Arabic language is one of the six internationally recognized languages by the UN. The importance of this language in Eritrea is apparent as it is the second official language of our country. The geographic location of Eritrea and its neighboring countries makes obvious the importance for every citizen having the knowledge of Arabic. In an attempt to this, The Arabic Language school was established in 2020, under the Umbrella of the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS). Headed/Directed by Mr. Ahmed Omer Sheikh, the school aims to equip state employees with a sound base and working knowledge of the language in which they can develop further on their own, bringing themselves close to mastery of the language. Since the establishment of the school, 313 students have graduated.
In continuation of their studies, the Arabic language school officially established an Arabic club on 01/08/2023. The aim of the club is to give all students a platform where they can further their knowledge of the language, especially graduated students, and to have a space where they can continue to practice using the language by helping each other out and strengthening the relationships they established within the duration of the course.
To mark the start of the Arabic club, a seminar was organized on the 7th of September in the NUEYS Daero Hall. The hall was packed to capacity with people that came to attend the seminar conducted by Dr. Salih Mahmud, titled ‘Arabic Language in Eritrea’. Dr. Salih started the seminar by giving a brief explanation of the origins of Arabic language in Eritrea and the different variation that are found. He explained that the geographic location of Eritrea makes the existence of Arabic language historic. According to him, Arabic predates religion in Eritrea. This is probably due to our long trading history with our neighboring countries. He then went onto further explain extensively the politicization of the Arabic language. He explained that the politicization of the language started during the Italian colonial period, when Muslims were made to learn in Arabic teaching schools and Christians in Tigrinya teaching schools. This policy became the ground for misperception and created a ground to initiate a rift between both faiths. The policy created a physiological barrier in which Arabic was associated as a language only for those of the Muslim faith, as the doctrine of the religion is in Arabic. Colonizers further build on politicizing Arabic and alienating it to be limited only to Muslims. Through all this though, the language was able to not only survive but also thrive to some extent; currently, however, considering the fact that Arabic is not only part of our history but is also the second official language, knowledge of Arabic is not widespread amongst our citizens. This misperception of the language was greatly mitigated during the armed struggle as every language in Eritrea was treated with the same importance.
When Dr. Salih was asked by participants as to why Arabic Language was not taught in schools, he answered by firstly expressing that him not being a government representative meant that he could answer barely on his observations. He went to explain that one reason was there there isn’t enough knowledgeable and qualified man power to have the language taught in schools. The second and in his opinion, the most vital, is the psychological barrier. He elaborated that the misperception of the language as only being Muslim is a huge barrier in the acceptance of the language and poses as an obstacle to deliver it to all citizens.
What I found most striking in Dr. Salih’s presentation, was when he explained that not only did Arabic language predate all religions in Eritrea, but that Christianity itself was introduced to Eritrea by Syrian monks that spoke Arabic. The reason I found this an interesting fact is that though knowledge of the language is important to us as Eritreans, because of biases and misunderstanding regarding the language, many of us have resisted to learn the language. Arabic is used by Arabic speaking Christians as the medium of delivering speeches and doctrine of the religion. Giving it a religious connotation or associating only with Islam and not looking beyond that as a language no different than French and English is wrong.
In the end, the seminar was concluded by comments and questions from the participants. The important take from the seminar, was that Arabic is a language that is tied to our history and is the language of one of our ethnic groups. As Eritreans, knowledge of the language is not only beneficial but also vital due to the location of our country. We should break down the psychological barriers put forth by colonizers and break down stereo types associated with the language and become beneficiaries from mastering it.
By Meriem Ahmado