Today is Arabic Language Day, marking the date Arabic was adopted as the sixth official language of the United Nations, in 1973. The occasion reminds those in the Middle East and the wider world of Arabic's fundamental importance, not just on a practical level – it has 290 million speakers – but also in terms of how it shapes people in a deeper way, underpinning the very idea of who they are.
The language is still going strong, despite the ascension of English to global primacy and the continued dominance of French in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. An enthusiasm for Arabic sustains among the region's youth, even while they take up English in school, business and much of day-to-day life.
The most effective way to keep Arabic thriving is securing its place in the minds of children. That is not without its challenges. Mastery of literary Arabic’s complex grammar, also known as Modern Standard Arabic, can take years. But achieving it imparts on young minds the value of their heritage. No one, for example, is left poorer after reading the works of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, the first writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for a work penned in Arabic. Mahfouz harnessed the language's power, adding to the canon of world literature and giving Arabic speakers pride in the ideas and emotions that can be captured best in the language.
On Wednesday, the UN body Unesco announced that it is putting various traditions from the Arab world on its cultural heritage list. These include the "aflaj" irrigation system and camel racing. Nowadays, it is particularly important for people in the region to understand the value of what they ought to protect. Terrorist groups consistently threaten Arab cultural heritage, as we have seen in Iraq, Syria and the Sahel, among other places, targeting anything they interpret to be outside their twisted worldviews. Other threats include the proliferation of criminals in the antiques trade, climate change, a lack of education among conservationists leading to botched restorations, deregulated urban development and even litter, which too often diminishes our most beloved cultural destinations.
But on the occasion of Arabic Day, people across the Mena region might pay special attention to the dangers confronting the language that, for centuries, has documented their homeland’s wonders and given birth to entire schools of calligraphy with which to communicate them. It has played an important role in Western civilisation, too. Detailed Arabic scholarship during the Abbasid era safeguarded many works of the Hellenic world, particularly between the eighth and ninth centuries. Without Arabic, we might not have preserved many of the texts of Plato and Aristotle, or the work of the classical scientists, playwrights and mathematicians.
Naguib Mahfouz described his Nobel Prize as one "the Arab world also won with me". Celebrating Arabic Language Day will remind us of its important position in world culture. It will also inspire future generations to follow in the footsteps of the many figures like Mahfouz, who continue to show the world the beauty of Arabic.