From The Friday Times.
A foreign menace threatens us. We are under attack by an alien influence so insidious that most are unaware of its existence even as it undermines the very foundation of our society. Our language, the defining characteristic of our culture, is being subverted. In classrooms and offices, on television and radio, in casual and formal speech, our beloved Urdu is slowly being corrupted by another tongue.
If you think what’s got my goat is a simpering airhead on TV gushing “viewers, hum short break kay baad milte hain,” you’re mistaken (although the airhead is pretty annoying). The enemy is far too cunning for such an obvious attack. It works through underhanded means; deceit and subversion are its weapons. Allow me to illustrate.
Even though I graduated from college years ago, keeping in touch with the alma mater nurtures my Peter Pan complex. I subscribe to the email list of Pakistanis on campus, an affiliation that keeps me up to date on local desi events: cultural, culinary or otherwise. Last week was the start of the holy month, and a flurry of emails landed in my inbox to mark the occasion. One annoyed me to no end.
“Ramadhan Mubarak,” it proclaimed loudly.
Excuse me? Ramadhan? I may not have fasted since I was sixteen, but I’m pretty sure that the month of big appetites and short tempers is called Ramzan. What country are we from anyway?
Dear Dada Abba, the stern family patriarch, often threatened me with physical violence for my inability to pronounce the Arabic duad. Eight-year-old Quran readers across the nation are victim to this malaise. Confusingly, duad (D) in Arabic is zuad (Z) in Urdu. The language chips were stacked against poor Dada Abba. Since he could hardly force me into changing my name to Dia, correcting my pronunciation was a lost cause to begin with.
Obviously, the (very Pakistani) sender of the email had a more effective grandfather. Either that or he has succumbed completely to the alien menace. More and more Pakistanis, especially those in the diaspora, are incorporating Arabic into their everyday speech. This is a new wave of Arabic imperialism, different perhaps from the one started by Mr. Bin Qasim in 712 AD, but just as deadly.
Of course, Urdu speakers are no strangers to linguistic imperialism. Historically, the language, though indigenous to India, borrows heavily from Farsi and Arabic. The founding fathers, cognizant of this fact, looked west—to Persia and Arabia—for the vocabulary of culture and erudition. This accident of history makes the contemporary Pakistani position on language rife with paradox.
Is there another nation whose citizens do not understand their own national anthem because it’s written in a foreign language? As a student, I sang it every day for eleven years (not very prettily, need I add). But even as an adult, I struggle with the unfamiliar words and alien grammar in the vain hope of understanding what the sweetest ode to our land actually means. And should we really celebrate the fact that the high priests of our culture, men like Ghalib and Iqbal, considered themselves to be primarily poets of Farsi, not Urdu?
Ah, but that was then. Farsi and Arabic were the pillars of high culture. The times they are a-changing, sang Bob Dylan. My mother’s Farsi B.A. notwithstanding, the number of fluent Farsi speakers in the country today can probably be counted on one hand (and a few feet). Similarly, despite PTV’s bizarre efforts to educate the public through Arabic news bulletins, the sorry truth is that few understand the language of revelation. If my local maulvi sahib is relying on a recycled Friday khutba, surely the average school kid can be excused for lip-syncing the national anthem?
More examples. A generation ago, Waheed Murad would start his day with cornflakes and an “Aadaab Ammi.” The indigenous greeting of aadaab is fast going the way of the dodo, having given way to the tongue-twisting assalam-alaikum. The Persian khuda is another casualty of the war on Urdu; even Abbu has taken to signing off with allah hafiz instead of the possibly pre-Islamic khuda hafiz. Pakistani Arabists are promoting wassalam as the next daisy cutter against Urdu. What’s next, allah-o-akbar chants at cricket matches? Wait, we already have those! How about a constitutional amendment to replace shukria with shukran? Our Majlis-e-Shoora—the word “Parliament” makes Arabic groupies itch—is just the sovereign body for the job. Maybe Ameer-ul-Momineen Musharraf should go for an enlightened clean sweep and declare Arabic the national language, something the Aga Khan’s daddy wanted fifty years ago.
Jokes aside, the linguistic imperialism cake by far goes to a gentleman of my acquaintance who has a truly novel catchphrase. In lieu of a simple goodbye or see-ya, this gentleman relies upon a cheery inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji’un (we are from God and to God we shall return). Every meeting with him leaves me as depressed as a visit to the Tariq Road graveyard where a certain ancestor of mine lies in restless slumber. Aadaab, Dada Abba.