Tuesday, February 13, 2007


I have some comments on the whole question of Arab-language news and opinion in North America.

In a nation of 300 million souls, there is a lack (to put it mildly) of broad and deep coverage of public discourse in what is currently a region of great concern, namely the Middle East. This lack, in itself, is a fact that should be highlighted, because it is the source of a whole lot of other problems. The damage isn't limited to having facilitated the "dancing in the streets" demagoguery ahead of the Iraq invasion. On the contrary, it continues to make American policy unstable and prone to other forms of demagoguery, new and old. The underlying problem is the lack of broad cultural literacy. I happen to think that as a long-term issue, the low esteem in which language-learning is held is an important part of that.

(If I had the energy and I was completely consistent as a person, I would cut back on the "missing links" format and instead post excerpts in Arabic with explanatory notes, vocabulary and so on, as an encouragement to autodidacts and others, and to show that while learning a language is difficult, getting a toe-hold in newspaper-Arabic with its repetitive structures and vocabulary is not as impossible as it is made out to be, so as to promote the idea of a culture of language-learning, which to put it mildly again, there isn't.)

If there was a broad enough Arabic cultural literacy among commentators and others, you wouldn't have this situation where people say "I know what is going on because I read so-and-so and I have read him for a long time". I hope people never say that about me, because my coverage is as inadequate for that as the next person's. Specific issues, having to do with who says this and who says that, are in large part the result of this thinness.

Each person has his aims and ideals and his perspective on the world. Mine is that people need to appreciate the variety of different views held by commentators and others in that part of the world. People need to understand these views and not just in a superficial way. And of course some of them I often agree with (for instance the consistent Bush-criticism of Samaha and Atwan); some of them I don't (for instance the quasi-official Saudi views of Mamoun Fandy); and some I find sort of in-between (some of the writers classified as "liberals" for instance). But the risk is in not understanding people at all. This is not only dangerous for America policy-wise, but also it is a shame just on the human and cultural level.

Among the academics, Marc Lynch runs an open-minded and accessible blog at abuaardvark.com, useful not only because of the posts and the comments, but also for the thumbnail summaries and links in the column at the left, which I have often pillaged. No doubt he has his aims and ideals and perspectives on the world, which I wouldn't presume to try and summarize, other than to note that he is a political scientist, so if I had to say something it would be about the dangers of scientism, and I would preach the need to drill down into what exactly people's views are, avoiding the temptation to merely classify them. At Joshua Landis' Syriacomment.com you can get a cross-section of opinions about the Syrian regime and its interesting strategic position, not only via Landis' posts, but even more from the outspoken commenters, many of them Syrian, and many often at loggerheads with one another. No danger of getting only one side of the story there.

Among the non-academics, Helena Cobban at justworldnews.org, like myself, thinks in addition to the surface problems, there is a problem with ways of thinking, and her focus is often on the need to think about the resolution of conflicts and not always just about the conflicts themselves.

And there is Juan Cole at Juancole.com, a hard worker, to be sure, and whose archives can be a useful tool as well. But I think it is clear his aims and ideals are a lot more specific, and have to do with the solidification of an Iraqi regime controlled by SCIRI. There is nothing against having that as an aim, as long as it doesn't get in the way of an even-handed account of what is going on. I think recently in a lot of cases it has gotten in the way of that, and given his influence, I think it is incumbent on a person to point that out as clearly as possible.

But that isn't the point. The point is that in a democracy of 300 million souls you should have more than a handful of people working on this (the above obviously isn't complete, but there aren't a whole lot of others addressing a North American audience), so as to generate a broad and deep understanding of the views and of the culture you are dealing with. You then wouldn't have the risk of interpreters being thought of as shamans delving into the unseen world or something like that. Unfortunately I know only the problem, not the answer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One need not believe you're an oracle to find your site damn useful. Thanks so much for doing this.

You don't happen to know of anyone seriously following Yemeni affairs, do you?

(I'm in GTMO just now, and met with my Yemeni client today. Better understanding of the situation there would be invaluable.)


4:52 PM  
Blogger badger said...

I wish I did. Maybe amongst readers?
(yr kind remark much appreciated)

5:42 PM  
Blogger annie said...

invaluable resource, thanks for all your efforts

2:58 AM  
Anonymous kjevis said...


I have been looking for someone seriously covering Yeemn. THe only one with some depth I have come across is Gregory D. Johnson, who is a PhD candidate at NY University.

He has published a couple of good articles in the MIddle East online (www.merip.org) and has one in the last Arab Reform Bulletine from Carnegie (which I have not read): http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=19021&prog=zgp&proj=zdrl,zme#johnsen

4:14 AM  
Anonymous Rosemary said...

You put the situation very well, Badger.

I find myself often thinking of you like a shaman when I puzzle over something. I often say to myself, "well, let's go see what Badger thinks, then I'll know what's what." So there you have my testimony.

I don't have any languages but English (except for a little high school Spanish some 60 years ago). I really regret not acquiring a working knowledge of at least one language beyond my own. I don't think I could choose Arabic or Russian or Chinese though. I've got to at least be working with an alphabet I recognize.

4:17 AM  
Blogger badger said...

I rest my case

kjevis, thanks, hopefully that will be useful

6:51 AM  
Anonymous gj said...

You make such a good point about languages. Here in Australia second language is only compulsory in secondary school. My children were schooled in Spain in 1979 for 12 months when they were 5 and 9 respectively. They could speak fluent Spanish then but lost it when we came home. However they had developed the "ear" and both of them studied French and German in sec school and speak it passably with excellent accents.

Until I came across your site and others like Lynch's I had relied for my Sunni perspective on the bloggers who sprung onto the scene after the liberation (sorry folks, but that's how I see it) all of whom like Zeyed and Riverbend seem to be Sunnis.

11:41 AM  
Blogger John Wendt said...

Badger, can you recommend a good book for learning newspaper Arabic?

12:03 PM  
Blogger badger said...

John Wendt--I don't think there's any one book that focuses on that (although there should be, and who knows, I may be behind the times), but there are two short books that I can recommend for getting a foothold in the language starting with the alphabet and going right up to reading of real chunks of text:

(1) In the "teach yourself" series published by NTC Publishing Group, there is the Teach-yourself "Arabic: a complete course for beginners" by J. R. Smart.

(2) (If you know some French)"40 Lecons pour parler Arabe, by Boutros Hallaq. It is in the "langues pour tous" series, the publisher is "Pocket" (there is also a version with CDs with sample sentences, which is also useful if you can get it, because even if you just want to read, it sure helps to have a rough idea how it sounds).

Both of these are carefully put together for the person working at his own speed without a teacher. For instance their sample texts at the beginning include transliterations in the Roman alphabet just to make sure you don't go wrong with the letters. I think they're both still in print.

A couple of tips which might or might not be useful. (1) At the start, when learning the alphabet, try using any news-site on the web, such as Aljazeera.net or any other, and scan the headines for proper names like Arab, Amrika, Filastin, or loan-words like milishiat, and words like that, because it's a good way of confirming that you have the letters right. (2) As soon as possible, add to your study of the stuff in the book attempts to read some of those news texts, because you'll see in a lot of cases the sentence structures are pretty regular. And you can note things like headlines with the verb in the present ("Syria says...") followed by a lead sentence with the same verb in the past "Syria said today..."--things like that which will show you patterns that you can associate with what they're telling you in the books. ou don't have to read the whole thing, but the point is that anything at all from a real text that you can understand is a step in the right direction. The availability of new stuff daily on these sites can be a big incentive for a learner, once you overcome these problems of the letters, and the basic grammatical points (that both of the books I mentioned give you without unnecessary complications)...

Let us know how make out with this.

5:48 AM  

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