Tear Down That Wall: Fluency In Classical Arabic

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

How frustrating is it not being able to access knowledge directly from its Arabic sources? It is *very* frustrating. It's like being locked out of a castle. Or not allowed into a country. Well...let me tell you a story. 

Having been raised in an Egyptian family, I had a not-bad but not-great vocabulary and could communicate okay in 'amiyya (Egyptian dialect), but I could not read classical Arabic from childhood. It took me hours and hours of struggle in my late teens and early twenties. Like anything you work hard at, you crawl and crawl, and one day, you leap.

It was Islamic art & architecture class at Georgetown with Professor Scott Redford, an elite guy out of Harvard, who came to class in impeccable suits every day. The son of diplomats whose parents took jobs all throughout the Arab world, he developed an obsession for Islamic art at a young age. It was he who directed me to Ibn Khaldun. For my first paper, I decided to do it on Ibn Khaldun's history of Fez. His entire history of the world was 6 or 7 really large volumes, like 500 pages each volume. It was such an ooold publication! Yellow pages. But one major problemo: no table of contents! So I shot Prof Redford an email, telling him of this issue. At the time, there was no such thing as 'get the PDF.' 

After the next class, I approched Prof Redford (I never called him Scott, nor went to class in sweat pants, since I was raised with something they had back then called 'respect' for elders, experts and people in positions of authority.) I told him we have a slight problem here because the chapter I need to find is buried somewhere in three-thousand pages of Arabic with no table of contents or index! He said, "Oh yeah, I got your email. You're just going to have to plough through it." I was flabbergasted at this response. Plough? It's Tuesday and the abstract is due Thursday.

I took it on the chin and that night, went down at 8pm to the library and pulled all six or so volumes out on the table with the intention of going chapter heading by chapter heading until I find Fez. You would think that each chapter begins at the top of the page in large bold lettering. But nooo. Those old publications are simply something else! No distinctive chapter headings. Forget chapter headings...no paragraph breaks! No periods!! It was *literally* THOUSANDS of pages of pure running text. Words in dark gray ink on yellow paper. That was it.

I spent about fifteen or twenty minutes doing nothing, just sitting there absorbing the shock of the challenge that lay ahead. And then, as always, in a sudden snap, you make up your mind, quit the non-sense, and start marching. I literally started with volume 1, page 1, searching for keywords like "tarikh al-Maghrib," the history of Morocco, or "tarikh Faas," the history of Fez. Back in those days, there was no texting, no cell phone to check. Just straight reading. I must have went four hours straight, refusing to move until I found my chapter. "Tarikh Faas."

It took me a night to find the chapter. Now I had to actually read it! The next day, I sat with it, and did the same thing, going word for word in the chapter, refusing to budge until it was done. I had to turn to the dictionary every half minute. 

Before those two nights, Arabic was a wall. You could see through holes or look around it. But it was still this insurmountable obstacle. All you could do was chip at it. On those two nights, all the pecking and chipping away, like in Shawshank Redemption, finally gave way to a fault line, a crack in the wall. I felt it. You crawl and crawl, then one day, you leap. Over the next few years, that wall was brought down completely. 

Reading classical Arabic texts seems like a daunting task. But let me tell you, having to live in ignorance is even more daunting. We are going to slowly start chipping away. I've made these videos. It's the first time I've tried doing it, and already the people who have watched them benefited greatly. It's a small passage from a classical Arabic text (Imam al-Suyuti), and I go over it, explaining the vocab and grammar, but also the content, and how it relates to our overall vision and program. I want modern Muslims to be able to see the evidences from the sources themselves. ​ Check it out and let me know. It's a slow process, but over the years, that wall comes down. https://safina-online.teachable.com/p/rog

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