How speaking French can help the Arab world

By Claude Salhani

A language is far more than a means of communication. Language defines who we are. Arab countries were greatly influenced by the colonial power that occupied, colonized or culturized them.

Yes, the colonial power of the day, be it Great Britain or France, had a lasting impact on the nations their sailors, soldiers, explorers and adventurers claimed in the name of a distant king or queen to whom these “subjects” were expected to swear allegiance.

Be it Britain or France, each left their lasting mark on the nations they occupied, albeit sometimes giving the occupation a somewhat less offensive or less arrogant moniker; ie; calling it a protectorate, a mandate, or an overseas territory or yet, an overseas department.

In the case of Algeria they didn’t even bother claiming it as an “overseas department.” Rather Algeria was made into a French department in the same right as the Dordogne or the Marne in metropolitan France. Algeria was actually made up of two departments: Alger and Oran.

To this day the French language and by direct association French culture, ie: books, newspapers and magazines, and movies for television as well as for the big screen, and now the Internet with the capability of accessing the web in French allows for the expansion of French culture. When one talks about French culture one must not forget French cuisine, French haute couture, and of course, French politics.

The two leading colonial languages continue to influence the Arab world to this day. Language represents culture and a way of life.

Look at the military in countries such as Jordan, once part of Britain’s domain, which included the Gulf countries, Palestine and Iraq, while the French found its way in North Africa and Lebanon and Syria.

An example of how this linguistic influence works becomes apparent when Arabs from one colonial influence tries to communicate with fellow Arabs from the other imperial background.

At the start of the Iraq-Iran war I found myself riding in an Iraqi army jeep, part of a two jeep convoy heading for the front lines. At one point we were right on the border line going up a very steep hill. It had rained and the ground was a blanket of thick mud. My driver, a conscript, who had never driven a jeep before and never seen combat was understandably terrified, his fear amplified by the Iranian mortars that were being lobbed, no doubt for our benefit.

The young and inexperienced Iraqi driver stalled the jeep leaving us exposed to the incoming Iranian mortar fire. He tried to get the jeep moving again while in second gear. Speaking in Lebanese Arabic, I kept telling him to put the car in first gear using the French word as the Lebanese tend to do when it comes to dealing with anything technical. I said “Hut premierre.” Of course the Iraqi could not understand what I was trying to say beyond the word “hut” (in English, “put.”)

A sergeant who was driving the lead jeep, realized there was a problem jumped out of his vehicle and came to see what was holding us up. I told the sergeant the driver was trying to drive up that hill in the wrong gear. I keep telling him premierre, hut premierre. The sergeant tapped the soldier on the shoulder and told him “Hut first.”

This incident was like an epiphany. Iraqis and Lebanese both speak Arabic but one is using English words while the other turns to French.

The great divide between French and English is indeed far wider than the narrow body of water that geographically separates the two former colonial powers. These days the battle for the hearts and minds -and tongues – takes on a different approach.

While Britain has the Commonwealth the French have the Francophonie, where not the only French speakers are members. Who would have ever guessed that Armenia, a former Soviet republic, not a French speaking country by any means, would get to host the latest edition of the Francophonie summit held this week in its capital, Yerevan.

Among the 58 member countries and 26 observers represented include a number of Arab leaders, notably Lebanese and Tunisian presidents.

Do Arabs have a stake in the international French-speaking community? Does France continue to play an important role its former domains? Paris likes to think it does.

Lebanon for one, or at least a large segment of the Lebanese population, still turn to Paris for political support, when I n a crunch. Whether the French and the Francophonie still matter in the Arab world is debatable. Paris thought it could influence Syrian President Bashar Assad earlier in he Syrian conflict and avoid the bloodshed the country, a former French protectorate, has endured.

It turned out that French were preaching in the desert.

Still, the Francophonie could be a bridge between the Arab world and other parts of the globe such as Europe and Africa. One of the assets of the Francophonie is the fact that it’s reaching out to different cultures. This can only be a positive development amid globalization trends t that places all cultures in one single mold.

France has always been an important partner for the Arab world. It can still offer prospects in the future providing a counter view of the world as presented by Washington.

The Francophonie represents one of the biggest linguistic zones in the world. Its members share more than just a common language. They also share the humanist values promoted by the French language. The French language and its humanist values represent the two cornerstones on which the Francophonie is based.

Created in 1970, the Francophonie sees its mission as formulating a deep sense of solidarity between its 84 members, 58 members and 26 observers. Together they represent over one-third of the United Nations’ member states and account for a population of over 900 million people, including 274 million French speakers.

Its actions respect cultural and linguistic diversity and serve to promote the French language, peace and sustainable development. Along with the sale of French made weaponry to hot spots around the world.

Knowledge of French in such cases is not a prerequisite. The merchants of French weapon systems also speak fluent English.

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