Monthly Archives: February 2008

Aw, Man…

The guy who went on a shooting rampage at NIU and killed six students studied Arabic and did a paper on HAMAS. Oh, swell.

I’ve tried to write this post over and over and I can’t write it straight. I can’t keep out the sarcasm, but then I sound like every Arab- or Muslim-hating blog out there. You should see what those ignoramuses are saying. No, you shouldn’t. It’s awful.

Maybe I secretly like all the attention that Arabic is getting these last few years, because I can understand and so many Americans can’t. Would I be jealous if a new bogeyman took the place of Arabic-speaking people? Maybe if Swedes became the latest rage, I’d feel left out, because I don’t know Swedish.

Even the newly-minted Wikipedia page on the shooter mentions his two Arabic classes and his class in the politics of the Middle East. It doesn’t mention any other classes he took during his college career. See, because none of them made him a psycho killer. Arabic did that. Or maybe it’s just that a desire to learn Arabic is a side effect of being an incipient psycho killer–I’m not sure how it works.

young man turned insane by Arabic

From that Chicago Sun Times online I site I found what is possibly the foulest blog I’ve ever encountered. I won’t say what it is, though.

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Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language

Arabic Names in the News Again

Juan Cole has a great post on 27 February about Barack Obama and many other American figures who have had Arab names.

I don’t want to copy and paste the whole thing, but here are some good parts:

At Cincinnati, Bill Cunningham, according to the LAT, “introduced presidential candidate John McCain at a rally here today accused Barack Obama of sympathizing with ‘world leaders who want to kill us’ and invoked Obama’s middle name — three times calling him ‘Barack Hussein Obama.’ ” John McCain repudiated Cunningham’s low tactics and said that using the middle name like that three times was “inappropriate” and would never happen again at one of his rallies.

I want to say something about Barack Hussein Obama’s name. It is a name to be proud of. It is an American name. It is a blessed name. It is a heroic name, as heroic and American in its own way as the name of General Omar Nelson Bradley or the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Barack is a Semitic word meaning “to bless” as a verb or “blessing” as a noun. In its Hebrew form, barak, it is found all through the Bible. It first occurs in Genesis 1:22: “And God blessed (ḇāreḵə ) them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.”

Here is a list of how many times barak appears in each book of the Bible.

Now let us take the name “Hussein.” It is from the Semitic word, hasan, meaning “good” or “handsome.” Husayn is the diminutive, affectionate form.

The other thing to say about grandfathers named Hussein is that very large numbers of African-Americans probably have an ancestor ten or eleven generations ago with that name, in what is now Mali or Senegal or Nigeria. And, since so many thousands of Arab Muslims were made to convert to Catholicism in Spain after 1501, many Latinos have distant ancestors named Hussein, too. In fact, since there was a lot of Arab-Spanish intermarriage, and since there was subsequent Spanish intermarriage with other European Catholics, more European Americans are descended from a Hussein than they realize. The British royal family is quite forthright about the Arab line in their ancestry going back to Andalusia.

Which brings me to Omar Bradley. Omar is an alternative spelling of Umar, i.e. Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Sunni Islam. Presumably General Bradley was named for the poet Omar Khayyam, who bore the caliph’s name. Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, in the “translation” of Edward FitzGerald, became enormously popular in Victorian America.

Gen. Omar Bradley, who bore a Semitic, Muslim first name, and shared it with the second Caliph of Sunni Islam, was the hero of D-Day and Normandy, of the Battle of the Bulge and the Ruhr.

What about other American heroes, such as Gen. George Joulwan, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe? “Joulwan” is an Arabic name. Or there is Gen. John Abizaid, former CENTCOM commander. Abizaid is an Arabic name. Abi means Abu or “father of,” and Zaid is a common Arab first name. Is Cunningham good enough to wipe their shoes? Is he going to call them traitors because they have Arabic names?

I bet there are people out there who suspect general Abizaid is really in cahoots with the Iraqis.


Filed under arab, arabic, arabist, language, names

Malaysia Muddies the Waters in God-Allah Name Issue

I am one of those people who insists that “God” is the English word for “Allah” and vice-versa, and I always translate الله as God.
But there are lots of people who disagree, for various reasons.
Of course, there are many other languages in the world and some of them have yet more names for various degrees of deities. Take the Malay language, for example.
The government of Malaysia, according to this article from early January, has ordered a small, Catholic newspaper to stop using the word “Allah” when referring to God and to use a different Malaysian word.

Here’s a headline to get the little gray cells puzzling: The Malaysian government has “reminded” — that is, ordered — a Catholic newspaper published in the country not to use the word Allah.
Why not? “To avoid confusion.” See if you think it succeeded.

One more important fact to know: In Malaysia, you need a government permit to publish a newspaper, even a little 12,000-copy tabloid like The Herald, which prints 28 pages of Catholic-themed news and features in four languages: Malay, English, Tamil and Chinese.
As you can imagine, a Catholic newspaper often has occasion to refer to God, which would appear to pose no problem in three of those languages. In Malay, however, it has long been the practice for Christians to use the same name for the deity that Muslims do: Allah. And that has to stop, the government has decreed.
After seeming to renew The Herald’s permit without conditions last Sunday, it told the paper today that the warnings it issued late last year to switch to using another Malay word ( “Tuhan”) still stood, and that “Allah” was henceforth reserved strictly for the Muslim deity.

First of all, aren’t the Judeo-Christian and Muslim deities one and the same, even if worshiped in very different ways? That seems to be the near-universal opinion; Muslims the world over refer to Allah as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And “Allah” — that’s originally an Arabic word, one that even predates the foundation of Islam. Christians in Arabic-speaking countries use “Allah” for their God all the time, and nobody seems befuddled.

Ha! See?! I am vindicated.

And yet, Agence France-Presse reports that Abdullah Mohamad Zain, a Malaysian government minister, was quoted in Friday editions of The Star, a Malaysian paper, saying “The use of the word Allah by other religions may arouse sensitivity and create confusion among Muslims.”

Interesting to see the shoe on the other foot. I’m more accustomed to uptight Christians complaining that the Muslim deity is some moon god and not the real god.

If you find the topic fascinating, read the comments. They run the gamut from helpful Christians “explaining” why Allah is not God; to Muslims pointing out that Muslims worship the one God, while Christians worship a trinity; to this anonymous person, who I have to agree with here (at least for the most part):

With each successive story such as this (or Muhammad, the teddy bear) I fantasize increasingly about a glorious day when moderate people of faith and secular individuals unite globally to ship all the Christian Evangelists, Militant Zionists and Islamist Extremists off to a new country, all their very own: The United States of Fanatica. There, they these rigidly religious types can radicalize to their hearts’ content, & try to impose THEIR abolutists ways upon themselves and one another — and in the process, hopefully, destroy themselves once and for all. THEN, when these “Supreme G-dly Beings of the World” have brought about the Armageddon they so richly desire & deserve, the rest of us could look forward to continuing to live together in varying degrees of peace & tolerance (however grudging that might be at times!).

— Posted by Hypocrite Buster, NYC

Bolding mine, because I love the name and the sentiment.

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Filed under arabic, arabist, Islamic relations, language, names


Meet country-western singer Kareem Salama (here’s his web site).

He’s from Ponca City, Oklahoma and his parents are from Egypt. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering and is a Muslim. He was an amateur boxer and painter. And now he’s in law school.

I don’t love country music, but I love this guy’s voice. And his eyes are blacker than black.

In this interview on Fox News you can hear his Oklahoma drawl.

The Fox News talking head is amazed that a Muslim can be a country singer.

Here’s a Christian Science Monitor article about him from early last year.

Salama’s attempt to break into country music may seem bizarre to many outsiders. Even his guitarist/producer Aristotle Mihalopoulos – himself the son of Greek immigrants – admits it’s a little odd: “He’s doing country influenced music as a Muslim and has one of the thickest Southern accents I’ve ever heard.”

“It doesn’t feel strange to me,” says Salama. “But it certainly is a novelty for other people to see someone who’s Muslim and whose family didn’t grow up here getting into something like this.”

It’s also fairly normal from his family’s perspective, he says. Though his parents grew up in Egypt, they spent most of their adult lives in the US and raised Kareem and his two brothers and a sister in Oklahoma and Texas. Most of them enjoy country music. But, he adds, “that I’m choosing to put together a CD and go around performing the music … might be a step outside the norm.”

Though most country music fans would tell you nothing is more American, the genre has a reputation for being ultra patriotic, often to the point of bigotry.

In a song about the virtues of tolerance, for example, Salama quotes the noted Islamic scholar and poet Imam Shafi’ee’s version of the turn-the-other-check proverb: “I am like incense; the more you burn me the more I’m fragrant.” Like most of Salama’s music, the song emphasizes dealing peacefully with people in an evenhanded manner.

“I don’t like to be preachy,” he says. “My ideas and thoughts change all the time. So for me to preach something very adamantly and try to force a view down someone’s throat implies that I’m very confident. I change my views all the time, especially being a young man.”

And here’s a really neat video to one of his songs:

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Religious Nutters Who Aren’t Muslims or Christians

From the Haaretz online newspaper. This is the entire text of the article:

Shas MK Shlomo Benizri blamed gays Wednesday for the earthquakes that have shaken the region in recent months, telling a Knesset plenum debate on local authorities’ earthquake preparedness that government action on homosexuality would do much to prevent the tremors.

Benizri said the government should not make do with reinforcing buildings, but should instead pass less legislation that encourages homosexuality and other “perversions like adoptions by lesbian couples.”

The ultra-Orthodox party MK invoked passages from the Talmud and the Gemarrah to support his claims.
“Why do earthquakes happen?” said Benizri. “One of the reasons is the things to which the Knesset gives legitimacy, to sodomy.”

A cost-effective way of averting earthquake damage,” he added, “would be to stop passing legislation on how to encourage homosexual activity in the State of Israel, which anyways causes earthquakes.”

Mike Hammel, who chairs Israel’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association said in response that “religious MKs are apparently competing to see who can disparage [the gay] community more.”

“This is a sad competition that shows how dark Shas MKs are,” he said.

“On one had, it is said that a religious MK doesn’t believe that earthquakes are caused by God,” he added. “On the other hand, it is flattering that he attributes supernatural powers to us.”

I had to look up what Shas and MK meant.

Shas (Hebrew: ש”ס‎) is a political party in Israel, primarily representing Ultra-orthodox Sephardi and Mizrahi Judaism. Following the 2006 elections in which Shas won 12 seats, it joined Ehud Olmert’s coalition government and holds four cabinet posts. Its current leader, Eli Yishai, is one of four deputy prime ministers.

And then MK must mean Member of the Knesset.

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Most of Us Still Figuring Out what Blogs Are

I’ve been blogging for a little over a year, and I still have a lot to learn. Some of my earlier posts embarrass me, such as when I got really overly excited about a Saudi woman spraying a muttawa with mace and then the story went nowhere.

But I keep being surprised by people who seem to think that blogs are supposed to replace the existing media outlets and that a blogger is unsuccessful if he can’t buy a couple of mansions with the money he makes blogging.

Hey, I’m not in this for the money. I have a tiny little area of quasi-expertise, and I want to share it with people, that’s all.

According to a book by Sarah Boxer, Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, we bloggers

include ‘About Me’ pages on their blogs, which are often empty or filled with astrological information and lies.”

I beg your pardon. I would never lie in my ‘about me’ section. The very idea!

She also said

Most bloggers don’t care if they leave you in the dust. They assume that if you’re reading them, you’re either one of their friends of at least in on their gossip, their jokes, or the names they drop. They’re not responsible for your education.

That’s true of many, but I am a hopeless pedant and probably explain a lot of stuff that my audience already knows.

Thanks for reading.

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Iraqi Boy Band UTN1

UTN1, that’s Unknown to No One. They sing in English and Arabic. This particular tune, Jamilah, is very catchy.


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U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Article

There’s this article from Vanity Fair in November of 2007 that I just found. It’s a very long article about the history of U.S. embassies in general and this behemoth specifically.
The Mega-Bunker of Baghdad

The new American Embassy in Baghdad will be the largest, least welcoming, and most lavish embassy in the world: a $600 million massively fortified compound with 619 blast-resistant apartments and a food court fit for a shopping mall. Unfortunately, like other similarly constructed U.S. Embassies, it may already be obsolete.

Inside the Green Zone the talk of progress slowed and then died. The first of the nominal Iraqi governments arrived and joined the Americans in their oasis. The rest of Baghdad became the fearsome “Red Zone,” and completely off limits to American officials, although reporters and other unaffiliated Westerners continued to live and work there. Meanwhile, through institutional momentum and without regard to the fundamental mission—the reason for being there in the first place—the Green Zone defenses kept growing, surrounding the residents with ever more layers of checkpoints and blast walls, and forcing American officials to withdraw into their highly defended quarters at the Republican Palace, whereupon even the Green Zone became for them a forbidden land.

That was the process that has led, now, to this—the construction of an extravagant new fortress into which a thousand American officials and their many camp followers are fleeing. The compound, which will be completed by late fall, is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, a walled expanse the size of Vatican City, containing 21 reinforced buildings on a 104-acre site along the Tigris River, enclosed within an extension of the Green Zone which stretches toward the airport road. The new embassy cost $600 million to build, and is expected to cost another $1.2 billion a year to run—a high price even by the profligate standards of the war in Iraq.

America didn’t use to be like this. Traditionally it was so indifferent to setting up embassies that after its first 134 years of existence, in 1910, it owned diplomatic properties in only five countries abroad—Morocco, Turkey, Siam, China, and Japan.

The new U.S. facilities by contrast were showcases for modernist design, airy structures drawn up in steel and glass, full of light, and accessible to the streets. They were meant to represent a country that is generous, open, and progressive, and to some degree they succeeded—for instance by simultaneously offering access to libraries that were largely uncensored, dispensing visas and money, and arranging for cultural exchanges. A fundamental purpose for these structures at that time remained firmly in mind.

The State Department set up a panel to study the question of security. It was chaired by a retired admiral named Bobby Inman, who had headed the National Security Agency and been second-in-command at the C.I.A. Ask a security question and you’ll get a security answer: in June 1985 the panel issued a report that called predictably for the wholesale and radical fortification of roughly half of the 262 U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas. Modest security improvements were already being made, with the shatterproofing of windows and the sealing of doors, as well as the installation of steel fences, potted-plant vehicle barricades, surveillance cameras, and checkpoints in embassy lobbies. Inman’s report went much further, recommending the relocation of embassies and consulates into high-walled compounds, to be built like bunker complexes in remote areas on the outskirts of towns. Equally significant, the report called for the creation of a new bureaucracy, a Diplomatic Security Service to be given responsibility for the safety of overseas personnel.

The program was approved and funded by Congress, but it got off to a slow start and had trouble gathering speed. No one joins the foreign service wanting to hunker down in bunkers overseas. The first Inman compound was completed in Mogadishu in 1989, only to be evacuated by helicopter in 1991 as angry gunmen came over the walls and slaughtered the abandoned Somali staff and their families. A half-dozen other compounds were built to better effect—at enormous cost to American taxpayers—but by the late 1990s construction was proceeding at the rate of merely one compound a year. Eager to open new facilities in the former Soviet states, the State Department began putting as much effort into avoiding the Inman standards as into complying with them.

And much, much more.

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Michael Jackson Sings Islamic Tunes?

This singer is named Zain Bhikha, and in some songs he sounds exactly like Michael Jackson. Enough so to give rise to rumors that Michael Jackson has gone Muslim and is singing under an assumed name. Give it a listen.


Filed under Islamic relations, miscellaneous, music

Punctuation Makes all the Difference

Sometimes when I’m translating I know all the words, but I’m just not sure I’ve got everything in the right place. Here’s an example from English showing why punctuation matters.
Be kind to your translator. Punctuate.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours?


Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?



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