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Arabic Film: Presenting Diverse Dialects, Regions, and Cultures in the Classroom

July 14, 2014

Film in the classroom can be a powerful instructional tool. Not only does it expose students to natural, authentic language, but it provides a glimpse into the contemporary, historic, or even mythical life and culture of a country and people. A film can spark discussions where students draw connections between it and their own lives and make comparisons between the culture presented in the film and their own, learning more about both their culture and the culture of the target language. However, choosing the right film can be difficult; there are issues of dialect, age-appropriate content, and language level to consider.

For Arabic teachers, the problem of choosing a film is compounded by two factors: the diversity of Arabic dialects, and the relatively low number of Arabic films, compared to other languages. A teacher can’t simply show an “Arabic” film, but must consider whether the film is “Egyptian-Arabic” or “Algerian-Arabic” or “Lebanese-Arabic,” etc. The language’s many regional dialects require the teacher to be aware of differences between the Arabic being taught in the classroom and the Arabic used in the film. Students will get more out of the film if teachers can provide a “preview” of differences in vocabulary and pronunciation that students should expect (perhaps using a Dialect Chart from Marhaba, seen in our previous post on Arabic Diaglossia), and are then encouraged to listen for.

The problem of scarcity is more difficult to solve, but is still related to the problem of dialects. For a variety of reasons, film industries have only just begun to develop in many culturally influential Arabic-speaking countries on the Arabian Peninsula, meaning that Arabic dialects with a strong, established film presence are most heavily represented.  Egypt has by far the most prolific film industry of any Arabic-speaking nation, having produced approximately 75% of Arabic-language films. Other major producers include those of Algeria, Lebanon, and Palestine. There are also a few films available in Classical Arabic, including the 1968 Egyptian classic The Night of Counting the Years المومياء , about a family who looted ancient Egyptian graves and sold relics to British invaders.

Most contemporary Egyptian films are broad comedies, although there are a small number of small art films and dramas. The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema is often considered to be the 1950s-70s. One notable film is Cairo Station بابالحديد,, which blends a murder plot with the social issues affecting Cairo’s working classes in the 1950s.

Both Lebanon and Palestine have seen remarkable growth in their film industries over the past decade, although many films aim for the larger international market, and include a variety of languages. In Palestine, director Hany Abu-Assad’s films Paradise Now الجنّة الآن and Omar عمر are noted for their relatively nuanced takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lebanon has participated in a number of international co-productions and has produced a large number of films by female directors, including Nadine Labaki’s Caramel سكر بنات  and Where Do We Go Now?  وهلّأ لوين؟

Nadine Labaki is a Lebanese actress and director. (Image source:

Saudi Arabia has never had a prominent film industry, but although most movie theaters were closed in the 1980s, many people still enjoy movies at home. In 2013, director Haifaa al-Mansour released Wadjda وجدة, the first Saudi Arabian film by a female director and Saudi Arabia’s first film submitted to the Academy Awards. It follows an active young girl’s quest to buy a bicycle as she deals with the internal politics of her school, her mother’s wishes for her to act more “normal,” and the possibility of her father’s second marriage. Coming from a woman’s point of view, the film showcases sections of life rarely seen outside Saudi Arabia with both a sense of humor and sensitivity. (See the video interview on Haifaa al-Mansour talking about her movie Wadjda on the Daily Show in December, 2013.)

Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi Arabian female feature filmmaker. (image source:








Recently there have been more and more Arabic films coming not only from Arabic-speaking countries, but from and about the Arabic-speaking Diaspora, or Jewish population outside of Israel. In addition, there are a number of recent documentaries about the events of the Arab Spring (like The Square) and the invasion of Iraq. Even Hollywood’s often problematic views of the Arabic-speaking world (from El Cid to Kingdom of Heaven, Sinbad to Aladdin, or The Mummy to The Kingdom) can be useful in the classroom, especially when clips are paired with authentic films from Arabic-speaking countries for comparison. There are now more film options to share with students of Arabic than ever before, but teachers may want to provide necessary cultural or historical background information before viewing to help students get the most out of foreign films.

Teaching Tips and Activities:
Arabic Film Resources

Cheng & Tsui has provided a sample List of Film Resources from the Marhaba! Level 1 Curriculum Guide along with suggestions on how to best choose films that will be useful in your classes and relevant to your students.

Download this list of supplemental film resources for more ideas on how to strengthen your students’ understanding of Arabic culture.

marhaba classroom activity-2-web