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Vol 14, No 2 (2009): Spring 2009 Issue
نشرة رابطة الدراسات السورية
Syrian Studies Association Newsletter


Photo Essay: Arabic vs. English in Politics and Commerce

By Mandy Terc


In March 2008, Damascus hosted the annual Arab League Summit, and the Syrian government undertook a beautification and public relations campaign to herald this historic event. The Airport Road received slick new landscaping, streets were repaved and billboards like the one pictured here appeared all over town. With their Arabesque style, the posters reminded Syrians of the government’s lingering affection for Pan-Arabism and of the role that the Arabic language supposedly plays in connecting them to their Arabic-speaking brethren from Casablanca to Qatar. Efforts were even made to force shop owners to rewrite their English store signs and advertisements in Arabic. But while the language of the daad might promote cultural unity, every Syrian knows it is the language of Shakespeare that sells things.


Consider this window advertisement from December of 2008, just eight months later. It appeared in the windows of the chain of coffee shops In House Coffee, the Syrian-owned answer to Starbucks whose customers can expect free Wi-Fi and trendy, modern decor and to pay approximately $4 US for a latte. Like most Damascus businesses that cater to a younger, affluent clientele steeped in the trends and aesthetics of Europe and North America, In House Coffee rarely uses Arabic in its menus, signage and advertisements. Instead, the chain posts stylized graphics paired with punchy English phrases that depict a hip, urbane lifestyle that resembles Manhattan more than Damascus. It even appears as if one of figures is guzzling a bottle of wine. Although the words “100% Alcohol Free” written on the bottle help the chain avoid any controversy, the disconnect between a typical Syrian lifestyle and In House’s image is striking and so is the absence of any Arabic translation of their English slogans. While their poster does not have the overt political message of the government’s pro-Arabic billboards, the subtext is clear: the use of English bestows prestige on an establishment and its products, rapidly transforming this longtime stronghold of pan-Arabism into a multilingual capital where the market demands English – and gets it.

Mandy Terc is a PhD candidate in linguistic anthropology at University of Michigan. She spent the last year-and-a-half in Damascus, conducting dissertation research on the intersection of Arabic-English mixing and social mobility among young elites in Damascus. She has a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University.