Thursday, May 3, 2012

Between Arabics (Cymbeline)

My friend Katie and I saw the South Sudanese Cymbeline at the Globe tonight.  More thoughts on the show later when I'm less jet-lagged, but I just wanted to start by saying something about the language.  Katie lived for six years in Palestine and also frequently uses Iraqi Arabic and other dialects in her work (for an awesome British nonprofit, Reprieve).  I'm proficient in Egyptian and have a working knowledge of Lebanese.  And I must tell you how little we both understood of the language of this show.  Had I not reread Cymbeline this afternoon, I might have understood even less.
There were many energizing aspects of the show, but I'm sure there was a big chunk of the audience for whom the physical fact of hearing this language spoken onstage -- and at a venerable theatre in London! -- was the most exciting thing. The actors took obvious pleasure in using the language. And at many points they spliced in English words or short phrases to connect with their audience or for comic effect (Cymbeline about the Queen, on hearing the report of her death: "Crazy woman!"), which further drew attention to the underlying fabric of the South Sudanese Arabic.
It made me curious. Aside from the classical-colloquial question: How different is South Sudanese from other Sudanese Arabic?  Is it like Serbian and Croatian, which used to be called Serbo-Croatian until, suddenly, they weren't?

To my very untrained ear, many of the most commonly used words sounded identical to Egyptian (kways, 3ashan kida) and many of the nouns including most of the abstract vocabulary comes from "modern standard" fuSHa Arabic (mushkila, sharaf, but also samm, da3wa, etc. etc).  But much of the rest was as opaque to me as Portuguese to a Spanish speaker.  And it seems this distance may be deliberately increased in the next few decades.
According to a fascinating recent article by Emmanuel Monychol, there is considerable debate in South Sudanese intellectual circles about the merits of learning "Africanized" vs. "Khartoum" Arabic. Not sure if people use Khartoum to mean fuSHa or North Sudanese colloquial. Joseph Abuk, who helped adapt Cymbeline for this production, is quoted as follows:
Joseph Abuk states that Shakespeare's Cymbeline is relevant to South Sudan. Joseph Abuk seems to be in support of an Africanized Arabic. During my short chat with him, he said that there are two types of Arabic language that people must always bear in mind. There is the classic Khartoum Arabic, spoken by Khartoum and the local or Juba Arabic, which is lacking in classic Arabic [lexemes]. According to Joseph Abuk, lack of Arabic [lexemes] in Southern Arabic was due to the "Closed District Ordinances" which barred Northerners from travelling South and Southerners travelling north. It was a policy made by the British and Egypt in the 1930s.
Other aspects of the production - the costumes and dancing - certainly appeared to take the Africanizing, not Arabizing, route.  More on these later.  Photos coming, too.
Meanwhile, more comments from Abuk on the translation in this preview in the Independent.  Tons more media coverage here.  There's of course a whole shelf of books on Shakespeare in Africa; start here.

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