Arabic Movies: 8 Unique Flicks to Take You Way Beyond Modern Standard Arabic
Movies are excellent for learning just about any language.
They provide valuable windows into both language and culture.
This is perhaps especially true when it comes to learning Arabic.
It’s a language that can die quickly in the mind if you don’t make the time to keep your skills up to snuff with quality resources.
There’s also the fact that Modern Standard Arabic will only get you so far, and it’s important to understand the significant differences in how the language is actually spoken in various areas.
Using Arabic songs to connect with the language is one of the best ways to stay on top of your learning.
Listening to Arabic podcasts online is another.
So you can probably imagine how watching movies makes for yet another fun and effective way to hone your language skills!
Even better, it’s one of many ways you can easily learn a language by yourself.
Benefits of Learning Arabic Through Movies
If you’re not residing in a specific Arab country or lack friends from that country, Arabic movies become an essential tool for practicing a targeted dialect. Within every language exists a difference between the formal form of the language and the language spoken on the streets. This discrepancy is magnified within the Arabic language, where some dialects have reached the point of being mutually unintelligible.
I once attempted to speak the Moroccan dialect with a taxi driver in Cairo and he basically looked at me as if I was speaking Japanese! Every time I’ve stepped into a new Arab country, I felt I was starting back at Square One. Most people will understand you if you speak Modern Standard Arabic, but you’ll still be looked upon as an oddity for speaking so formally.
In addition to the linguistic benefits, Arabic movies provide valuable insight into Arab societies, culture and especially politics. Arab filmmakers have always used movies to promote awareness in the international community of the political plights that plague the Arab world, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gender issues and sectarian violence.
Here I’ve compiled eight movies that I’ve found particularly beneficial to my own education of Arabic language and culture.
Arabic Movies: 8 Unique Flicks to Take You Way Beyond Modern Standard Arabic
1. “Caramel” (Lebanese dialect)
This Lebanese movie was Nadine Labaki’s debut film, which she both directed and starred in. The movie takes place in a beauty salon in Beirut, where the lives of five women intersect as they cope with various life struggles.
The owner of the beauty salon, Layale (Nadine Labaki), does not know how to call off her affair with a married man. Stylist Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) finds herself physically attracted to one of the female clients. Stylist Nisrine (Yasmine Al Massri), no longer a virgin but engaged to be married, undergoes hymen reconstruction surgery to keep up with society’s expectations of female chastity.
While confronting serious subject matter, this movie uses a lighter atmosphere to depict certain issues within Lebanese society without focusing so overtly on the civil war that has torn apart the city.
2. “Where Do We Go Now?” (Lebanese dialect)
The second movie by Nadine Labaki, this comedy depicts the sectarian conflict between the Muslims and Christians of a rural Lebanese village.
While the men are at each other’s throats, the women of the two faiths form a sisterhood and work behind the scenes to de-escalate the violence. This involves staging a saintly miracle, hiring a band of Ukrainian exotic dancers to distract the men and drugging the men with hashish-filled pastries while hiding their weapons.
In both of Labaki’s films, you can observe how the Lebanese dialect has been influenced by French in adopting various loanwords into mainstream colloquial language.
3. “Omar” (Palestinian dialect)
Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young Palestinian man who, after experiencing years of Israeli persecution and the resulting frustration, orchestrates an attack on an Israeli checkpoint along with his friends Tarek (Eyad Hourani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). Amjad ends up killing an Israeli soldier, but it’s Omar who’s captured by Israeli authorities in the pursuit. He’s then blackmailed by the Israeli secret service agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) to act as a double agent. Meanwhile, Omar must prove his loyalty to Tarek if he hopes to gain Tarek’s permission to marry his sister Nadia.
This is my personal favorite among the Palestinian movies because it depicts the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with such an engaging personal storyline. It was one of the five finalists for Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards.
4. “Paradise Now” (Palestinian dialect)
This Palestinian movie is about two childhood friends, Said (Kais Nashif) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), who have resolved to commit a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. They’re unsuccessful and are separated from one another as they flee from Israeli guards. While separated, each undergoes a spiritual journey reflecting on his own reasons for sacrificing his life to rebel against the Israeli occupation.
The movie is primarily in the Palestinian dialect with the exception of Suhu (Lubna Azabal), a Tunisian woman who speaks in a North African Arabic dialect.
5. “The Yacoubian Building” (Egyptian dialect)
Based on the novel of the same name, this movie depicts the lives of the various tenants within a single apartment complex, the Yacoubian Building. While the movie follows several storylines, the main protagonist is the elderly Zaki Pasha (Adel Emam), a Western-educated engineer who laments the Islamization of Egypt since the revolution of 1952.
The movie shows issues surrounding the rigidity of Egyptian society and the lack of social mobility between the socioeconomic classes. For example, Taha (Mohamed Imam), the son of the doorman, attempts to enter the military academy, but the examiners immediately reject him upon learning his father’s occupation.
The Egyptian dialect is the one that has dominated Arabic cinema, with Egypt’s film industry being the oldest and most well-known of the Arab world. Since roughly 25% of the world’s Arabs are Egyptians, this dialect is a popular choice for foreign learners of Arabic.
It’s worth noting that the Egyptian dialect is more often than not the dialect used when dubbing foreign films, especially Disney films, though there has been a recent shift to dubbing in Modern Standard Arabic.
6. “Hassan and Marcus” (Egyptian dialect)
Muslim sheikh Mahmoud (Omar Sharif) and Christian priest Boulos (Adel Emam) find their lives threatened by religious fundamentalists. The Egyptian authorities register them in a witness protection program where Mahmoud must pose as the Christian Marcus and Boulos as the Muslim sheikh Hassan. Purely by chance, the two end up being placed in the same apartment building, where they develop an unlikely friendship, neither knowing of the other’s true identity or religion. A romance even blossoms between the two men’s children.
This film was highly publicized as the first movie starring two of the greatest Arab stars in the Middle East together. Egypt has the highest number of Christians of any Arab country, making Egypt the perfect backdrop for this story of inter-faith friendship and camaraderie.
7. “Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Street” (Moroccan dialect)
This Moroccan movie tells the story of a gang of homeless children in the slums of Casablanca. Ali Zaoua (Abdelhak Zhayra) decides to leave the main gang, bringing his friends Omar (Mustapha Hansali), Kwita (Mounim Kbab) and Boubker (Hicham Moussoune) along with him. Early in the film, Ali Zaoua is killed from a blow to the head by members of the main gang. His three remaining friends set forth to give him a proper funeral.
This movie’s dialect may be especially challenging for those who have not specialized in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), which is considered by many the most deviant of all the Arabic dialects since it has been so heavily influenced by both the French and Berber languages.
However, if you have had even the most basic exposure to French, that very influence can make learning this dialect easier and even more fun! Darija is a true linguistic treasure trove because it shows the fluidity of language and even provides a stepping stone to the Moroccan Berber language Tamazight, if you wish to pursue it.
8. “Wadjda” (Arabian Gulf dialect)
The first full-length movie to be directed by a female Saudi director, Wadjda recounts the tale of an 11-year-old girl in Riyadh who wants nothing more than to own a green bicycle that sits in the window of a store she passes by each day on her commute to school. However, cycling is not looked well upon for girls in Saudi society, and so her mother refuses to buy it. As Wadjda tries to raise the money herself, she encounters a variety of issues relating to standards of Saudi society, especially concerning women and girls.
The movie was the Saudi Arabian entry at the 86th Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film. Though it was not nominated for that award, it did successfully secure a nomination for the Best Foreign Film at the 2014 BAFTA Awards.
Because the gap between Modern Standard Arabic and the dialects has become so great, using movies and other pop culture resources is imperative if you want to fully infiltrate the real language spoken in the Arab world.
Whatever your Arabic dialect of choice, movies are an indispensable resource for mastering it!