Monday, April 11, 2011

Pidgin Arabia

pidgin |ˈpijən|
noun [often as adj. ]
a grammatically simplified form of a language, used for communication between people not sharing a common language. Pidgins have a limited vocabulary, some elements of which are taken from local languages, and are not native languages, but arise out of language contact between speakers of other languages. Compare with creole,sense 2.
• ( Pidgin) another term for Tok Pisin .
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: Chinese alteration of English business.

This is a good summary of my relationship with اللغة العربية (that's the arabic language). I've learned the alphabet, gone to 120 hours of class (with the godawful schedule of 8:30 am to 12:00) and gone up to Chapter 6 in Al Kitab, the authoritative textbook for American Arabic students. After all of this, I'm prepared to enter into a second year Arabic class and I'm almost completely incapable of communicating my basic needs.

There are a few explanations. Firstly, Arabic is obviously a difficult language. The 28 letters include three different types of H, a letter that you have to slightly choke yourself to pronounce correctly and hardly any vowels. In fact, in most Arabic words the vowels are absent so that you have to know the word in order to pronounce it correctly. To make matters more confusing, it is a root language so the words for "he studies", "professor", and "I teach" are all startling similar looking: أدرس المدرس يدرس
(it's also written from left to right, by the way). And, the grammar is nothing short of outrageous: there are thirteen different ways to conjugate a verb in each tense since "you" is not enough, it has to be gendered, and singular and plural is not sufficient, dual must be included.

Also, Arabic is an incredibly diverse language. It is the single factor that unites the Arab world, reaching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast to the Gulf States and down to Somalia. As the language of the Koran, Arabic roots can be found in languages across the Muslim world; Swahili, the lingua franca of states along the Indian Ocean, derives it's name from Arabic while it is estimated that 3,000 some words of Indonesian have Arabic origin (fun fact: Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country). The Moors also left a substantial the Spanish language, making my Arabic vocabulary skewed towards those with Spanish origins--I know how to say olive oil, but the word for apple still escapes me. The vastness of Arabic, however, leads to incredible variation within the language itself.

When I told my friend who lived in Egypt I was studying Fusha, she laughed and then waxed poetic on the uselessness of that language. Fusha is an invented language that is dervived from Classical Arabic, the language of the Koran, and operates as the standard tongue for business, literature and media in the Arab world, however it is almost never spoken on the street.

Each country has their own dialect which is an amalgamation of words from indigenous cultures, previous colonizers and regional slang. Nothing is static--conjugations differ, some letters exist in areas that don't in others and entire vocabularies are mutually unintelligible. Darijia, the Moroccan dialect, is a famously strange mix of French, Berber (there are 3 dialects of that) and Spanish. The story is that Moroccans can understand almost any Arabic speaker while no one can understand the Moroccans. For example, in Fusha what is your name is "Ma ismookee/kah?" while in Darijia it is "Shnoo smitek?" Fusha is the equivalent of speaking Ye Olde English today.

This puts Arabic learners in the awkward position of speaking a language no one else does. When I came home to my host mom after class, excited to begin to communicate with her I was sorely disappointed to discover that she couldn't understand my butchered Fusha any better than my English.

This is where Pidgin comes in. My mom and I talk in a combination of a little English, a little Darijia and occasionally Fusha. On the streets I ask for directions in Arabic, am answered in French, and when things get confusing they sometimes resort to English or Spanish. Luckily, Moroccan are an incredibly multilingual people, most speaking Darijia, French, some Fusha and some English, and in the North, Spanish. I collect words that are easy to remember in Arabic and English words that seem to be intelligible in French (toilet?). It's very frustrating not being able to communicate but there is a certain satisfaction when somehow three languages and many hand motions later, you begin to understand each other.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Egyptian Protest: Christians join hands to protect praying Muslims

To add onto my thoughts on prayer, here is story of the Egyptian revolution that should not be forgotten.

Also, is a great website. Good source of tidbit news.

Time and Space for Prayer

Here is an essay I wrote for my Religion Module. We were supposed to combine our observations with some analysis to comment any aspect of religion. I chose prayer, which is appropriate for a Friday, the holy day in Islam. Today everyone is wearing their best and the mosque lay mats outside for all of the worshippers. This Friday is especially real special since MY FAMILY IS COMING TO VISIT! I'll have one day with the Ballerias in Morocco, and then I'm going to spend a week in a Berber village. I am to expect no electricity or running water, possible encounters with wild boars and rabid dogs, and a lot of free time to read. And now, onto the paper:

At first the signs seem small, inconsequential. My Yahoo! homepage lists the prayer times where stock prices were. The Moroccan cell phones have the option of alerting me of the times to pray. Five times a day, the call to prayer rings out across the city. As I walk through the medina, I come across quiet rooms filled with men kneeling to pray. My host sisters cover their heads and go into another room after dinner. They are small spaces and times, but in their ubiquity it becomes clear how prayer defines Moroccan space and time.

Islam has been distinguished from Christianity as being based not on “correct faith” but on “correct action.” Tellingly, the five pillars of Islam all depend on verbs—you must say the shaddah, pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan, give alms and make the pilgrimage. Islamic jurisprudence rulings use the Koran to set modern issues on a sliding scale of “obligatory, encouraged, permissible, discouraged and prohibited”, in the process creating a holy valuation of day-to-day actions. While you are performing the pillars you are literally embodying the tenets of the religion and when you do something prohibited you are defiling your faith. In Islam actions are the truths self-evident. Prayer takes a unique position among the pillars since it must be physically performed every day, five times a day. The fundamental requirements of prayer—space and time—form the way these two concepts are constructed in Muslim life.

Prayer literally punctuates the day, the phases of morning, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening are marked by prayer, each instant provides the worshipper with solitary moments that are absolutely devoted to faith. In contemporary society, time is being constantly valued, even equated to money, making these minutes of meditation precious. Prayer however, is not perceived as a “waste of time” but an intrinsic part of the day. My professor told me that he is sometimes forced to double prayers when he is busy, but it somehow feels wrong. My host sister said that when she misses a prayer because she is tired or it is too late, she always feels bad. For them, although prayer can be inconvenient, it is a necessary and beneficial part of the day. In the lives of a Muslim, prayer becomes an essential timekeeper, marking the passage of time through worship.

The inclusion of prayer times in technology speaks to two phenomena, one new and the other as old as the religion. Globalization and the international diaspora of Islam means the religion and its adherents have moved outside of the medina, where prayer calls do not ring from minarets. There are myriad examples of how Islam and technology have intersected to address this issue— calculates prayer times across the globe and there are iPhone apps to find the way to Mecca from any point on the globe. This incorporation of prayer in technology demonstrates the continued relevance of prayer in contemporary Muslim life. There are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, representing 23% of the world’s population in 2009. While 20% live in the Middle East, a region in which more than half of the countries have Muslim populations of 95% or more, there are Muslims in staggering numbers on every continent. As technology develops and Muslims migrate across the globe, tools have emerged to continue to mark prayer times, demonstrating this pillar of Islam will not be loss to the forces of globalization. Prayer continues to shape how Muslims use, experience and understand time.

Space is the second requirement for prayer. In many Moroccan houses there is a carpeted room that is set aside to pray in. As many Americans have been become aware of, usually after the fact, shoes are not allowed on this floor. Within the house, a space is created dedicated to Islam; at once it delineates the sacred and incorporates religion into the intimate space of the home. Outside of the home, accommodations have been made for prayer. Prayer rooms, which are essentially empty rooms whose rental provides little or no economic benefit to the owner, are surprisingly ubiquitous even in spaces devoted to commerce. Prayer rooms can be found in bus and train stations, even gas station rest stops. Not to be demeaning, but the prayer room is seen as being as much of a necessity as a public restroom, if not more. That space for prayer can be found even in areas of transit demonstrates that it is at once a public good and a societal expectation to provide a prayer room. Between these spaces of transit and the home there lie many variations—the universities provide their students with prayer rooms, along the street there are mosques on seemingly every corner—but they do fall into the dichotomy of private and public space. This separation also marks where women and men pray. Every day, my host father leaves to the mosque to pray. The women all pray at home because, according to my sister, she “heard it is better for the women to pray at home.” She may have prayed in a mosque, once, but it was not memorable. The traditional gender separation in private and public space of Moroccan society are manifested the spaces of prayer. In Morocco, there is a veritable infrastructure dedicated to prayer, demonstrating how Islam permeates the physical construction of the world.


As I walked down a mountain path leading into Chefchaouen, I passed a man on his knees. He was impeccably dressed. His sheepskin coat laid on the gravel, exposing his clean white button-down, his leather shoes were bent to the ground, his head was bowed. He was praying. He was in a position of utter submission, his expensive clothes forgotten, the spiritual taking absolute precedent over the material. This man was not in a mosque, he had no prayer rug and the call to prayer was not echoing through the mountains. Despite the physical constructions of the world that have been dedicated to prayer—prayer rooms, cell phone alerts, calls to prayer—the act of praying is never dependent on them. This man praying on the path in Chefchaounen showed that prayer is, above all, a demonstration of faith. The action of prayer, much less the spaces and times of prayer, in and of themselves do not define the religion. It is not the action, but the intention with which it is done. The commitment of time and space to prayer in Islam society speaks to the importance of the religion itself in the lives of the people.

[1] The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Mapping the Global Muslim Population. Rep. Pew Reseach Forum, 7 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Mar. 2011. .

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Feb 20, 2010, Rabat

Rock the Kasbah...(had to say it)

February 20, 2010 was the day for the protests to start in Morocco. One day later, there is little sign of the thousands that marched in the streets of Rabat. People walk calmly along the main boulevard, men and women sip coffee at the café across from Parliament and the streets are clear of pamphlets. The only thing amiss is that metal barriers cordon off the main boulevard and police vans hover along the sides of the squares.

The day before, this had been the site of a protest of an uncommon but not overwhelming magnitude. The entire Mohammad V boulevard, the main drag in town, was been filled with protest groups, their chants resounding off the high rises, their mass snaking down from in from of Parliament and around the corner past the walls of the old medina. I defer to my academic director for an estimate of the attendance: about 1,500 in the morning. This is also in accordance with Facebook mathematics: 3,000 people said they’d attend the event on Facebook, putting real-life attendance expectations between 1,000 and 1,500. The day was a warm, sunny Sunday, so more people came out as the day went on (the protest inexplicably began at the ungodly hour of 10 am).

I was there around noon, and the atmosphere was intoxicating though the protest was orderly. I am always struck by how calm protests are. People were milling around, going about their Sunday business as the chants of a thousand people filled the air. As one girl in my program pointed out, it seemed like a parade. I mean, they were selling candy for gods sake. Still, there were all the trappings of a protest: the bullhorns, the chants, the flag-waving, signs calling for freedom, equality and democracy, written in an impressive array of languages (speaking to both the multilingualism of the Moroccan people as well as the importance of the international community’s attention) and the camera men high above the crowd.

There were some remarkably poignant moments: as a small fistfight broke out between either government sympathizers or plain-clothes policemen, people surrounded them and stopped the violence by praying on the lawn.

I’ve included some photos to give you an idea of the atmosphere.

As I watched with some friends from the sidelines, I noticed how the march truly did seem like a parade—there were noticeable separate groups, distinguishable by their slogan, chant and demographic. There was the group waving Palestinian and Egyptian flags—perhaps a Middle Eastern revolutionary pride group? Then there was a group lead by a man with a Che Guevara cape—Latin American-inspired radical socialist group? The most powerful though, was the veiled women holding photos of their presumably disappeared husbands, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons. To Western eyes, it was incredible seeing women with only their eyes showing demonstrating against human rights abuses. This movement of mothers organizing to demand the return of their disappeared family members dates back to the years of oppression during the previous king Hassan II. Just as the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of Argentina do, they use the sympathies and social immunity afforded to them as mothers to call for justice. One of my friends speculated that the conservative veiling was not in deference to modesty but instead to protect their identity. There also was a puzzlingly well organized group of men who walked in perfectly parallel lines. The different factions occasionally united to chant together, lead by veteran protesters who were recognizable by their standard issue revolutionary attire: army green coats, that checkered scarf (you know the one, what’s it called?) and defiantly held-up peace signs. However, these groupings speak to one of the weaknesses of the Moroccan protest movement.

Moroccans, like many around the world, like to protest. Protesters are a regular fixture outside Parliament. However, these protesters are rarely united by a single issue, making Sunday’s protest cohesive demand of reforming the structure of the government and possibly the constitution all the more unique and credible.

Still, there remains such a plethora of special-interest groups that there is no cohesive opposition party with clear demands. The result is that within the political sphere there is little possibility for real change. And this reality is why there should be any concern for unrest in Morocco. On the radio, my academic director heard a caller ask say that the protesters simply should create a party, call it the February 20th Party. Another caller responded and said the problem is that that party would not get any votes, there simply are too many competing parties out there. Perhaps because of the stratification of the parties, voter turn out is low, the last election only 37% of the eligible voting population participated. Obviously, political discourse in Morocco is lacking.

There are a few explanations for this—the electoral system, the diverse nature of Moroccan society, simply that there are a lot of things to complain about and the conspiracy theory—fractured opposition is easier for the king and his supporters to control.

The most well-known faction are the university protesters—unemployed graduates of public universities with degrees in “useless” majors like Philosophy, Biology and Islamic Studies (Computer Science and Communications are the surefire tracts to success here). These graduates are demanding the government provide them with employment. Their existence is a sign of how Morocco lacks a diversified economy to provide sufficient professional jobs, but their demands would lead, critics say, to an increase in inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy. According to my academic director (a Political Science professor among other things), in the lead up to these protests, this particular group was placated by a minister who promised them if they disbanded they would be employed by March. Abdelhay contends that if they had been present the protests would have been more “rowdy.”

In the Western media I have read so far, the protests I saw were represented in the most dramatic fashion possible while still clinging to some truth. There were some who in the North burned down a bank but they are probably people taking advantage of the situation rather than part of the organized revolution. For the time being, it seems all is calm on the Magharib front.

(that’s a really clever pun if you didn’t know. You see, Maghrib is the Moroccan word for Morocco. It also means West. Get it, huh?)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egypt Protests: First hand account

A good friend of mine, Liana, is a Middle Eastern Studies Major at Mount Holy Oake College, and in the course of her studies decided to spent a year in Egypt with a Boren Scholarship. She originally chose Lebanon, but that was nixed because of unrest, so instead she was able to experience some of the greatest political unrest in the Arab world first-hand, from her apartment in Cairo, Egypt. Love the irony. You can read her blog here:

Friday, February 4, 2011


Here are two obvious observations:

1. TV makes the strange stranger.

2. I’m sorry Gil Scott-Heron, now the revolution is always televised.

Today I met my Moroccan host family and spent my first seven hours in their house watching TV. Here is the programming list:

-An Arabic dubbed soap opera from Argentina

-7NN: “Connecting you locally”. An English language channel broadcasting from the UAE with news that exclusively pertains to and compliments the home country.

-The Worldwide Wrestling Federation. I kid you not. The World’s Strongest Man simultaneously defeated 7 of the sport’s biggest spandex-clad stars in an epic battle only to be interrupted by the Mexican aristocrat Alguién De Río who entered the arena in his latest model Bentley to announce his unquestionable victory in the next championship fight, which would be held the next episode. It had my host mom, dad and me in stitches.

-We interrupt this broadcast to give you a Powerpoint presentation of the call to prayer

-Arab MTV

-An incest-filled dubbed Turkish soap opera

-A New Age music video celebrating Khomani, the Iranian imam that started the Iranian revolution. And speaking of…

-Non-stop-every-other-channel-coverage of the riots in Egypt.

When we were first greeted by our Academic Directors, Abdelhay Moudden and Laheen Haddad, they joked that every year they prepare something special and this year it is revolutions in the Arab world. By the time we had arrived, Tunisia had already overthrow a dictator and currently in Egypt millions are rioting in the street against a supposedly democratically elected president that has been in power for 30 years. You see, this is the first time there has ever been a successful revolution in the Arab states.

Political scientists have used the Arab world as a case study of the theory that things like revolutions, democracy, personal freedoms and human rights are not compatible with certain dominate cultures, just like socialized health care, free higher education and soccer don’t work in others.

By the way, the Arab world is defined as countries that list Arabic as an official language so it includes Somalia but not Iran, meaning the classification does not technically include, though it does imply, a common religion or race. As I mentioned earlier, there are 22 official Arabic countries while there are 57 Islamic countries in the world, many of who have experienced revolutions. This theory has attributed the lack of democracy in the Arab world to forces as diverse as Islamic fatalism, tribal societies, geographic isolation, recent decolonization and the resource trap phenomenon.

Suffice to say, it’s agreed upon that this CAME OUT OF NOWHERE. The panicked eyes of news anchors harkens back to the heady first days of the economic crisis. No one saw this coming. (It took days of riots to for travel insurance to evacuate American study abroad students. And those were the lucky ones. For more info follow Liana’s blog). No one knows what started it (Burning men? Twitter? Jasmine? Pent-up Repression?) No one knows how it will end (Democracy? Power vacuum to new dictator? Violent crackdowns and continued oppression?). And, no one knows how far it will spread (Yemen? Saudi Arabia? Morocco?). The New York Times, as always, has some great articles and opinions about it:

Despite being on the same continent as all of this strife and in a country that could be due for a revolution, I have surprisingly little first hand knowledge of what is happening. My Internet access has been spotty and the orientation schedule has been fulfilling its duty to distract us from everything we have left behind. Which brings me back to my 7 hour TV watching marathon, the closest I have gotten to being informed about the riots.

(For informed journalism, check out the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times: and Nicolas Kristoff is posting a lot interesting opinion pieces)

First of all, this will be primarily a Visual Media Critical Cultural Analysis Study due to my complete ignorance of the Arabic language. It isn’t Comparative since I don’t know how this is being broadcast back home but I assume biases are present on both sides. For example, Dr. Moudden said there was a 1,000% difference in CNN’s estimate for the Wednesday protest (200,000) and Al Jazeera’s (2,000,000). From here, Obama’s call for Mubarak to reform rings hollow and Israel’s fundamentalist scares sound shrill, but I am surrounded by Middle Eastern and Peace Studies majors (see last post)

The quantity and quality of the images struck me initially. That is, the quantity is endless and the quality is of shitty cell-phone resolution. There is one incident where a military or police van swerved through the streets and ran down two men. They played an overview shot, a first person shot and a few close-ups , all clearly captured on different onlookers’ cell phones. There is even a photo of a man using his cell phone as a light for impromptu medical treatment on another protester’s gaping wound.

The images also have taken a turn for the battlefield genre. One station favors a nice photomontage of wounded protestors—heads, arms, legs, more heads, Egyptian flags, you name it, and they’re bloody. As the Mubarak supporters have started to retaliate there are videos of walls constructed of overturned dumpsters and people lobbing stones across them. There is even a video of men on horses running through crowds (really want a translation about that one). This sounds like a modern dramatic interpretation of medieval warfare, and in a way, it is. This is still a mainly leaderless movement and the streets have become chaos. Last count there were 6 dead and hundreds injured. One has to hope that some sense is made soon before it escalates more.

The last thing I noticed was the English. Occasionally, recognizable alphabetic characters would pop onto the screen in the form of banners, shirts and signs. The words that Egyptians chose to translate show how they want to be portrayed to the Western media: We Want Freedom, Game Over Mubarak, and Democracy Now. They all define the movement as political, choosing words that tug at America’s heart strings (Liberty, anyone?) and avoiding mention of Islam. Although this is the beginning of Arabic revolutions, the English-speaking, namely, American world is seen as having the power to make this revolution succeed. One of Kristoff’s articles went across the screen and Obama was discussed at length, while no other world leaders were mentioned.

And while this was happening, what was did my Moroccan family think? I have no idea. Fortunately my host dad speaks some Spanish so we can communicate, but his broken Spanish and our conflicting accents made it so the political discussion only came down to: “Mubarak needs to resign. The problem is he doesn’t want to.” We watched CNN briefly enough for me to hear Fareed Whosit declare Egypt the center of the Arab world and that they were all watching but my host dad took a sip of water rather than confirm or deny the claim when I translated it.

From what it sounded like, the Moroccans are somewhat in awe. There were a lot of questions being asked back and forth. A hush fell on the room as the violent images played. The problem is, I just don’t know.

These revolution is groundbreaking for the reasons I mentioned but also because it could represent a socially meaningful application of social networking tools (the Twitter Revolution, remember?) I read a nice rebuttal to this argument in the International Herald Tribune opinion section but can’t track it down. To summarize, social networking does a good job of counting how many people believe in a certain cause so society doesn’t commit the fallacy of pluralistic concession (or something) but alone it is not a catalyst. In fact, virtually supporting a cause may completely satisfy the revolutionary urge, preventing people from acting in real life, where it matters.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, I’ll most likely be watching.