Feb 21st 2008 | DAMASCUS
From The Economist print edition
An Arab capital of culture but not quite Arab enough
FIREWORKS lit up the Syrian capital and crowds gathered to celebrate the naming of Damascus a month ago as “Arab Capital of Culture 2008”. But how Arabic does a city have to be to live up to such an accolade? While the organisers of the year-long festival stress the ancient town’s cultural diversity, others have been stressing its Arab purity.
In the past few months, across the country, owners have been told to Arabise the names of their shops and cafés and advertisers have been urged to use classical Arabic rather than the local Syrian dialect. “La Noisette restaurant is now called al-Bunduqa,” Arabic for hazelnut, says Ibrahim Hamidi, who has written on the subject for al-Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London. “It sounds funny to us.”
A law from the 1950s was revived by decree a year ago with the formation of a Committee for Improving the Arabic Language. It may mark a new effort to polish Syria’s Arab credentials and end the country’s isolation of recent years. Next month Syria is due to host an Arab League summit for the first time, with workers already sprucing up the airport and main roads.
But the festival’s organiser, Hanan Kassab Hassan, says its programme reflects Damascus’s richly varied culture. “It is a city on a crossroads, on the Silk Road and the spice routes,” she says. “It was open to all cultures.” She acknowledges that there have been grumbles that many of the luminaries are foreign rather than Syrian. Human-rights campaigners point out that a number of notable homespun intellectuals are in jail.
Source: The Economist