As the Arab world’s size grew over the centuries, so did the cultural, economic, and geographic diversity that it contained. Today, the region’s peoples belong to a constellation of ethnic groups, enjoy far different standards of living, practice a variety of religions, and inhabit countries that might boast forbidding deserts, gorgeous beaches, or even snow-capped mountains. From the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia to the budding democracy of Tunisia, political systems vary just as much. In a sense, more separates the countries of the Arab world than unites them.
In an article recounting my experience living in Oman and Morocco, I reflected on many of the key differences between the two nations. At the same time, however, the purpose of my trips to both countries—language immersion—speaks to what peoples of the Arab world have in common: Arabic. Though Arabic dialects, only some of them mutually intelligible, differ from country to country and even city to city, hundreds of millions use at least one form of the language.
The Arab League, whose 22 member states delineate the approximate borders of the Arab world, has described “Arabism” as “a unified cultural identity, with the Arabic language as its means of expression and preservation of its heritage.” Nonetheless, this definition belies the true extent of Arabic’s reach. As I saw for myself, non-Arab peoples use the language on a regular basis.
When I arrived in South Sudan for a reporting trip in December 2015, I knew that Arab culture had made a significant impression on the country. Until gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan had formed part of Sudan, a multiethnic society long dominated by Arabs. Even so, it surprised me to see non-Arab, non-Muslim residents of Juba, the South Sudanese capital, greeting one another with, “Salaam alaikum,” an Arabic phrase associated with Islam.
Few South Sudanese would consider themselves Arabs or Muslims. The Black tribes that account for the majority of South Sudan’s population endured decades of oppression at the hands of Sudan’s Arab-led governments, and the U.S. State Department estimated in 2018 that only 6 percent of South Sudanese subscribed to Islam, compared to 60 percent who followed Christianity. I soon discovered, though, that the South Sudanese’s use of Arabic had far less to do with ethnicity or religion than with history, convenience, and the quirks of linguistics.
Generations of Arab rule led South Sudanese to create their own version of the language: Juba Arabic.
Just as Arabic dialects flourished in the Levant, the Maghreb, and other corners of the Arab world, generations of Arab rule led South Sudanese to create their own version of the language: Juba Arabic. Most South Sudanese speak Juba Arabic, making it the lingua franca in a country with a range of regional languages. In fact, the Arabic dialect draws on the languages of South Sudan’s Bari, Dinka, Pojulu, and Shilluk peoples as well as Egyptian and Sudanese Arabic.
Despite Juba Arabic’s hyperlocal nature, it has gained a significant boost to its legitimacy from the international community. The United Nations Children’s Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known as UNICEF and USAID, produce YouTube videos in the dialect. Amazon also sells the textbook “Juba Arabic for Beginners,” whose listing observes that the dialect “has become so well established that expatriates working in Equatoria often find themselves in situations in which neither English nor Khartoum colloquial Arabic is adequate.”
South Sudan offers just one example of how the use of Arabic has expanded beyond the Arab world and Arabs themselves. Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect that predominates in Mauritania, has additional speakers in Mali, Niger, and Senegal. Cyprus has also lent the status of official minority language to Cypriot Arabic, a dialect coined by Christian immigrants from Lebanon, many of whom view themselves not as Arabs but as descendants of the Phoenicians.
In addition to these dialects, Arabic has shaped tongues well outside its language family. From Central and South Asia to Western Europe, a plethora of languages employ Arabic loanwords. The U.N.’s Portuguese-born Secretary General, António Guterres, noted during the 2018 celebration of U.N. Arabic Language Day: “Owing to the shared history of the Arab world and the Iberian peninsula, the Arabic influence is present in Portugal in many ways. Portuguese has its own version of inshallah—oxala—that sounds much like the Arabic.”
Dialects such as Juba Arabic may have yet to achieve the same level of acceptance within the Arab world itself.
Despite the international community’s recognition of Arabic’s use by non-Arab peoples, dialects such as Juba Arabic may have yet to achieve the same level of acceptance within the Arab world itself. In a telling comment on USAID’s Juba Arabic video, a YouTube user remarked, “It is so different from real Arabic.” South Sudan’s reported bid to join the Arab League also seems to have fizzled, a blow to Juba Arabic’s legitimacy even if geopolitics, not linguistics, killed South Sudan’s candidacy.
It can be difficult to separate Arabic from the language’s complex, sometimes-fraught past. Under Sudanese rule, Modern Standard Arabic functioned as the language of government in South Sudan and grew associated with Arab militias’ campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Black civilians, fueling South Sudanese resentment against Arabic to this day.
The South Sudanese experience parallels the history of the Kurds, a non-Arab people split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq forbade schools from teaching in any language other than Arabic, a move meant to undermine the prevalence of Kurdish. Iraq’s concurrent military operations against Kurdish rebels and civilians, meanwhile, led human rights groups to accuse Hussein of committing genocide. Human rights defenders have likewise described Sudan’s past attacks on non-Arab peoples in South Sudan and Darfur as genocide.
Given the widespread use of Arabic dialects by non-Arab peoples, the Arab world may have to redefine itself.
South Sudan occupies a unique place in that, unlike Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, it no longer falls under the control of an Arab-led central government. After South Sudan’s independence, Juba Arabic rose to its current position as the most prominent test case for the future of Arabic beyond the confines of the Arab world. Given the widespread use of Arabic dialects by non-Arab peoples living outside Arab-majority countries, the Arab world may even have to redefine itself.
In 2018, The Guardian ran an op-ed under the headline “Let’s Banish the Term ‘Arab World,’” noting that “labeling 381 million people from 22 countries as monolithic ‘Arabs’ is misleading” and that “at the last count, 35 dialects of the Arabic language are spoken across” the Middle East and North Africa. In this spirit, Arabic’s little-acknowledged ubiquity among non-Arab peoples offers an opportunity to revisit the utility of the term Arab world. Cypriot Arabic, Hassaniya, and Juba Arabic suggest that the language has a promising future across the globe.