Suzanne Talhouk had been seriously thinking of putting her organisation Feil Amer on the backburner, when TEDxBeirut asked if she could give a talk at their event about why preserving the Arabic language — which is exactly what Feil Amer tries to do — was so important to its native speakers. Since then, the video of her talk has gone viral attracting over 135,000 views in just three weeks.
“Every time I say I want to put Feil Amer on hold, something stronger than me makes this NGO have its own life,” Talhouk said. But with the number of views, comments and e-mails the young poet and lover of the Arabic language has been receiving since the video was posted, she said she can’t help but keep the organisation going, despite difficulties in getting funding.
Talhouk spoke to Weekend Review about how the Beirut-based organisation came about, what it is doing and how she plans to move forward. Here are excerpts of our interview with her:
How did Feil Amer come about?
About seven years ago, I started working in the [Lebanese] civil society but while I worked for many causes, I realised that I and the other people were speaking Arabic only occasionally. After meeting people from different age groups I soon realised that Arabic was becoming extinct. It’s looked at by the new generation as something that is old-fashioned — not cool or modern — and it was almost like no one felt the need to speak Arabic. This made me wonder how we reached this stage.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been this big change in the world, through the internet, technology, etc. We are just consuming because we feel we want to keep up or stay tuned, as they say. It became an emotional issue for me when I saw that even people from poor families would speak only in English just to prove that they are from a certain culture or maintain a certain image. This really made me raise important questions: Where are we now? What are we fighting for? What do we really want? What will I teach my children? What stories will I tell them? I needed to take this cause, the Arabic language, and put it in the civil society. I wanted to speak to the youth and do it in a very modern way, and to do that I had to establish an NGO and that’s why I established Feil Amer.
What do you think is at the root of this social issue?
Well, first of all, the new terminologies in Arabic are very poor. There aren’t any new terminologies that the youth can use and that reflects the world they’re living in, such as “CD”, “internet”, etc. Even if the terminologies are there, they are not easy to digest and are not marketed well. People will know about these terminologies from films, plays, songs, or the media, but they’re not marketed and if they are, they are marketed in a manner no one can relate to them.
Socially, the perception about the Arabic language is that it is very old and sometimes associated with terrorism. Many would rather say thank you rather than shukran because Arabic gives them an image they don’t want to project. It’s a matter of image in society. This is a very big conflict in our identity — between wanting to be a developed society and to be productive and creative and, on the other hand, wanting to forget anything that relates us to our identity. We end up consuming what is being given to us and building on that. So yes, socially and psychologically, we have a big conflict with the Arabic language.
What are you doing with Feil Amer at the moment?
Feil Amer has been around for two and a half years now and this NGO came about only because three people decided to say no to this situation. However, we’re still facing teething troubles. Although we have become known internationally, in the past year we’ve had a big problem with funding. I couldn’t find funds to continue working on our projects.
However, despite all this, the plan is to organise another Arabic Language Festival and make this an annual event in the Arab world to support all creative initiatives by the young in the different domains of graphic design, plays, films, Arabic calligraphy, novels, poetry and so on. It’s not only about making them aware, but making them interact in their own language and helping them realise that they can be creative in Arabic.
What do you plan to do next?
Right now, I’m planning to call for a meeting through social media to bring together all the people who want to help. I will present the organisation’s strategy and projects and see how we can do this together as the youth. I will not give up on this. Our target is the youth and our language is the language that the youth wants and our aim is to be creative in Arabic.
To help Feil Amer or get involved, visit www.feilamer.org.
Tips from Suzanne Talhouk
What parents can do:
1. Never tell your children that Arabic is not important and that they won’t need it.
2. Talk to them in Arabic.
3. Make sure they read in Arabic.
4. Tell them stories that relate to their life in Arabic.
5. Explain to them that one’s identity is related to the language and culture and that it’s important to preserve it.
What teachers can do:
1. Engage your students in cultural activities outside the school premises.
2. Encourage your students to be creative in Arabic.
3. Use new teaching methods that associate Arabic with being “cool”.
4. Discourage your students from writing Arabic using Latin letters and numbers.
What NGOs can do:
1. Talk, involve and address the youth in a language they can relate to.
2. Create a space where youth can express themselves.
3. Focus on linking creativity to revitalising the language.
4. Support youth initiatives to preserve the Arabic language.