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An encounter with Arabic dialects

Felipe Benjamin Francisco and the challenges of linguistic comprehension

Francis in front of Dar El Bacha Museum in Marrakech, after carrying out field research in Essaouira, also in Morocco

Personal Archive

I started my academic career in the field of translation after establishing a link with Arabic literature. But that changed when I identified the existence of a very little explored field of research in Brazil: Arabic dialectology. That is, the scientific study of dozens of dialects of the Arabic language from North Africa and the Middle East. I did an exchange at the Qalam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies in Morocco during my master’s degree (started in 2010), which contributed greatly to my decision. I was fascinated by the Moroccan variety, and during my PhD in 2015, I chose to take another research path. I focused on dialectal studies of Arabic, and my thesis included a documentary survey and linguistic description of a variety of Moroccan Arabic spoken in the city of Essaouira, which is in the south of the country, a region that was occupied by the Portuguese Crown between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. It is the remains of this Luso-Moroccan relationship that I am exploring in my postdoctoral research at the Free University of Berlin in Germany. In addition to publishing scientific papers, I also manage the School of Translators of Modern Arabic Literature together with Safa Jubran, a professor at the Oriental Letters Department of the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (USP).

When I started my degree at USP in 2006, I did not really know what was involved in an academic career. After the first year, when I chose to study Arabic, I understood that there was a possibility of becoming a researcher. Jubran introduced me to the scientific universe and played a fundamental role in my education. Due to professional insecurity, I studied international relations for two years at the same time. I thought the course would bring me closer to the “Arab world,” but after starting my research on the poems of Syrian writer Nizar Qabbani [1923–1998], I chose to dedicate myself exclusively to the letters course. As part of that project, I wrote the first translation of a set of his poems and commented on them. In my master’s degree I continued studying translation, but the subject changed. I moved on to the prose of Rachid Al-Daif, a Lebanese author who was unpublished in Brazil at the time.

I grew up in the north of São Paulo, where there are large Lebanese and Syrian communities. After four years of study and five months living in Morocco, I learned to speak their mother tongue, a skill never developed by many of my friends whose parents were Arabs. During my postgraduate studies I improved my command of the language, becoming more familiar with the various dialects not only of the Maghreb, but also of the Levant, a region that encompasses present-day Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. This was possible thanks to daily contact with native speakers in São Paulo—mostly Syrians—through my work as a community interpreter for refugees.

For Arabic speakers, their Arabic identity is directly related to the language. Most Arabs think that if you speak Arabic, you must have an Arab background of some form. In academia, Arabic-speaking foreigners are viewed with less awe. There is a long tradition of Orientalists and Arabists—especially among Europeans and North Americans. In recent years, we Brazilians have begun to enter this field. As a result, there are even academic publications in Arabic now, and the volume of translations from Arabic into Portuguese is growing.

The biggest obstacle to becoming proficient was developing the sociolinguistic skills to communicate in and understand two languages in parallel: literary Arabic—which has remained stable over time—and dialectal, which varies enormously. In spoken and written language, standard and dialectal Arabic are often used together, so if you only know one of the varieties, you might fail to fully grasp what the speaker is trying to say. Many years of study and experience with the language are essential. To get an idea of what this means, I started studying Arabic in 2006 and only finished translating the first book, Who’s Afraid of Meryl Streep? by Al-Daif in 2021.

Personal ArchivePassage from an eighteenth-century letter in which a ruler from Tripoli offers protection to European vessels docking on the coast of what is now LibyaPersonal Archive

Faced with such linguistic complexity, I started looking more broadly at the geographic, social, cultural, and religious differences that exist between speakers. My PhD was seen as a major challenge. The most recent existing research on the dialect from the coastal region of southern Morocco was done by a Swiss Orientalist and Semitic languages professor in the nineteenth century, based on the identification of a single speaker. In 2015, as a result of my work, I became the first Latin American to join the International Association of Arabic Dialectology (AIDA), which brings together the world’s leading Arabists and dialectologists. I am the only researcher in Brazil dedicated to Arabic dialectology.

Research on Arabic dialectology is traditionally carried out at European institutions. Literary Arabic in the written form is highly valued because it seen as a “language of culture” that has been used in literature, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, alchemy, and many other fields of knowledge for 13 centuries. Those who have mastered written Arabic can read anything from current news to works from the twelfth century. Sources written in Standard Arabic therefore prevail among academic studies, as opposed to dialectal Arabic. In fact, dialects are commonly stigmatized.

I had to use several methods to systematize the information I collected in my research. During my undergraduate degree, I spent most of my time in the library using printed dictionaries. As more dictionaries became available online, I was able to spend more time studying at home during my master’s degree. The dynamics with my supervisors also changed over the years. During my undergraduate research, I was supervised very closely, with frequent meetings to translate the poems together. In my master’s degree, the dialogue started to take place after my translations were complete. My own routine changed too. During my PhD, as I “distanced” myself from translation studies, I started to use a tape recorder and a notebook to record insights and words I would like to investigate.

Over time, I built an inventory of linguistic forms in dialectal Arabic, which have aided me in my writing. For each grammatical category worthy of further study, I gather notes from different dialectologists. I now have a collection of Arabic variants that can range from phonological phenomena to lists of pronouns, particles, and above all, vocabulary. All this in screenshots or photos of excerpts from books I consulted, organized in the form of a digital repository of linguistic data relating to Moroccan dialectal Arabic.

While investigating archaic dialectal forms in early sixteenth century manuscripts, I began translating correspondence exchanged between the Portuguese and Moroccans. After a lengthy process of deciphering and fixing these historical documents, which involves transcribing them into Arabic in its typographic form, the biggest challenge is translating words and expressions related to the oral universe of five centuries ago. For this reason, I often ask native Arabic speakers for their opinions. These occasional helpers are capable of giving me linguistic data not recorded in the texts. It is a good legacy of the academic relationships I have built in my travels, both face-to-face and virtual, in Brazil and overseas.