Ancient Scripts in the Arab World

During my visit to Paris after finishing up at Bordeaux, I followed up on a recommendation from a friend and visited the Institute of the Arab World, which was absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the part of the collection that explained the early history of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant, as it introduced me to scripts and languages that I was previously unaware of, such as Sabean, Thamudic, and the Ancient South Arabian script.

Recently, I came across an article in the New Yorker (via languagehat) and a podcast from UT about Ahmed Al-Jallad, who researches and deciphers inscriptions in the Safaitic script, which are written in an older, pre-Islamic form of Arabic. The Safaitic alphabet is primarily found in Syria and Jordan, and Al-Jallad theorizes that forms of Arabic were present in this region before the rise of Classical Arabic on the Arabian peninsula. In the podcast, Al-Jallad discusses pre-Islamic inscriptions written in the Arabic alphabet. Those found to this point are generally associated with a Christian identity, rather than a pagan one. I would highly recommend reading the article and podcast (with transcript) if you are interested in Arabic history, linguistics, or just generally get excited about deciphering ancient scripts and languages. Al-Jallad also has an interesting discussion of Safaitic with photos and translations on his Twitter account.

 

I Am Baghdad III

Reposted from OnlineAhwa.

i_am_baghdad_3

I am Baghdad III, 2008, acrylic, charcoal and marker pen on Arabic newspaper on canvas, 48″ x 48″- 122 cm x 122 cm

The portrait above gazes out at its audience, grabs its attention and commands it to listen. I Am Baghdad III is one of a series of paintings by Iraqi artist Ayad Alkadhi in which he narrates individual Iraqi responses to the post-occupation Iraq. He has taken a single Iraqi face, his own, and overlaid it with visual elements that recount his interviews with Iraqi citizens.

Ayad Alkadhi has purposefully left the interpretation of the portrait’s story up to the viewer (Griffith). One possible interpretation is shaped by the colors that he has chosen and color symbolism. Black and white, the primary colors used in the portrait, are significant in many cultures. In Arabic, black is associated with death, hell, and past wars (Hasan 208). White, on the other hand, has generally positive meanings, with “white-hearted” conveying innocence and the “white dove” and “white revolution” being peaceful (Al-Aladeih 8). Based on these colors and their connotations, the individual in this image mourns the death of war and desires peace and innocence in the future. This interpretation is supported by Ayad Alkadhi’s own statements that his main purpose is to communicate emotion (Shangri La).

I Am Baghdad III was painted in 2008, following years of violence in Iraq, and the events surrounding its creation play a key role. The painting is literally against a backdrop of current events, as represented by the Iraqi and Palestinian newspapers that connect the work to local and international contexts (Griffith). The international connections include the Palestinian newspapers and the football player in the corner, while the Iraqi newspapers likely report on the US invasion of Iraq as well as sectarian violence, bombings carried out against civilians and the breakdown in infrastructure such as clean water (BBC, Ditmars)

According the Alkadhi, “painted words give the notion of a story being told,” but these words are simply a collection of letters without literal meaning (Alkadhi). This gives the viewer the opportunity to interpret the story being told. The letters are large and bold yet translucent, suggesting transience or fragility. The movement and size gives them life. Combined with the covered mouth, the letters pull the viewer inside the consciousness of the portrait, highlighting the beauty and fragility of the inner life. The absence of any explicit message prevents the painting from being used as propaganda (Alkadhi).

In addition to its storytelling value, Arabic calligraphy is often used in modern art as a means of connecting with an older artistic tradition, and this is certainly true for Alkadhi (Al-Sadoun). He states that calligraphy is one of the “creative nuances” of Islamic culture, used in contemporary work as a “calling card” (Griffith).

As an Iraqi living in America, Alkadhi has often been asked about the Iraq War by Americans who want more information than the news provides (Alkadhi). Alkadhi connects this with the desire for emotional information, and painted the I Am Baghdad series to bridge this gap between his Iraqi friends and his American friends (Alkadhi). His combination of a face, symbolic colors, and current events emphasize the individual experience of war and suffering.

 

 

References:

Al-Adaileh, Bilal A. “The Connotations of Arabic Color Terms.” Linguistica Online, Issue 13, 2012, http://www.phil.muni.cz/linguistica/art/al-adaileh/ada-001.pdf. Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

Alkadhi, Ayad. “I Am Baghdad III.” 2008. http://aalkadhi.com/content/I_am_baghdad/baghdad_html/3.htm. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

Ditmars, Hadani. “Post Invasion Iraq – the facts.” New Internationalist Magazine, Issue 432, 2010, https://newint.org/features/2010/05/01/post-invasion-iraq-facts/. Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

Griffith, Lesa. “Ayad Alkadhi on ‘I Am Baghdad XV.’” Honolulu Museum of Art, http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/ayad-alkadhi-on-i-am-baghdad-xv/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

Hasan, Amna A. et al. “How Colours are Semantically Construed in the Arabic and English Culture: A Comparitive Study.” English Language Teaching, vol. 4, no. 3, 2011, http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1080712.pdf. Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

“Iraq Profile – Timeline.” BBC News, 5 Dec. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14546763. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

“Ayad Alkadhi Talks About His Experiences as an Artist & Resident at Shangri La.” Shangri La: Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, 11 Feb. 2013, http://blog.shangrilahawaii.org/wordpress/ayad-alkadhi-experiences-as-an-artist-and-resident-at-shangri-la/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

“Quest to Belong by Ayad Alkadhi.” Vimeo, uploaded by Shangri La Hawaii, 2013, http://www.shangrilahawaii.org/Programs/Calendar-of-Events/Alkadhi-Lecture/.

 

Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal

Imagine if instead of a football game, the OU-TX rivalry centered around a spelling bee. That would be awesome, and I would totally watch it. Similarly, a rivalry between Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium is embodied in Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal, an annual dictation-slash-spelling bee hosted by two major newspapers. The participants are not children either; they are journalists, writers, politicians, rappers, athletes, and comic-strip artists. To top it all off, the Groot Dictee (pronounced khrote dic-tay) is hosted in the Dutch equivalent of the Senate, the Eerste Kamer.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and playing along. I did quite a bit worse than the average, and far worse than the best. The participants were divided into teams and the errors of each were averaged: Dutch celebrities (25 errors), readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (15), Flemish celebrities (21), and readers of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen (12). Overall, the Flemish outperformed the Dutch, and the newspaper readers bested the celebrities. However, the Dutch author Gustaaf Peck had the lowest individual celebrity score (12) and Volkskrant reader Roberto LaRocca had the lowest score of all (6). Depending on how you count multiple errors in a word, I had around 31 errors. But I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the words I did know. In fact, being Anglophone meant that some of the harder words for the participants were cognates I could spell.

After the general round, the person from each group with the lowest score was chosen for a final round, which more closely resembled American spelling bees. A word was read out, and the first team to misspell a word lost. The Flemish reader, Marco Sanders, won with balalaikaspeelster, which means balalaikaplayer and which I happened to get right as well. However, he said in an interview that he did not consider himself the winner, since he had one more error in the dictee.

Overall, I found this to be a very exciting display of language mastery. The text itself, written by Adrianus van der Heijden, concerned the flood of English loanwords in Dutch. His disapproval fell less on individual words, some of which he used in the dictee itself, than on the mixing of English and Dutch: Dunglish. He described this linguistic situation as a continuation of British colonialism, a sort of belated battle in the Anglo-Dutch wars that undermines the national style. You can find the full text here. I look forward to next year’s Groot Dictee.