The instantly recognizable red-and-yellow buttons have been circulating within the Centre for Social Innovation community: beautiful Arabic script that phonetically read out a person’s name with a backdrop of Toronto’s landscape, a clear silhouette of the CN Tower. It is Waleed Nassar’s way of spreading awareness of the Arabic language. “We want to spark a discussion here in Toronto around Arabic culture and we see our buttons as conversation starters” said Nassar.
Nassar is now onto a new project, creating fourteen new buttons with different words for love in Arabic, known as the Degrees of Love set. The idea is to show that if there are so many ways to say love in Arabic, then it must show how loving this language, this culture, and these people are. Nassar created these buttons as a direct response to the U.S. president’s recent travel ban, to counteract the climate of fear against Arabic speaking people.
“Doing the opposite [of fear-mongering] felt like the most powerful answer and that’s why we created the Degrees of Love set. We think it shatters the perception about Arabic culture and creates curiosity around a culture that is so expressive in the way it loves” said Nassar.
These new buttons come out of Nassar’s Toronto-based LoveArabic social enterprise he co-founded, which organizes workshops, classes, and events around Arabic culture, to make the language accessible to all Canadians. He believes promoting the positive side of Arabic culture is the best way to counteract recent negative narratives.
“We want to challenge the single narrative being told about Arabic culture” said Nassar.
Nassar believes teaching Arabic is the most effective way to incorporate understanding of another culture, better than introduction to its food and music. For anyone that speaks more than one language, it’s undeniable we adopt a new persona, access a different aspect of our humanity, one that is akin to the whole spirit of the culture in which that language embodies.
The theory known as linguistic relativity also known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or Whorfianism holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Multi-linguists will tell you this is experientially true, that they will access different cultural personality traits when speaking in another language.
And when a language like Arabic can have fourteen different words for love, the premise is that it must ingratiate a sense of loving openness in its worldview to those fluent in the language. And that surely the people have more humanity than we’ve been led to understand, with Islamophobia on the rise.
Nassar has been strategic in his new button designs. He chose to highlight words of love for two reasons. “We chose love because it is something that transcends cultures. Anyone can relate to it and has experienced love before. The second reason is to show that a culture that has 14 words that describes the feeling of love is a culture that is deeper and more thoughtful than what is portrayed by the media” said Nassar.
To Nassar’s credit, the culture truly is deep as Arabic happens to be one of the oldest languages in history, the language in which the Q’uran was written. Typically read and written from right-to-left, Arabic is one of the United Nations’ six official languages.
According to Director-General of UNESCO Ms. Irina Bokova, Arabic is “the language of 22 Member States of UNESCO, a language with more than 422 million speakers in the Arab world and used by more than 1.5 billion Muslims.” That makes it one of the five most spoken languages in the world.
Nassar claims there are many more words for love in Arabic than the fourteen he highlights. But out of the fourteen, he claims his favourite is Al-Hawa, what he describes as “the very first stage of love.”
“When one is not sure if it is love or not and it is still unpredictable. Al-Hawa has another meaning in the Arabic language and it means the wind, which to me is a very suitable word because the wind is also unpredictable and uncontrollable” said Nassar.
The elemental force in which the word is used is possibly its strength, as love itself is very much a force of nature, the same way the wind is. But there are others, all of which he goes in great detail to describe in English to give an understanding of its Arabic conception. Al-Ishq is entanglement, like being inseparable, entangled so deeply with another that it seems impossible to let go.
Then there’s Al-Tayam which is much like being lost in love. Al-Walah is sorrow, almost like a bittersweet love. Al-Gharam is costly or a love with its sacrifices. There are many more for us to discover. But the last is appropriately Al-Tabl, which means “The End.” One’s last love, the ultimate one we arrive at ideally having journeyed from Al-Hawa to Al-Tabl.
Nassar hopes these buttons can open up dialogue for people in Toronto on the Arabic culture. “We want people to be more critical about what they read or see in social media, movies and story books in schools about the evil and violent Arabic culture. The LoveArabic buttons are conversation starters that we hope will create more curiosity and dialogue between people” said Nassar.