Eunomia · Arabic


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This is probably well-known to more advanced students of both languages, and is so obvious that I feel silly for not noticing it earlier, but if someone told me about this before I had forgotten it.  Armenian seems to have borrowed the root of their words relating to translation (targmanut’yun, targmanich, targmanel) from Arabic or, more likely, Syriac, given the strong cultural and commercial ties between classical/medieval Armenia and Syria.  In Arabic, the word for translation is tarjama, so the connection between that or some variant of it and targmanel is clear enough, since anel means “to do” and the gim in Armenian is equivalent to the jim in Arabic.

No wonder Americans are so weak in learning foreign languages.  Take this case.  I had not heard of this academy, but I was not surprised to find that one of its critics was Daniel Pipes, who wrote earlier this year what may be one of the most ignorant things I have seen:

I say this because Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.

This is absurd.  I just went through the equivalent of one year of Arabic language instruction here at Chicago, and if it was laden with “pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage” it would be news to all of us who were in the class.  It would be one thing to argue that, in a specific case, the instruction was loaded with such messages, but to say that learning Arabic inevitably involves “pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage” is to reveal yourself as a fool. 

One of the most common textbooks used for Arabic instruction in this country, Al-Kitaab, the text we used this summer, is essentially free of anything that might be construed as political or controversial.  (The one thing that I noticed that was bluntly political and obnoxious was the depiction of Kosovo as an independent country on one of its maps.)  It is true that studying al-fusha involves not learning specific dialects, but that hardly makes it “pan-Arabist” in any meaningful way.  This would be like saying the study of German is inevitably laden with Pan-German ideology because it privileges Hochdeutsch over Bavarian, Austrian and Swiss dialects. 

Pipes isn’t finished:

Also, learning Arabic in of itself promotes an Islamic outlook, as James Coffman showed in 1995, looking at evidence from Algeria. 

Really?  Does that mean that Pipes’ own study of Arabic made him into an Islamist sympathiser?  This is preposterous.  Arabic predates Islam; there are still many Arab Christians (though fewer of them remain in the Near East thanks to foreign policy moves favoured by geniuses like Pipes), and there are Orthodox and Maronite liturgies in Arabic.  It is doubtful that these Arab Christians are being Islamicised when they learn the language of their parents or when they go to church.  (The phrase in the title of this post is the Arabic for the Orthodox Paschal greeting, “Christ is Risen,” and the response, “truly He is risen.”)  It is likely that Pipes would have no objection to the students learning about the history and culture of the Near East, provided that they were learning the sorts of things with which Pipes would agree.     

Of course, the results of the cited study (which appears in Pipes’ own journal, which has incidentally also played host to articles providing cover to Armenian genocide denial) might have something to do with the students being Algerian Muslims living in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.  These results have literally no bearing on instruction in this country.  It is very likely that there were other factors that determined the results Pipes cites.  For one, students in Algeria who are studying in Arabic rather than in French might already be predisposed to endorse these views.  There seems to be absolutely no control here for their social background, the political affiliations of their parents or the materials presented in the class.  Studying Arabic in and of itself cannot induce an Islamic outlook if there is no attempt to propagandise the students, and in most Arabic instruction in this country it is implausible that such propagandising is taking place.  Learning foreign languages does not compel you to embrace this or that ideological or religious frame of mind.  If Americans become convinced that learning Arabic is somehow buying into Islamic propaganda, they will be that less interested in learning it.  It is fairly despicable that a putative scholar of the region should actively spread such misinformation.  Put it down as one more reason to pay no attention to what Pipes has to say.  

Are we really supposed to believe that Maha and Khalid, two of the characters of Al-Kitaab, are the vehicles of jihadi subversion?  Give me a break.  Perhaps Pipes had this experience in Egypt, but Brooklyn is in a very different mintaqa.  Whatever else might be said about the principal of this academy or the curriculum of the school, it can hardly be a good thing that her ouster is a victory for buffoons of Pipes’ ilk.

Update: Just for your enjoyment, here is the voice of the wonderfully talented Maronite nun, Sister Marie Keyrouz, as she sings Inna Al Masih Qad Qam (approx., Christ Has Risen).  Here are additional liturgical songs courtesy of the same Melkite Catholic church site.

Via Pithlord, I see that Prof. Bainbridge has commented on this story about a Dutch bishop proposing that Dutch Catholic churches use the name Allah in their services “to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians.”  Pithlord is, of course, right that the concession, such as it is, is actually only a linguistic one.  Allah does mean God, or literally “the God” in Arabic.  As far as it goes, the change is fairly innocuous as a matter of literal meaning, but therefore all the more unnecessary and symbolically discouraging in that it is another example of Dutch natives accommodating and assimilating themselves to the immigrant communities rather than vice-versa.  The Islamic understanding of God is obviously quite different and opposed to that of Christians, but the bishop was not proposing introductions of Qur’anic passages, such as Ma qataau-hu wa ma salabu-hu during Communion and La taqu thaalatha during the Sanctus.  It is a trivial proposal in a way, but this makes it all the more foolish and pointless.  It is the ultimate in condescending tokenism while also managing to introduce a pointless change into the liturgical life of the bishop’s flock.  Should Anglicans begin saying Khuda Hafiz to make their Muslim neighbours feel more at home? 

It is not exactly an embrace of relativism, as Prof. Bainbridge fears, but it is fairly stupid all the same.  It is an example of the embrace of rather pointless symbolic gestures that are intended to foster ecumenical dialogue and such, but which routinely backfire and are viewed either as insults, attempts to muddy the waters or even aggressive attempts at appropriating someone else’s beliefs.  Do you suppose that a Muslim in the Netherlands will have a better view of non-Arabic-speaking Christians if they begin using the name Allah?  Would this not, in fact, inspire some resentment against those using this name to refer to the Trinity or to Christ Himself, when Muslims recognise neither the existence of the former nor the divinity of the latter?  At best, it would not achieve the intended goal, but would become one more episode in European Christianity’s own self-marginalisation.  

Update: On the other side of the world, there is apparently no small controversy over the changing usages from Khuda Hafiz to Allah Hafiz, as this older article also relates.  I had noticed that Allah Hafiz had been cropping up in more and more Bollywood movies over the past few years, but I suppose I had not realised that this reflected such significant changes in South Asian Islam.

The soundtrack to Fanaa was playing in the background, and I was finishing reviewing the most recent Arabic lesson’s vocabulary when I was reminded of another Arabic loanword found in Sayat Nova’s poetry.  His Doon en hoorin is (You Are A Nymph) has a line where he says:

Toor, indzi spane, ikhtiar unis!

I believed that this translated roughly as, ”Come (lit., give), kill me, you have the right.”  The modern Eastern Armenian translator renders ikhtiar as iravunk’, which is where my translation of ikhtiar as “right” comes from.  In the context of the poem, this rendering might make perfect sense, since the gusan is talking about the authority of the beloved to order his death, where she plays the role of a khan or some other powerful figure.  Yet my Arabic lesson tells me that the primary meaning of ikhtiar is “choice” and the dictionary confirms that it means selection, preference or even free will in certain usages.  Fortunately, there is a way out of this contradiction.  

Ikhtiar (or ikhtiyar as Hans-Wehr transliterates it) can also mean “option” in Arabic, which would also fit the context of the poem.  It would not, however, bear out the translator’s decision to use iravunk’.  This rendering does manage to convey some of the meaning, but does not capture exactly what the poet was saying.  Still, I can appreciate the translator’s quandary, since the main Armenian word for choice is entrut’yun, which is a bit more cumbersome.  So, eight weeks in intensive Arabic have at least brought me some new insight into Sayat Nova.  Park’ Astutso!