For most of my life, I have straddled this reckless line of never being African enough and also never being Arab enough. As a Libyan, I have been told I break the mold of who should be an Arab and cannot be placed in one of the countries in the Levant, Machrek and Maghreb regions. The cultural rule of thumb is: if you speak Arabic and you don’t belong to one of those countries then you are not a “true” Arab speaker.
I have often been asked where I learned to speak Arabic. My answer is, at home. This map most people have in their head about language and linguistic identity mapping unto land is a faulty idea. Linguistic diversity and regional associations don’t tell the complete human story. What happens when we merge these two categories is we create people like me, people who are ostracized from several cultural spaces, and made to feel like they are the aberration and not the rule.
First, let’s play a small mind game. Close your eyes, and picture an Arab. What colour are their sandals, what color is their robe, is it white? What color is their beard? Is the desert sand brown or bright yellow? Are you just realizing these may all be deeply stereotypical questions? Do you picture the vegetation of Chat, the pyramids of Sudan, or the oceans of Somalia?
Even though the majority of Arab speakers reside in Africa, we are often viewed as “less Arab”, mocked for having “harsh” accents and “weird” words or sayings. But that is because we’ve learned to adopt and amalgamate the diversity of our culture into our language. This doesn’t make us less capable of speaking Arabic because we incorporate unique colloquial terms that really highlight our linguistic diversity. We have often been excluded amongst other Arabs because our “Africanness” is too visible; our tribes too diverse, our food too weird, our accent too strange and our skin too dark. Instead, we’ve been forced to watch others define who an “Arab” really is.
There is no country or region that speaks “true” Arabic, or what is commonly known as classical Arabic. Every Arab and every Arab-speaking region has molded the language into their own unique dialect. So really, there is no “right way of speaking Arabic”. Someone who comes from Africa is not less capable of speaking Arabic than someone who comes from the Middle East. Am I Arab solely because I speak Arabic and have parents whose first language is Arabic? Or because I am Libyan and Libya is considered an “Arab speaking country”. If an Arab is “a member of an Arabic-speaking people” therefore Somalians, Mauritanians, Tanzanians should be considered “Arabs.” But why do we never consider them as part of “us?” If an Arab-country is a country “where the primary language is Arabic,” why don’t we consider many African countries excluding North Africa as “Arab” countries? It is because we’ve associated language with regionality.
With Arabic being one of the most spoken languages in the world, the largest speaking Arabic countries are in Africa, with Egypt having the largest Arabic-speaking population with approximately 100 million Arabic-speakers. Egypt is then followed by Algeria, with 42 million people, then Sudan, at 41 million, and Morocco with 36 million Arabic speakers. Hence, Africa consists of half, or even more than half of the global Arabic-speaking population.
Arabic and Africanness are inherently embedded within each other. There are over 260 million people in Africa that speak Arabic, and 13 countries have Arabic as their primary language. This Includes countries such as Djibouti, Chad and Mauritania. Another 10 countries where Arabic is widely spoken include Senegal, Mali and Niger. Seldom, are these countries ever considered “Arab” countries.
There’s often a misconception that Arabic is not an African language, but the numbers state otherwise. Arabic has a large presence in Africa and it has been adopted and rearranged by many African peoples. One of the beauties of the Arabic language is the diversity of it; that there are different dialects in each region and country. This has been shaped by native, cultural and colonial influences. The Libyan Arabic dialect, for example, consists of many Amazigh and Italian words that demonstrate its historical and colonial influence. The Arabic of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, includes many French words because of their individual history.
Due to the Islamic conquests, expansions, trade, and migrations through the 7th century, Arabic spread across many regions of Africa. The Arabic language is a fundamental aspect of Islam and Muslim identity, and Islam has a large presence in Africa, with approximately 50% of Africans being Muslim. Since Africa is composed of many Muslim countries, regardless if their first language is Arabic or not, if one’s religion is Islam then we know that Arabic is an essential component of one’s identity. Reciting prayers, the Quran and performing Salah (Islamic prayer), the Athan (the call to prayer) are just some of the few acts that Arabs and non-Arabs perform that require the use of the Arabic language without needing to be “Arab”. I will also note that “African Arabs” are constantly winning Quran recitation competitions, which are oral competitions that require people to accurately pronounce the verses.
Many African and non-Arab people use the Arabic language as part of their daily lives regardless of being Arab or speaking Arabic because Arabic is embedded in so many aspects of their lives. Arabic is an essential part of the African identity because so many African countries are Muslim countries.
African Arabs are just as Arab as Middle-Eastern Arabs. I wish more people would see the diversity of the Arabic language that goes beyond Asian countries and North Africa. We need to break down and reconstruct the image of the “stereotypical Arab” to one that includes people of all colours, but particularly Afro-Arabs and Arabs outside of the MENA region who have faced exclusion, discrimination and the denial of their shared cultural heritage.
Our identities are big enough to encompass multiple cultures and regions. We are able to embrace and belong to several cultures at the same time without having to be a stereotype or caricature of one or the other. We are flooded with inaccurate information and cultural stereotypes that can truly have an impact on our daily lives and shape the way we view language and identity. These false accusations on identity can be dangerous and exclusionary.
I see myself too African for the Arabs and too Arab for the Africans because we have been inherently taught to divide the two identities as if they can’t be intrinsically linked. Regardless, I am Arab and I am African and for me these identities are interconnected. For me one cannot exist without the other.