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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / politics / literature

Why are the Arabs not Free ?

Moustapha Safouan

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To purchase Why are the Arabs not Free ?

Title: Why are the Arabs not Free ?
Author: Moustapha Safouan
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (Eng. 2007)
Length: 105 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Why are the Arabs not Free ? - US
Why are the Arabs not Free ? - UK
Why are the Arabs not Free ? - Canada
Pourquoi le monde arabe n'est pas libre ? - France
  • The Politics of Writing
  • French title: Pourquoi le monde arabe n'est pas libre ?
  • With a Foreword by Colin MacCabe
  • Translated at the Department of Translation of St. Joseph University, Beirut, with extensive editorial revisions after that

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting thesis, but the focus not quite tight enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman . 18/10/2007 Samir el-Youssef

  From the Reviews:
  • "In spite of his frequent references to recent political events, it seems that Safouan has lived far too long in Paris to see the political changes -- changes mostly for the worse -- that have taken place over the past six decades. The disparity between spoken and written Arabic is certainly a pressing problem, but, sadly, Safouan's recipe is no solution." - Samir el-Youssef, New Statesman

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Why are the Arabs not Free ? Moustapha Safouan argues that one root cause is because vernacular Arabic has not been allowed to become a (widespread) written language: keeping 'classical' Arabic -- rather than the language(s) of the common wo/man and the streets -- the Arabic that is taught in schools and that is used in writing is a pillar of maintaining the status quo -- which, in the case of the Arab world, means a small elite wielding power and the masses left disenfranchised.
       Safouan finds an historic divide between the written language of administration, science, literature, religion, and everyday spoken language, going back to Mesopotamia. Democracy, he finds, flourished where this divide narrowed or was abolished, but the Arabic countries have not gone down that road; more than ever spoken Arabic varies widely across Northern Africa and the Middle East, but the 'high' written language remains the same -- and evermore distant from day-to-day life:

     We are one of the civilisations that invented writing more than five thousand years ago. The state monopolised it and made of it an esoteric art reserved for its scribes. The result was that we remain largely illiterate; perhaps the percentage of our peasants who can read and write does not exceed that of the Athenian citizens in the fifth century B.C.
     Written in a 'higher' if not sacred language, works about ideas were similarly constituted as a separate domain to which ordinary people had no access.
       The (historical) argument is an appealing one, especially the example of the spread of the vernacular in Europe, slowly displacing Latin as the language of writing starting in the Middle Ages (beginning, as he says, with the "'fools', i.e. love poets"). There's no denying the benefits that followed -- and it's not such a stretch to attribute a great deal of that benefit to this particular linguistic shift.
       Safouan sees widespread literacy as a necessary pre-condition and integral part of democracy. As he notes, among the arguments for maintaining classical Arabic is that it is the uniting lingua franca of the Arab world -- but as he also notes, the Babel of contemporary Europe has achieved more agreement than the Arab world ever has. And he believes:
If we translated into our mother tongues, that might help us to achieve both greater self-understanding and greater understanding of others.
       Safouan tackles both the religious and the political, and not always entirely convincingly -- to believe "Religion is the soul of all society" is a point of view that excludes far too much in this age. But many of the more specific points are well-taken, especially about Arabic despotism and the failures of the education system (in its broadest sense).
       He is also certain that:
No MIddle East ruler will ever accept the teaching of vernacular Arabic in school as a language just as 'grammatical' as classical Arabic. Children with literary talents end up constituting a class whose members are linked together by a linguistic narcissism, as were the scribes. They don't consider the language they write as sacred -- but they do think it superior.
       It all makes for an interesting argument, but one wishes Safouan had looked farther afield, too. From the issue of the widespread use of English in, for example, Europe to the high/vernacular divide in democratic countries, Safouan seems to leave a lot out (including some facts that might seem to undermine his arguments). Many European countries, for example, also have a spoken language that differs markedly from the written language (and is not taught in schools or widely used in written works, whether literary or official): the Swiss-German dialect is among the best examples (and Swiss democracy certainly doesn't seem to have suffered because of it). Why doesn't that divide pose more of a problem ? Is it that essentially universal literacy means having achieved a level of civilisation that again allows for such linguistic splits ?
       Why are the Arabs not Free ? is also a series of essays that have been pieced together. The result is a fairly cohesive whole, with a progression to the argument, but it remains a bit messy. A more tightly focussed book would have been preferable.
       Still, a fascinating idea, and Safouan does explore it fairly well, making the book a useful starting point for debate -- which, one hopes, will follow.

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Why are the Arabs not Free ?: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Moustapha Safouan is an Egyptian psychoanalyst living in Paris.

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© 2008-2022 the complete review

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