A note before you jump in:
As you may already know (or as you may be finding out right now) reading in Levantine or any Arabic dialect is notoriously difficult because most content in Arabic is written in MSA. Because I wanted to learn dialect, this conundrum used to get me down. To read or not to read, that was the question.
My answer: not to read. For years, I didn’t bother cracking open books or newspapers or blog articles or anything. I think what affected me most was that at some point many years ago, a teacher told me that MSA was the equivalent of Shakespearean English. And having been in many a Shakespearean play, I didn’t want to be caught saying: Avaunt, get thee gone! instead of فل من هن !
Now, I read in MSA and dialect, and I realize that that teacher was wrong. That’s the thing about learning Arabic, many of our conceptions of the language are actually misconceptions. I wrote about these misconceptions last week. And misconceptions around reading, in particular, are detrimental to our progress as Arabic learners, because reading is a crucial skill to acquiring a large mass of vocabulary.
I know this post is about reading in dialect (we’ll get there in just a second!), but I want to really encourage you to start reading in MSA TODAY if you are committed to learning Arabic to fluency. Here are two reasons why:
1) Every literate native-speaker has to learn to speak their dialect and read in MSA, so you’re really just giving yourself the most authentic experience possible. (I told a Syrian friend recently that I was reading and she replied, Wow, I have to get back to doing that. It’s so hard for me. See! We’re not alone.)
2) A large majority of MSA words are also in the Levantine dialect and vice versa. This realization has become more and more exciting, the more I read. For example, I’m currently reading Return to Haifa, a novella by the Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani. This is the first thing I’ve ever read that’s longer than a graphic novel, so there’s a lot that don’t know. As I’m reading and come across mysterious vocabulary, I highlight those words and look them up. About 50-65% of the time, the word is in both MSA and Levantine.
So all I’m saying is this: If you’re waiting to find a secret stash of books and articles and blogs in Levantine, keep waiting. If you’re trying to develop in Arabic now, use what’s available.
BUT… I thought this was going to be about reading resources in Levantine?
Yes, it is! Now, that I’m off my soapbox, I can tell you! I won’t lie — the lack of reading materials in Levantine can really frustrate me sometimes. So one day I started to think: If novels and news and articles aren’t written in Levantine, then what could be?
Oh! Pieces of writing that focus on conversation! Dialect is spoken! So find writing materials that focus on conversation or are designed to sound conversational!
Enter: Graphic novels and comics and newsletters and more.
Here are the ones I’ve come to love the most, and I hope that I’m able to find more soon, because boy o boy did this take a lot of time and patient digging.
1. Graphic Novel: Budrus
Budrus is the story of a Palestinian community called Budrus that is fighting the Israeli occupation. The story centers around a young woman, and how the women and girls end up playing the most crucial roles in the resistance. I really loved both the written and visual storytelling. The book is based on a film by the same name, which was released in 2009. I found this graphic novel by looking through the American University of Beirut’s online library. When on the hunt, you end up in the strangest of places.
2. Comic Book Series: Samandal Comics
Samandal Comics is a comic book collective based in Beirut with Arabic-speaking contributors from around the world. Honestly, “comic book collective” doesn’t actually do them justice, so here is what they say about themselves: “Samandal is an alternative platform of expression for cultural and social issues. We privilege the singular voice of the artist, his graphic and narrative experiments and research that questions the language.”
I have no idea how I found this one. Maybe the AUB library as well? Anyway, for you reader, there are a few important things to know. 1) All 15 of their issues are free to download on their site. To access the free comics go here. 2) Some comics are in English and French, so don’t be thrown off when you see that.
Also, you’ll find that the text is written in different handwriting fonts instead of a standard font you’d see on the internet. I struggled with this at first, and then really embraced the challenge. I realized how little I really was able to read actual Arabic handwriting.
I really love Samandal for their message and story, and not just for my own language learning purposes. I think this is a great video to explore if you’re interested in the cultural and political aspects behind their work + the Beirut comic scene, in general.
3. Comic Book: The Crime 2 from Zeez Collective
Zeez Collective is another comic book collective based out of Beirut, though it’s main contributors are scattered across the world right now. I found Zeez because I really admired the work of one Samandal contributor, Tracy Chahwan. After reading an interview of her (and stalking her artists’ page on Facebook), I landed on a link to the comic book, The Crime 2, which Zeez worked on and she contributes to.
Unlike Samandal’s comics, The Crime 2, is written completely in Arabic. (Zeez’s other work is in English though. Not useful for Arabic language purposes, but definitely great to read.) As for the story, The Crime 2, focuses on the protests that began on October 17, 2019 in Lebanon. The comic isn’t one single story, but rather different artists’ interpretations of the protests.
In general, I love the visual creativity that Zeez and Samandal offers. But what keeps me deeply hooked to these comics is their novelty. Most of the content I come across in immersion is wholesome (especially compared to what’s standard here in America). I’ve seen lots of Levantine TV shows and movies touch on sensitive societal issues, but until reading Samandal and Zeez’s work, I hadn’t come across content that was raunchy or outright weird. They both have comics that are graphically sexual or that look like they were drawn while doing an acid trip. Very often, my mind is blown — not by what’s written, but how the stories are being depicted. For me, one of the greatest ways to build appreciation for a culture is through art. If these describes you too, you’ve come to the right place.
4. Email Newsletter: Sowt
Y’all have heard me talk about Sowt Podcasts before because of their incredible audio storytelling. What you may not already know is that Sowt also has a semi-frequent weekly newsletter that is written in the Levantine dialect. Check out the screenshot below to see what I mean. I have noticed that some parts of the newsletter a written more formally, especially when the newsletter is talking about podcasts that focus on more serious political issues. But overall, Levantine is what you’ll find.
5. Fun findings from Instagram
- Humans of Amman: This account is inspired by the original Humans of New York, so beside each photo there’s a written text of the person’s conversation with the photographer. And of course, the conversation is in Levantine. I know that many years ago, Humans of Amman was supposed to become a book, but I don’t see that that happened. If you do know, let me know!
- Palestinian Memes: This account is really just too funny. There are a lot of things I don’t understand immediately (because humor is highly cultural), and so for that I read the comments because there is always someone else who’s thinking, Huh? Lastly, because memes are so short, I find that it’s a great way to test my Levantine vocabulary very quickly.
- Your Favorite Levantine Influencer: For example, Noor Stars, the biggest YouTuber in the Middle East is from Iraq but speaks and writes in Levantine on all of her platforms. She’s very active, obviously, and so there is always content to read.
Okay, that should be enough to get you started. Go, go, go, go GO!