As a non-native speaker of Arabic, I tend to get excited when characters speak Arabic in popular movies and TV shows. There have been several lately, such as Hidalgo, Syriana, and Sleeper Cell. But alas, as a non-native speaker, I often don’t understand everything the characters say.
This puts me in the undesirable position of having to tell my friends or family, “I don’t know what he said.” Which I imagine leaves them wondering, “How many years has she been studying Arabic, again?” Sometimes it’s because the sound is bad. Sometimes it’s because they’re talking too fast for me. I’ll admit it.
There are several categories of actors speaking Arabic in American movies:
1- Native Arabic speakers speaking Arabic normally. These are the best kind. If I don’t understand them, I can blame it on my not knowing their dialect, their talking too fast, or a subject matter I’m not familiar with.
2- Native Arabic speakers speaking stiltedly. Maybe it’s been a few decades since they spoke Arabic every day or maybe the director doesn’t like the way they sound when they talk naturally.
3- Native speakers of one dialect (say, Egyptian) speaking their own dialect while playing the role of someone who should speak a completely different dialect (say, Iraqi). Henchmen in action movies often fall into this category.
4- People who look like native speakers, but only ever learned a few words of Arabic from their parents or grandparents and had to learn the lines phonetically, although their pronunciation is better than non-Natives. I may be wrong, but I believe Alexander Siddig of Syriana (and Star Trek Deep Space Nine) falls into this category.
5- People who look like native speakers, but aren’t. In the Jewel of the Nile, the Arab desert tribesman were played by non-Arabs who did not speak Arabic. This probably explains why they pronounced it “el-ja-HA-ra” instead of “el-JO-ha-ra.” (Pronunciation approximate).
6- Well-known western actors who learned their lines phonetically and pronounce them well. Max von Sydow did a bang-up job with Iraqi dialect in the first twenty minutes of the Exorcist (1973).
7- Well-known western actors who learned their lines phonetically and pronounce them sloppily. George Clooney, I’m looking at you. And I think it’s a hoot that your publicist managed to convince so many people that you learned Arabic for this movie.
The problem for me is that I rarely know which type of actor I’m dealing with. In the movie Syriana, they were all mixed together. Natives, non-natives, quasi-natives, and westerners. Plus there was Persian, too, a language that I don’t know.
In Hidalgo, we have Omar Sharif, a native Egyptian who may have lived in the west for many decades, but I don’t know. It is surprisingly hard to find information about how Omar Sharif spent his life, except that he is a famous bridge player as well as an actor and he might have dated Barbra Streisand.
He was fairly easy to understand. In fairness to me, a lot of the conversation in the movie between his character and his character’s daughter was about horses, and horses tend to have long and nonsensical names. And I didn’t realize that’s what they were talking about at the time.
Now the actress playing his daughter, Zuleikha Robinson, is of Burmese, Indian, Iranian, Scottish and English descent. I have no idea whether she can speak Arabic for real or not. So could I not understand her well because she didn’t pronounce her words well? I don’t know.
On top of that, I have realized lately that I often don’t hear or understand what actors say in English. Like everyone else, I’ve been dealing with it all my life and just automatically compensate. If you are aware of this phenomenon, you’ll start to realize how often your brain just fills in the missing dialog, or else you tell yourself, “It couldn’t have been important,” or “I’ll figure it out from context later.”