من صبر ظفر : An Arabic Proverb

Imagine this, if you can. Back in May, when we inflicted the Young Guns of the Right upon ourselves, amongst all the other savage cuts and general widening the gap between the haves and have nots, Dave also said something along these lines:

On the 1 January 2011 we are outlawing the use of English. From that date forward we are going to write everything in Arabic. All the newspapers, books and official documentation will be in Arabic. This is the way forward, it is better for us all in the long run.

Sounds crazy doesn’t it, but something similar happened in Turkey in 1929. Hold on, I’ll explain, and I’ll explain why I would even be thinking of it at all.

I don’t own much, I don’t think, travel light and all that. This man’s ring is one of my favourite things. It’s from Turkey and was given to me by my grandmother who was brought up in Istanbul.

The script is Perso-Arabic and the ring must pre-date 1929 because that was the year Atatürk (father of modern Turkey) enforced his Language Revolution or Dil Devrimi. On the 1st January 1929 the original Perso-Arabic script became illegal, meaning that everything written or printed had to be written phonetically in the Latin alphabet and that people who were fully literate (only about 10% of the population in fact) had to learn to read and write again.

It sounds a cruel thing to do on the face of it. My grandmother was about 15 when the reforms began and she said she felt sad for the old Turkish men in the Istanbul coffee shops who would have been reading their daily newspaper the week before in Arabic, but could not read the new script. But Atatürk was onto something. He had identified a number of things, working with the educational theorist John Dewey: 90% of the popluation was illiterate and learning to read and write Turkish with the Arabic script took about three years; surely the two facts were linked.

The linguists Atatürk worked with said introducing the new Latin based alphabet would take three to five years. Atatürk insisted on three to five months. He made it mandatory for people aged between four and forty to learn the new alphabet and opened People’s Houses Halk Evlen for this to take place. Older citizens were also supported to read and write. In fact, the reforms probably stand as an exemplar for the most comprehensive community education programme ever undertaken. Within two years, literacy rates in Turkey had improved from 10% to 70%.

Atatürk himself taught the new script in schools and village squares, which is probably the least he could do as he had rendered much of the formerly literate populace (only 10% though), illiterate. The language reform went further, dropping words that were of Persian or Arabic origin, resurrecting archaic words from old Turkish dialects and even asking the public to suggest alternatives to words and expressions of non-Turkish origin. In 1934 lists of new Turkish words began to be published, and in 1935 they began to appear in newspapers.

None of this has ever been mentioned to me by anyone other than my grandmother, yet in taking such a radical step a whole country was given a written language that most could use. Working with literacy in the community myself, the whole Language Revolution counts as an amazing undertaking, and on a potentially challenging day I like to wear the ring.

I didn’t tell you what the inscription means: Patience is Victory.

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Posted on December 15, 2010, in Be not idle, Politics, Words and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. By 3011, if we are around then as a species, we could well all be talking arabic! Well we’ll be living in a desert then! oes that mean we’ll have oil?:-P

    P.S. Could Turkey please leave Cyprus!

  2. I went to Nicosia once, it’s division gave me a migraine and I could barely keep my head off the table in the Lebanese restaurant at dinner.

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