I delivered a “controversial” speech last night at the Contemporary Art Platform. Or rather, a simple speech with a provocative title. I knew that the title would ruffle feathers. That was the point. Nevertheless, I made sure that the title, despite its provocation, remained relevant to the material I was sharing.
I began with a poetry performance of “I Call Us Frankenstinian,” a poem inspired by Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein: Or A Modern Prometheus. I then moved to the podium to read a speech divided into three parts.
In the first part of my speech I defined and then I historicized the formation of “Anglowaiti Identity.” I showed that it emerged out of the 1960s parallel to the independence of Kuwait, and the state’s desire to equip future generations with modern tools. This is not simply Kuwaitis writing in English, I argued. It was much bigger than that. I then explained why this type of work is important (outlining what’s at stake today with the populist understanding of Anglowaiti identity), and I shared at least two benefits. The first is expanding society from within, and the second is expanding it globally, or positively impacting its international standing.
I then proceeded to answer the question: Why are you writing in the colonizer’s tongue? I opened with the popular postcolonial language debate, headed by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, and then I delved into history in search of Kuwait’s “colonizer.” I ended this section with a quote from Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah.
In the third part of my speech, I debunked a series of framing devices that are often used when talking about the Arabic language. I discussed religious, political and aesthetic frames that have contributed to the stagnation of the Arabic language in Kuwait. I then historicized the richness and beauty of the Arabic language, quoting everything from the way that written letters were formed, or the way that words entered into the language, or sounds, or grammar, or literary theory, or philosophy, or technology, or poetry, prose, and plays, and even leaders of the Arab/Islamic empire, and I demonstrated that at every juncture and throughout every component of the language a process of encountering and assimilating difference took place.
There is nothing ethnically pure about the Arabic language or the Arab/Islamic empire, and that’s why it became great; whereas our biggest threat today (and the reason that the Arabic language will not save us) is that it has fallen into a grotesque form of xenophobia and is beset with a perennial fear of change — at least in Kuwait.
I concluded the speech with a reference to a recent conference that was held at the Women’s Cultural & Social Society, where various Kuwaiti authors and intellectuals (such as Buthaiyna Al-Eissa and Sulaiman Al-Bassam, and others) complained about the stranglehold through censorship. I also mentioned Mohammad AlSharekh’s TEDx talk: “AI, and the future of the Arabic Language,” which calls on the 22 Arab countries in the world to care enough about the Arabic language that they adopt systematic changes at the state level, instead of depending on the valiant efforts of small groups and individuals.
The comments on social media leading up to and even after the event were very much in line with the substance of the speech itself. There were people who claimed that my title was offensive to the language of the Quran, while writing insults in the language of the Quran. There were others who accused me of pretending to be an intellectual, without ever making the effort to listen to the speech. There were those who claimed that these types of conferences which are designed to instill hatred of the Arabic language in the hearts of the younger generation should be eliminated, without ever knowing what type of conference this really was. Some complained that even if the talk had substance, the title was inappropriate and needed to be changed — yet, the speech very much depended on the title. And my ultimate favorite: those who believed that nothing compares to the quality and the beauty of the Arabic language expressed their opinions in broken sentences and typos.
The discussion at the venue itself was particularly interesting. I wanted it to be open. No frills. No barriers. Just humans sharing in our humanity, in our diversity. And it was marvelous! Even with the disagreements, the different opinions, the different levels of education, or interest, or fears, there was a consistent strain of laughter. I think we all left yesterday’s talk curious to know more about the topic, whether or not our opinions morphed, whether or not we saw eye-to-eye with those with whom we disagreed.
You can’t put a price on that level of bonding.
For that I am genuinely grateful and even more excited to develop the research further.