I read somewhere there were only three municipal libraries in all Beirut. If so, I’ve been very fortunate to live where I do. Not only is there a little park within walking distance, but within the park itself is a tiny gem of a library. It’s a great discovery for my Beirut baby who appreciates the books more than the slide and the swings right now.
Last Saturday we finally got to attend the storytelling (thanks to a tip from my friend M.). Adapting to her audience, which grew to at least a dozen kids over the course of the readings, the librarian began with a picture book in French, and then, apologetically, two stories in Lebanese.
She felt bad speaking her mother tongue, and that of all of the kids present, because it was a language my little one wouldn’t understand, as if she ought to speak a European language, as if it was somehow better.
You come across this a lot in Beirut, and it can make it harder to learn Lebanese in two ways. Firstly people assume they ought to speak French or English with you. Their ease with switching languages has helped me out in many a confused situation, and I particularly appreciated understanding and knowing I was understood in hospital when giving birth. But in everyday life I’d much rather people spoke Lebanese to me and am happy when they do.
Secondly, when you ask people a word in Lebanese, they have a habit of telling you a word they never use. Instead of the everyday word, they tell you the classical Arabic. This has happened to me frequently ever since I arrived in Lebanon. Sometimes they tell you the Lebanese but also the Arabic and you end up confused. They’ll say X, then they’ll correct themselves, “but the real/right word is Y.”
Now I would love to know both languages and I do believe that you need a certain amount of modern standard Arabic if you want to really understand the Lebanese. Of course, it’s vital for reading or listening to the news. But it’s interesting to see how people are reluctant to offer only Lebanese, to tell you the words they really say, the ones they’ve used in everyday life all their life. When people know I’m learning Lebanese they even greet me with Kayfa halouki. That may be what the books say, but I’d rather people greet me in the same way as they do all the other people in the room. I want to learn to talk like them, not some imaginary character in a book.
I didn’t have a name for this phenomenon until I came across this article on linguistic prestige. I just drank it up, because a lot of it applies to exactly the situations I encounter in Lebanon.
The cross-reference to diglossia actually notes that those who are “proficient in the high prestige dialect will commonly try to avoid using the vernacular dialect with foreigners and may even deny its existence, even though the vernacular is the only socially appropriate one for them themselves to use when speaking to their relatives and friends.” You can find more on this in my earlier post But how do YOU say it, together with a link to a fascinating essay on so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ dialects.
However, the Lebanese are a contradictory bunch, and the opposite is always true for someone. Interestingly, there exists a kind of ‘covert prestige’ in not speaking classical Arabic well for some Christians who favour learning French – not just as well as Arabic but instead of it.
Although story-telling sessions are common in libraries around the world as a way to entice children into the world of books, I’m especially happy to have found this little group. Not only do we love it but I can only imagine how unappealing reading would be for Lebanese kids when they first try to read a book to find it’s all written in another dialect (or language, by my standards). Even the most basic vocabulary such as pseiné (cat) changes to qatt, not to mention prepositions, plurals and the syntax. Reading clearly isn’t as favoured a pastime as in other countries, and I figure these kids can use a helping hand.
Jeitaoui Library story-telling is at 11am on Saturdays. You can borrow Arabic, English and French books for just 10,000LL for life. Feel free to post where your favourite libraries are.