Learn Levantine Arabic with These 10 Movies
So, you want to supplement your Arabic studies by using movies as language learning resources.
Or maybe you just want to kick back and get lost in an amazing Arabic flick.
It is a fantastic idea—but it is not enough to simply pick an Arabic-language movie at random.
For maximum learning, the Arabic movies you choose have to be based not only on your skill level, but also on which dialect you are learning.
This article will offer you 10 cinematic options if you want to practice Levantine Arabic.
What Is Levantine Arabic?
Levantine Arabic is the dialect/group of dialects that is spoken in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the surrounding region.
In Arabic, this dialect is known as Shami. This name derives from the word “al-Sham,” which translates roughly into “Greater Syria,” a territory which used to encompass Lebanon as well.
This is the geographical area known often in English as the Levant, hence the term “Levantine.”
Shami will have some slight variations depending on the specific region within the Levant, but overall it shares a basic commonality that can be understood throughout the wider area.
Why Levantine Arabic Is Important
Levantine Arabic is a worthy dialect to pursue because it is one of the major dialects of colloquial Arabic, along with Egyptian.
As the dialect of the Levant region, it is crucial to know if you want to specialize in that area of the Middle East, whether to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Shami is also a preferred dialect to know as it often serves as a sort of lingua franca among the Arabic dialects. Many Arabs, even if it is not their native dialect, will be able to understand whoever is speaking it.
Shami was the first dialect that I learned after Modern Standard Arabic. Though my specialization has now come to be Moroccan Arabic, knowing Shami has been vital to communicating in other Arabic-speaking regions beyond North Africa, such as when speaking with Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Learning Levantine Arabic with Movies
As mentioned in my previous post about Arabic movies, movies can provide an excellent medium to practice a target dialect since very few Arabic movies are going to be spoken in Modern Standard Arabic.
You will find that if you know Modern Standard Arabic, following movies in Levantine Arabic will not be as challenging as trying to follow movies spoken in Egyptian or Moroccan Arabic. Shami is known to be one the of dialects linguistically closer to Modern Standard Arabic than others.
You may encounter some challenges in the way that there are certain phonological changes from Modern Standard Arabic to Shami. For example, the letter ق in Modern Standard Arabic will be pronounced as “ا” in Shami. It can throw you off at first, but once you realize the pattern, it is not that difficult to follow.
How to Learn Arabic with 10 Impressive Movies
1. “Beirut Hotel” (Lebanese)
Married singer Zoha meets French lawyer Mathieu at a nightclub. They begin a passionate love affair that takes a dangerous turn when Mathieu is suspected of espionage and Zoha tries to help her husband escape.
Some critics have analyzed the relationship between Zoha and Mathieu as emblematic of the relationship between France and Lebanon. Mathieu, as a married man, does not have the time nor emotional energy to give his love fully to Zoha, just as France as a colonial power, with its own internal affairs, could not give its full attention to Lebanon.
2. “West Beirut” (Lebanese)
During the civil war in 1975, Beirut is divided into eastern and western partitions which coincide with the Muslim-Christian divide of the city.
Tarek is an unruly high school student who lives in West Beirut, which houses the Muslim population. He and his friend Omar enjoy making movies with a Super 8 camera. They befriend May, an orphaned Christian girl living in Tarek’s building, and they frantically search for her when she goes missing.
I was personally introduced to this movie in 2011 by the brother of the actor who played Tarek.
3. “Rana’s Wedding” (Palestinian)
Rana is a young woman who is forced to make a difficult decision in less than ten hours: either relocate with her father to Egypt to continue her studies under his supervision, or remain in Palestine and marry one of the eligible men provided on her father’s list.
Distraught, Rana runs away to find her boyfriend, Khalil, who is conveniently not mentioned on her father’s list. While searching for him she encounters countless obstacles, both psychological and physical, due to the Israeli occupation.
4. “Five Broken Cameras” (Palestinian)
This documentary-film depicts the journey of Emad Burnat, a Palestinian villager in Bil’in who documents his life, obtaining a new camera every time the previous one is destroyed.
When Emad obtains his first camera the Israelis start bulldozing the village’s olive trees to make room for a barrier between Bil’in and the Jewish settlement of Modi’in Illit.
Emad records the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians, documenting how the rebellion and the subsequent crackdown affects his family and his life until he finally approaches the Israeli filmmaker, Guy Davidi. Together they piece together the film from these five smashed cameras to make the movie.
5. “Lemon Tree” (Palestinian)
Widowed Salma Zidane makes a modest living from the lemon tree grove that has been in her family for 50 years. Soon her livelihood comes under threat when an Israeli defense minister moves into a luxurious house next door. Deemed as a threat to the minister’s security, the entire grove is ordered to be uprooted.
Salma fights relentlessly to save her lemon trees, both in a military tribunal and the Israeli Supreme Court. She defies the order to stay away from the trees, climbing the fence to water them and gather lemons at the risk of being shot.
The story is symbolic of many true instances of Palestinians having their olive tree groves destroyed during the Israeli occupation.
6. “Leila’s Birthday” (Palestinian)
This movie depicts the life of an Palestinian taxi driver in Ramallah. All the taxi driver wants is to buy a birthday present for his daughter, Leila, but even such a menial task proves to be a challenge in the chaotic environment of the West Bank.
The movie is very nuanced because, while it does not show one Israeli shoulder on camera, you can still feel the suffocation due to their presence.
7. “The Syrian Bride” (Syrian, Palestinian)
Mona is a young Druze woman engaged to a Syrian actor. Due to the tensions between Israel and Syria, crossing occupied Golan requires the compliance of both governments and is exceedingly rare.
After six months Mona’s family has obtained permission for her to cross into Syria, but it will mean that she will never be able to return to Golan even to visit, a commitment that Mona is herself a bit apprehensive about since she does not know her fiancé well.
The Israeli authorities stamp her passport as “leaving Israel,” an act that angers the Syrian government because Golan is traditionally viewed as part of Syria under a foreign occupier, thus the Syrian regime refuses to acknowledge Mona’s passport as legitimate.
8. “Damascus with Love” (Syrian)
Rima is an Syrian Jewish woman preparing to emigrate from Damascus. Just as she is about to leave, her father discloses a secret: Her long-lost love, once presumed to be dead, is actually alive.
Cancelling her flight, she embarks upon a search for the love of her life, which causes her to explore another side of the city. Through her journey she discovers not only her own past, but also the past of Damascus and Syria itself.
9. “Captain Abu Raid” (Jordanian)
The elderly airport janitor Abu Raid finds an old pilot’s hat during his duties. When he returns home, a neighborhood child sees him wearing the hat and mistakes him for a pilot.
Exasperated by the children’s incessant pleas for stories of his adventures abroad, Abu Raid eventually gives into the farce and beguiles them with fictitious accounts of France, England and New York.
The movie also follows the stories of Nour, a headstrong, female pilot from a wealthy family that Abu Raid befriends and Murad, an older neighborhood child who knows Abu Raid’s true profession and who must contend with an abusive father at home.
10. “Theeb” (Jordanian)
This is a historical movie set in 1916 which portrays the complex relationship between the Arabs, Ottoman Turks and Western powers during the 20th century.
The main characters, Theeb and Hussein, are the orphaned sons of a Bedouin sheikh. One day they encounter a British officer, Edward, and an Arab named Marji. They request that Hussein lead them to the Roman well near the Ottoman railway, despite warnings that the trail is fraught with bandits. Hussein agrees and, disobediently, Theeb sneaks after them and tags along.
The warnings prove to be true, and Edward, Marji and Hussein begrudgingly rely on one another to survive.
So, those are a few movies that will help you master Levantine Arabic.
From Lebanon to Jordan, this dialect spans throughout a large portion of the Middle East. It has helped me tremendously in communicating with a wide range of Arabs, and will help you as well.
Whether it is your goal to master this Arabic dialect or another, it is undoubtedly worth your time to study it or, at the very least, get exposed to it through some outstanding movies from the region.