The Anglicization of the Elite

I remember when the first Cilantro Café opened its doors in Egypt a few years ago. It was the first 100% homegrown café that had seen such success and popularity. Going to Cilantro became the new cool thing to do among Cairo’s elite youth.


My mother’s comment about the Cilantro phenomenon:

“Why in the world did they name it Cilantro??”


Apparently “cilantro” in Arabic is “kusbara khadra” and my mother was adamant in her belief that if the owners wanted to name their café after this delicious herb, they should have used the Arabic term for it – especially being a born and bred Egyptian café, not a foreign franchise.


This is just one manifestation of the phenomenon of the Anglicization of elite Egyptian youth. Brilliant Egyptian writer Bilal Fadl wrote about one aspect of this phenomenon in his daily column “Istebaha” in al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. The focus of Fadl’s column was on parents who place their children non-Egyptian schools that are not legally required to abide by the standard curriculum set by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. This means that these schools are not required to teach the Arabic language or Egyptian history. After making this point in a previous article he wrote, he received several emails from angry parents who felt they were being attacked and criticized for their desire to provide their children with high-quality education. Fadl responded with the following:


What I am saying is clear and specific. I have never been, nor will I ever be opposed to a parent’s desire to guarantee the best education for their children to prepare them for the future. To the angry fathers and mothers who have sent me emails of disagreement and objection…believe me it is impossible that I would be against your children’s international schools in a general and inclusive form, for I am…against generalized judgements of any kind.

I am specifically against the lack of scrutiny over the curricula of these schools…I am against these schools becoming a state within a state and bringing back the era of foreign privileges in its ugliest form. I am against people thinking that their children’s graduation from a foreign school that makes them speak in a foreign language, think in a foreign way, and live a foreign lifestyle, is the only solution.


Following this article he received another email from Egyptian journalist Sondos Shabayek who went to a non-Egyptian school and ended up choosing a career that necessarily entails mastering the Arabic language. She recounts her story:


I was in a language school where I studied Arabic, and history and geography in Arabic until 3rd preparatory. I then entered the IGCSE program and then went to a private university – meaning that my relationship with the Arabic language ended at the age of 14….The school I went to was so concerned with teaching us English that anybody who spoke Arabic during class or even during the break was penalized! …When I decided that I wanted to become a journalist I discovered that I don’t even read the newspaper. …The real catastrophe was when I started working at Dream TV. My job entailed writing scripts, and you can only imagine the scandal and the number of mistakes they would find. …I turned into someone who was unable to express herself in her mother tongue and the language of her country, nor did I consistently express myself in English simply because it is not my mother tongue….I would start writing an article and find that I wrote half of it in Arabic and half in English!… But all this made me realize that the most important thing to teach my children is Arabic and Arab history. I forgot to mention that I’m bad at history and geography as well, and that I’m trying to learn those while I also try to learn Arabic. …And of course I still haven’t even started talking about the identity crisis. In the words of the Egyptian folk singer “I don’t know me, I am not me”.


Reading this I could not help but relate. When I came to Egypt from Canada at the age of 10 I barely spoke a word of Arabic. I’m 25 now and I still occasionally make grammatical mistakes when speaking Arabic simply because certain aspects of Arabic to not come to me subconsciously, but rather require me to actively ask myself if what I’m about to say is grammatically correct. Like Shabayek, I am an avid reader, and I have been an avid reader since I first discovered books in preschool. And yet, I only started to really enjoy and appreciate Arabic literature a few years ago!


But here’s the major discrepancy between my story and hers: I didn’t even go to an international school in Egypt! My parents insisted – despite my begging and pleading – on placing me in an Egyptian language school where I would learn Arabic, Qur’an, history and geography (in Arabic), and everything else in English. I did not do the IGCSE or an American Diploma, I did the Thanaweya Amma.


My parents’ reasoning was not only for me to learn Arabic while simultaneously maintaining my English, but also for me to be submerged in a truly “Egyptian” environment and culture. And I was. So I can only imagine how much worse my Arabic would have been if my parents had given in to my dramatic declarations that my life would be over if I did not go to the American or British schools. The problem is that the Thanaweya Amma system has a way of spoon-feeding information in way that ensures you absolutely will not retain any of it after the exam is over.


My ability to express myself in Arabic in a professional setting has been also a major challenge as my university studies were in English. This brings back the memory from a few months ago when I was conducting an interview – in Arabic – with a local NGO in Minia. The interview was going well, and I was full of pride that I had managed to give a little spiel about my work entirely in Arabic, using terms I had just learned a few weeks before. All was going smoothly until I decided to ask them about their advocacy activities and midway through my question realized that I had no idea what the Arabic term for “advocacy” is! After making extensive use of the traditional silence-fillers “aaaa… mmmmm… ummm… ya3nyyyy…”, one of the interviewees kindly asked me what I was trying to say and was able to translate for me.


Elhamdulellah, this is also improving slowly but very surely as my current job entails that I work extensively with Egyptian civil society and thus professional Arabic is becoming increasingly natural to me. As a result I find myself much more able than before to hold my own in professional and intellectual discussions in Arabic. And today, elhamdulellah, I read Arabic as easily as I read English.


I admit, for a long time I secretly resented my parents for placing me in an Egyptian school where I not only struggled to navigate this new language and culture, but where my (inevitable) identity crisis came into full force. But today, I fully understand and appreciate their decision, and will replicate this decision with my own future children inshallah.




P.S. I am aware of the irony in the fact that I am writing this in English not Arabic as I have not yet mastered typing in Arabic. Wa7da wa7da ya gama3a!

April 8, 2009 - Posted by | Media/Press, Personal

1 Comment »

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    Comment by learningquranonline | December 26, 2009 | Reply

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