AL-AJNABIYA

A Bad Rep

For about two years now, I’ve been studying Arabic.  Those of you who know me well know that, to some extent, this has taken over my life.  I try to study at least one hour a day five times a week (obviously, this doesn’t always work) and my poor, dear husband often comes home to find me reciting strange words aloud to my computer screen or recording winding monologues where, worryingly, he understands his name but not what I’m saying about him (I’m working on family introductions: “My husband’s name is Fadi.  Fadi works at Kennedy Airport.  We got married two years ago and live with my family on Long Island…”).  Sometimes what my professor teaches me is so difficult I leave class with a splitting headache, but this isn’t often.  I’ll put this out there: I just love the language.  It is beautiful, poetic, and most importantly, completely rational (unlike, ahem, French).

Years ago, when I was intrigued by the language but petrified to begin the daunting process of learning it, I found this article, which made it seem even daunting.  Most Americans think that Arabic is too difficult a language to learn — and they are completely wrong.  To compare Arabic with French, there are many reasons why French is, in some ways, more difficult:

1.  Arabic is COMPLETELY phonetic.  Once you learn the alphabet, you know what sound to make for each letter.  On the other hand, French phonetics was designed to “sound pretty” (e.g. h aspiré, liaisons, etc.)  

2. Conjugating verbs in Arabic is very easy.  There are ten forms of verbs in Arabic with no exceptions and if you want to turn conjugate a verb to the future tense, all you need to do is add the equivalent of an English “s” to the beginning of the word.

3. Since Arabic is a Semitic language, like Hebrew, it is based on a three letter root system.  This means that groups of words related to a main idea will all be formed from the same three letters (e.g. words that are related to the concept of possessing or owning are all composed of the letters m-l-k and include the words “to own”, “to possess”, as well as “king” or “queen” because the concept of possession is related to having dominion over, having subjects, etc.).  Using this root system in combination with the ten verb forms and noun derivations, even if you do not know a word, you can likely construct the word yourself or guess its meaning and be correct.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Arabic is how words are figuratively linked together based on like concepts, which are often very abstract.  Thus the verb to do wrong (thalama) is related to the noun wrongdoing, but also, injustice, gloom, duskiness, villain, outrage, complaint, tyrannical, tyrannized, murky, and so on… I love the balance — how Arabic can be so rational and can use such poetic abstractions to relate one word to another, and so on.

Anyway, perhaps the most difficult area of Arabic (besides the strange number rules and broken plurals) is the use of case endings, which are difficult if you are not deeply familiar with grammar rules.  Most of the other difficulties are solved through memorization.  Arabic is a difficult language for English speaks to learn, but it is not impossible and the grammar is fairly simple when compared to other languages, which is why I hate when people say they would/could never learn it.  If you want to see real complicated stuff, look at this great article about the advanced grammatical nuances of French.  

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Christians of the Holy Land

It’s 11 o’clock and I should really be at least trying to go to sleep now.  But I’ve been writing a lot this weekend and realized that, with all the other writing I’ve been doing, I’ve been neglecting my own blog.  So this will be quick and mainly to assuage my writerly guilt.

I have been neglectful to not yet have mentioned on my blog the plight of the Christians in the Middle East.  An amazing segment on just that was on 60 Minutes tonight.  My family gathered around the TV pretty silently, and when it was over, my mother turned to me and said, “You know that your ancestors come from a small village in Lebanon that Jesus visited in his last days and the villagers there were among the first converted to Christianity.”  I know this — we come from Abboud, Lebanon, a mainstay of Maronite christians.  It’s been repeated over and over in my family and, even more so after marrying my Chaldean christian husband, this familial history plays a big role in my life.  

Here’s the story: Christians of the Holy Land.

 

Islamophobia

I just read an interesting article over at Salon.com about the indoctrination after 9/11 of Americans with regards to terrorism (Tongue Cutting at Al-Jazeera).  According to the author, “terrorism expertise”:

is not an actual discipline, but rather (like the term “terrorism” itself) just another instrument for legitimizing the violence of the U.S. and its allies, delegitimizing the violence of their Muslim adversaries, and dressing up state propaganda with the veneer of academic neutrality (for an example of how this works, see this New York Times article this morning on the different approaches taken by the U.S. and French governments to “fighting terrorism,” by which the article exclusively means: Muslims). (Greenwald)

I tend to agree.  Expertise in terrorism, and therefore just the term “terrorism”, has been taken to mean in the past ten years “violence committed by Muslims”.  The media and our own government has inculcated in Americans the belief that terrorism is solely Islamic.  This is, of course, not the case.  Terrorism has, unfortunately, existed in many cultures and religions (Timothy McVeigh, anyone?).  I have no respect for so-called “terrorism experts” who do not make any effort to acknowledge this fact and operate under the mistaken idea that terrorism can only be committed by Islamic extremists.  

But, honestly, this deep-seated misunderstanding of Islam that plagues America does not surprise me anymore.  Reading the New York Times article that blatantly equated terrorists with Muslims or the disgusting Twitter post by John Podhoretz (“Olbermann could go to Al-Jazeera, but if what happened at Current happens there, after a year they’ll just cut out his tongue”) do not, unfortunately, surprise me either.  Well-known and well-funded projects such as Campuswatch.com operate based on the strong current of Islamophobia in this country.  There are many websites which claim to be non-partisan and/or based on simple Christian Islam dialogue, but that villanize Islam and include charts of people who have recognized the evil of their ways and converted from Islam to Christianity.  I will not do these hateful sites the favor of listing them here.  The comments left behind by readers on these blogs are always more frightening to me than the site content; common sentiments expressed include that “Islam is not a true religion”, “Islam is evil”, and “Muslims are terrorists and they all want to kill us Christians”.

Terrorism and any violent religious extremism cannot be tolerated and must be rooted out and eradicated.  However, the Islamophobia running rampant in America is only exasperating the current situation and creates new and more disturbing divides.  Take the time to study another culture and religion.  The basic message of all religions is love and tolerance towards others — Islam included.   

 

Schisms

Recently, I had a conversation with a professor about the role of artist and academic in our society.  I admitted that, having self-identified as a writer, it was intimidating to switch to an academic role.  It seems to me that artists evaluate outward from the self; meaning that their experience of the world is only in relation to themselves.  Academics are trained to put their own feelings and experiences to the side and to evaluate as objectively as they can; they observe the world from the outskirts.

This professor argued that this was not in fact true.  Academics are trained to be as objective as possible but, of course, pure objectivity doesn’t really exist.  Academics choose to explore a certain field because it appeals to them on a personal level and the “I” can never be removed.  He’s right.  The schism between artist and academic is more semantic than anything else.

I remember studying with a professor — whom I will call Dr. Z — when I took his class on Islam during undergrad.  Some students speculated aloud whether or not Dr. Z was himself a Muslim.  I, myself, was awed by his knowledge and, thus, was curious about how he could dedicate his life to studying a religion that he himself did not practice.  Just to be clear: I do not think it is anyone’s business.  But it is interesting how academics are often unfairly judged if they are not objective enough and then again if they are not themselves personally implicated in the subject they specialize in.  Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  

I am reminded of Gayatri Spivack’s famous work on the subaltern.  Do western scholars who study the Middle East disappropriate Middle Eastern scholars?  I cannot believe they do, although the question has frequently disturbed me.  Here again are these constructed identities that only serve to separate ourselves from one another.  

To put it more concisely:  We implicate ourselves (and thus our culture) in everything we do, whether artistically or academically.  We cannot be removed from the equation.  Thus, when we study different cultures our personal experiences will always subtly affect our scholarship.  As each one of us, whether we share a particular geography and/or culture or not, has our own story, the mixture of these unique stories can only enhance our artistic and scholarly work.

 

Religulous?

I was raised in the Episcopal church and went to a Catholic high school.  Somewhere around the age of 12, shortly after having some kind of religious experience that I won’t detail here, I grew rather antagonistic to religion.  I refused to be confirmed.  I picked fights with my poor mother over the rationality of believing in miracles.  And I stubbornly remained — What?  Atheist and proud? — for years.

Yet I was an impostor of sorts.  There were times when I would want desperately to believe, when I would try to pray or, to put it bluntly, hedge my bets; after a worrisome medical scare or a bumpy flight, for example.  And then, afterwards, I would feel horribly guilty.  Guilty for betraying my deepest rational beliefs in a moment of crisis.

All of this is to say that religion has been on my mind a lot lately and I find myself, surprisingly, less antagonistic towards it.  Or, rather, I want to believe — not in any specific dogma or personified god, but in the existence of certain mysteries that we cannot know.  To put it simply, I used to believe that the way to escape our base humanity was through rational knowledge, or gnosis.  But our knowledge is limited to the pale blue dot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot), to our limited experiences on Earth.  

Now, the basic tenants of religion in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qu’ran ring true to me: Kindness is our goal and knowledge is a superfluous comfort (immensely important on the micro level and incredibly unnecessary on the macro).

Anyway, enough philosophizing for tonight.  I’m feeling queasy; maybe it’s due to the subject matter.  Americans often seem to have adverse reactions to discussing religion in public.   

Writing

 

I’ve been working on my novel for three and a half years.  I’ve taken a lot of breaks, re-written most of it, and taken out probably somewhere around 150 pages that for some reason or another just didn’t fit.  I liked most of the scenes I had to delete from the book and so it was hard to cut them, but necessary.  They sit in one folder in my desktop that most writers have — I’ve heard it referred to as the cemetery for lost words — and will probably never again be used.  But I can’t delete them forever.

As I plan to start a doctorate program in the fall, my deadline for finishing this — sisyphean weight? Bane of my existence?  No?  Too much? —  thing is fast approaching.  I want to finish it before I embark on a different sort of writing.  Which isn’t to say I will stop writing creatively.  But I need to have some sense of completion with this project before starting another one.

Anyway, I’ve learned through these past few years what an enormous task it is to write a –hopefully somewhat coherent — novel.  That sounds ridiculous — of course it’s an enormous task.  But I was pretty naive before.  I thought you just had to have ideas, write them down, get an agent, send manuscript to a publisher and voila, a successful novel.  This idealized version ignores the years of editing, deleting, and rewriting.  Then let’s not forget the pure frustration: frustration with the limits of your brain and your writing, frustration that other people can’t see what you see about your work, frustration at just working on the same pages day after day and year after year.

Above all, it’s the feeling of getting closer and closer and closer to the perfect idea, the perfect expression, the perfect manifestation of what’s inside your head, and not getting there.  Never.  In fact, it’s impossible to translate perfectly what is in your head to the page.

But therein lies the beauty.  And whenever I think about the joy of finishing this project, my mind wanders to the next idea.  Something more exciting than the previous one.  Magical realism mixed with a detective story.  A psychic who goes missing and his wife’s quest to find him…

 

AL-AJNABIYA

What does AL-AJNABIYA mean?  It means “the foreigner (f)”.  The foreigner is not just geographically dislocated, cut off, erased, but has been relegated to all things Other.

I’ve always been interested in how people categorize themselves and others into “us” and “them”.  It is, obviously, unavoidable.  We are our own floating islands and hell, as Sartre famously said, is being trapped in our own bodies and minds and not being able to connect with the Other (“L’enfer c’est les autres”).  This language of barriers that we’ve created (including “foreigner”) is a way of conceptualizing our own limitations.  We divide ourselves because we cannot exist in any other way.  And in the gap created by this language of barriers, this Otherization, lies racism, sexism, xenophobia, intolerance.

This is why literature has always fascinated me.  For years I was never able to explain why I love literature — and not just why I love literature, but why it is necessary.  Zadie Smith helped clarify this dilemma for me when I read one of her essays (Read “Fail Better” here: http://faculty.sunydutchess.edu/oneill/failbetter.htm) where she describes how literature is an “experience of the world through a consciousness other than [your] own”.  It may seem obvious, but this is the function of literature and art in general.  Literature allows us to enter into someone else’s mind and, thus, it breaks down the barriers we have constructed around ourselves, the only consciousness we can ever know.

What can be more important than that?

A New Genre?

There was a great review today in The New York Times on Hari Kunzru’s new novel Gods Without Men.  Actually, it was less of a review and more of a manifesto of sorts on a new literary genre: Translit.

“One thing that struck me about the 9/11 footage shown during last year’s anniversary,” Coupland writes in his review, “was that in 2001, the people on New York City’s sidewalks had no smartphones with which to record the events of the day. History may well look back on 9/11 as the world’s last underdocumented mega-event. But aside from the absence of phone cameras, the people and streets of September 2001 looked pretty much identical to those of September 2011: the clothes, the hair, the cars. I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times.”  (Read the rest of the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/books/review/gods-without-men-by-hari-kunzru.html)

Apparently Translit, or literature that crosses various geographies, time periods, and cultures often without explanation, is the only literature that can exist in this “post-era” era.  It’s an intriguing idea but… I can’t help relating this theory to another theory that we are moving towards a “post-cultural” society where cultures and languages will converge.  This can’t happen — we will always create our own differences.

Anyway, back to our “post-era” era — internet is the dominant mode through which we document our lives, but it won’t always be.  Some other technological advance will soon separate ourselves even further from past generations.  But Translit literature sounds fascinating.  And so does Kunzru’s book.