Inside Dubai Lynx 2015: Arabic Day puts language and its impact on culture on the agenda

Maeve O'Sullivan continues her exploration of Dubai Lynx 2015 as she delves into the major themes of the creative festival's Arabic programme.

I learned an Arabic word yesterday: ‘yatafakkaroun’. It translates in English to ‘thinking and questioning’ or critical thinking. Language and its impact on culture and communication was a recurring topic at the series of sessions presented in Arabic at Dubai Lynx. The sessions aimed to explore creative themes and challenges for the region – a good complement to the subjects covered on the main stage.

This is the first time Arabic-language sessions have been included in the programme, which was a surprise to learn, given how well established Dubai Lynx is. Better late than never, though – you really had to move fast to get a seat in between talks and the room was packed all day with people spilling out into the hallway. I attended a session with the help of a translation headset and my Arabic-speaking colleague Shaghig Anserlian attended a few others. We’ve compared notes for this post.

The top-billed celebrity in the Arabic programme was without doubt Egyptian YouTube star Abla (Aunt) Fahita – she’s a widowed mother of two and a puppet. She has over 2 million fans on Facebook alone and gained international attention in early 2014 when she was accused of sharing encoded terrorist messages in a Vodafone online video.

There was such buzz around her talk – Abla Fahita’s presence and star status underlined how critically important it is for brands to be thinking about video and social media in this region, particularly on mobile. According to Resolution Media, in Saudi Arabia alone, 65 per cent of users access YouTube by mobile. UTURN Entertainment explains this phenomenon in part because there are currently no movie theatres in Saudi Arabia (with the exception of a single IMAX screen), making web one of the few ways to access video.

Later, on the main stage, Twitter shared that 79 per cent of people in the Middle East use mobile to access the platform – a figure higher than the global average. McCann Worldgroup’s reasoning for part of social media’s popularity in the region is because it ‘allows forms of candid self-expression that state-run media shy away from’.

All of this social and mobile activity would seem a great opportunity for brands, however this is where we get back to language, and here’s where I hope I don’t get myself into linguistic hot water. There’s an ‘official’ form of Arabic often used in printed publications, however spoken Arabic varies quite dramatically from region to region in the Middle East. Shaghig explained that the Arabic she speaks in Beirut is quite different from the Arabic someone in Doha might speak – and these differences are far greater than the tomayto/tomahto debate that divides English speakers on either side of the Atlantic.

According to Resolution Media, although there is evidence aplenty that people in Saudi Arabia are searching online and using social media in their local Arabic dialects, brands often insist on communicating using official Arabic.This dramatically reduces the potential for engagement with consumers, but I’m guessing makes life a lot easier when working on a MENA marketing campaign.

And then there’s the challenge of translating international English-language campaigns for local markets. According to JWT Levant, while English language is made up of a mere 600,000 words, Arab writers have more than 12,000,000 to choose from (NB: I’ve been trying to verify those numbers but not been able to. Some estimate that English has up to 1,000,000 words, so, pinch of salt, everyone…).

Whatever the numbers, there is a wide selection of Arabic words to choose from but because of cultural and linguistic differences, it can be a struggle to find the right ones to use when making a direct translation. Because – and this doesn’t just apply to Arabic – language is about so much more than words. And the moment we forget that, we turn our backs on a world of possibility and shared experience.

No surprise, there’s very interesting creative work coming out of the Middle East but what was inspiring about yesterday’s Arabic language sessions was the deeper conversation around identity and communication. In the meantime, we can take heart in the knowledge that British kebabs have finally arrived in the region. Lucky them!

Maeve O'Sullivan is global marketing manager at Fitch. Read her first report from Dubai Lynx: Shingy, David Carson and why context matters

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