


What are we doing?

We might overlook a previous period where Egyptians went, whether willingly or by force, to the extreme of naming and describing their green plants that their Egypt boasts by the banks of the Nile, with the “that thing which is different" in the word “Shagara” (Tree) – and the rest of the other foreign words which have no relations to their connotations and the roots of their origins. Yet, it is not acceptable that we continue to deprive ourselves from a reality that expresses us and safeguards for us our rights and freedom because of our inability to express what we really want, and our inability to want what we want to express verbally. And it is not acceptable that we risk the fate of our country and our common living under the umbrella of a law we understand in a language we do not possess or emotionally relate to. We are yet to live to witness a moment for “official texts” that we own, that arise from our pulse, our land and our Egyptian spirit.

Isn’t it time for Egyptians to officiate the colloquial modern Egyptian language as their official language?