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PREMIÈRE PARTIE - Vivre l’école : dynamiques plurielles de construction des savoirs et des identités
Partie 3 : Vivre des éducations plurielles : une double injonction identitaire

“It’s just Arabic!”: Linguistic Anxiety and Identity Negotiations in Egypt’s International Schools

« Ce n’est que de l’arabe ! ». Anxiété linguistique et négociations identitaires dans les écoles internationales d’Égypte
القلق اللغوي والمفاوضات الهوياتية في المدارس الدولية بمصر
Noha Roushdy
p. 105-124


Cet article examine les tensions concernant l’enseignement de la langue arabe dans le secteur en pleine expansion de l’enseignement privé international en Égypte. Sur la base d’entretiens et d’observations participantes menés dans une école internationale au Caire entre 2016 et 2017, je m’intéresse aux configurations institutionnelles, pédagogiques et socioculturelles de l’enseignement de l’arabe dans les écoles internationales. Je démontre que les attitudes et pratiques langagières des élèves de ces écoles reflétaient la division marquée qui existait entre l’arabe standard et l’arabe vernaculaire égyptien dans l’idéologie linguistique de l’enseignement de l’arabe formel. Ma recherche a montré que le manque de maîtrise de l’arabe standard de ces élèves n’avait pas d’influence sur leur réussite académique, ni sur leur vie sociale. Inversement, leur relation à l’arabe vernaculaire égyptien était centrale dans leurs négociations identitaires au quotidien au sein de l’école internationale et leur fournissait un répertoire linguistique et culturel dynamique à travers lequel ils adoptaient des valeurs sociales et culturelles nationales.

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  • 1 The Egyptian Ministry of Education publishes a yearly report about school enrollment in Egypt, the (...)

1The early decades of the twenty-first century saw the rise of a new education market in Egypt that introduced international schools (al-madāris al-dawliyya) as the latest trend in pre-college elite education. These schools are part of a global education industry that has successfully shifted the conventional association of international education with transnational expatriate communities (Bunnell, 2019; Brummitt and Keeling, 2013). The primary target of these new international schools are members of the local elite with transnational educational and career aspirations for their children. Over the past two decades, international schools have supplanted nationally based education for growing segments of the Egyptian upper-middle and upper-classes and are widely associated with superior academic and career opportunities (Sobhy, 2022; Roushdy, 2021; Belal, 2017; Shaalan, 2014; de Koning, 2009).1

2English, and to a lesser extent, French-medium private schools have been a longstanding feature of the Egyptian educational landscape (Salama, 1962; Abecassis, 2000). But this most recent turn towards decidedly non-national educational tracks among elite Egyptians coincides with growing social anxieties about the cultural identity and sense of national belonging of Egypt’s elite youth. In public debates, education experts and media pundits decry international school students’ weak Arabic language skills and take this as a marker of cultural estrangement and social disconnectedness. Many invoke fears about neocolonialism and present international schools as a vehicle in the social fragmentation of Egyptian society and the cultural alienation of its elite (Elbendary, 2021; Al-Hadidi, 2017; Al-Hiddini, 2014; Bower, 2015; Hassanyn, 2013; Guweida, 2010; Ammar, 2009).

3While these linguistic anxieties attribute international school students’ weak Arabic language proficiency to the foreign cultural configuration of international schools (Suleiman, 2014), in this paper I argue that international schools may, in fact, be a dynamic site for new articulations of the language-identity nexus in contemporary Egypt. Drawing on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in and around international schools in Cairo between 2016-2017 and 2021-22, the paper interrogates the seemingly unproblematic relationship between language and national belonging that undergirds public anxieties about international education. Through an examination of the cultural conceptions of the Arabic language that circulated in international schools (Kroskrity, 2004), I show how students’ relationship to Arabic was primarily shaped by the linguistic ideology that informed Arabic language education in schools (Suleiman, 2013; Haeri, 2003; Armbrust, 1996). This linguistic ideology drew a sharp distinction between Standard Arabic (fusḥa Arabic), as a school subject, and the Egyptian Vernacular Arabic (EVA or ‘ammiyya) used in everyday life. As a school subject, students’ conceptions of fusḥa Arabic reflected a dominant construction of Arabic language education as integral to national identity, but lacking clear instrumental value to their academic, professional, or social life. Conversely, students’ relationship to EVA was imbricated with everyday identity negotiations in school and provided a dynamic linguistic repertoire for the enactment of nationally inflected social and cultural values in the international school culture. I suggest that students’ linguistic practices may have been an unintended consequence of the very same linguistic ideology that shapes Arabic language education in all Egyptian schools. In the international school context, this linguistic ideology was simultaneously intensified and negotiated through the new ways that this young elite drew on EVA/English to perform and assert Egyptian belonging.

  • 2 ISN is one of the oldest and more exclusive of Egypt’s international schools. In 2016-2017, ISN sch (...)
  • 3 These interviews were among fifteen extended interviews I conducted with international schoolteache (...)

4My analysis of the linguistic anxieties surrounding international education in Egypt builds on an extended multisided ethnographic study of elite education in Egypt that focused on the production of class and national belonging in Cairo’s new international schools (Roushdy, 2021). In this paper, I draw on participant-observation research inside one international school in Cairo that I would henceforth refer to as the International School in New Cairo, ISN (pseudonym), between 2016-2017, as well on extended interviews and informal conversations with members of the school community – including teachers, parents, students and former students – about students’ attitudes towards the Arabic language and Arabic language education more broadly.2 I also examine at length three semi-structured interviews that I conducted with state-trained Arabic language teachers in 2016,3 focusing on their experiences of teaching Arabic in different international school settings.

Language Ideology and National Identity Formation in Schools

  • 4 I follow Nilofar Haeri (2000) and Yasir Suleiman (2008) in using fusḥa and Standard Arabic intercha (...)

5The duality between Standard Arabic (SA)4 or al-lugha al-‘arābiyya al-fusḥa (fusḥa) and Egyptian Vernacular Arabic (EVA) or al-lugha al-‘āmmiyya al-misriyya has defined the linguistic situation in Egypt in scholarship on Arabic sociolinguistics as well in the broader literature on Egyptian nationalism and national culture (Armbrust, 1996; Haeri, 2003; Suleiman, 2008; Fahmy, 2011). Although Egypt recognizes SA as its official language and the linguistic medium for “high” cultural productions – including scholarship, literature, and formal communication – EVA, specifically its Cairene variant, is the salient linguistic medium for everyday conversations as well as in artistic production and popular culture.

6This linguistic duality is the Egyptian rendition of the diglossic linguistic situation shared across Arabic-speaking speech communities. Ferguson’s (1959) classic definition of diglossia described a diglossic linguistic situation as one where two varieties of a complex linguistic form co-exist within a strict linguistic hierarchy that recognizes one form as superior to the other. As applied to Arabic, the superior form, Standard or Classical Arabic (al-lugha al-‘arabiyya al-fusḥa), is the language of formal and high culture, while the inferior slot is filled by the various colloquial languages (al-lugha al-‘āmmiyya or al-lugha al-dārija) spoken in everyday life. Although scholars suggest the de facto hybridization of fusḥa and ‘āmmiyya, most notably in the speech patterns of the educated elite, the so-called Educated Spoken Arabic (Fahmy, 2011: 6; Eid, 2002; Armbrust, 1996: 41-48; Mitchell, 1986), the linguistic dichotomy constitutes a dominating framework in cultural conceptions of Arabic, and is an integral part of the dominant language ideology in Arabic-speaking speech communities (Schulthies, 2020; Suleiman, 2008; Caton, 2006; Haeri, 2003).

7By language ideology, I mean the multiple and competing beliefs, feelings and evaluations of language, linguistic forms and discursive practices that enfold linguistic forms and discursive practices in a given society (Irvine and Gal, 2000; Kroskrity, 2004). Multiple studies have emphasized the centrality of the Qur’an, as a sacred Arabic text, to the shaping of this language ideology (Suleiman, 2013). As a “sacred language” (Haeri, 2003), Standard Arabic is believed to be “inimitable” and “untranslatable” (Suleiman, 2013: 5-6). This religiously inflected construction of Arabic is key to dominant cultural conceptions of the language: First, any spoken or written vernacular form is constructed as not only inferior, but more so as a linguistic aberration, that should and will be corrected with proper education in the Arabic language (Armbrust, 1996: 41-8). Second, the view of Arabic as “sacred heritage” extends a moral and religious duty to preserving and protecting the language, both from foreign languages and local dialects (Suleiman, 2013: 6).

8This linguistic ideology is central to the configuration of Arabic in Egyptian national education.

9Schools are the only space where, presumably, all Egyptian children are exposed to fusḥa and, at the same time, where they are invited or expected to use it. EVA, on the other hand, can be considered Egyptians’ “mother tongue” because children learn to speak it at home (Suleiman, 2008: 29). This spatial and temporal split in language use is magnified through the historically specific discursive and symbolic framework that ties fusḥa to schools, modernity, and Islam, and constructs ‘āmmiyya as a “non-language” that requires no formal education, allegedly un-codifiable and only appropriate for the exchange of informal, intimate, or simple ideas and information.

  • 5 See, for instance, ROMANI Karim, 2021. “Ma hiyya mawād al-huwiyya al-qawmiyya”, El-Watan News, Febr (...)

10Arabic language education has, therefore, been an integral part of the modern configuration of literacy education in Egypt and is a critical component in the conceptualization of what can be considered a national core curriculum, the so-called “identity subjects”. “Identity subjects” (mawād al-hūwiyya) is a widely used term5 that refers to the grouping of Arabic, religious education and social studies as required school subjects for all Egyptian students whatever their school type. This conceptualization of “identity subjects” can be traced back to the writings of Taha Hussein, one of the chief ideologues behind educational nationalization in modern Egyptian history (Suleiman, 2008; Gershoni and Jankowski, 1986). In his influential text, Mustaqbal al-Thaqāfa fi Misr, where Hussein laid out his vision for the intellectual and institutional foundation of an independent Egyptian nation, he presented an education in the national language, history, geography, and religion as prerequisite for the cultivation of a national personality (shakhsiyya wataniyya and shakhsiyya masriyya) committed to national independence and democracy (Hussein, 1938). Hussein’s conception of the process by which an Egyptian national identity is cultivated in schools informed the government’s successive efforts to bring private schools in line with national directives throughout the colonial, postcolonial and contemporary period.

  • 6 The stipulation is included as Article 2 in nearly every international school license: “With regard (...)

11Today, all Egyptians and nationals of countries where Arabic is the formal state language are required to sit through classes in Arabic, social studies, and religious studies throughout their years in school. These classes follow a centralized curriculum set by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, regardless of whether they are delivered in public or private schools in Egypt.6 Teachers of these subjects use government-assigned textbooks and teaching material; they also must follow ministerial directives with regards to examinations. In as far as Arabic is the sole language used for instruction in these subjects, these classes constitute the only time where international school students read, listen to, and speak SA.

Elite Education: From Foreign to International Schools

12Despite the ideological and symbolic centrality of Arabic in scholarship of Egyptian modernity, Arabic has rarely been identified as a source of elite cultural capital (Bourdieu, 2003). Instead, scholars have regularly identified exposure to foreign languages in so-called private language or foreign schools as a key vehicle in elite cultural reproduction in Egypt (Ahmed, 1999; Said, 1999; Russell, 2004; Pollard, 2005; de Koning, 2009; Sobhy, 2022). Some of the key linguistic practices associated with this elite educational trajectory are the ability to communicate fluently in an English (and to a lesser extent French) that lacks the obvious markers of the local accent, and to casually include European words or expressions in everyday conversations (Bassiouney, 2014; Peterson, 2011; de Koning, 2009; Barsoum, 2002; Haeri, 1997).

13Notwithstanding scholarly attention to the linguistic dimension of elite cultural production in Egypt, few have examined whether and how this linguistic situation shapes and is shaped by the socialization of elite Egyptians into Arabic and its varying usages. In an important article that discussed the misalignment between the education system, the labor market, and knowledge of Arabic in Egypt, Niloofar Haeri (1997) suggested that elite Egyptians educated in foreign private schools have weak Arabic language skills because they study most school subjects in a foreign language, thereby strengthening their foreign language over and against their Arabic. Challenging Pierre Bourdieu’s dominant sociolinguistic model that links dominant groups to dominant languages, Haeri argued that, in Egypt, the theory does not hold because Arabic language proficiency is not a source of cultural capital to socioeconomically dominant groups (1997: 799). Yet, Haeri conducted her research in the late 1980s and early 1990s; her conclusions do not account for the new elite educational and linguistic practices that have been associated with the marketization and internationalization of Egyptian education in the decades that followed.

  • 7 This category excludes private schools affiliated with foreign embassies, which operate as not-for- (...)
  • 8 Only religious education, social studies and national pedagogy were taught in Arabic.

14Until roughly the mid-1990s, language was arguably the only curricular component differentiating schools in postcolonial Egypt. Up until that period, all schools in Egypt followed the standardized national curriculum of the Egyptian Ministry of Education and prepared students for the Egyptian secondary school diploma, al-thānāwiyya al-‘āmma.7 This decidedly centralized national curriculum was shared across public and private schools, irrespective of the differential academic or social status associated with one school or the other. Schools that relied on a European language as the principal language of instruction (English, French or German) taught most school subjects in these languages.8 Most foreign language schools were private schools, but some higher-tier government schools, the so-called experimental language schools, also operated as language schools. Although these foreign language schools were internally differentiated, by and large, attending a school that provided superior training in European languages was the marker of elite education, at least throughout the second half of the twentieth century (Herrera, 2022; Peterson, 2011; Cochran, 2008; de Koning, 2009).

15Compared to these “national schools,” as they are today identified, international schools are licensed to deliver a curriculum different from the centralized national curriculum. In line with global trends, most international schools in Egypt deliver a UK or a US-based curriculum and are locally identified as British or American International schools (Bunnell, 2019). These schools rely on textbooks and teaching material from the country whose curriculum they have imported and are differentiated in the education market by the extent to which they can simulate an “authentically” British or American school culture. This means that instruction as well as all forms of communication at these schools is principally in English; ideally teachers and key administrators are native English speakers.

  • 9 See for example (Roshdy, 2017) and (Moustafa, 2019).

16Today, this convergence has been further intensified through the infiltration of English as lingua franca in everyday life in many parts of Cairo and other urban centers. English is prerequisite for admission into higher education and is a required skill for the attainment of well-paying jobs in the service economy and most non-manual forms of employment in urban centers (Barsoum, 2002; Farag, 2017). In addition, upper-middle and upper-class parents actively encourage their children to develop a native-like accent in foreign languages (English, French or German) as a gateway to international school admission. To that end, in many of these families, parents and caregivers speak to babies and small children only in English (or French or German) and expose them, at a very young age, to English-language media, accessible through the Internet and Cable TV. The hope is that these practices will bolster children’s foreign language proficiency and cultivate native-like accents. These extra-institutional practices of foreign language education make it particularly challenging for socially mobile middle and upper-middle class parents who were not exposed to English-medium education as children to navigate the educational and social life they would like for their children, given their own weak English language proficiency. One of the remarkable manifestations of these new socialization practices is that, across Cairo’s upscale sites today, English has become the default language of communication with and among children.9

17These linguistic and educational transformations unfold against the broader diglossic linguistic situation outlined above and the specific tensions it bears both for formal Arabic language education in schools as well as everyday conversations in EVA. In the following section, I zoom in on the articulations of these tensions inside one international school in Cairo and through the accounts of students and former students.

Your Language, Your History

18Walking through ISN for the first time in 2016, one of Egypt’s most exclusive private international schools, I was struck by wall decorations in its high school that carried remarkably patriotic undertones. On the staircase leading up to the high school floor, for example, a placard in Arabic calligraphy read: ‘The Arabic language is the most eloquent language of all; one could not do just to its eloquence in words’ (al-lugha al-‘arabiyya tafuq kull al-lughāt rawnaqan wa ya‘jaz al-lisan ‘an waṣf mahāsinha), signed by a student in Grade 10. Another placard read: ‘Don’t obliterate your history by destroying your language; Your language is your responsibility, preserve it’ (La taqdi ‘ala tārikhak b’il-qada’ ‘ala lughatik hiya āmāna fi ‘unuqak fa hāfiẓ ‘alayha).

19Upon spotting these placards for the first time, I brushed them off as a deliberate attempt to appease resurgent nationalist sentiments in post-2013 Egypt in a school that I was repeatedly told was “very international.” However, as my visits to the school became more regular and my relationship with its teachers and students in the following months grew, the placards became a telling illustration of the everyday tensions around language and identity that I was observing in classroom discussions and in my conversations with teachers, parents, students, and former students in and around ISN: On the one hand, the placards expressed a pedagogical commitment, supported at least by some students, to a construction of Arabic as a culturally superior linguistic form, and an essential constituent of national culture and identity. On the other hand, sentiments of regret infused the messages of the placards, which hinted that students may in fact be neglecting this “most eloquent” of languages, and thereby contributing to the demise of their national culture.

20This tension was most pronounced in my conversations with international school students, who almost always presented their Arabic language proficiency as a source of self-reproach prefaced with a recognition of the “greatness” of the Arabic language. Take Salma and Dalia (pseudonyms), for example, both former students of ISN who were both freshmen at the American University in Cairo were when I met them in 2017. Like many of the students I met at ISN, both girls had been to three other international schools before joining ISN, the school where they earned their American Diploma degree. In all of the schools they attended, they took Arabic as a compulsory subject from Grades 1 through 11. Their parents, like many that I encountered during my research, had deemed the Arabic they took in school as insufficient and hired a Sheikh, a Quran teacher, who visited the family once weekly to teach them to recite the Quran. Now, as college students, both girls claim to understand fusḥa well, but neither feels proficient enough to write or speak it. “I feel guilty because I prefer to write in English…I feel like I am not being loyal…I should strengthen my language and not let it die,” Salma, who was studying to become a journalist, told me in English. When I asked the women why they struggled with fusḥa when they studied it for so many years in schools, Dalia and Salma shared an account of their Arabic classes that I would encounter later on in all of my conversations with other international school students and teachers.

  • 10 Standardized national examinations in Egypt typically take place in the midst of the summer holiday (...)
  • 11 Examinations during transition years (grades 6, 9, and 12) are subject to close monitoring by the g (...)

21This account exposed a stratified educational program and school culture, in which government-assigned subjects and their teachers had lower status. First, Arabic figured as a second language in the school program of most international schools. At ISN, primary school students took more than twice as many English language classes per week as Arabic language (ten versus four hours per week). Out of thirty class hours for all school subjects, only seven were in Arabic (and that included religious education and social studies). Although this gap in allocated time significantly narrowed in middle and high school, the only important educational outcome from these subjects was the standardized national examination. Many international schools organize a “crash course” after the end of the academic year10 to prepare students entering “transition years” for these exams.11 While it is difficult to determine what “passing Arabic” means, given the absence of relevant data, the bar seems very low; I know a number of graduating senior students who told me that they would read a newspaper article “with significant difficulty” who had nonetheless passed it.

22If the state’s educational program itself was structurally inferior in the international school culture, so were the teachers who taught that program. During my conversations with various members of the school community, I recognized an implicit agreement that the inferior social class position of Arabic teachers, both within the hierarchy of the teaching staff as well as vis-a-vis the students, played a role in students’ disregard of these teachers and their subjects. At ISN, the inferior position of Arabic teachers within the faculty was not only reflected in their salaries and their de facto exclusion from leadership positions at the school, but also in the explicit exclusion of their families from the school community. Teachers hired to teach the government-assigned subjects were the only members of the staff excluded from the otherwise universal benefit of a tuition waiver if they chose to enrol their children at the school. This exclusion carried an implicit understanding of the elitist class composition of the student population that unapologetically excluded Arabic-medium teachers.

23This marginalization of Arabic and Arabic teachers in the institutional culture of the school also structured student-teacher dynamics in Arabic classes and students’ overall attitudes towards these subjects. Many ISN students confessed to spending their Arabic class time doing homework for other subjects or keeping themselves busy eating or chatting quietly (or not too quietly), while the teacher proceeded to present the material until class time finished. “Arabic is practically free period” is how one senior ISN student explained the classroom culture to me, a characterization that none of the others participating in the conversation, including a teacher, objected to. Stories about disruptive classroom behaviour and outright disrespect of Arabic teachers were widespread among the students and greatly informed the way in which students constructed these subjects in the school culture.

24“It’s just Arabic!” was how Bodur (pseudonym), a graduating senior at ISN, told me her classmates would react if she mentioned the need to prepare for a test or to simply do her homework. “English homework comes first, Arabic homework second,” she reiterated. Although Bodur criticized her classmates’ attitudes to Arabic classes, she did not assess her Arabic language proficiency to be any better than her classmates’. Like Salma and Dalia, Bodur articulated her frustration about the place of Arabic in her education in a fluent American-accented English, even though -as her interlocutor- I asked questions almost exclusively in EVA. When I pointed this out to her during one of our conversations, she kept silent for a few seconds. “It makes me sad. I wish it was my choice to speak English, but it’s not. Speaking English comes with this education,” a statement that indicated an ambivalent relationship to English as her first language and, at the same, a language that she recognized as foreign and dominating.

25In as far as students’ sense of regret and self-reproach about “neglecting” Arabic or “preferring” to express themselves in English foregrounded a colonial/imperial logic, they seemed to confirm the public anxieties around international schools that I introduced at the beginning of this article. Yet, in probing the views of Arabic teachers about students’ Arabic language proficiency, internationalization appeared at the surface of more deeply rooted tensions over Arabic language education in Egyptian schools, tensions that go beyond the cultural politics of international education.

Arabic as “Identity Subject”

26Studies of Arabic language education in Egyptian schools are remarkably scarce in a body of literature that has mostly focused on religious education and, to a lesser extent, history and national pedagogy as lenses by which to examine the production and reproduction of political and cultural values in schools (Sobhy, 2015; Atallah and Makar, 2014; Toronto and Eissa, 2007; Salmoni, 2005; Pollard, 2005; Starrett, 1998). However, studies of Arabic language education in other Arab-speaking countries have emphasized the competing registers of value that inform language-in-education policies and practice in the region (Pellegrini, 2020; Boutieri, 2012, 2016; Zakharia, 2010). These studies suggest that the symbolic and ideological instrumentalization of Arabic language education for national and political identity formation in schools contradicts the practical valuation of Arabic for educational achievement and in the labor market. In her study of the Arabic curriculum and teaching in public schools in Morocco, Chloe Pellegrini argued that Arabic language education foregrounds issues of political and national belonging to an extent that supersedes instruction in the language for purposes of communication and self-expression (Pellegrini, 2020: 146). Her argument resonates with earlier observations raised by Niloofar Haeri (2003) in her ethnography of the politics of Arabic in Egypt, in which she pointed to a generalized lack of interest in -and at times outright aversion to- reading and writing in Arabic among her educated interlocutors (Haeri, 2003: 39-43).

27In my own conversations with international schoolteachers, many expressed concerns about the role of the Arabic language curriculum and its teaching methods in shaping students’ aversion towards the language. Remarkably, Arabic teachers were among the most vocal critics of the curriculum they taught. Here is how Ms. Suzanne (pseudonym), who had been an Arabic teacher for twenty years, described the Arabic curriculum and textbook:

  • 12 The novel offers a sexist narrative about the thirteenth-century Mamluk Sultana, Shajarit al-Durr.

These lessons [in the government-assigned Arabic textbook] do not respond to what children need, they don’t add any substance to their life, their ability to deal with social issues, either as individuals or as a society… all the lessons are too simplistic… Why should a 15-year-old read a text about a pigeon…even the passages from the Qur’an or the novel “Tumuḥ Gāriya12 are not really relevant…why don’t they include a novel about a young man who struggled to become a successful businessman, something more contemporary and relevant…why do they want to push the kids away… it’s all memorization, nothing stimulates them intellectually, nothing realistic… “write, but don’t think”.

28For Ms. Suzanne, an emphasis on rote memorization and the absence of material that would be more relevant, contemporary, and useful is what is pushing students away from Arabic and why she believed that “they find no value in it for them”. Although she supported a centralized national curriculum that would ensure that schools do not mold Egyptian students according to competing ideologies and convictions, she regretted that she did not have any freedom to tailor the material she taught in a way that she deemed more responsive to the needs and interests of students in international schools. She wished, for example, that she was able to teach a novel of her choice or to disregard lessons from the textbook that made the students resent her subject. Yet, like all Arabic teachers in public and private schools in Egypt, Ms. Suzanne’s close adherence to the centralized curriculum was regularly supervised by inspectors from the Ministry of Education, who paid regular visits to the school.

29Remarkably, even Arabic teachers who accused international education of deliberately undermining students’ knowledge and mastery of Arabic, like Ms. Fatma, found the curriculum responsible for pushing students away from the language. Ms. Fatma (pseudonym) was an Arabic teacher for thirty years, fifteen of which she worked at an international school. Like Ms. Suzanne, Ms. Fatma found that the Arabic textbook was filled with “silly” (tafha) texts about hygiene or Islamic table manners, which -she insisted- did not add anything substantial to the students. Yet, in Ms. Fatma’s narrative, the spread of international education and the shortcomings of Arabic language education were connected. She believed strongly that there was a foreign plan to undermine the value and relevance of the Arabic language and marginalize its importance in the identity of Egyptians. “The Arabic language equals Islam,” she told me. “There is international pressure on us to become civil (madani) or secular (‘almāni)” and this is why Islamic material is regularly reduced from the textbooks. To illustrate her point, Ms. Fatma showed me a poem from the Arabic language textbook, in which references to al-umma (a transnational Muslim community) were replaced by al-watan (the nation). Although education researchers suggest that religious content has in fact increased in the national curriculum (Sobhy, 2015; Atallah and Makar, 2014), Ms. Fatma’s views remain quite illustrative of the imbrication of Arabic language education with the broader cultural anxieties mentioned above, and how this works to explain a generalized sense of dissatisfaction with the curriculum in her account.

30A different configuration of the language-identity nexus in Arabic language education was offered by Mr. Adel (pseudonym), who had worked for seven years in private schools before deciding to shift his career to teach Arabic to non-native speakers. Reiterating Ms. Suzanne’s frustration with the debilitating supervisory role of the government over teachers, Mr. Adel told me that he stopped teaching in schools because he wanted to adopt more progressive pedagogical techniques in teaching Arabic than was possible as a schoolteacher. Unlike Ms. Suzanne and Ms. Fatma, Mr. Adel was not bothered by curricular themes but was concerned with the ways in which linguistic anxieties stifled efforts to develop and make Arabic grammar and dictation more accessible to Arabic speakers:

We don’t want to make any changes because we believe that there is a foreign conspiracy that wants us to abandon our language… we don’t want language reform because any reform is perceived as scary by the gatekeepers of the language in al-Azhār and Dār al-‘Ulūm. By the same logic, any attempt to codify or write in ‘āmmiyya is part of that conspiracy.

31Since Mr. Adel is deeply committed to fusḥa, he believes that an ideologically motivated resistance to language reform places the language in a serious “crisis” (ma’sāh) because it makes it increasingly hard for Arabic teachers to convince their students (in international as well as in national schools) of the need to learn and master the rules of grammar or dictation, and by extension, the language itself.

32Between Ms. Suzanne’s wish for the inclusion of more texts of pragmatic value to the students, Ms. Fatma’s attachment to a curriculum that bears the appropriate Islamic inflection, or Mr. Adel’s frustration with the rules of Arabic grammar and dictation, all three accounts pointed to a recognized barrier between students and their Arabic language education that all three teachers tied to “extra-linguistic” (Suleiman, 2013) ideological factors that go into the design and teaching of the educational curriculum. Notwithstanding differences in their understandings and interpretations of the challenges they face as Arabic teachers, the accounts of these teachers raise questions about the linguistic anxieties addressed above and which constructed “weak Arabic” as the outcome of the globalizing educational choices of the Egyptian elite. If education in fusḥa is fraught with all the pedagogical challenges and ideological contestations that these teachers identified, how do Egyptian students articulate their identity in international schools?

Egyptian Vernacular Arabic (EVA) and Identity Negotiations in International Schools

33Contrary to the feelings of regret, self-reproach, and incompetence that dominated the characterization and self-presentation of international school students’ relationships to fusḥa, EVA figured as a spontaneous, creative, and intimate linguistic repertoire in students’ day-to-day interactions inside and outside of the classroom. At ISN, where students in primary and middle-schools were expected to communicate with each other and with their teachers exclusively in English during the school day, high school students’ interactions took place predominantly in EVA. In classes with teachers who understood or spoke it, students regularly violated school policy (which required them to speak exclusively in English in English-medium classes) by using EVA in class discussions. The following is an illustrative example from one of my visits to ISN in 2017:

  • 13 The film was released in 2017 by Netflix and tells the story of Bassem Youssef, who became popular (...)
  • 14 A popular belief in Egypt is that Egyptians are lazy because the broad beans they eat make them let (...)

34“What are Egyptians good at?”, Ms. Gamil (pseudonym) asked her students in English at the beginning of a global citizenship class one day, a standard course for senior high school students at ISN. She had told me earlier that day that she planned to talk about the use of humor and satire in political critique as a prelude to showing her class the film Tickling Giants (2017), a documentary about the comedian Bassem Youssef and his satirical show Al Bernameg.13 “Making up stories (el-fatī),” blurted one student in EVA with a laugh. “Bargaining,” said another in English. “They are good at being loud” said yet another jokingly. “Egyptians are good at tatyis,” another said facetiously using both EVA and English. “What does that mean?” asked Ms. Gamil with a curious smile. Another student clarified in English, “it means eating fūl (fava beans) and doing nothing all day.” 14Now, the entire class laughed. “What is so funny about that?” asked the only non-Egyptian student in the class, who appeared annoyed by the discussion. “Ok, maybe it’s not funny in English,” responded the boy with a smirk in English. “We are good at cursing our country, and then later we say “masr umm al-dūnya” [Egypt, the mother of the world], said another student, in a mixture of English and EVA. Everyone laughed again. “What are you all doing now?” asked Ms. Gamil in English. “Joking” (binhazzar) a few students exclaimed in EVA. “Won’t you say it’s part of the Egyptian character, to be funny and make jokes?” asked Ms. Gamil suggestively to shift the discussion to Bassem Youssef and his satirical show. “Yes, it’s widely known that ‘al-masri ibn nukta [Egyptians make good jokes],” stated a student matter-of-factly.

35This and similar interactions I witnessed at ISN, a school that is widely regarded as one of the most exclusive and international of Egypt’s private schools, revealed the unexpected ways in which the inferior construction of EVA in Arabic language ideology inadvertently enabled students to enact a sense of national belonging that they felt was otherwise foreclosed to them by virtue of their “weak Arabic”. Unlike the government-required curriculum, which tied their identity to fusḥa, ISN students’ identity negotiations drew on the Egyptian vernacular to joke and to enact an attitude of levity and carelessness that, to many of these students, expressed quintessential values of Egyptian culture. Yassin (pseudonym), a senior high school student at ISN explained this very well: “You don’t even need to properly hear or understand what the person is saying… you hear [Egyptian] Arabic in the middle of a conversation [in English], you just laugh… [Egyptian] Arabic is like a comedic relief in any conversation.”

36In that sense, students’ association of EVA with humor and intimate interactions, did not only differ from their formal relationship to fusḥa, but also contrasted with the dominant construction of English as the language of scientific knowledge and cultural sophistication at their school. As many ISN students, English was the more dominant language that Yassin was exposed to at home and at school. As an aspiring writer, he claimed to be more fluent and articulate in English than in EVA, a claim that made sense given his education and class socialization. This, however, did not prohibit him from constructing an intimate relationship with EVA. Note that Yassin admitted to some difficulty in understanding EVA but did not regard this difficulty as a lack of proficiency or a linguistic barrier in social interaction.

37Dalia, the college freshman we encountered earlier, told me that she preferred to speak EVA “because it is more loose”, she clarified in English, “You have more space to express yourself… you can joke and be funny in EVA. If I were to speak in English all the time, everyone [at school] would think of me as a snob.” On several occasions at ISN, I observed students ask to speak EVA during class presentations with the pretext that they would not be able to express themselves adequately in English. Remarkably, these students always switched back to English without having been asked to do so, a turn that made sense given that the material that they consulted and used to prepare their schoolwork was almost never in Arabic. In probing the matter further, many students reiterated what Dalia hinted at, that it was in fact “cool” to speak EVA among international highschoolers.


38In this paper, I tried to complicate a dominant view in Egyptian public debates that ties exposure to international education to a weakening sense of belonging among the educated elite. These debates presume an inarguable preference for non-national English-medium education and a noticeable disinclination among children and adolescents in international schools to use Arabic (in either form) as evidence of a purposeful classist distance from Egyptian national culture among a globalizing elite. Although language use is only one of several cultural practices attributed to Egypt’s internationally educated elite under public criticism, its centrality has offered a rich methodological window for exploring the deep cultural politics that undergird shifts in elite educational and socialization practices in twenty-first century Egypt.

39Although my findings corroborate a symbolic and structural marginalization of Arabic in the international school culture, the paper has tried to broaden the lens of analysis by linking this marginalization to broader tensions in the dominant linguistic ideology of Arabic that strictly defines the meaning of the language in students’ conceptions of their culture and identity and structures its teaching in these schools. Far from flouting this ideology, I have shown how these students reproduce its basic tenets by expressing a sense of deficiency for failing to “preserve” the language and to prioritize other linguistic mediums. This passive sense of attachment is, however, overturned in students’ positive relationship to Egyptian Vernacular Arabic. I have shown how students regularly invoke EVA in English-medium classes to enact their cultural identity and to negotiate the American-inflected school culture. Inadvertently, their association of EVA with humor and intimacy draws on the symbolic inferiority of EVA in the Arabic language ideology to articulate their conflicted sense of belonging and to assert their attachment to decidedly local and national social and cultural values.

40In conclusion, students’ linguistic practices do not indicate that exposure to international education undermines their sense of attachment and belonging to their country. Instead, I suggest that their practical -or symbolic sense of- failure to preserve the language is a failure to fulfil an ideological ideal that is slowly losing the material and symbolic infrastructure for its own reproduction. I contend that, given the ongoing privatization and internationalization of pre-college and higher education in Egypt, the experiences of this elite youth group indicate social and cultural transformations shaping a growing population of Egyptian students in the decades to come.

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1 The Egyptian Ministry of Education publishes a yearly report about school enrollment in Egypt, the Kitāb al-Ihsa’ al-Sānāwi. The report does not identify the share of international schools in private education, which serves around 11 percent of the total student population (Egyptian Ministry of Education, 2021). Given the absence of definitive data about the number of international schools, the estimated number proposed in this article draws on data published by the UK-based ISC Research, which identified 233 licensed English-medium international schools in Egypt (ISC Research, 2019), and an informal statement made by the Egyptian Minister of Education, Tarek Shawqi on Lamis al-Hadidi’s TV show, Al-Qahira al-Youm, on May 15th, 2017, which pointed to the existence of 220 international schools at the time (Al-Hadidi, 2017).

2 ISN is one of the oldest and more exclusive of Egypt’s international schools. In 2016-2017, ISN school tuition was in the range of LE 130,000 (approx. US$ 14k) per academic year compared to lower-tiered international schools with school tuition in the range LE 50,000 (approx. US$ 5,500). In its organizational and educational culture, it reflects the standard framework for the operation of most international schools in Egypt. It teaches its predominantly Egyptian student body (15,000 students) a curriculum that follows the United States national standards.

3 These interviews were among fifteen extended interviews I conducted with international schoolteachers in the course of my study in 2016-17. The interviews explored the career trajectories of the teachers and covered aspects of their educational, professional, and personal lives that go beyond the focus of this paper.

4 I follow Nilofar Haeri (2000) and Yasir Suleiman (2008) in using fusḥa and Standard Arabic interchangeably to refer to both Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and older varieties.

5 See, for instance, ROMANI Karim, 2021. “Ma hiyya mawād al-huwiyya al-qawmiyya”, El-Watan News, February 26, 2021:

6 The stipulation is included as Article 2 in nearly every international school license: “With regards to the years of compulsory education (al-ta’im al-asasi) [i.e., grades 1 through 9], the school shall teach Arabic language, religious education, geography, history, and national pedagogy (tarbiyya qawmiyya) in line with the Egyptian national curriculum to Egyptians as well as nationals of Arabic-speaking nations. Examinations will follow the general guidelines for all Egyptian students and fall under the supervision of the relevant educational department (al-idara el-ta’limiyya). The educational department regulatory and supervisory units will authorize and administer transition exams in these subjects for Grades 6 and 9” (my translation).

7 This category excludes private schools affiliated with foreign embassies, which operate as not-for-profit community schools under the umbrella of the Egyptian Ministry of Solidarity.

8 Only religious education, social studies and national pedagogy were taught in Arabic.

9 See for example (Roshdy, 2017) and (Moustafa, 2019).

10 Standardized national examinations in Egypt typically take place in the midst of the summer holidays, weeks after the end of the academic year in most international schools.

11 Examinations during transition years (grades 6, 9, and 12) are subject to close monitoring by the government. Failure to pass any of the exams might lead a student to repeat the school year.

12 The novel offers a sexist narrative about the thirteenth-century Mamluk Sultana, Shajarit al-Durr.

13 The film was released in 2017 by Netflix and tells the story of Bassem Youssef, who became popular through his satirical commentaries on the political events of 2011 on YouTube, the making of his satirical show Al Bernameg on satellite channels and his subsequent prosecution by the state and migration to the US.

14 A popular belief in Egypt is that Egyptians are lazy because the broad beans they eat make them lethargic.

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Noha Roushdy, « “It’s just Arabic!”: Linguistic Anxiety and Identity Negotiations in Egypt’s International Schools »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 154 | -1, 105-124.

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Noha Roushdy, « “It’s just Arabic!”: Linguistic Anxiety and Identity Negotiations in Egypt’s International Schools »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 154 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Noha Roushdy

The Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS), Beirut, Lebanon / American University in Cairo (AUC), Cairo, Egypt

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