Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Politics of Pronunciation Part 2: Arabic Lessons at the New York Times

Being an Arab/American is an odd, sometimes disconcerting experience.

I am a "western" person but I am not "of" the West. That's why I often use the slash instead of the hyphen to describe myself. Because I don't feel like both terms have equal weight, and linking them with a slim hyphen seems like a wasted effort, since the "Arab" pulls the "American" so far out of its orbit that the general sense of it is lost. Even to people who should perhaps know better these terms seem oxymoronic, so it is not entirely possible to truly be both because the associations attached to "Arab" do not dovetail with "American" in the western imagination. My family, like many of the Lebanese Christians who immigrated to America as the 20th century turned, certainly tried. Of all the flavors "Arab" comes in, the peoples of the Levant, largely fair skinned, and even possibly blue/green/hazel eyed, have come closest to leaping the chasm that separates East from West in the United States (unless, you know, they are Palestinian). My family's journey is typical of this attempt at assimilation. And one of the key strategies they employed in this effort involved language, both learning and forgetting.

My grandparents, who spoke Arabic with one another, forbade their children from speaking it so they lost the language. My Aunt, who can still sometimes understand Arabic, but has not spoken it since she was a child, tells a story: One day in the 1930s when my grandparents were in their store, my grandfather said something to my grandmother in their language and a customer-- a stranger-- turned to them and hissed, "Speak English!"

And so they did.

Subsequently, Arabic did not make its way through my family, the way other immigrant tongues do. It was consciously left behind as something that marked my family as "foreign" and "Other" and specifically Middle Eastern. As an assimilation strategy it worked. I often think that the reason I am not "read" immediately as an Arab by some has as much to do with my western comportment and perfect, un-accented English as the shape of my nose, the shade of my skin or the color of my eyes. So when I decided to study Arabic as an adult I wondered how my family might react. They'd amputated the language to fit in, survive and thrive in a new country and I was aware that by studying Arabic I was consciously reversing that process. My Father and grandparents, all long dead, were not available to weigh in, but I wondered what my Aunts might say... and they surprised me (as they often do) with their sophisticated responses. They were simultaneously proud, wistful, pragmatic and unapologetic. Not that they have anything to apologize for: Because of who they chose to be, my life is possible. I owe my position as a western artist with a couple of advanced degrees to the choices they made a generation earlier, so I could not judge them even if I wanted to. I am standing on their shoulders.

My experience is that Arabic is challenging to learn as an adult not because the grammar is so obscure (although everything flows in the opposite direction than I am used to), or because the alphabet is so strange (the lovely, curling letters make words that are entirely phonetic, which is handy) but because the vocabulary is seemingly limitless. There are Arabic words for concepts that do not even exist in English, and the fineness of the distinctions between them lend themselves to the poetic in a way that makes English seem utilitarian and coarse. But it can be daunting to move from one way of thinking to the other.

We have seen how Arab identities disturb the western imagination just by existing. And that power to disturb through eastern "foreignness" is embodied in reactions to Arabic, whether it is spoken or merely written. Of course the ridiculous over-reaction of the airline Jetblue to Blogger Raed Arrar's anti-war t-shirt with "We Will Not Be Silent" on it in Arabic (which I'll blog about another day) is a key example of this irrational fear sparked by Arabic. But often the negative associations attached to the language are not as blatant as in the Jetblue fiasco. In looking for narratives of other people studying Arabic as adults, I came across an essay by Robert F. Worth in The New York Times but his eloquent ruminations on the difficulties and rewards of Arabic study were, for me, marred by the Orientalist tone that runs throughout his observations.

It turns out that the Arabic speaker who inspires Worth's linguistic breakthrough was Ayman al-Zawahri, "Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, (who) was threatening to slaughter large numbers of Americans." It seems incredibly odd to me, given the vast universe of cultural products emanating from the Middle East-- cinema, poetry, theater, songs, etc., not to mention academic and scholarly texts-- that Worth's breakthrough would come listening to a speech made by an Arab insurgent. No wonder Arabic sounds "angry" to his ear, the only Arabs he ever listens to are yelling.

Worth endures the rigors of Arabic study, underwritten by his bosses to facilitate his job as the The New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief. He writes, "The scattered (Arabic) phrases I knew seemed only to underscore my ignorance: Wayn alinfijar? I’d say ('Where’s the explosion?'), or Shaku maku? ('How’s it going?'), and I’d get a condescending pat on the back." Again, I am struck that an American who spends his work life in a country where most people also speak English (Lebanon), in a city which has as rich contemporary cultural scene (Beirut), would only ever talk with the locals about violence, and second-hand at that. Perhaps he is mis-reading the reason for their condescension?

After months of language study Worth reports that he "began marching into the Arabic markets on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn" to test out his textbook Arabic phrases. "Generally I was met with a confused look and then a smiling apology: 'We don’t hear too much fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) around here." He clarifies, "Linguistically speaking, what I had done was a bit like asking an Italian for directions in Latin. Modern fusha... is a modified version of the Classical Arabic in the Koran. It is the language of public address, and of any newscast on Al Jazeera and other Arabic television stations." But he also qualifies, "It... corresponds to the written language, and any educated Arab can understand it." So, in other words, in another city filled with Arab intellectuals and artists (New York) Worth manages to find only uneducated shopkeepers to speak to? To, not with. Although he probably overstates the ignorance of the shopkeepers he pestered with his rudimentary Modern Standard Arabic phrases in any case, as colloquial versions of Arabic are different from the Modern Standard version and these vary greatly from country to country. Guttural Moroccan Arabic sounds so different from the liquid Levantine version I am used to that it seems to me a completely different language. But... so what? The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a gigantic expanse and the variations in language only underscore how culturally different it is from place to place, unlike the monolithic stereotype.

Still, Worth is articulate in describing the ups and downs of learning Arabic. He writes, "The language is not so much hard as it is vast, with dozens of ways to form the plural and words that vary from region to region, town to town. With every sign of progress it seems to deepen beneath you like a coastal shelf." He also makes an important point about the "poisonous ideological garb" Arabic often wears in the United States as an impediment to learning the language itself. For Worth, divesting Arabic vocabulary from western ideological preoccupations is a necessary step in learning the language, an astute observation. "Once you begin to do that," he writes, "American attitudes toward the language itself, along with all things Arab and Muslim, can begin to seem jarringly hostile and suspicious... One has to wonder whether these attitudes have inhibited our ability to train more Arabic speakers." Worth alludes to "many" other reasons for this failure (although he does not enumerate them) but nevertheless asserts they are "inseparable from the Arab world’s long history of troubled relations with the West." And therein lies the rub: It's disturbing that an American journalist would posit the "history of troubled relations" as flowing only in one direction, from Middle East to West. This trajectory obscures the long history of western colonial intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, a phenomenon which continues in Iraq and Palestine to this day.

So my reaction to Worth's essay is complicated. On one hand, he describes the challenges adult Arabic study poses for someone raised with English in a way that resonates. And he discusses the politicization of particular Arabic words such as "Jihad", whose range of meanings has been flattened as a political exercise, and even the harmless "madrassa", which means simply, "school" but has sinister implications in right-wing discourse. Unfortunately, he also perpetuates some of the stereotypes he seems to be speaking out against, which suggests that de-centering the entrenched fear, hatred and desire of the West for the East is more difficult than he may think. And it is this mixed bag of understanding and objectification that characterizes so much of the way we-- Arab/Americans-- are in the United States. There is always something that must be finessed, ignored or forgiven in the ways we are portrayed.

Even after a century as Americans we are continually forced to pick and choose, to learn and forget.


  1. I have to admit "angry consonants" gave me serious pause. What does that mean exactly? As a Black person who has been told to "calm down" when I raised my voice - not even in anger - this irked me. If the very parts of your speech - how your tongue rolls around a word - are interpreted as angry, how can you NOT be interpreted as the same? It seems problematic and grossly unfair. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. I do that.

    I am sorry that Arabic is something you had to pursue as an adult, but I understand why, and I am glad that you made a conscious decision to connect with your cultural hertiage. A lot of people choose not to. I have many, many friends who don't speak Spanish, Italian or Portuguese for the exact same reasons that you mentioned. By the second generation, it seems, language and a lot of culture tied to it are lost, and it is shaming (not self-hate, but racist/ethnocentric othering) that banishes it. We live in a different world than we did a century ago, but it is important to acknowledge and honor the sacrifices of those who came before we did, and I think you're doing that. Good on you.

    I'm curious: do you know what my name means? It's usuallly very well received by Arabic speakers, and I just kinda want to be all smug about it now. :o)

  2. Learning a new language as an artist is a great way to expand your expressive capabilities. And, the fact that you are studying what your ancestors spoke gives you a connection to your history. I, too, am used to hearing Arabic culture referenced in a negative fashion. I don't think I've ever heard an entire sentence in Arabic, only "key" phrases. Why don't we ever hear or see printed the word that means the opposite of Jhihad, for example?

    I am learning to speak Spanish more fluently, as I live in a Latino community and quite a few of my clients are from Mexico, Puerto Rico and other islands. I get a chance to practice pretty much daily.
    Do you have a community where you can converse in Arabic?

    I enjoy reading your blog postings. Gives me an idea of what events I may check out next time I'm in NYC.

  3. Joseph,

    What a great post on so many different levels. I think your experience is a typical Arab-American one, even typical immigrant American one. My family is Germany and a segment of it immigrated here and some stayed in Germany. The ones that came into the US had the same rules, no German at home.

    My wife is a Saudi, daughter of a diplomat here at the Embassy in DC. There was an oppposite rule for her and her sisters, no English at home. The idea being that they got enough English outside and going to local schools.

    Even so it wasnt enough so he ended up getting them a tutor twice a week for several years. Arabic is like that, it takes years even for native speakers to master.

    When my wife and I married to worked hard to learn Arabic, took university level classes and took advanced Arabic grammer classes at a local Saudi institute. The Uni was fine, but even 4 years of University Arabic you are still only cable of basic conversation.

    Language is VERY important as part of who people are. It is not coincident that the destruction of control of native languages is one of the basic steps for all colonial powers.

    I have met many Arab-Americans who speak no Arabic. I feel bad enough about it that I have stopped speaking in Arabic to Arab-Americans I dont know because I had heard too many times "wow, your Arabic is good, what did you say"? I knew one guy who had been born in Bethlehem and I ran into him one day and I was wearing a shirt that said "Palestine" in Arabic and he had to ask me what it said.

    As the father of two bi-racial Arab American kids we try to do what we can to make sure that they have a grasp of Arabic, but it is hard when most day to day conversation is in English. I just know how important graps of Arabic is to Arabs and I also know that being half white they are already going to be viewed in a different light. Good Arabic might get them past some of that.

    As to the article, if anyone had done research at the paper they'd realise that one year of Arabic wasn't going to be enough. Places like Georgetown offer four years and then send you abroad to the Middle East to study there for a minimum of a year. It is good practical experience and does wonder to geet beyond the "fus7a" Arabic taught in Western class rooms.

    The "uneducated" bit about Fus7a is a bit off the mark. AS if the uneducated dont watch TV news which is done in formal Arabic? As if they dont pick up a paper and read it from time to time?

    Anyway, Egyptian and Lebanese dialects would be the best to know, as both countries pretty much rule the Arabic entertainment industry and much of what you hear from it will come from those two countries.

    Arabic is hard for me because of the fact that every different places has it's own dialect. I know the Khaliji dialect best, but the farther you get from the Hijaz, the less I know.

    I still get a kick out of it when Arabs are surprised that I even speak Arabic, let alone with a Saudi tinged accent.

    I also had to shake my head about the Arabic t-shirt incident. My white privledge has meant that I could wear Arabic t-shirts on many occassions and never have an issue. The only issue I usually get is when an Arab asks me if I know what my shirt says and I answer in Arabic.

    I have shirts in Arabic that say "Allahu Akbar" "Support the Uprising for an Independent Palestine" "Palestine" and "I am not a terrorist". I have never had an issue. More proof that even white converts to Islam dont get the white privledge card revoked when they say the shahada.

    Good luck on the Arabic learning. If you are anything like me, it is going to be a life long project!

  4. Russell Peters, in his latest DVD (Red, White, and Brown), has a bit making fun of how non-Arabic speakers, and Western media, view/portray Arabic as an angry language. If I could find a link to it I'd post it here, but critiques this stereotype fairly well.

    Personally, I am grateful that I can both understand and speak both Urdu and Punjabi but I do worry about passing it on to my future kids, if God gives me children. I know I'm definitely going to make every effort to. AS Abu Sinan mentioned, language is a very important element of cultural preservation. My grandmother's language was Pashto and since she passed away, taking the language with her, I've been wanting to learn Pashto so that I can bring it back to life in her descendents. Just today I was actually thinking about learning it and now after reading your post I think I will set out in earnest to learn it. In practical terms it's probably not so handy, but it's culturally invaluable.

    @Abu Sinan:

    Are there any Arabic educational videos for children you could get to use as a learning tool for your children? Because they may not be hearing Arabic at home, this may, to a limited extent granted, replace that lack of Arabic in the home.

    Sobia (not Farheen)

  5. Thanks all,
    Yes, the Arabic = Angry thing is annoying but very telling. It seems like when I see people do their Arabic "ching-chong" they make a mad face and strangling sounds in the back of their throats. I always think, "is that how it sounds to you?"

  6. This is a great post, Joe. You're right about the Orientalist tone in Worth's article, especially the part about "angry consonants," which doesn't surprise me since I've heard the whole "Arabic=angry" thing so many times. It's so offensive and ignorant because it reinforces the stereotype that Arabs and Muslims are "angry" and "aggressive" people (even though not all Muslims speak Arabic, the stereotypes still get lumped together).

    I think it's a great thing that you're learning Arabic. There's something really special and moving about connecting with your roots. We should all embrace the multiple identities that we have. I wish I could speak Urdu better, but I'm making more efforts to improve on it (as well as Punjabi). I am glad that I can at least understand the language really well though. When I read Urdu or Punjabi poetry or listen to the music, I always feel like I'm connecting with a missing part of me and I cannot help but think of the past. We are here because of our ancestors, and it's almost like spiritual time travel, where I imagine myself living in the Punjab and speaking the language so fluently.

    This is not meant to sound ethnocentric or anything, but there's a lot to be proud of about where our parents and ancestors come from. I know I say this because of how I internalized racism in grade school; I didn't learn anything special about Islamic history or South Asian history. When I finally learned about the contributions Arabs, Persians, South Asians, and Muslims made to the world, it really had a profound impact on me because these groups are surrounded by so much negativity in media and society.

    You may remember from my post on "Pakistani Identity" that I studied Arabic quite frequently after 9/11. I also took Tajweed classes and listened to a lot of Arabic music (I still do). Though I am not Arab, I cannot deny that I feel a closeness to Arabic too, and even Farsi. Aside from all the tensions that occur within the Muslim community, no one disputes the beauty of the Qur'an's Arabic or the fact that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was an Arab.

    When I read about Islamic history, I find myself connecting with it, even with the parts that don't concern Islam in South Asia. I still consider it as part of my history as well as my roots. I know it's because of my faith in Islam, but at the same time, I find myself appreciating the possible Hindu and Buddhist roots I may have.

    Anyway, before I ramble on further, thanks for writing this and I like what you wrote about how you use a slash instead of a hyphen to describe yourself. That gives me something to think about.