Tag Archives: Arabic

A tale of two linguists and the conflict that separates them

Shaina Shealy reported this one in Israel and Gaza. She and I had a great conversation about it in the podcast.

The windows of Arik Sadan’s classroom at Hebrew University in Jerusalem look over the Silwan Valley, a sloping desert dotted with tall, white, rectangular Palestinian houses. Inside his classroom, most students are Jewish. Sadan teaches them Arabic.

Sadan wrote a book, “The Subjunctive Mood,” tracing Arabic linguistic thought from pre-Islamic Arabia to the 19th century, which earned him the title of the world expert in Arabic’s subjunctive tense. His native tongue is Hebrew and he can talk about Arabic grammatical thought — specifically, his philosophies behind ancient linguistic decision-making — for 15 minutes straight. “When you look at the structure,” he says, “you can see a logic of thinking that’s common across borders.”

Arik Sadan (L) and Sobhi Bahloul (R). Photos: Shaina Shealy

Arik Sadan (L) and Sobhi Bahloul (R). Photos: Shaina Shealy

Beyond Israel’s southwest border, Sobhi Bahloul also wrote a book: Kitaba Wa’Ti-ibrya. It was published in seven parts (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced Hebrew; Hebrew Writing I and II; and Hebrew Editing I and II) and adds up to Gaza’s Hebrew language curriculum. Bahloul trained all of the twelve Hebrew teachers in the Gaza Strip.

Sobhi Bahloul is Palestinian, 53 years old and has been speaking Hebrew for over half of his life. After graduating from Tel Aviv University with a MA in Hebrew Language in 2002, he became Hamas’s go-to guy for all things related to Hebrew. He teaches at universities, consults with businessmen and translates documents for Gazans in Israeli hospitals and prisons.

“Hebrew is the language of an enemy,” Bahloul says. But he also believes Hebrew can bring Gazans closer to Israeli culture by helping them understand customs and daily life.Sobhi Bahloul and his Hebrew students in Gaza City.Bahloul and Sadan’s deep understanding of a language that is not only foreign but potentially adversarial brings them uncommonly close to other cultures. Both men are so passionate about language that they teach everyone who expresses interest — including soldiers, informants and militants. But they are driven by a belief that language’s unifying power outweighs its other uses.

PODCAST CONTENTS

00:00 Learning the language of your enemy

01:53 Music: “Habib Galbi” by A-WA. More about these three singing sisters here.

02:33 Israeli linguist Arik Sadan, an authority on the Arabic subjunctive.

Linguist Arik Sadan05:15 Jews are turning their backs on a language that used to be central to their culture: “The Jewish heritage– a great percentage of it– is Arabic.”

07:30 The way Arabic is taught in the Israeli army: “Know thy enemy, in order for you to stop the next explosion. You tend to forget that it’s a language.”

9:10 Sadan’s sad joke: “I only wish that the Hebrew people and the Arab people would be a bit as close as the languages are.”

11:20 But is he in the Mossad?

12:45 Searching for Arik Sadan’s Palestinian counterpart.

13:20 Sobhi Bahloul has trained all twleve of Gaza’s Hebrew teachers and developed Gaza’s Hebrew curriculum.

14:42 “If you understand each other, it’s good.”

16:35 Bahloul’s students don’t learn about Passover, but he wants them to learn other cultural references.

17:45 Learning Hebrew to survive in an Israeli prison.

19:40 Bahloul breaks the ice with Israeli soldiers.

21:14 Have Arik Sadan and Sobhi Bahloul ever met?

23:30 Gaza’s Hebrew students’ Facebook friends in Israel.

24:08 Learning Hebrew in order to understand the labels on cosmetic products.

27:10 Music: Eich Efshar by Jane Bordeaux

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Learning English on the fly

Podcast contents

00:00 English-proficient kids help their English-challenged parents

01:14 Monica Campbell visit an ESL class

02:23 “Their kids are learning to be Americans, but they don’t have the opportunity to be Americans in the same way.”

03:23 Some schools are holding separate PTA meetings in Spanish, says Patricia Baquedano-López of UC Berkeley.

03:58 Vietnamese immigrant and ESL student Quang Dang tries to keep up with his 4-year-old daughter.

06:27 Another student from Mexico is learning English so she can ensure her special-needs daughters gets help at school.

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons


08:58 Monica’s father and the “Champagne of teaching.”

11:37 Is there less of a demand for ESL classes? Don’t some immigrants get along just fine not speaking English?

13:04 Joy Diaz learns about Arabic and influence on Spanish from her daughter’s preschool teacher.

14:07 Singers Juan Luis Guerra and Celia Cruz (unconsciously) pepper their Spanish with Arabic.

14:45 It is, of course, all about the history of Spain.

17:15 This wonderful song is “Bilingual Girl” by Yerba Buena.

Please write a review of The World in Words on ITunes or Stitcher, or wherever you get listen to the podcast. Thanks!

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To Change or Not to Change Script: Turkish vs Persian

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Sign outside the Ottoman Research Foundation in Istanbul, with Ottoman Turkish above the door. (Photo: Ashley Cleek)

Here’s a guest post from reporter Ashley Cleek

On a Wednesday afternoon, seven students sit in a darkened classroom on the campus of Bosporus University in Istanbul. They squint up at a projection of a 100-year-old, handwritten letter.

The letter is written in Ottoman Turkish—that is, Turkish in the Arabic alphabet. Slowly, the students read the script aloud from right to left. When they get stuck, Professor Edhem Eldem writes the word on a chalkboard.
It takes the class an hour and a half to read four pages.

Ottoman Turkish looks nothing like today’s Turkish. In the Arabic script, vowels are not marked. That’s confusing enough in Turkish. But Arabic script doesn’t differentiate between consonant sounds like G and K. “You can write something in Ottoman Turkish that can be read gel, which means come or kel, meaning bald,” says Eldem.

And there are hundreds of examples like this: different words, written exactly the same in the old script.

With the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed an alphabetic revolution. The Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish was banned. And a new Turkish alphabet was invented based on Latin letters. Turkey’s population was mostly illiterate, and the story goes that Ataturk traveled the countryside with a chalkboard teaching villages to read this new Turkish.

The new alphabet is so phonetically correct that, “If it is written properly there is no where you can go wrong when reading a Turkish word,” says Eldem.

Literacy skyrocketted. But Ataturk’s alphabet revolution brought on a symbolic shift. “Arabic is the East and the Latin script is the West,” says Eldem. “It is artificial, but…people believe in it.”

Eldem says that while his rational side supports the Latin script, he also feels the cultural loss: “I am in a position to see to what extent the loss of that script has dispossessed Turks, especially students of history, with some kind of a contact with the past.”

A fountain outside of the Egyptian Bazar in Istanbul. This is one of the hundreds of Ottoman fountains around Istanbul. Only those who have learned Ottoman Turkish can read the inscriptions (Photo: Ashley Cleek)


It’s true. Unless they study Ottoman Turkish, educated Turks cannot read the inscriptions on their great grandfathers’ headstones.

What Turkey did was radical. It was not just a script change. It was a cultural shift. Only a handful of countries have attempted to remake their alphabet. Most have stuck with the script they have. Iran, for example.

This is one of the dozen or so YouTube videos explaining what Persian would look like written in the Latin alphabet. Some websites have even transliterated Persian poems into a Latin-based script.

Persian, like Ottoman Turkish, is written in a slightly modified Arabic script, adopted around the 9th century when Persia converted to Islam. And like Turkish, some say it’s not the best fit.

Vowels are not marked. There are two letters for the sound T. Three letters for S and four for Z.

As a university student in Tehran in the 1970s and 80s, Hossein Samei dreamed of revolution. He and his classmates argued for the adoption of the Latin script.

“We wanted to change the world and because we were students of linguistics, we wanted to do it in language,” Samei says, smiling.

Today, Samei is a lecturer in Persian at Emory University in Atlanta. With a soft salt and pepper mustache and a worn orange polo shirt, he doesn’t look much like a revolutionary anymore. Those were youthful ideas, Samei says. Now he thinks the Persian alphabet is fine just how it is.

The script, says Samei, links Iran east to Afghanistan and south to India. It’s a connection to history, to literature and art. Changing the script would not just mean reprinting books, it would place a barrier between the present and the past.

“We like our culture. We like our literature. We want to change, but we believe more in reform,” says Samei. “Even this recent election shows that.”

Instead, Samei says, he sees authors and bloggers reforming the Persian language. Some writers mark vowels to indicate the sound. Some add an extra letter to make a word more legible. Still it’s a real struggle to reading in Turkish. Especially for those outside Iran.

Fariz Piruzpey teaches her daughter, Wyana, to read in Persian

Every evening at their home in New Zealand, Fariz and Medio Azadi sit with their daughter, Wyana and help her sound out words in Persian. Persian is Wyana’s native tongue, but her dad says she has a hard time reading. “She’s still struggling, that’s my observation, she is struggling with connecting the words,” Medio Azadi says.

Azadi is a linguist. He’s frustrated with the Persian script. But he also sees it as an expression of national character.
“It’s like the doctors writing a prescription, it looks mysterious,” he says. “If you are able to read the text, you are an insider. If you’re not able to read it, you’re an outsider.”

Azadi wishes Iranians would get behind a few small reforms that would make the script clearer. That way, his daughter would be more likely to master it.



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The Historical Twists and Turns of Spanish

Julie Barlow (Photo: Veronica Louis)

The Spanish that’s spoken here in the United States is a far cry from the language that came into being on the Iberian Peninsula after the Roman invasion.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau wanted to trace that Point-A-to-Point-Z history. So they moved from their native Canada to the United States, and began researching the book that became The Story of Spanish.

They found a language in flux—not just now, in the US, but in flux since its beginnings. No language, of course, ever stops changing, but Spanish has been a faster mover than many. History decided that. The Iberian Peninsula took in wave upon wave of invasion—from the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors. When large-scale migration into Spain ended, Spanish-speakers migrated away, mainly to what became Latin America. There, the language was pushed and pulled in many directions—in most places it was spoken only by a minority elite. Only after independence in countries like Mexico and Peru did Spanish become a lingua franca.

Alfonso X of Castile (Photo via Wikipedia)

As Julie Barlow told me, Arabic in particular had a huge influence on Spanish. Not just through loanwords, though Spanish has many of them. (Albaricoque: Apricot. From Arabic al-barqouq (البرقوق) meaning plum or early-ripe; ojalá: I hope, I wish that… From law šha’ allāh: God willing.) Moorish rule over Spain was waning by the time King Alfonso Tenth of Castile decided that he’d use language to forge power.

Afonso—who later became known as Alfonso The Wise—decided to incentivize people into speaking Spanish. He wanted make Spanish prestigious and interesting. But when he looked around for what was prestigious and interesting in Spain, it was all in Arabic. So, Alfonso launched a huge project of translating Arabic classics into Spanish—which meant the rules of the language had to be defined, so that the translators had coherency and consistency.

“It becomes a trend in Spanish to define the language, the vocabulary and the spelling rules,” said Barlow. That was “very avant-garde in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”

Excerpt from "Epitafio épico del Cid," circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Excerpt from “Epitafio épico del Cid,” circa 1400 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barlow and Nadeau are language history veterans. They previously co-authored a book called The Story of French. So it’s no surprise they often compare Spanish to French, two romance languages that took very different paths.

“French is a language that is controlled by one country. Paris sets the rules,” said Barlow. “Spanish is completely different. Spain was overcome by its own empire and it very quickly in its history learned to share control of the language.” So the Royal Academy in Madrid has created standards for the Spanish language by taking into account consideration all the Spanish that’s spoken throughout the Spanish-speaking world. “It’s very much a language about sharing control and diversity.”

Barlow and Nadeau’s experience of United States comes very much from a Canadian perspective. They lived in Phoenix, Arizona where they enrolled their daughters in predominantly Hispanic schools. They observed the widespread phenomenon in the US of non-native English-speaking parents urging their kids to learn English and forget their Spanish.

“It’s like a zero-sum game,” said Barlow. These immigrants “are convinced that they can’t teach their kids Spanish of they won’t make it in the English United States. This was eye-opening for us, because it’s the opposite in Canada. Everybody wants to learn French—French is an officially recognized language and it will get you a job in the government. In the United States, there’s a similar idea among white people who want their kids to learn Spanish. But the perfectly bilingual Spanish-speaking kids are hearing from the parents. ‘English, English, English! Forget your Spanish.’”

Here’s a report on The Story of French from an previous podcast:


In the pod, I mentioned PRI’s Global Reporting Fund. Here’s where you can contribute.



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Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

“What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

“Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

“We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

“No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

“At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

“Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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What’s in a Street Name? In Jerusalem, Plenty

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, at a ceremony to unveil the newly named Umm Kulthum Street in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Hanina. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Jerusalem correspondent Matthew Bell.

Google maps is a handy tool for navigating the streets of West Jerusalem. The roads the city’s Jewish neighborhoods might be a bit confusing to newcomers, but even the most insignificant of hidden alleyways will have a name and appear on your smartphone. The Arab sections of East Jerusalem are a different story. Take a look at this map and notice how all street names suddenly vanish as you enter the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood.

A convenience store owner who gave his name as Mahmoud told me he gives directions to places in Jabal Mukabbir by using landmarks. “It’s past the United Nations building, near the school, down the road from the cemetery,” he said. “If you pass the mosque, you’ve gone too far.”

A basic annoyance can turn into a tragedy though. “If you need to order the ambulance, [or] somebody [is] sick,” Mahmoud said, “it’s a big problem.”

Mahmoud told me he has seen more than one incident of people in his neighborhood having a heart attack and dying as paramedics struggled to find the victim’s house. The trouble is, ambulances are dispatched from the Jewish side of town.

View of the Old City from the Jabal Mukabbir neighborhood (Photo: Matthew Bell)

But this is something Jerusalem’s mayor said he wants to solve by starting to officially name hundreds of streets in Arab neighborhoods.

An Arab-Israeli singer serenaded Mayor Nir Barkat during a recent ceremony in the Beit Hanina neighborhood. Community leaders had proposed naming a one-block residential street there after Umm Kulthum, the famous Egyptian singer.

Barkat said naming streets in Arab East Jerusalem is a strategic step for the city.

“We’re going to cover all names, streets names and street numbers, to all the houses in East Jerusalem.”

Some Arab residents hear that and say, it’s about time. East Jerusalem has been under Israeli rule since 1967 and only now is the city starting put up street signs.

Akram Abadwan attended the ceremony with the mayor in Beit Hanina. When I asked him about the street naming initiative, he just shook his head, saying the Israelis are not really interested in improving Arab neighborhoods.

“Look what they’ve been doing all day, they’ve been fixing the roads,” Abadway said. “Just because the mayor’s coming.”

“I wish they had that same energy on a daily basis,” he said.

Instead of street names, Abadwan wanted to talk about the demolition of Arab homes and the Jewish groups settling in Arab sections of East Jerusalem. If the city puts a stop to those things, he said, then he will be less cynical.

An intersection of two unnamed streets (Photo: Matthew Bell)


Others are more pragmatic. Hossam Wattad is a community activist in East Jerusalem.

“We need basic services,” Wattad said. “Mail delivery, ambulance services, utilities. Just giving people simple directions to your house requires street names and building numbers. People pay taxes to the city,” he said. “Let’s get to work on improving the quality of life in East Jerusalem.”

Mayor Barkat conceded that some Jerusalem neighborhoods have been neglected by the city.

One of the biggest complaints from Arab residents over the years has been the difficulty in obtaining building permits. That means many newer buildings in Arab neighborhoods are considered illegal by the city. Barkat told me that dealing with the issue is all part of his program that begins with naming streets.

“We’re actually going through a process of re-zoning, [a] very liberal approach to re-zoning,” he said.

“The challenge is to enable a path of both upgrading and making the houses legal. Indeed, it’s part of the process and the strategy and the public policy that I have, accepted by all of the municipality.”

But many Palestinians would not accept Barkat’s vision for Jerusalem. They hope to make the city the capital of a future Palestinian state. And they are still wary of cooperating with what they see as the Israeli occupation, even on something as seemingly tame as putting up street signs.

This video was produced by the Israeli government:

Want to hear more on street naming? Here’s a podcast on provocative street-naming in Israel and the Occupied Territories.



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Where Chinese and Arabic Calligraphy Meet

Born in China in 1967, Haji Noor Deen is probably better known today in the Arab World and the West.
His claim to fame is his mastery of a script that fuses two great traditions of calligraphy: Chinese and Arabic.

Haji Noor Deen is ethnic Hui, which is a bit of a catch-all term. The Hui people are predominantly Muslim, and most speak Chinese as their first language. Although we don’t hear as much about them as about the Uyghurs, the Hui are China’s largest Muslim group. When Beijing sends Muslim musicians abroad to represent the country’s diversity, most are Hui.

Ha Hui is one of the China’s best-known Hui musicians. She sang one of the Beijing Olympics’ official songs, and has represented China culturally in performances in Egypt, Turkey, Israel and the United States. Interestingly, official Chinese media often don’t mention her ethnicity.

Another Hui song:

Many thanks to former Big Show intern Angela Sun (follow her on Twitter here) for her research and interviews for this podcast.

Photos: Angela Sun, Haji Noor Deen



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