The story is amazing. But first, let’s talk about the event that ed me into this Nigerian home where Arabic is spoken by every member of the family even though their mother-tongue is other than Arabic; meaning that they are not Shuwa Arabs from Borno State whose native language is Arabic. Yet, Arabic is the language of interaction among family members.
The President of the Academic Society for Arabic Language and Literature (ASALLIN), Prof Ibrahim Abubakar Imam Husam who lectures at the Nigeria Defense Academy, Kaduna, had requested me to represent him at an Arabic literary forum holding in Abuja. As a loyal member of the Society, I quickly rescheduled my programmes earlier planned for Wednesday, September 27, 2023 when the event was due to come up.
The event which was organized by the Charitable Foundation for the teaching and spread of Arabic in Nigeria in collaboration with the Directorate of Cultural Affairs in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was the second in its series of the Arabic Poetry Forum in Nigeria. The National Centre for Women Development (recently renamed after late Maryam Babangida, wife of the former Military President General Ibrahim Babangida) located in the Central Business District of Abuja, was the venue of this literary event.
The first to address the audience was the Chairman/Coordinator of the Charitable Foundation, Dr Umar Adam Gusau, whose welcome address was delivered, first in Arabic, and thereafter, in English. Next was the reading of a 15-line poem by a little schoolgirl, AlTaf. Speaking fluently in classical Arabic language, AlTaf took time to introduce the poem. As she recited the poem in rhythmic tones, her melodic voice completely arrested the noise that usually fill the air when children made speeches. I waited curiously to know more about the little girl from the organizers.
Next to climb the podium was Prof Ibrahim Muhammad, the Director of the Nigeria Arabic Language Village (NALV), Ngala who was the occasion’s keynote presenter. It was natural to have him at the event because every Arabic language-based activity shall be deemed to lack ‘legitimacy’ without a word from the eloquent and multi-lingual Director of the Arabic Village. Prof Ibrahim felt provoked when after speaking for only about 25 minutes, he was asked to handover the microphone. He, nonetheless, proceeded and spoke on the significance of Arabic poetry to the development of Nigeria; adding that the NALV offers long and short-term courses for Nigerians who wish to acquire proficiency in Arabic language.
In the middle of Prof Ibrahim’s speech, the lecture hall was thrown into darkness when electricity from the public power supply went off. He said, the lack of power supply into the microphone would not intimidate him to stop his speech.
“After all, I lecture over one thousand students at a time in the university without any electronic speaking device”, he said. When power was restored to the hall, he was already delivering the English version of his keynote address.
Young Arabic poets, male and female, representing Kano, Bauchi, Sokoto, Jigawa, Kaduna, Borno, Kwara, Lagos, and Zamfara states each recited their individual poems. The themes of their poems generally cut across the traditional themes of classical Arabic literature.
The poem by one of the female poets was titled “You are for me”. I wondered silently why Niger State, my home-state, was not represented at this ‘literary banquet’ even tthough it once produced a great literary figure Shaykh Muhammad bn Abdullahi Al-Utrukmami, otherwise known as Waziri Mamman (died 1945). He was Waziri Nupe under Etsu Saidu in Bida and had over 4,000 lines of poem in one of his literary works of eulogy of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). This particular poem, which was written in classical Arabic language is titled “Irshadul Habeebi s-Sadiq ila Seerati Sayyidil Khalaaiq.”
A paper on the theme of the one-day event “Arabic Poetry is the melting pot of African Beauty” was presented by Prof Sulaiman Alabi Yussuf of the University of Abuja. Thereafter, representatives of the Minister of Education and that of Arts , Culture and Creative Economy presented their goodwill messages. The President of the Nigeria Association of Teachers of Arabic and Islamic Studies (NATAIS), Professor Musa Adesina Abduraheem also contributed to the discourse on Arabic poetry in Nigeria. To deliver the message from the President of ASALLIN, I mounted the podium and announced ASALLIN’s preparedness to partner with the Charitable foundation in hosting future events including the publication of all the poems presented in past editions. Soon after I ended my speech amidst power fluctuations, I looked for the little schoolgirl and interacted with her.
AlTaf told me she was 7 years old and was in primary two in ALC Academy, a private basic school in Kaduna. When asked if she understood the meaning of the phrases and expressions in the poem she recited, AlTaf replied, ‘Yes”. Responding to further questions, AlTafz spoke fluently in classical Arabic language. I soon felt I needed to interact with the little girl’s father, Dr Umar Adam Gusau, who was also at the event.
Answering my questions, Dr Umar told me Arabic has been the language of interaction between himself, wife and children in his house; a Nigerian home. Although himself and his wife are both Hausa by tribe, “little Hausa” he said, “is spoken by members of the family.” When I expressed surprise at AlTaf’s fluency in classical Arabic, he said she also speaks and understands colloquial Arabic, a dialect that sounds like the pidgin version of standard English in Nigeria. When I enquired if they have ever lived as a family in any Arab country, the answer was “No”; adding that AlTaf was born on Kano. She only stayed as an infant in Sudan when her mother was undergoing her MA degree in Arabic. Further enquiries revealed that AlTaf’s competence was no ordinary.
Dr Umar obtained his MA degree in Arabic from Sudan and PhD in the same Area in Nigeria. AlTaf’s mother, though Hausa by origin, had her primary and first two years of senior secondary education in Saudi Arabia. She completed SS 3 in Kano; and was admitted into BUK where she graduated with BA Arabic. ‘AlTaf’, which is an Arabic word that derives from ‘lutf’ means kindness, benevolence, and friendliness.
One obvious fact that stands out from this story is how the speaking of a language (native or foreign) with children within the home can empower them with competence in that particular language. We could see how the speaking of colloquial Arabic by Altaf’s mother with her little daughter, for example, easily conferred competence in that dialect on AlTaf.
No wonder, language is called mother-tongue as mothers are children’s first teachers in the acquisition of languages. Hence, it could be said that mothers , not fathers, are to blame when languages are threatened by factors of extinction. May our wives and daughters be inspired by AlTaf to learn and speak Arabic with their children; turning their homes into an Arabic-speaking family in a Nigerian home, yet far away from the middle east, amin.