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[personal profile] ajnabieh
As you might know if you follow me elsewhere, I'm in the middle of a two week fieldwork trip, heading back and forth between Beirut and Amman to talk and ask about community mobilization, Syrian refugees, and everyday transnationalisms. I've been posting pretty regularly on Tumblr and Twitter, or at least trying to...

But I was using Keefak, a language study app designed for Lebanese dialect, on the airplane here, and found the dialogue on politics really interesting. It's amazing how much a short text can tell is about how people think about politics. So I decided I'd try to record my thoughts on what we can learn about Lebanese citizens and their thoughts on government from this text.

Read on for screenshots of the dialogue and my analysis...






First, a global note: This is ammiya, spoken dialect, written in Latin characters, what is sometimes called the "Arabic chat alphabet." The Arabic alphabet is frankly no better suited for writing ammiya than the Latin, plus Latin characters work better on devices and have the advantage of being more readily readable to speakers of other languages. But there is some interesting information here: the written Arabic provided relies on francophone spelling--the use of é for the vowels I would write as a, the use of ch for the š phoneme. At the same time, the specificity of this app to Lebanese Arabic suggests its market isn't those who want to learn any old Arabic dialect, but those who have ties to Lebanon specifically. If I had to assemble this information and make a guess at the identities of the audience or makers? Made by/for upper or middle class francophone Christians, intended for the second generation and non-native spouses.

On to the dialogue:

Speaker 1 (young man): Tell me about the Lebanese political system.
Speaker 2 (older man): Lebanon is a democratic republic.


This is the most important thing that the app wants us to know about Lebanon: it's a democracy. How good of a democracy? Not very, by all possible measures, particularly given that the current government has renewed its mandate and refused to hold elections. But it's not a pure authoritarian state: people vote, those votes are mostly counted correctly, parties campaign and outcomes are not predetermined. While the quality of the democracy is low, and the quality of governance even lower, it is, most definitely, a type of democracy. (A lousy type; I'm not trying to ignore that...)

Speaker1: You mean Lebanon is not a kingdom?
Speaker2: Ha ha ha, Lebanon has never been a kingdom, even though every politician thinks he is a king.


This exchange started off as the basic language learning forced sentence to include a vocabulary word - kingdom - but then turns into a sarcastic jab at Lebanese politicians. The Lebanese populace at large is incredibly cynical about elected officials, and for good reason - the government is incompetent, most leaders care more about their own power and authority than serving the population, and every so often the whole thing breaks down entirely. ( Lebanon has gone two years without having a president at the moment! That's how bad it is.) So this exchange reveals something fundamental about the Lebanese approach to politics: something you can make a joke about.

Speaker1: It means people vote in Lebanon?
Speaker2: Yes indeed, but they don't elect the president.
Speaker1: For whom do they vote, then?
Speaker2: People vote for their deputies.
Speaker1: And from where does the president of republic come?
Speaker2: The deputies elect him.
Speaker1: And the deputies also elect the prime minister?
Speaker2: No, not at all. The president appoints the prime minister after consultation with the deputies.


First: the Lebanese political system is legitimately confusing. It merges a parliamentary system with a presidential system and has three "president" figures (president of the republic, president of the ministers [prime minister], president of the deputies [speaker of parliament]). So all these clarifications are really necessary. But at the same time, there's one very important piece of the picture: there's no mention of confession (ethno-religious identity) anywhere. The deputy you vote for is determined by your confession, and the each of the three presidents has a different mandatory confessional designation. This mysteriously disappears from this explanation--nor is religion mentioned literally anywhere in the app. It even fails to teach phrases like inshallah (God willing/hopefully) or hamdullah (thank god/thankfully), which are a regular part of most Arabic speech, among both Christians and Muslims, even in Lebanon. Too controversial? Too complicated? I'm not sure. But it's interesting.

(Note also the inconsistent translation (president in one place, president of the republic in another, when rais al jumhuriya in both places) and English that is very directly translated (from where does the president come); this just reinforces for me that the makers of this app were francophones.

Speaker1: And you always go to vote for your deputy?
Speaker2: Usually. Once I was travelling.
Speaker1: How old must you be to vote in Lebanon?
Speaker2: Twenty-one years.
Speaker1: So I will prepare to vote next year.


And we end on a civic engagement note: the older speaker almost always votes, and the younger speaker will do his duty next time around. Fifty five percent of registered voters turned out in the last parliamentary elections: impressive, considering. Even if you are sarcastic and embittered about the general political process, people still turn out to make sure that their preferred candidate gets in--or at least that they can say they voted for him when they need a favour later.

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ajnabieh: The text "My Marxist feminist dialective brings all the boys to the yard."   (Default)
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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