Middle East

Lughat ash-shabab: Fear and loathing at AUC

I’m adding my belated two cents to the discussion here, here, and here on Arabic language instruction that was triggered by this uber-whiney Joel Pollak op-ed. I’ve been taking private Arabic lessons at AUC for around a year now, and recently got a glimpse into the intrigues and fierce debates of its Arabic faculty.

A few months back I attended an in-house conference where several teachers were presenting research papers on the methodology of Arabic teaching to English speakers.

The first few presentations were on orthodox topics of Modern Standard Arabic grammar. The only example I can remember was a paper that statistically analyzed students’ use of masdar forms vs. verbal forms, e.g. why do non-native speakers tend to write the first example below, rather than the second, when both are grammatically correct:

انا اريد ان احصل على …

انا اريد الحصول على …

Most of these papers were dry but interesting. I had never paid attention to the masdar thing, but see how it would be a good way to make my Arabic writing (on the rare occasions when I need to compose something) a bit better.

Then came, as my teacher would say, el-qunbilla, “the bombshell.” It was a presentation calling for AUC to supplement its Arabic curriculum with lughat ash-shabab, “youth language,” which she defined as a set of slang words and expressions used by young Egyptians. It started with a poll of the audience – mostly other Arabic teachers – on a handful of these expressions, which they failed miserably on all but one or two.

From there, the argument developed that learning these expressions would help foreign students relate to and befriend Egyptians their own age, and are also useful for understanding film and television.

From the audience reaction, you would have thought the presenter suggested that teachers strip down to their undies to teach verb conjugation.

A vicious Q&A followed. One questioner spent several minutes ridiculously accusing the presenter of claiming lughat ash-shabab was a distinct language from Arabic. (Just as in English, the Arabic word lugha can mean “language” as in “Spanish language,” or it can refer to syntax and word choice as in “foul language” or “technical language,” which is how it was used in the presentation) Another questioner gave a long diatribe, conflating throughout lughat ash-shabab with “profanity.”

AUC, I believe, has a well-deserved reputation for outstanding Arabic teaching, but it comes with a certain high-brow attitude. Books have been written exploring all the twists and turns of high-brow low-brow, class divides, “vulgarity,” and cultural ideologies in Egyptian society, but suffice it to say that lughat ash-shabab is a flaming turd as far as many of AUC’s Arabic language faculty are concerned.

Here’s how this fits into the debate on al-Kitaab, and teaching Arabic in general. One of the reasons Arabic is so tough is its hugeness.You have religious discourse, Quranic Arabic, classical poetry and prose, literary MSA, media MSA with all its ridiculous expressions translated from English – not to mention the regional colloquial dialects, each with its own high-low spectrum.

Why are you learning Arabic? Are you an anthropologist studying Syrian youth?Elijah’s proverbial MEMRI translator?Are you a Texan convert to Islam?Do you dream of the day when the Charlie Rose Show calls your think tank to book you as a guest?If so, you will require an individualized path of study over the 5-10 years it will likely take to master the language.

Chances are, if you study at an English speaking university you will use Al-Kitaab at some point. But the time you spend with the book will probably be small in comparison to getting the specialized training on the Arabic you need to get you to where you want to go.

Middle East

Almasry Alyoum rewrites NYT sectarianism piece

I skimmed the NYT article yesterday by Michael Slackman on rising sectarian tensions in Egypt and didn’t think much of it before I happened to read an Arabic summary of it in today’s Almasry Alyoum. Let’s compare the two. Here’s the lead from the NY Times:

As Tensions Rise for Egypt’s Christians, Officials Call Clashes Secular

CAIRO — A monastery was ransacked in January. In May, monks there were kidnapped, whipped and beaten and ordered to spit on the cross. Christian-owned jewelry stores were robbed over the summer. The rash of violence was so bad that one prominent Egyptian writer worried it had become “open season” on the nation’s Christians.

Does Egypt face a sectarian problem?

Not according to its security officials, who insist that each dispute represents a “singular incident” tied to something other than faith. In the case of the monastery and the monks, officials said the conflict was essentially a land dispute between the church and local residents.

And now here’s the Almasry Alyoum version (quoting from the English translation):

New York Times: Sectarian tensions in Egypt are complicated, being connected to inflation and unemployment

The American newspaper New York Times said that many Egyptians around Cairo and in the south said that sectarian conflicts often arose over everyday matters — a dispute between farmers, an argument between students — but that once sparked, they deteriorated into sectarian name-calling.

The newspaper indicated in a report yesterday by correspondent Michael Slackman that the sectarian tensions are complicated in Egypt because they are connected to many other challenges burdening the nation, including crushing inflation and high unemployment among the young.

Seems like a fairly big distortion in tone and emphasis if you ask me.

Middle East

English translation of draft Egyptian broadcast law

Someone intrepid over at Arab Media & Society has put up an English translation of the Egyptian draft broadcast law originally published here by Almasry Alyoum. As Marc Lynch has pointed out, the definition of “broadcasting” is overly broad, so as to ensnare things such as blogging and Facebook activity. They define “audiovisual broadcasting” as:

any and all coded or decoded broadcasting, transmission or provision of voices or images or both together or any other representation thereof, orsignals or writings of any kind that are not taken as private correspondence that the public, particular categories, or individuals are allowed to receive and interact with. This includes broadcasting through telecommunication, cables or satellites, computer networks, digital media or any other broadcasting, communication, or provision mediums or techniques.

The bill establishes an authority responsible for regulating all broadcasting, ensuring its accuracy, licensing it, and prohibiting all the fun stuff like

negatively impacting social peace, national unity, citizenship, public order and public moral codes.

You can read the whole bloody thing here at the AMS website, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s quite boring.

Middle East

Egypt and Iran: Diplomacy and documentary

For the last few months, we’ve been hearing about an imminent reconciliation between Cairo and Tehran. Ahmadinejad and Mubarak had pledged to swap full ambassadors, and diplomats had agreed to a renaming of the street in Tehran named after Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khaled Eslamboli. For those of you updating your Open Streetmaps, its now called Intifada Street.

Then two weeks ago, news breaks of an Iranian documentary called “Execution of a Pharaoh” which portrays Sadat as a tyrant, vilifies him for signing Camp David, and carries a dedication to the “soul of the martyr Captain Ahmad Shuqi Khaled Eslamboli and his fellow warriors.”The film, produced by the “Cultural Committee for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement” is now up on YouTube.Here’s part 1:


The one tiny detail left out of English language coverage of this story is that the documentary was produced in Arabic not Farsi, which gives a much clearer idea that it was aimed at Arab audiences.

And its audience, evidently, was not pleased. Online article comments sections were flooded with negative comments, and the state press and TV were all over the story. Egypt summoned the Iranian Charge d’Affairs for a chewing out, canceled a soccer match with Iran, while an Iranian source was quoted in Al Ahram Weekly as saying, “the significance of the issue of the film is that it confirms the worries of some Egyptian officials who complain that Iran has multi centres of decisions, which makes negotiations difficult.”

This week there is news that the editor of the Egyptian NDP mouthpiece Al-Watani Al-Youm will produce a documentary titled “Imam of Blood” smearing Khomeini. The AP is also reporting that the Cairo offices of the Iranian-backed Arabic satellite channel Al-Alam have been shut.

Not 100% sure what to make of it yet, but I wanted to pull together what I’ve got so far. Since all films made in Iran must, officially, go through the Supreme Leader-linked Ershad Ministry, the government at some point put a stamp of approval on the film. Keep in mind that it has been Ahmadinejad – not Khamenei – who has been calling loudest for revival of ties with Egypt. So perhaps in Iran we have a President/ Supreme Leader division on the subject.

Egypt’s government, for sure, has decided to make a big deal of this. Is it simply officials having second thoughts about reviving diplomacy with Tehran’s “multiple power centers” or is there something else, maybe pressure from Washington, involved? From the looks of it, the Sadat film did seem to create a popular backlash, but it seemed like a popular backlash the government was keen to stoke.

I don’t think we’ll see IranAir flying to Cairo anytime soon.

UPDATE: This video has proved not legit, or at least not what it was purported to be. (Thanks Zeinobia). Actually I think this makes the story much more interesting. More on this in a few days.

Middle East

Bad news

Abu Aardvark summarizes a purported draft Egyptian media law published yesterday by Almasry Alyoum:

The draft law would establish a new national agency to issue all broadcast licenses, and to regulate and censor all forms of broadcast media. It defines broadcast media very broadly to include the internet and all other forms of communicating text, video or audio. It also defines prohibited content incredibly broadly, as anything which negatively affects social peace, national unity, the principle of citizenship, public order or public ethics.

This fits into a broader pattern of recent measures by the Egyptian government to crack down on media. In February, Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced the Arab League Satellite Broadcast Charter. It was ratified by most members initially, but later stumbled as states couldn’t agree on how to implement the overbroad text.

My initial take on the satellite charter was that it reflected an existing reality (journalists occasionally harassed) rather than a major change in the politics of censorship. If this bill is passed, however, all bets are off. It seems to be calling for prior restraint rather than after the fact harassment. Extending the definition of “broadcast” to online activities opens up a whole different can of worms, and is clearly a response to the increasing use of blogs/ facebook/ youtube to organize protests and embarass the regime.

What a fine time for me to start a blog.

Middle East

Self promotion

Here’s an article I wrote for the Dubai-based magazine TRENDS. Its about the latest round of bread riots in Egypt.

Here we go again

Just as the weather was getting hot, it happened again. After a 10-week lull, on June 4, another round of bread riots broke out in Egypt. Not in Cairo this time, but in the town of El-Burullus on the Mediterranean coast. The local governor provided the spark when he decided to distribute subsidized flour through bakeries rather than selling it directly to citizens of the small fishing community. Angered by the move and squeezed by rising food prices, an estimated 8,000 protesters took to the streets, blockading an important highway with rubble and burning tires.

Protesters also took to the net. As is now the norm, independent Egyptian media and opposition bloggers teamed up to broadcast the bloody details of the state crackdown that followed. Twitter feeds, blog posts and YouTube videos all chronicled the affair in a level of detail unheard of even a few years ago. The independent daily Almasry Alyoum reported that security forces shot tear gas canisters into shops and homes, detained pregnant women, beat children, and fired on crowds with rubber bullets.

The same day his men were cracking heads in Burullus, Hosni Mubarak was in Rome addressing a UN conference on food security. The Egyptian president’s speech was particularly bland, even by his own high standards; he urged blaming no one in particular and proposed additional conferences to discuss the situation. While Mubarak’s speech was getting top billing in state media, news of the riots began to break, providing a reality check on government protestations that the crisis was under control.

For the rest, go to the TRENDS website.

Middle East

My new article on Egypt-Iran film controversy

There have been quite a few interesting developments in the Egypt-Iran diplomatic tiff stemming from “Execution of the Pharaoh”:

Once the film hit YouTube it was quickly discovered to be little more than a series of clips pinched from an older Al-Jazeera documentary. So in addition to being tedious, the Iranian group behind the film, the Committee for Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement, are also plagiarists. It seems they just changed the name and slapped on a dedication to Eslamboli.

Secondly, the group behind the film is now announcing that their site has been banned inside Iran. I think this shows how embarrassing the episode for Iran has been. Also last week, Iranian diplomats at the interest section in Cairo have revealed and offer they made to open a branch of Al-Azhar University in Tehran in an effort to improve Sunni-Shia understanding. It seems like what the Iranians thought to be a charm offensive backfired, and ended up upsetting the Egyptians even more.

I’d been following all these developments but not posting on them because I was doing a freelance article on the subject – cant give away all my golden analysis for free. The piece for ISN Security Watch is now online here. I’d love to hear what you think.

In other news, my family has just purchased a Nintendo Wii. Needless to say posting will be light.

UPDATE: article link was broken due to a site re-design over at ISN.  The new link is now up.

Middle East

Smoking in the pool

she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)
she kind of looked like this (in her imagination)

In Egypt you can get pretty much anything delivered.   I’ve had a 10 LE bottle of vegetable oil delivered to my apartment, and know people who will routinely call out for a single pack of cigarettes or a coke.  But what I saw today was on a different level.

I was about to get in the pool at my gym when I notice an attendant scurry over to a woman standing in the water.  He takes a cigarette from her and carefully carries it over to her friend who is lounging on the pool deck, waits while she takes a single drag,  and then delivers it back to the one in the water.

The amazing thing was how casual and routine the whole operation seemed.   It was only when I was swimming and turning it over in my mind that I grasped the full absurdity of the situation.

The only mitigating factor I could possibly think of would be that it was her last cigarette.  But this clearly wasnt the case because I could smell her chain smoking for the remainder of my swim.

Also, it’s still Ramadan and this was about 30 minutes before Iftar (when people who are fasting can start smoking again).  I just hope the pool guy wasn’t a smoker.  In any case, he needs to start reading some more of this guy.