Language Move Irks Businesses

Shop owners say requirement for Arabic signs called costly, unfair and pointless.

Language Move Irks Businesses

Shop owners say requirement for Arabic signs called costly, unfair and pointless.

Thursday, 13 August, 2009
Twelve years after opening an electronics shop in Damascus, Khaled has been forced to change its name.

In place of Roussil, a Kurdish word which means sun disc, he was made to pick an Arabic name. Patrols from the capital’s municipality told him that they would close his store if he refused to do that.

He gave in and chose an Arabic word.

“This is not a wise decision … we use the names that we feel comfortable with,” said Khaled, who declined to give his last name.

“Why this fanatical attachment to the Arabic language?” he added.

In an effort to consolidate the use of Arabic in Syria, the authorities decided recently to enforce a years-old ruling that lays down a minimum proportion of Arabic in any sign on shops, restaurants and cafes.

The move affected hotels and restaurants aimed at tourists in the old town of Damascus and other cities. Only agents of foreign brands, like Mercedes or Adidas, were exempt.

The decision stipulates that at least 60 per cent of the space on a sign should be in Arabic. Latin letters can be used as long as they do not occupy more than 40 per cent of the sign.

Although some welcomed the decision as a way to preserve the integrity of the Arabic language, many minority groups in Syria with a different mother tongue regard the step as a further attempt to undermine their cultural identity.

Syrian authorities focused on enforcing the decision in the northeastern provinces of Syria, like Hassakeh and Qamishli, where a majority of the population are Kurds and use Kurdish names for their businesses, according to reports by civil rights organisations.

A spokesman for the Kurdish human rights organisation Maf told IWPR that the Kurdish language should not be treated as a foreign tongue, like French or English.

“Kurdish Syrian citizens feel that their culture and language are being attacked by Syrian officials,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up between ten and 20 per cent of the population.

Local and international human rights groups say the Syrian authorities are repressing the cultural and linguistic freedoms of the Kurdish community.

Maf said that Kurds were not allowed to open private schools to teach their language and faced difficulties when trying to register their children with Kurdish names. The language was also banned from government offices, it said.

Other ethnic groups that use languages like Armenian and Assyrian have also protested against the decision to require Arabic in businesses.

Hassan Berro, an author and a lawyer, warned in a widely publicised online article recently that the latest move was “planting the seeds of strife and hostility” among Syrian citizens.

He asked why Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians were treated as second or even third class citizens.

Officials, however, defended the decision as a way to reinforce the use of Arabic.

“All countries in the world protect their languages. We also need to preserve our language and cultural identity,” said Mofleh Azar, the vice president of the bureau for the consolidation of the Arabic language.

The move, he said, was part of efforts to promote the use of classical Arabic in state institutions and schools.

The decision to require Arabic for store names was first issued in 1961 but the authorities only started to enforce it effectively in 2008 when Damascus became the cultural capital of the Arab world for a year.

This year, officials enforcing the ruling have been sending patrols into commercial districts. They often threaten shop owners with closure if they refuse to change the names of their stores into Arabic, merchants say.

Some businessmen criticised the move, arguing that the names, which are sometimes decades old, had become well known to their customers so the change would affect their businesses.

Morhaf Mino, a designer of shop signs working in Damascus, said that some businesses are directed towards foreigners and tourists and so need to have an English name to attract clients.

“People should be free to choose whatever names they want for their shops,” he said.

Chaalan Sbaiini, the owner of a popular hotel for tourists near Homs, said that the local authorities obliged him to change the name of his hotel, Francis, ten years after he had opened it.

After negotiations, they found a compromise. The Arabic version of its name now occupies 70 per cent of the sign.

“Using Arabic names for touristic hotels does not encourage investors. Does this really help bolster Arabic?” he said.

Others said that changing the signs cost them a lot of money and that they had not received any financial compensation from the government.

Malek Ikhwan, the owner of a cosmetics shop in Homs, said he paid 4,000 US dollars to redesign his sign and change the name of his salon from Maria Gallery into one in Arabic.

“If the decision was issued in the 1960s, why did they allow us to use foreign names in the first place?” he said.

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