Although she had worked in the press for ten years, Nadia Jebril, a Swedish journalist of Palestinian origin, never had the opportunity to use her Arabic in the context of her job. But then she had the idea for Rena rama arabiskan [Pure Arabic]: a series which aimed to provide a survey of places where Arabic is spoken in Europe, taking in Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Italy, Malta, Spain and Bosnia, before moving on to Lebanon.
“We wanted to do something about the Arabic language,” she explains. “But everyone was only talking about Islam and the Middle East, as though they were obliged to stick to well-established subjects”. Then she thought: “A lot of us are Muslims, and most of us speak Arabic. But here is where we live! And we don’t speak the same Arabic they speak in the Middle East, it’s a kind of a mix”.
“My generation is a group apart. We have grown up in an environment that is radically different to the one experienced by our parents. When you look around Europe, there is a whole range of different mixed backgrounds that overlap. It is a new phenomenon and no one pays any attention to it!
This frustration that ultimately resulted in the series Rena rama arabiskan [“Pure Arabic”], which asks the question: to what extent does Arabic enable you to get by in Europe? Nadia Jebril had already discovered that Arabic helped her to be understood in Berlin.
In the first episode, she travels around Sweden with a sign that says, “Do you speak Arabic?” As the series continues, she moves on to other countries where she encounters people in the street, and interviews writers, humourists and artists. And it is at this point that the programme takes on the air of a mischievous guide to Europe — a portrait that goes beyond the simple framework of the Arabic language.
For Nadia Jebril, her tour of Sweden, where she met with people who interested in Arabic and other issues, came as a pleasant surprise. However in Denmark, a country where the question of multilingualism is the subject of stormy debates and where Arabic-speaking children are often told they should not be speaking Arabic, the challenge was a lot tougher. “They bundle a lot of stuff into the debate about language, because their goal is to get onto the subject of immigration”, she explains.
In France, she meets people who speak Arabic but who refuse to give her directions to a record shop. Then they insult her and yell at her to turn off the camera. Even when she tries to approach people with her sign, she ends up empty-handed. Having concluded that this behaviour has been prompted by the way Arabic speakers have been portrayed in the French media, she manages nonetheless to obtain a rendez-vous with raï-music king Khaled.
Both of us were having a fit of the giggles, she remembers. He was worried about the idea of speaking Arabic and his answers were full of French; to the point where she only understood half of what he was saying. She herself was worried about speaking her own Arabic: a Palestinian dialect enlivened by such terms as brunsås [brown sauce].
Nadia Jebril insists that the series has no political objective. Even if it was shot before the summer, when the Arab Spring in North Africa had brought about a range of events that would have major repercussions.
“Today we no longer see Arabs solely as victims or oppressors, but as people like everyone else, who just want to live well and who are prepared to fight to achieve this goal. And this has prompted a resurgence of interest. As for us, in as much as we resemble those people who fought for their ideals, I think we can hold our heads high”.