Rimbaud Makes Way for Rambo

by Oakland Ross

Beirut -- There's a deal being offered on Mazda automobiles in this frenetic Middle Eastern capital, a city where little stays the same for long.
"Turn me on," urges a billboard on Zalka St. in the east end of Beirut. "Zero down payment, 1.99 per cent interest. Limited quantity."
Sounds good - but what is most intriguing about this advertisement is not the nature of the offer. It is the nature of the language in which the offer is being made.
The offer is being made in English - and only in English.
The same goes for much, if not most, of the brash outdoor advertising that sprouts like gaudy thickets of mercantilism along the boulevards and avenues of Beirut.
"The Chivas Life." "For Burger Lovers!" "Chicken Your Way." "Sally Hansen Line Freeze for Lips."
Never mind the absence of French - long the language of choice for cultured Lebanese - there isn't even a single Arabic character to be found on most of these signs.
"English is cool," said a Western diplomat in Beirut. "If you're hip and you're young, you speak English."
You do if you are Lebanese.
According to Christian Merville, an editorial writer at L'Orient Le Jour, Lebanon's only French-language daily newspaper, English has incontestablement (indisputably) supplanted French as the language of status in this resolutely status-conscious land. Or, as Merville, puts it: "Rambo has replaced Rimbaud."
He's referring, in the first instance, to the action hero played by American Sylvester Stallone in a series of 1980s movie thrillers and, in the second instance, to the mercurial 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
It's a play on words, but the point is clear. English - particularly American English - has muscled French aside in this Mediterranean land, whose capital was once known as le Paris du Moyen-Orient. The Paris of the Middle East.
In many ways, the sobriquet remains apt.
Despite the pummelling it has suffered during a succession of wars, Beirut continues to boast an array of continental charms, including fine restaurants, an exuberant nightlife, a sophisticated cafe culture, and enduring ties to a certain former imperial power whose capital is the Paris of Europe.
Increasingly, however, when les citoyens et citoyennes of Lebanon converse with the outside world - or even among themselves - they do so in English, not French.
Granted, Arabic remains the sole official tongue of the country properly known as Al-Joumhouriya al-Lubnaniya. But even Arabic is starting to buckle somewhat under the globalizing force of English.
This is Merville's view, anyway. He believes that Arabic speakers in Lebanon increasingly express themselves in an impoverished vocabulary and tired cliches.
"There's a decline in the quality of French," he said, "but there is also an extraordinary decline in Arabic."
Arabic, of course, has been spoken in these lands for millennia. French, however, arrived in the late 19th century, when Jesuit clergy in France sought to counter increasing Protestant influence in the region by dispatching legions of missionaries to the mountainous eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
Following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, the territory now called Lebanon became a French protectorate, an arrangement that lasted only a quarter-century. But Parisian influence - linguistic and otherwise - endured long after Lebanon became an independent state in 1946.
"Cultured Lebanese were all educated in French-speaking countries," said Ghassan Moukheiber, a Beirut lawyer.
Even families that could not afford to send their children abroad typically dispatched them to local schools where the language of instruction was French, not Arabic.
Explanations vary for the recent ascent of English.
Some observers here - oddly, these individuals tend to be native French speakers - advance the view that English is a "simpler," less challenging tongue than French.
But others note that English opens more doors nowadays than French ever could. It is the primary language of the Internet, for example, as well as the lingua franca of industrial and commercial globalization.
In Lebanon, as in much of the world, U.S. television and films are a powerful cultural force, easily exceeding the influence of their French counterparts.
At the same time, Lebanese citizens who may be contemplating an international move - as many do - are far more likely to be accepted as immigrants in English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada or the United States than they are by France.
"English," said a French-speaking diplomat, "is a lot more useful if you want to go abroad."
Still, French is far from dead in Lebanon. Especially among gatherings of well-educated folk, it is not uncommon nowadays to hear the conversation shift easily from Arabic, to English, to French, and back again.
"It's a wonderful trilingual country," said the Western diplomat. "In a single sentence, you will hear all three languages."
And, although dramatic and unmistakable, the current shift toward English is not uniformly spread among all of Lebanon's four million citizens.
Fluency in French is still highly prized in the affluent Ashrafiye district of Beirut, for example, a neighbourhood mostly populated by Maronite Christians, for whom the language of Voltaire continues to imply good breeding and high economic status.
The country's large Shia Muslim community, meanwhile, is said to be the sector of Lebanese society most drawn to English, but no group in the country is immune to the economic opportunities or the cultural appeal now associated with the language of - well, of Sylvester Stallone.
Repos dans la paix, Arthur Rimbaud. Rest in peace.

The Toronto Star, 8 October 2007