Arabic language revives in Turkey after decades-long disappearance

Turkey
8 min read
12 January, 2023
After the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, the Arabic language was banned from Turkey's schools and mosques for decades. However, today in Turkey, Arabic is seeing a revival for many reasons, including the influx of Arab refugees.

After the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey reorientated itself towards the West, turning away from the Arab and Islamic East.

Arabic-language teaching was banned in schools, as was the Arabic, Islamic call to prayer in the country's mosques. In the mid-1900s, both were briefly reintroduced under the presidency of Adnan Menderes (1950-1960) but disappeared once more following his execution.   

Despite this, history books and researchers still boast today about the renowned Arab scholars and thinkers attracted to the Ottoman State during the last century of its reign.

Among these was Arabic language and literature scholar Muhammad Mahmoud Ibn Ahmed Ibn Mohammed Al-Tarkazi Al-Shanqati, who gained renown and status which allowed him to move in the highest circles – even gaining the ear of Sultan Abdul Hamid II for a time before they argued about representation in the Ottoman state.

No more "Arabja Youk!"

Until ten years ago, the Arabic language was practically non-existent in Turkey, in general, and institutionally. Those who arrived seeking asylum after the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 repeatedly met with the phrase "Arabja Youk!" meaning, "I don't speak Arabic!"

But it was at this point that Arabic began to see a revival once more, extending gradually into the streets, businesses, and even universities.

"After the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey reorientated itself towards the West, turning away from the Arab and Islamic East"

Mahmoud Aydin, CEO of the Ya Sham travel agency, said to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that he had no choice but to learn Arabic to enhance his company's prospects in the tourism market. This is because every year, millions of holidaymakers from the Arab world come to Turkey. Not only that; the country is now home to over five million Arabs.

Today, tourism in some regions – for instance, the Black Sea cities, Bursa and Istanbul – is dominated by Arab tourists. With such huge numbers flocking to the country, speaking the language is vital.

"Most of the Arabs are fluent in English, while we Turks suffer from a weakness when it comes to languages," says Aydin. Here he remarks on the well-known Turkish proverb: "Two languages mean two people",  but explains that the reality of the situation has changed a lot in Turkey, especially when it comes to the markets.

Arabic revival in Turkey after decades-long disappearance
Kumcagiz Beach, Turkey. Today, holidaymakers from the Arab world dominate many of Turkey's touristic areas. [Ibrahim Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty]

"Initially, when Arabs started arriving in Turkey 10 years ago, most would require translators in shops, businesses and banks. However, as the years passed and the increasing need for Arabic knowledge was a reality, Turks started learning Arabic in institutes and universities.

"Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a company or bank without Turkish staff proficient in Arabic – or Arabs who have got Turkish citizenship – Syrians in particular," says Aydin. 

Arabic revival meets mixed reactions

University professor Faiza Gul says: "I learned Arabic to increase my job opportunities and enhance my CV after big Arab companies started opening branches in Turkey. Many jobs in Turkey now require the Arabic language, from the security and immigration departments to banks, as well as travel agents and commercial companies."

She comments on the "difficulty of Arabic and its grammar," however, says it "is possible to learn the basics, especially with so many shared words, and the fact that many institutes and universities teach Arabic in Turkey today, whereas before, Turks had to go to Arabic-speaking countries. My friends learnt Arabic […] in Damascus, and their language is excellent as they lived there for a while – and the basics of language-learning are mixing [with native speakers] and having to speak it." 

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But, she adds, "the engagement with studying Arabic, in the light of Turkey and the Arab world's increasingly close relations – and local need – is also seeing pushback, especially among young people who are influenced by the opposition parties' campaigns blaming refugees and Arabs for the economic downturn, and beliefs which link the Arabs to the Ottoman defeat in the First World War."

A reversal of the situation

Hamdi Mustafa, an Arabic teacher based in Istanbul, says: "There are many factors making Turks want to learn Arabic; age comes into it, job, even religious and political orientation – as it's not possible to separate the eastward orientation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has ruled since 2002, from this issue.

"Similarly, you can't overlook that millions of Arabs are residents in Turkey today. There is also the economic reason – Arabs have established companies in Turkey, and make up the largest group of tourists and visitors."

He adds: "Turkey has changed its course and view on Arabic, as after its usage was forbidden for decades after the establishment of the republic, the AKP reintroduced Arabic-language study in schools via one language class and four religious classes which included the Sirah (prophetic biographies), jurisprudence, the Quran and Hadith – which initially pushed schools to hire Arab teachers before some Turks began graduating from universities where the bulk of their subjects were taught in Arabic."

"With the start of the Arab influx to Turkey after the Arab Spring uprisings, the focus was on teaching Turkish, but then Arabic-language teaching began some years ago, and many have embraced this"

Amir Hassan is the director of the Al-Marefa language institute in Al-Fatih, Istanbul. He describes the current reality as "a reversal of the situation," and says: "With the start of the Arab influx to Turkey after the Arab Spring uprisings, the focus was on teaching Turkish, but then Arabic-language teaching began some years ago, and many have embraced this."

On the age group of those who are keenest to learn Arabic and the reasons behind this, Hassan explains that "older adults make up the biggest group."

He thinks the main reason is the "spiritual motive to deeper understanding [Islam] and the Quran," but says another major reason is that so many Turkish companies have started conditioning employment on proficiency in Arabic.

Study programmes – a work in progress

Mehmet Hakkı Suçin is director of the Arabic Language Department at Gazi University in Ankara. He says: "The current period of acceptance of Arabic and its teaching in Turkey,  is very different from even ten years ago when there were no programmes being taught in Arabic, and unqualified, non-proficient people were teaching it."

He explains that in recent years, study programmes for Arabic have been set up at both primary and secondary levels: "I led a committee in the Turkish Ministry of Education which prepared Arabic programmes for all levels and student types – in secondary schools and for imams and preachers. After the programmes were developed, teacher training was carried out all over Turkey."

Suçin explains that the development of school textbooks for all levels and the expansion of teacher training has led to a "great leap forward" in the quantity and quality of Arabic-language learning opportunities in Turkey, and today many universities have also set up Arabic-language departments. 

He says: "The curricula focus on listening, writing and speaking skills, as well as grammar and Arabic culture. Another important part is Arabic-Turkish translation both ways, which is new, and involves teaching translation to non-Arabic specialists of news, health and tourism information as well as legal texts."

"The main reason is the "spiritual motive to deeper understanding [Islam] and the Quran," but another major reason is that so many Turkish companies have started conditioning employment on proficiency in Arabic"

He emphasises that while Arabic teaching has advanced hugely in recent years, it is still below the level aspired to when compared with English language teaching for example.

"Studying Arabic is not yet as widespread as English, and the methodology is not as advanced. Likewise, online study resources are much more scarce for Arabic language learning, which increases the burden on Arabic teachers when they are preparing worksheets and assignments," he says.

Turkish public universities have opened departments which teach certain specialisations in Arabic, including Mardin Artuklu University. History professor Muhanna Bilal Rashid says that, since 2015, Mardin University has taught five specialisms in the Arabic language: history, sociology, political science, commerce and nursing, in addition to Sharia law, which is taught in Turkish and Arabic.

About the future of the Arabic language in Turkey, Rashid describes what has happened as a "Turkish awakening", especially during the last decade, and he thinks that due to a convergence of  religious and economic needs "Arabic will come back into common circulation in Turkey."

Turkey's second language?

Turan Kışlakçı, head of the Association of Turkish Artists in the Diaspora, believes that "Arabic has become the second language in Turkey today, ahead of Kurdish."

This is "based on the increasing demand for learning it, and the number of those with Arab roots living in the states of Siirt, Mersin, Gaziantep, Hatay, and Urfa.

The spread also increased after the arrival of our Arab brothers over the last decade," he says.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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