Arabic and its Alternatives – Report Leiden Conference June 2016

This blog was originally published on Heleen Murre-van den Berg’s site. You can visit her blog for more of her work.

These days I’m processing the contributions to the conference we had in Leiden and The Hague. It was organized under the title Arabic and its Alternatives: Religious minorities and their languages in the emerging nation states of the Middle East (1920-1950). A vibrant group of junior and senior scholars participated in vigorous debates about the non-Muslim minorities, their relations to and participation in Arab nationalism and Arab state building in the period of the British and French mandates in the Middle East.

In the years following the First World War, Christians and Jews were forced to rethink their position within the newly emerging political context. Before the war (and for some even during and immediately after the war), Ottomanism and Ottoman citizenship had seemed an attractive alternative to the earlier state built on the legal separation between Muslims and others in the so-called millet system as it had developed earlier in the nineteenth century. The war brought an end to the Ottoman Empire, whereas the genocide on Armenian and Syriac Christians had revealed the harsh edges of Turkish nationalism. Arab nationalism seemed like a more promising alternative, especially for those Christians and Jews that used Arabic in one form or another in their daily lives: as a vernacular or as a written language, for communication within and outside their communities. Within these communities, however, at the same time other loyalties vied for prominence, loyalties that could not be easily reconciled with that of pan-Arab or Arab-based regional nationalisms, such as those to the British and French mandate governments, or to the separatist nationalisms of the Zionists, Armenians and Assyrians.

During the conference we discussed language practice and ideology in non-Muslim communities in the Mandatory period, as a way to understand how these different and often conflicting loyalties acted upon Christians and Jews in this particular period. The most important question that was addressed in the papers was that of the role of Arabic vis-à- vis other languages. How much Arabic was used, in what form (especially vis-à- vis earlier forms of communal Arabic, such as the so-called ‘Christian Arabic’ or ‘Judeo Arabic’), and in what functions? The Palestinian case in particular received a lot of attention, with the struggles between the ‘Greek’ and ‘Arab’ factions within the alestinian Orthodox community (Daphne Tsimhoni, Konstantinos Papasthatis, Merav Mack), the use and meanings of Arab within the Jewish communities (Liora Halperin, Ori Shachmon), and among Christians (Daniel Bannoura, Karène Sanchez). The Syrian case was touched upon via a discussion of the Ismaili community (Otared Haidar), whereas Lebanon was introduced via Phoenician romanticism as an oppositional movement against Arab nationalism (Franck Salameh). In the post-Ottoman/Turkish realm, the nationalist poetry of Naum Faiq in Classical Syriac was analysed (Robert Isaf), as were Turkish naming regulations as part of the linguistic make-over of the post-war population (Emmanuel Szurek). Another focal point was the case of Mandate and early nationalist Iraq, with the case of the Kurds and vernacular Kurdish in North-Iraq (Michiel Leezenberg), that of the Syriac Christians of the North (Tijmen Baarda) and the Jews of Baghdad (Sasha Goldstein-Sabah) – all three groups using Arabic alongside other languages, but in very different ways: the Kurds with a strong emphasis on creating an official position for Kurdish, the Syriac Christians mostly using more and more Arabic alongside a ritual and symbolic use of Syriac (alongside the spoken Syriac vernacular), and the Jews of which part of those working (or aiming to) in white collar jobs (government, commerce) would use fusḥa, but where other languages (alongside the spoken Judeo Arabic) were increasingly important for work, education and culture, like French and English. More general themes were addressed in a discussion of the nationalist poet Fu’ad al-Khatib (Peter Wien), and a comparison between the period of the mandates in the Middle East with what happened in Eastern Europe in the same period (Cyrus Schayegh).

A more in depth analysis of the contribution to the conference, against the background of the Leiden project that organized it, has to wait for the publication that we have started to work on. By way of preliminary conclusions, perhaps the most important is to emphasize that while Arabic in its modernized and standardized fusḥa form clearly functioned as the handmaiden of Arab nationalism, this did not exclude it from being used for many other things. Among these were mundane issues like enabling its users to compete in the job market and find the right education, but also more symbolic and ideological issues like serving as the primary means of communication among Catholics and Protestants from the wider Arab region, or of political parties like the Communists, with aims very different from that of the nationalist.






Heleen Murre-van den Berg



  1. Wonderful Read! I am no scholar of Arabic, but I have studied the history of Middle Eastern Christianity at an institution in Cairo. Please consider this a somewhat informed layman’s question: I see no direct reference to the Egyptian situation. The Copts’ contribution to Egyptian and pan-Arab awakening from around the first decade of the 20th century and especially from just before and around the events of 1919 and the period following is relatively well known. What do we know about attempts to revive the Coptic language during the same period?


    • Hi Jon,

      Forgive me! Only today I discovered that you left a message on this site. I hope to address the Copts at great length. However, since the Coptic Church is my field of study, I try not to populate the site with Coptic issues only.

      There are several colleagues who study the revival of the Coptic language. Your query has helped me realize this would be a topic of interest. So we will be working on finding a piece on it!

      Do spread the word about the site and do let me know if you know of groups who might be interested.
      With thanks,



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