Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Arabic football commentary is something else, and at this World Cup, the Doha-based beIN Sports Arabic coverage hasn’t disappointed. The Tunisian commentator Issam Chaouali is massively eloquent, poetic, over-the-top, with sundry literary and historical references. He has been on top form in covering what he dubs the World Cup of African and Asian teams. One moment he is referencing Charlemagne and the Muslim conquerors of Spain, the next quoting Shakespeare—well, sort of: “Ya kun? Na’am, ya kun!” (To be?—yea, to be!) Next he is praising Lionel Messi as “a maniac and a ghoul,” and then he is off to singing the Italian anti-Fascist song “Bella Ciao.” He also screams for players and for the world to pay attention to obvious geopolitical change. When Cameroon scored against Brazil, he shouted “Ya Braziwww, ya Braziww!”—he puts on accents. Then he says, “Mama Africa is rising.”  When Germany, Spain and Brazil were eliminated, he remarked, “The moons may disappear, but there is no shortage of stars.” The Moroccan team has drawn high praise of course: its rise, a sign of “Arab ambition” and “Arab pride” and its triumphs, proof that “impossible is not in the Arabic dictionary.” The Arabic commentary around the Atlas Lions is intoxicating. Against the backdrop of a crumbling Middle Eastern state system, civil wars and a ferocious ongoing counter-revolutionary campaign; for ninety minutes or longer, the possibility of a shared identity and language and community soars and spreads, stirring viewers across the Arabic-speaking world.

Until the final whistle …

As soon as the post-match interviews begin, cracks appear in the mirror. At the press conferences, many of the Moroccan players and Regragui don’t understand questions posed by Arabic-speaking journalists and require translators. Arabic subtitles are quickly added on screen in an effort to communicate what the Moroccans are saying when they speak darija. One viral clip shows striker Hakim Ziyech patiently listening to a long question posed in Arabic and then responding, “English please.” Ziyech, like Amrabet, grew up speaking Tarifit, a Berber language from northern Morocco. Defender Abdelhamid Sabiri speaks Tashelhit, a southern Berber language, in addition to German, English and darija. The communication challenges add to one of the more fascinating dimensions of this World Cup: seeing Western wariness of Arabic and Arab culture overlap with Middle Eastern ambivalence about Moroccan Arabic and Moroccan identity.

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