Performing Arabic at the learned societies of Beirut, 1846–1869




Edwards, Anthony, Ph. D.

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This dissertation focuses on the learned societies of Beirut and studies the emergence of the Arabic language as a topic of discourse in the early Nahḍa period. Through the lens of language performance theory and standard language ideology, it traces the revival of an Arabic Standard Language Ideology during the middle decades of the nineteenth-century in Beirut. Based on textual analysis of society lectures and previously unused sources, this study proposes a new reading of the learned societies of Beirut and presents a nuanced account of Arabic usage amid the local emerging elite. The study first describes the approach taken toward Arabic at Majma‘ al-Tahdhīb (the Refinement Assembly, est. 1846). It then focuses on speeches delivered at al- Jam‘iyya al-Sūriyya li-’ktisāb al-‘Ulūm wa-l-Funūn (the Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences, est. 1847) and the position of the society amid a quasi-global network of oriental societies. Next, it highlights the concerted effort of local Beiruti Arabs in the 1850s to re-purpose the esoteric genre of taqrīẓ (poetic endorsement) and to promote classical Arabic poetry through publications funded by al-‘Umda al-Adabiyya li-Ishhār al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya (the Literary Association for Publicizing Arabic Books, est. 1858). The dissertation concludes by analyzing highly-stylized, eloquent speeches, and odes performed at al-Jam‘iyya al-‘Ilmiyya al-Sūriyya (the Syrian Learned Society, est. 1868). Looking at these five learned-society projects in Beirut that ran from 1846 to 1869, I outline how the burgeoning Beiruti elite positioned Classical Arabic (al- ‘Arabiyya) as the language standard for their nineteenth-century reading of tamaddun (civilization). I suggest that they customized the tradition of Arabic language performance to redefine performative spaces and the new media of print. This essay also investigates the role of social networks in the region and with the global community of orientalists in advancing al-‘Arabiyya as the appropriate language standard. The conclusions prompt a revisiting of the narrative on language simplification during the early Nahḍa in Beirut, in light of the interests of local elites and orientalists in promoting a classicized, idealized Arabic language


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