Ossass – Children’s Stories In Colloquial Arabic

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In late February, we interviewed Reem Makhoul, the co-founder of Ossass, on the Foreigncy podcast. We had a great discussion about why Reem founded Ossass, which publishes children’s stories in the Levantine dialect of Arabic and also the importance of Arabic dialects from a cultural, social, and educational standpoint. You can listen to our podcast with Reem at this Link.

Below are some of the highlights from our talk. Note that this is not a 100 percent transcript but rather seeks to capture the main points of our conversation.

The Meaning of Ossass and its Mission

Ossass translates literally to stories and it’s a word that I chose to represent this company because it’s a company that publishes children’s books in colloquial Arabic.

How many books has Ossass published?

Two stories so far and each story in two different dialects. So, in total, we have four books, so the two stories are in the Shami dialect and the Egyptian dialect. Shami represents the Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian dialects.

Finding the right medium when writing in the Levantine Dialect

I’m trying to figure it out as I go. There is no one way to say one sentence or one thought in Arabic, especially not in dialect and especially not in dialects that represent four different country’s. It all started as our project for my daughters to teach them Arabic. The closest dialect (represented in Ossass) is the Palestinian dialect. I tried to make it more friendly for all countries. Palestinian dialect and Jordanian dialect are very similar, so the tricky point was to make it more accessible to people in Syria and Lebanon. So, for example, in Palestine, I would say ‘biddish akol’ – I don’t want to eat. Whereas you would say ‘ma biddi akol’ in Lebanese and Syrian. So I went with that form of writing because we understand it because it’s easy because people in Jerusalem even speak like this. It’s kind of playing around with the words so that as many people as possible can relate to it. But it’s in no way perfect because we are four different countries, representing four different dialects, and within each country, there are hundreds off different dialects. So whenever you take the book and read, you can understand it, you can relate to it. But the changes are very minor in comparison to reading a book in Fusha.

The difference between Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Arabic

I would say it’s really like speaking everyday language. It’s the difference between speaking English and Shakespearean English. It really is like that. Modern Standard Arabic is very formal, and no one speaks like this in a day to day life unless you are writing books or on television or reading newspapers. I would never speak Modern Standard Arabic with my daughters or my family.

Modern Standard Arabic is the language of the Koran and overtook every kind of textbook and media, including children’s books. That’s how we started this company, thinking that it just does not make sense that children’s books are written in a language that children do not use, and also in language that does not represent the way we talk with children.

Understanding why the Modern Standard Arabic model has persisted

Because no one has challenged it. There is this belief that Modern Standard Arabic unites the whole Arab world together. The idea that there is one language that whether you are in Saudi Arabia or Morocco and all the countries in between if you read it or listen to it or speak it, everyone from these countries understands it. I don’t agree with it because life changes. We change as people, as societies, as the way we consume language as the way we communicate with each other and also the way we have been communicating with each other, especially in the last two decades. The access we have to each other has changed. I think we can challenge this thought now more than ever. When I was living in New York and London, I encountered people from the Arab world and whenever I met someone from Yemen or someone from Algeria, we never spoke to each other in formal Arabic. We communicated in our own dialect and we understood each other. So I think that there is a place to challenge this model. I think we need to promote that in order for us to better understand the different cultures in these countries.

How the Palestinian dialect represents Palestinian culture

Ammiya (dialect) is our everyday language. It’s the language of our lives. So when I speak Palestinian, I’m presenting our culture, my heritage, my food, music, my grandparents’ lives, and history. So it’s deeper than just a language. It’s my heritage, my culture, my history, my connection to my roots and to this land. It’s a very deep connection, and I think someone from me Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia could say the same thing.

The Diversity Within Palestinian Dialect

My father comes from a village, a tiny village in the Galilee. My mother comes from Nazareth. So when when they got married, each one of them kept their own dialect, their own way of speaking. So in my own house, the conversations that I had at home between my mother and father were different. So my mother would say things like ‘talaateh’ or ‘baiDa’ that sounded more like town or village talk. My dad used the ‘thalaatheh’ and ‘beeDa’. So it was interesting how we were in the middle and we as children, a product of these two managed to come up with our own way of talking. But if I compare myself as a village girl coming from the Galilee and then went to university, I met Palestinians from all around Palestine coming to study. People from Nazareth, Haifa, Jerusalem, and other villages. And we all spoke differently. But the interesting thing is that we always knew where this person was coming from according to the way they spoke.

The origin of the idea for Ossass

My oldest daughter was born in Jerusalem but we moved to New York when she was less than two years old we moved to New York. So she spent most of her life outside of the Arab speaking world. That’s where the whole idea of writing these books began because I felt like I was raising a Palestinian girl in the diaspora without being able to give her my language because the whole world around us was English speaking. I decided that I wanted to speak to her in Arabic, which I always did from day one. I started reading Arabic books to her, but all the books that I read were in formal Arabic, and it was impossible to connect to each other before bedtime. I had to open the pages, translate them in my head, and then say it back to her in a language that she understood. That totally killed the flow between us, it was exhausting, and she lost interest. So that’s how the whole idea of writing books for children in colloquial Arabic started. It was born from necessity, as the Arabic expression goes ‘il-Haajeh Um il-Ikhtira9, necessity is the mother of invention.

The responses to Ossass from around the world

Arabs in the diaspora are struggling to pass on the Arabic language to their kids. They don’t have the tools, so the feedback we’re getting from people and parents around the world are very positive.

The experience of raising your children speaking Arabic

For me, it’s a sense of achievement. We were recently at a playground in East Jerusalem and my daughter started playing with a Palestinian girl in the playground and speaking to each other. Now she is able to write, read and speak Arabic and for me it’s everything. My daughter also feels extremely happy and proud to be able to have this extra language.


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