Tag Archives: arabic

Judge Rules Arabic Flashcards Too Dangerous to Fly

You may remember a case from several years ago where a student of Arabic was detained by the TSA because he had Arabic flash cards. He was studying Arabic. Flash cards can actually be useful in studying a language.

Arabic is the fifth-most-commonly-spoken language on the planet Earth. It is the official language of 27 nations. Most importantly, it is language, not a weapon. If flashcards are dangerous, they are equally dangerous no matter what is written on them. What could a passenger do with Arabic on flashcards that he couldn’t do without the flash cards?

See my previous post, How Arabic is Like Parseltongue. https://snarla.wordpress.com/2009/06/27/how-arabic-is-like-parseltongue/

Here’s the recent news story at Raw Story: http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2013/12/25/federal-judge-rules-that-tsa-fbi-can-detain-and-arrest-you-for-carrying-arabic-flashcards/

Observe the fool-proof logic:

TSA AGENT: Do you know who did 9/11?

GEORGE: Osama bin Laden.

TSA AGENT: Do you know what language he spoke?

GEORGE: Arabic.

TSA AGENT: Do you see why these cards are suspicious?




Filed under arabic, arabist, bigoted idiots, language, Our glorious war on terror, Stupidity

Protests and Misspelled Signs and Arabic

Angry Muslims, amirite? Oops, his sign says

With all the protests over the past several years, it has become known that if the signs are misspelled, it’s a right-wing protest.

If you ever wondered if the same holds true for those signs you see written in Arabic in the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, etc., no, it doesn’t.

Arabic, like many languages more sensible than English, is spelled how it sounds and sounds how it’s spelled. They don’t have spelling tests and spelling units and spelling bees. There are some regional variations in pronunciation, admittedly, but it’s nothing like the orthographic free-for-all we have in English.

So, as my picture above indicates, you can’t reliably guess an Arab protester’s alignment by the spelling.

Yeah, get a brain!


Filed under arabic, pedantry

“Flying While Arabist” a Crime Now?

An American student was handcuffed and jailed for attempting to take Arabic-English flashcards onto a plane. LA Times article here.

Nicholas George planned to brush up on his Arabic vocabulary during a flight in August from Philadelphia to California, where he was to start his senior year at Pomona College. So he carried some Arabic-English flashcards in his pocket to study on the plane.

George, a physics major who is considering a career as a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East, is suing the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI and Philadelphia police for jailing him after his flashcards were found and confiscated in a Philadelphia airport screening. His lawsuit, filed in federal court this week, said his four hours in detention, half of that in handcuffs, violated his rights to free speech and protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

My first thought upon reading this was, “Ha! My anxieties about taking my Hans Wehr dictionary on flights was well founded after all, and not paranoid!” Because you know what words appear in the world’s greatest Arabic-English dictionary? “Bomb” and “terrorism.” Swear to God.

The student acknowledged that a few of the vocabulary words, including “bomb” and “terrorism,” may have alarmed authorities, but he also said he needed to learn them in order to understand the news of the day in Arabic-language newspapers.

Indeed one does need to learn “bomb” and “terrorism” to understand many articles in newspapers. Especially some of the most interesting ones, assuming that’s where your interests lie.

The lawsuit, filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, details George’s allegations of abusive questioning. The suit contends that an FBI agent cursed him and asked George if he was Muslim or a member of any “pro-Islamic” or communist student groups, to which he replied no. The student said he was later released without an apology. Having missed his original flight, he flew to California the next day.

Ben Wizner, the ACLU attorney who helped file the suit, said George “is the kind of young man that this country should be encouraging and creating more of. He has traveled the world with an open mind and an open heart, and he is studying the language that the State Department and the military have made clear we need more Americans to study.”

What’s a pro-Islamic group? Something like Students United for Supporting Islam Even Though We’re Not Muslims? I wonder if an interfaith group like the Virginia Interfaith Center would be considered a “pro-Islamic” group.

Hey TSA guys, sometimes the person who reads Arabic is exactly the person you most want on your side, fighting terrorism.


Filed under arabic, arabist, bigoted idiots

Funny Translation Mistake

The font’s kind of small. Here’s what it says:
English: I think the wrong person just left.
Arabic: أعتقد أن الشخص الخطأ اليسار
Long, probably boring explanation in the comments for anyone who’s interested.


Filed under arabic, movies and shows

How Arabic is Like Parseltongue

I seriously cannot believe this never occurred to me before. I mean, I’ve been annoyed that there seem to be no language classes at Hogwarts–not only do students there not even learn the English they need to hold down a job, but they don’t even consider the importance of learning foreign languages so they can travel the world acquiring useful spells and potion recipes–but I didn’t realize until today that Parseltongue in the Harry Potter universe is very similar to Arabic here.

Parseltongue is the language of snakes, and the wizarding world considers it a sign of a dark wizard. At first I thought maybe Parseltongue is only the language that snakes use to speak to humans, not to other snakes. But at one point Harry overhears a snake talking to himself.

When Harry speaks to a snake in Parseltongue in front of his classmates, they assume on the face of it that he was telling the snake to attack. This reminds me so much of the “joke” answers I keep seeing on Yahoo Answers, that go something like this:

Question: How do I say, “I love you, mom” in Arabic?

Answer from some ass: “Blow urself up ur virgins r waiting.”

Possibly because Parseltongue can only be learned with great difficulty, Harry conveniently receives the ability from his early encounter with Lord Voldemort. It would make logical sense for Parseltongue to be difficult for a native English-speaker to learn, since only a witch with patience and determination would stick with studying it until reaching fluency.

Why on earth should we assume the entire snake species is up to no good, though? The issue is not addressed.

هل انت بخير يا اخي؟ الحمدلله بخير و انت؟

هل انت بخير يا اخي؟ الحمدلله بخير و انت؟


Filed under animals, arab, arabian, arabic, arabist, beasts, language, movies and shows

All Science is Catholic?

Raving Bill Donohue and the Catholic League (I know, it’s the same thing) claimed Tuesday that all science is beholden to the Catholic church.

Had it not been for the Catholic Church, the universities would have died during the Middle Ages. Had it not been for the Catholic Church, the Scientific Revolution would never have happened. After all, science did not take root in South America, Africa, the Middle East or Asia. It took place in Christian Europe.

The universities would have died? Like, universities in, say, Egypt, would have died without the Pope?

Because whatever didn’t happen in Europe doesn’t count? Are those the rules we’re playing by?

Thank goodness Wikipedia can give me the straight story. “Science didn’t take root in the Middle East” my shiny metal ass, jerk.

The Islamic golden age:

During the Islamic Golden Age, Muslim scholars made significant advances in science, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, engineering, and many other fields. During this time, early Islamic philosophy developed and was often pivotal in scientific debates — key figures were usually scientists and philosophers.

The number of important and original Arabic works written on the mathematical sciences is much larger than the combined total of Latin and Greek works on the mathematical sciences.[28]

A number of important institutions previously unknown in the ancient world have their origins in the medieval Islamic world, with the most notable examples being: the public hospital (which replaced healing temples and sleep temples)[29] and psychiatric hospital,[30] the public library and lending library, the academic degree-granting university, the astronomical observatory as a research institute[29] (as opposed to a private observation post as was the case in ancient times),[31] and the trust (Waqf).[32][33]

The first universities which issued diplomas were the Bimaristan medical university-hospitals of the medieval Islamic world, where medical diplomas were issued to students of Islamic medicine who were qualified to be practicing doctors of medicine from the 9th century. Sir John Bagot Glubb wrote:[34]

“By Mamun’s time medical schools were extremely active in Baghdad. The first free public hospital was opened in Baghdad during the Caliphate of Haroon-ar-Rashid. As the system developed, physicians and surgeons were appointed who gave lectures to medical students and issued diplomas to those who were considered qualified to practice. The first hospital in Egypt was opened in 872 AD and thereafter public hospitals sprang up all over the empire from Spain and the Maghrib to Persia.”

The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco as the oldest university in the world with its founding in 859.[35] Al-Azhar University, founded in Cairo, Egypt in the 10th century, offered a variety of academic degrees, including postgraduate degrees, and is often considered the first full-fledged university.

Er, thanks, Catholicism?

Another common feature during the Islamic Golden Age was the large number of Muslim polymaths or “universal geniuses”, scholars who contributed to many different fields of knowledge. Muslim polymaths were known as “Hakeems” and they had a wide breadth of knowledge in many different fields of religious and secular learning, comparable to the later “Renaissance Men”, such as Leonardo da Vinci, of the European Renaissance period. Polymath scholars were so common during the Islamic Golden Age that it was rare to find a scholar who specialized in any single field at the time.[37] Notable Muslim polymaths included al-Biruni, al-Jahiz, al-Kindi, Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi, Ibn Sina, al-Idrisi, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Zuhr, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd, al-Suyuti[38] Geber, al-Khwarizmi, the Banū Mūsā, Abbas Ibn Firnas, al-Farabi, al-Masudi, al-Muqaddasi, Alhacen, Omar Khayyám, al-Ghazali, al-Khazini, Avempace, al-Jazari, Ibn al-Nafis, Nasīr al-Dīn al-Tūsī, Ibn al-Shatir, Ibn Khaldun, and Taqi al-Din, among many others.[37]

Oh, huh? What’s this:

With the fall of Islamic Spain in 1492, the scientific and technological initiative of the Islamic world was inherited by Europeans and laid the foundations for Europe’s Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.[47]

But what about the scientific method?

Muslim scientists placed a greater emphasis on experimentation than previous ancient civilizations (for example, Greek philosophy placed a greater emphasis on rationality rather than empiricism),[11][14] which was due to the emphasis on empirical observation found in the Qur’an and Sunnah,[68][69][70][71] and the rigorous historical methods established in the science of hadith.[68] Muslim scientists thus combined precise observation, controlled experiment and careful records[14] with a new[11] approach to scientific inquiry which led to the development of the scientific method.[72] In particular, the empirical observations and experiments of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen) in his Book of Optics (1021) is seen as the beginning of the modern scientific method,[73] which he first introduced to optics and psychology.

The Wikipedia article is too jam-packed with information for me to quote even a representative sampling here, but here is more that caught my eye:

In the zoology field of biology, Muslim biologists developed theories on evolution which were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools. John William Draper, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, considered the “Mohammedan theory of evolution” to be developed “much farther than we are disposed to do, extending them even to inorganic or mineral things.” According to al-Khazini, ideas on evolution were widespread among “common people” in the Islamic world by the 12th century.[186]

The first Muslim biologist to develop a theory on evolution was al-Jahiz (781-869). He wrote on the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and he first described the struggle for existence.[187][188] Al-Jahiz was also the first to discuss food chains,[189] and was also an early adherent of environmental determinism, arguing that the environment can determine the physical characteristics of the inhabitants of a certain community and that the origins of different human skin colors is the result of the environment.[190]

Ibn al-Haytham wrote a book in which he argued for evolutionism (although not natural selection), and numerous other Islamic scholars and scientists, such as Ibn Miskawayh, the Brethren of Purity, al-Khazini, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and Ibn Khaldun, discussed and developed these ideas. Translated into Latin, these works began to appear in the West after the Renaissance and appear to have had an impact on Western science.

Ibn Miskawayh’s al-Fawz al-Asghar and the Brethren of Purity’s Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity (The Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa) expressed evolutionary ideas on how species evolved from matter, into vapor, and then water, then minerals, then plants, then animals, then apes, and then humans. These works were known in Europe and likely had an influence on Darwinism.[191]

Thanks, Catholics Muslims.

I may never get around to writing a blog post on Alhazen, so here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. If you should happen to have a good book to recommend on the subject, I’d like to hear about it.

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (Arabic: ابو علی، حسن بن حسن بن الهيثم, Persian: ابن هیثم, Latinized: Alhacen or (deprecated) Alhazen) (965 in Basra – c. 1039 in Cairo), was an Arab[2] or Persian[3] polymath.[4] He made significant contributions to the principles of optics, as well as to anatomy, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, medicine, ophthalmology, philosophy, physics, psychology, visual perception, and to science in general with his introduction of the scientific method. He is sometimes called al-Basri (Arabic: البصري), after his birthplace in the city of Basra.[5] He was also nicknamed Ptolemaeus Secundus (“Ptolemy the Second”)[6] or simply “The Physicist”[7] in medieval Europe.

*cough* Bill Donohoe is a jackass *cough*

During the Middle Ages, observational astronomy was mostly stagnant in medieval Europe, at least until the 13th century. However, observational astronomy flourished in the Islamic world and other parts of the world. Some of the prominent Arab astronomers who made significant contributions to the science were Al-Battani and Thebit. Astronomers during that time introduced many Arabic names that are now used for individual stars.[11][12] It is also believed that the ruins at Great Zimbabwe and Timbuktu[13] may have housed an astronomy observatory.[14] Europeans had previously believed that there had been no astronomical observation in pre-colonial Middle Ages Africa outside of Nubia and Kush but modern discoveries show otherwise.[15][16][17]

Oh, here’s something interesting:

…and [Bill Donohue] has also spoken of the crisis over sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests as “a homosexual scandal, not a pedophilia scandal”.

Update. From commenter fred:

In 1054CE, a nearby star destabilized, producing a supernova bright enough to be seen in daylight (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SN_1054).

Chinese, Japanese, and Arab astronomers recorded the event, as did a couple of “savage” societies in the Americas. The event occasioned no remarks in Christian Europe, however, because that would have implied that god’s handiwork had not been completed in six days.

I figured science was also going on in other parts of the world. Why is it that Donohue “knows” there wasn’t? It takes a special kind of mind to ignore evidence to that extent.

By the way, a good book about what was going on in the Americas before the Spanish “discovery” is 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.

Another update: here’s a link to Bradley Steffen’s book, Ibn al Haytham – The First Scientist


Filed under arab, arabian, arabic, arabist, bigoted idiots

Newsweek Startles the Public

Spooky Arabic

Don't be afraid of a little Arabic

It’s funny, I first saw this cover in an airport newsstand. A few years ago, something like this on a plane could have caused flights to be cancelled. Now that I think about it, I should have bought an issue and carried it on the plane with me.

As I suspected, ignorance abounds on the internet about this. Some true patriots are refusing the buy the issue. Some are pointing out the use of Hamas and Hezbollah colors (I know, huh?*). Others cry foul because the Arabic print is larger than the English (if only real life were like that–tiny Arabic fonts are the bane of my existence).

I just wish they hadn’t ruined the fun by including the English translation. Drat!

*Well, since green is the favored color of Islam, and the article is about radical Islam, that might explain the use of green. Or maybe they wanted to evoke the Saudi flag. Only Newsweek knows for sure. Yellow, of course, is the official color of 2009.

1 Comment

Filed under arabic, arabist

A Voice in Praise of Egyptian Dialect

Commenter Majnnunciatore wrote this reply to my last post:

I’ve got to give my kudos to Egyptians, and I spell my “kudos” with a kaff, never a qaf. I applaud them for being individuals. Just because a letter is there, why pronounce it? Why climb a mountain? “Because it’s there.” C’mon, walk like an Egyptian, be an individual. In addition, our Masri pals are doing a service for the Kaff. Ever look through an Arabic dictionary and find yourself shaking your head in dismay at how woefully underrepresented kaffs are? I’m sure you’re not alone. There are those who criticize the Arab world for its lack of free speech. To them, I say, look at what the Egyptians are doing. It takes true bravery to drop an easily pronounced and distinguishable letter out of the equation, allowing that non-sound to be confused with a hamza, or rendering thousands of other words that start with a qaf unclear, thus giving more nuance to the spoken word. I admire the Egyptians for their boldness. Mabruk! The only thing that would impress me more is if the folks in Qatar would cease using qafs. That would be a gutsy move.


Filed under arabic, language

My Nemesis: Egyptian Dialect

It’s not the Js that are pronounced like hard Gs. I can deal with that. It’s not the various non-S letters that are pronounced like S. It sounds funny, but I can deal with that. What I can’t deal with is not pronouncing the qaf.

For those who don’t speak Arabic, qaf (ق) is pronounced like a k from the very back of your throat. It’s one of the letters that Arabic has that English doesn’t, that is actually pretty easy to master. So I’m fond of it. Some dialects change it to a hard g sound, and I can deal with that.

But not Egyptian. Not insidious, dastardly Egyptian. Egyptian just doesn’t pronounce it at all. To be generous, you could say they replace it with a glottal stop, if you call that pronouncing it.

On Who’s Line is it Anyway?, they sometimes play a game where the players have to replace a letter of the alphabet with another letter and talk that way, and hilarity ensues. But it’s all for laughs and at the end of the day, nobody’s livelihood depends on their understanding each other.

Since English doesn’t have a qaf sound, imagine talking to someone who doesn’t pronounce Ks at all.

“I’m going to take the ids to the par for a pi’ni’ and ‘i’ the ball around.”

“Hey, you know that Star Tre’ movie where Ri’ardo Montalban plays ‘an, and aptain Ir’ yells out, ‘AAAAAAAAAAaaaaan!’?”

Or the song, “Oo’ie oo’ie, lend me your omb”?


Filed under arabic, language

Iraqi Interpreters Face Life-or-Death Choice

Either stop helping the US military, or stop wearing the face mask that hides your identity so that militias don’t kill you and your family.

US military tells the Iraqi interpreters who have risked their lives for years to help us: “Don’t want to risk your life? Waaah. Who needs you, anyway?” Or as they say in Arabic, الباب يوسع جمل.

But on the bright side, the military will probably revisit the decision if too many terps get killed. It’s anybody’s guess what they’ll consider “too many.”

Here are two really good blog posts about this story:

At Vet Voice, a project of Vote Vets, and LT Nixon Rants.

The original Washington Post article is here.

And the comments are here.

I haven’t read them all yet, but so far nobody thinks the US military’s new policy is a good one.

Read the two blog posts. The second one is even funny.
Update: VetVoice has a new post up, Backlash Builds Over New Iraqi Interpreter/Mask Policy.

Some quotes from this article and some that were included in the article:

Despite the fact that Donald Rumsfeld called service members “fungible” in 2004, they’re not. And while Lt. Col. Stover obviously doesn’t realize it, the same goes for translators. And I’m not the only one who sees it this way. The reaction across print media and in the military blogosphere has been swift and one-sided.

I’m sorry, LTC Stover, but this is stupidity and callousness posing as rectitude. For years, Iraqis working with American units were allowed to hide their faces so that they could keep their heads on their necks. The new order has already led to firings and a significant number of resignations, as well as desperate measures–one interpreter smearing his face with mascara, another hoping that a new beard will keep his identity secret. This is the kind of order that headquarters dreams up and combat troops detest.
Exactly what code of conduct is being maintained here? Iraqis aren’t in the American chain of command. They don’t take an oath; they don’t fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If they did, they would be given regulation uniforms. They wouldn’t be allowed to use aliases. They would be housed on bases rather than obliged to make the dangerous trip home every night. They would receive pensions, health insurance, and death benefits. When one of them gets killed, the military would hold a ceremony. The widow would receive a flag. A grateful nation would remember.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Or. and others, including Oregon’s own Checkpoint One Foundation, a nonprofit, are protesting the Army’s unconscionable new policy. Here’s hoping that the outcry is loud enough to cause somebody with an ounce of compassion to slap his forehead and reverse the ban on letting Iraqis use a few inches of fabric to protect their identities.

In a war that offers few clear choices, this seems like a nonsensical policy that appears to only endanger those Iraqis that have actually chosen to help us. There is no reason to add to the “nearly 300 interpreters” slain since 2003 in Iraq. The truth is that despite the improving security situation the country remains a very violent place to live and work, and it will remain so for years to come even after the current withdrawal deadline of 2011.

I haven’t been there in a long time, but when I was, our interpreters weren’t there to simply translate words from Arabic to English: They were the best intelligence gatherers in the battalion; they were deal makers between us and the local community; they cultivated relationships; and sometimes they even provided input during mission planning. And when you’re in middle of an insurgency, having a local like this on your side can, indeed, make the difference between mission success and mission failure.

I also made this clear: If my Company or BN CO had told me to issue this order to my terps in 2004, I would have come out of it a Private E-Zero. I will not issue any order that puts them in danger, therefore putting my American colleagues in danger. This is the stupidest, dumbest, most idiotic thing I’ve seen in years.

Leave a comment

Filed under arab, arabic, language, translation, War in Iraq