"The Druze community lives in an identity crisis. They are between being Palestinians or being Druze. They live within a modern, westernized culture, but at the same time have a very traditional culture."

Studying his own culture presents challenges, says Martin Isleem, an Arab native from Israel and member of the religious Druze minority. "How can you distance yourself enough to adopt an unbiased view?" he says. "All of us, when we do any kind of job, come with agendas. I always try to avoid agendas. It's hard, but it's part of being a good researcher."

That combination of dedicated objectivity and full access to the Druze culture, which is known for its secretive ways and difficulty to penetrate, has given Isleem a clear look at a language shift happening among the Druze communities, especially in the Mount Carmel area of northern Israel. "The Druze community lives in an identity crisis," explains Isleem. "They are between being Palestinians or being Druze. They live within a modern, westernized culture, but at the same time have a very traditional culture." Within that oxymoron, the Druze must choose how they want to move forward, says Isleem. One indicator of how they're changing is language.

Through one research process called Language Landscapes — a method of studying public and private signs in a multilingual community — Isleem sees the Arabic-speaking Druze adopting Hebrew. "In studying the signs, I expected to find Hebrew to be the dominant language on the signs in public areas where the Druze expect Jewish and Israeli customers," notes Isleem. "However, inside their own neighborhoods — where they don't expect to have Jewish or Israeli customers — some Druze towns are communicating in Hebrew as well. My question here is, what happened to Arabic? Hebrew, it seems, is perceived as the language of power and prestige."

Isleem hopes his research can shed light on how language choice affects cultural shifts. "The Druze are a special community, but though they are special, they are not unique. Studying them can give us more information and knowledge about how minorities behave linguistically, how a small minority adapts to the dominant or powerful language," he says.

Fluent in three languages, Isleem has not lost sight of his native tongue. In his courses, he teaches students both standard and spoken Arabic, giving them authentic experience. "There are no native speakers of standard Arabic, but all are speakers of a dialect," he says. "Dialect is essential because it reflects the real life of the people there. If you go to the Middle East and you start to communicate in standard Arabic, natives will find it odd, since standard Arabic is used in formal and official settings."

Posted October 2012

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