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Misery of the housemaids (9)

A woman in Riyadh was stopped by police earlier this week and questioned about her legal status, Arab News reports:

They learned that she was a runaway maid who fled her sponsor five months ago.

According to police, the maid then fell prey to a group of men who had offered her a job with benefits, including an annual home-visit plane ticket. But instead of employing her as a maid, the gang sexually exploited the woman.

“I had no choice except to give in for their pleasure since they threatened to take me to the police if I disagreed,” the maid is alleged to have told the police.

She is now under arrest, along with an unspecified number of men.

"Migrant domestic workers risk a range of abuses," Human Rights Watch says. "Common complaints include unpaid wages, excessive working hours with no time for rest, and heavy debt burdens from exorbitant recruitment fees. Isolation in private homes and forced confinement in the workplace contribute to psychological, physical, and sexual violence, forced labour, and trafficking."

On Wednesday, HRW issued a report on the conditions of migrant domestic workers which includes six Arab countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain. The report concludes:

Governments have been engaging more in rhetoric about protection of migrant domestic workers than in reform. 

While there has been progress in several areas, for example, the formalisation of working conditions in standard contracts and greater cooperation with civil society groups advocating for domestic workers’ rights, many underlying forms of discrimination have yet to be addressed. These include major gaps in labour protections, restrictive immigration sponsorship policies that establish incentives for abusive behaviour, and prevailing social norms that justify practices such as confining domestic workers to the workplace.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 April 2010. Comment

Renewed violence in northern Yemen

Violence in northern Yemen seems to be increasing again, despite 
the truce called by the government in February.

On Wednesday, the interior ministry said three tribesmen (described by Reuters as "pro-government") were killed by Houthi rebels.

Yesterday, officials said seven people died during a gun battle in Dammaj, Saada province, between Houthis and pro-government tribal fighters. The Houthis had apparently been trying to hold a rally in Dammaj.

Various tribal militias fought alongside the Yemeni army in the recent "iron fist" campaign against the Houthis.

The Dammaj shootout may have a religious dimension. One long-standing grievance of the Houthis, who are Zaidi Shia, is the spread of Salafism in the area. Dammaj is home to Dar al-Hadith, a Salafi educational centre which has previously been accused of encouraging terrorism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 April 2010. Comment

Apartheid in Saudi Arabia

When the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) opened in Saudi Arabia last year, it was supposed to be a model of modernity, with no gender segregation. Arab News also
described it as “a bridge between world cultures”.

But not so fast. It may not have gender segreation, but what about racial segregation? The Saudi Aggie blog has a disturbing tale of how the university treats its Filipino workers:

There used to be a weekly basketball game between students and recreation staff. The recreation staff members enjoyed this game so much that they rearranged their work schedules to participate ... it was the one night a week they could have fun and get some much needed exercise after standing or sitting at their job all day.

Four weeks ago, a terrible thing happened. The students left campus for spring vacation, but many of the employees came for basketball anyway. On that unfortunate day, the Saudi Oger head of recreation was watching. He was furious. 

The employees had violated one of recreation's unwritten rules: no workers are ever allowed to use the community's sports or service facilities. When it was discovered that most of them were Filipino employees, there was talk of firing them all and deporting them back to their home country, but there was also one Lebanese employee amongst the transgressors, and management couldn't fire and deport an Arab.

The Filipinos and company were given a final warning and suspended without pay for 3-5 days. Now there are no more games between students and staff, no more exercise for the employees, nothing to break up the daily monotony of their lives between working at KAUST and bussing to the work camp.

The blog continues:

I arranged a meeting with the Saudi Oger director thinking that it was just a misunderstanding, but the injustice and prejudice against foreign workers runs deep here. The manager told me that my Filipino friends are dangerous people and that if they are given half a chance they will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise endanger the entire community. They are not allowed to use the facilities, not just because of crowding during peak hours, he said, but because they are not welcome at KAUST when they are not working.

There's a further comment at the Eye on Saudi blog.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 April 2010. Comment

'Obscenity' of 1001 Nights

A group called Lawyers Without Restrictions is trying to launch an obscenity case against cultural officials in Egypt for publishing the centuries-old collection of folk tales, A Thousand and One Nights.

Read my article about it at Comment is free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 April 2010. Comment

Solidarity against ElBaradei

It's not just in Egypt that Mohamed ElBaradei's calls for constitutional reform are making the authorities twitchy.

Earlier this month, the Kuwaiti authorities arrested more than 30 of his supporters and summarily deported most of them. 

A couple of weeks ago, the UAE was reported to be blocking access to a pro-Baradei website, Save Egypt Front, and now it's the Saudis' turn. Less than 24 hours after its launch, the kingdom began blocking the US website of Egyptian Association for Change, according to the Egyptian Chronicles blog.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 April 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 29 April: A reader in the UAE says the site was working yesterday. The blocking was originally reported by the Egyptian ANHRI on April 13. I don't know if the blocking decision has been rescinded. There also seems to have been some confusion at the time as to which site was blocked. Any further info gratefully received.

Security men assault Yemeni Jew

Heron bin Salem, a 22-year-old member of Yemen's tiny Jewish community, was approached by a police officer and four "security members" in Sana'a on Sunday. 

According to the Yemen Observer, the officer informed him: "I do not like your look", referring to the ringlets worn by Yemeni Jews, and then told him: "We do not want Jews here".

The men held him down and attempted to cut his hair, before others intervened.

The Yemen Observer says the officer involved was identified as Rashad al-Masri, deputy director of al-Nasr police station, and the interior minister has now taken "the required measures".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 April 2010. Comment

Big news: Briton unhurt

Yesterday's explosion in Yemen, which resulted in a British man not being injured, is the subject of at least 124 news reports today.

Yes, I know the man in question was an ambassador and his attacker probably from al-Qaeda, but the scale of the coverage reminds me of that famous (and possibly apocryphal) tale of a Scottish newspaper reporting the Titanic disaster with the headline: "Aberdeen man lost at sea".

Once again, it seems that the world only takes an interest in Yemen when the lives of foreigners are at risk. 

The Waq al-Waq blog provides a useful antidote by discussing some of the other things that were going on in Yemen yesterday.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 April 2010. Comment

Battle of Baalbek

In Baalbek earlier this month, the Lebanese army got into a battle with the members of the 20,000-strong Jaafar clan, noted for its involvement in the hashish trade. At least 10 people were wounded – six of them soldiers. 

Now, Mitchell Prothero of The National has been there to take a look and talk to the locals. 

"The Lebanese army appears to have deployed more tanks, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns than can be seen along the border with Israel," he writes.

Just past one checkpoint, graffiti on the walls of bullet-riddled middle-class homes reads: "Welcome to Camp Fallujah", a reference to the violent occupation of that Iraqi city by US troops from 2003 to 2008. Inside one of the houses, several young men gathered, smoking hashish and discussing the conditions they lived under as young members of Lebanon’s most notorious tribe.

"OK, I very much like hashish," said Abu Ali Jaafar, 20, whose thin frame and stylish hair belies the 55 court warrants the Lebanese government has issued against him. "And it has been my family tradition to grow and sell hashish since the time before the Ottoman empire. The government offers us nothing in return for stopping but is this a crime you can just murder us for?"

Another says:

“I’m in university, I don’t want to tell you where, but when the professors find your name is Jaafar, they’re either scared of you or fail you out of their class. I want to study law; I have no warrants out for me ... but there’s almost no hope. So during the attack, I joined in and fought.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 April 2010. Comment

Fred Halliday, RIP

Sami Zubaida, Anthony Barnett and David Hayes pay tribute to Fred Halliday, the Middle East and international relations specialist, who died yesterday.

My favourite memory of Fred is a story he used to tell about meeting a Yemeni somewhere out in the wilds who asked which tribe he belonged to. Fred replied that his tribe was the Bani Tanwir (the "Sons of Enlightenment").

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 April 2010. Comment

Magazine closed, writer threatened

Last month the Yemeni government's cultural magazine, al-Thaqafiya, published an article about an Egyptian film, Heena Maysara. Directed by Khaled Youssef, a protégé of the late Youssef Chahine, it's a gritty critique of Egyptian society, set in the Cairo slums. 

The film caused a fuss in Egypt when it was released in 2008 because it contains a lesbian scene.

The Yemeni article about the film, which appears not to have been scrutinised very carefully by the editor before publication (otherwise it would surely have been cut), included a discussion of homosexuality, describing it as “part and parcel of our society”.

This provoked an uproar from religious elements and some members of parliament in Yemen, with the result that al-Thaqafiya (the country's only serious cultural magazine) has ceased publication.

Meanwhile, the article's Yemeni author – Paris-based writer and filmmaker Hamid Aqabi – says he has become the subject of death threats.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Yemen and in theory can result in execution. On the whole, the authorities are preoccupied with more pressing issues but, with little government control over much of the country, gay people are at risk from other elements taking matters into their own hands.

In 2008, three young men were killed by militants in Shabwa province on suspicion of being gay. One of them, 22-year-old Said Abdullah Hannan, was shot dead in the street in front of the main market in Jaar.

PS: I can't find Hamid Aqabi's article on the internet. If anyone has a copy, please send it to me and I'll post a translation of the relevant bits.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 April 2010. Comment

'Civil marriage, not civil war'

Several thousand people joined the march for secularism in Beirut yesterday. Reuters notes a banner saying "Civil marriage, not civil war" and adds that many of the demonstrators "wore white T-shirts with 'What's your sect?' written on the front and 'None of your business' on the back.

The event attracted attention from sections of the Arab media, including the Daily Star, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. Menassat has a video showing scenes from the demonstration.

For discussion of the secularism issue in Lebanon, see B-side Beirut and Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 April 2010. Comment

Rewarding Syria?

Writing on the Syria Comment blog, Joshua Landis asks: "Why are US analysts surprised that Syria arms Hizbullah?" It's a good question, reflecting a lack of balance in US policy when it comes to Syria and Israel.

Referring to current debate about sending a US ambassador to Syria, Landis suggests that the neocons have got it the wrong way round:

"Neocons try to make out that the return of an ambassador is a favour to Syria, when in actuality it is driven by US interests. Washington wants to be able to gain intelligence and have some small influence on Syria, which returning an ambassador will provide it. Syria is clearly gratified to have relations return to what they were before President Bush decided to invade Iraq with thoughts of regime change in Syria, but relations between the two countries will not be normal or good."

In the meantime, he says, Washington "is not pressuring Israel to give back the Golan Heights – at least it has made no statement about the illegality of Israel’s occupation or the right of the 300,000 Golanis, whose parents or who were themselves expelled from the Heights in 1967 in complete disregard for international law."

Landis continues:

"The real way to encourage peace is by allowing the balance of power between Israel and its Arab neighbours to come into equilibrium. This is the first principle of realism. American analysts swear by this principle in every corner of the globe but the Middle East. When it comes to Israelis and Arabs, Washington somehow has convinced itself that only by skewing the balance of power in Israel’s favour, will peace materialise.

"It doesn’t really matter whether one approves or disproves of this state of affairs – it is the present reality. The US does not offer Syria a chance of getting back the Golan. It does promise to lift economic sanctions if Syria ceases to resist Israel and acquiesces to the permanent annexation of the Golan by Israel. Syria has made it very clear that it will not negotiate away the Golan. That leaves the region in constant upheaval. It is the source of deepening hatred on all sides."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 April 2010. Comment

BBC tackles an Arab taboo

Last night's edition of Ma La Yuqaal ("What is not said") – the BBC Arabic TV series focusing on taboo subjects – dealt with homosexuality. (A previous one explored Arabs' obsession with virginity.)

Film from Egypt, the Gulf, Morocco and Israel was followed by a studio discussion in which I took part, along with Abdessamad Dialmy (a Moroccan sociologist), Muhammad al-Awdy (a religious scholar from Kuwait), Samar Habib (author of Female Homosexuality in the Middle East), a female member of Imaan (the Muslim LGBT organisation in Britain), and several others.

The whole programme lasted just over an hour and a half. It finished at midnight, UK time – which probably means most people in the Middle East were safely asleep in bed when it went out and unlikely to be disturbed by its content. It will be repeated on Thursday, at the same late hour.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 April 2010. Comment

Yemen's snake-dancing president

My review of Victoria Clark's book, "Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes", is published today in the Guardian.

There was also a review in The Economist a couple of days ago.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 April 2010. Comment

Blogger imprisoned without charge

Hany Nazeer, an Egyptian blogger, has been detained without charge since October 2008 under the country's emergency law. This week, the interior ministry renewed his detention order for the sixth time – allegedly for his own protection.

Human Rights Watch explains:

"A high school social worker known for his critical views of established religion, Nazeer published a blog called 'Karz El Hob' (Preacher of Love), which included a link to a novel with a cover photo that some in his village considered insulting to Islam. When rumors that Nazeer had cited this book on his blog spread in the village, angry crowds gathered outside his house and Nazeer left the village, fearing for his safety.

"Rather than providing protection, state security officials tried to arrest him. When they failed to find him, they arrested and detained his brothers for three days as hostages and threatened to arrest his sisters. In response, on October 3, 2008, Nazeer turned himself in. He has been held ever since at Borg El Arab prison in Alexandria."

According to a Christian website, the book that Nazeer linked to was an online copy of 'Azazil’s Goat in Mecca', a novel written under the pseudonym "Father Utah". The book is a response to 'Azazil', a novel by Yusuf Zidane which is critical of Christianity and popular in Egypt.

"The right way to protect Nazeer is not by imprisoning him, but by prosecuting those threatening his security," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. "The [Egyptian] government does nothing to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the views of others when it jails those who have controversial views."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 April 2010. Comment

Marching for secularism in Lebanon

"They did not know it was impossible, so they did it." Encouraged by these words from Mark Twain, several thousand Lebanese are expected to march through Beirut on Sunday, calling for secularism.

The event – known as Laïque Pride – is the latest result of internet activism in the Middle East. It was started by Saeed Chaitou and four of his friends, and organised through Facebook, Twitter and a blog. At the latest count, 7,418 people have said they will attend on Sunday. Other demonstrations will be taking place at the same time outside Lebanese embassies abroad.

Stressing that it is "an independent citizen movement that absolutely refuses to by hijacked by politics", Laïque Pride calls for:

  • Non intervention of religious institutions in state affairs as much as the non intervention of the state in citizens' freedom of worship;

  • Independence of people's representatives from any allegiance to religious leaders and the sectarian system;

  • Laws respecting human rights and absolute equality between women and men;

  • A Lebanese civil code for personal status;

  • Reinforcement of public education to promote citizenship values among coming generations;

  • Securing equal opportunities in employment in the public sector based on qualifications rather than religion, race or gender;

  • An independent judiciary in charge of protecting citizens' rights in an attempt to circumvent the unhealthy predominant social habit of resorting to the power of kin-groups for backing.

Writing in The National last month, Elias Muhanna commented:

Moves to eliminate political confessionalism in Lebanon have a long history of failure, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Leftist political parties and secularists advocated for the abolition of the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Taif Agreement (which ended the country’s 15-year civil war) called explicitly for the establishment of a non-confessional bicameral legislature, a demand that has gone unheeded for two decades.

In 2006, a Lebanese civil-society group launched a media campaign comprised of satirical newspaper advertisements and billboards that purported to offer jobs and services to members of specific sects: parking spots for Christians, doctors who catered only to Sunnis, a modelling agency searching for beautiful Shiite women. If the goal was to provoke debate about the infiltration of sectarianism into every aspect of Lebanese society, the campaign was a great success: in many neighbourhoods, billboards were defaced by angry residents who mistook feigned bigotry for the real deal.

But while many find the commingling of politics and religion to be odious, most Lebanese seem to regard the prospect of surrendering the imagined security provided by these arrangements far worse than whatever putative benefits a more democratic and non-confessional government might produce.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 April 2010. Comment

Death on the roads

Twenty-four people from a single family died yesterday when 
a pick-up truck overturned in Marib province, Yemen.

Traffic accidents in Yemen (population 23m+) cost around 3,000 lives a year, according to official figures. This is probably not far off the death rate in the recent Houthi war – the main difference being that on the roads people are not actually trying to kill each other.

The figure for Saudi Arabia (pop 28m+) is even higher: 6,000 a year. More than a third of the kingdom's road accidents are said to be caused by people driving through red lights.

For comparison, Britain (pop 61m+) had just over 2,500 road deaths in 2008. This was the lowest figure on record and it continued a steady decline in casualties since the 1960s.

Of course, there are a lot of factors to be taken into account when making such comparisons. Yemen's precipitous mountain roads are an obvious one, plus poverty – which results in badly maintained vehicles – and police who take bribes for allowing dangerous drivers and unroadworthy vehicles to continue on their way. 

Also, governments in the Middle East rarely take an interest in public safety unless they are embarrassed into doing so (the recent crackdown on dangerous ships in the Red Sea being a possible exception).

Overlying all that, though, is a general sense of fatalism: that the lives of travellers are in the hands of God rather than humans.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 April 2010. Comment

Jordan textbooks still inadequate

Education specialists in Jordan "have become increasingly outspoken" about continuing problems with school textbooks, according to The National

In 2003, recognising that the existing curriculum was inadequate for the needs of a modern society, Jordan launched an initiative "to strengthen and integrate critical thinking, problem solving, workplace skills and e-learning approaches" in the core curriculum.

Despite improvements since then, "we still feel that some of the books are loaded with information that is useless and is cumbersome to students,” Amin Mashaqbah, a former member of a committee that rewrote the books, told the newspaper. 

Education in Arab schools has traditionally relied very heavily on memorising and this persists in parts of the Jordanian curriculum.

“The material is so condensed and it does not make us think. We memorise it and forget about it after the test. It is full of rhetoric. … We have to memorise, memorise and memorise,” one student says, referring to the civil education textbook. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 April 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (8) 

A Kuwaiti woman who killed her Asian maid has had her 15-year jail sentence reduced to seven years by an appeal court. 

The woman, who has not been named, reportedly hit the maid with "iron and wooden objects", then pushed her into a bathtub and left her motionless for 10 hours until she died. 

The reduced jail sentence came after the charge against the woman was amended from charge from "intentional killing" to "beating that led to death". 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 April 2010. Comment

Journalists to be freed

In Yemen, President Salih has ordered the release of three journalists from Aden's oldest newspaper, al-Ayyam. 

Al-Ayyam was one of six papers banned last May, allegedly for supporting "separatism" in the south of Yemen. The three journalists – Hani Hisham Bashraheel, Mohammed Hisham Bashraheel and Arhab Hassan Yassin – were arrested in January following a confrontation with security forces outside the paper's office. 

It sounds as though the paper may also be allowed to resume publication provided that it respects "the country's law and constitution" (as interpreted, presumably, by President Salih). The paper's director, Bashraheel Hisham Bashraheel, told AFP: "There is an agreement which we cannot disclose at the moment until the release of our three colleagues." 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 April 2010. Comment

Another child marriage scandal 

Today's Arab News reports another horror story of child marriage from Saudi Arabia. It concerns a 10-year-old girl and an 80-year-old man who abandoned her after six months of marriage. It was not until 10 years later that she discovered he had actually divorced her but had failed to inform her.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 April 2010. Comment

Crackdown on dangerous ships

Top-heavy: the ill-fated Salam Boccaccio ferry

Four years after the Red Sea ferry, Salam Boccaccio, sank with the loss of more than 1,000 lives, there are at last signs of a crackdown on unseaworthy vessels in the area.

Surprise inspections of 24 ships operating between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan have resulted in "a number" of them being confined to port, according to Arab News. The exact number has not been disclosed but the paper says 40%-60% of passengers are affected and the shipping companies are losing $500,000 a week as a result. Three out of four vessels plying between Sudan and Saudi Arabia have been halted.

The Egyptian-owned Salam Boccaccio capsized and sank in February 2006 after a fire broke out on board. Modifications to increase its capacity had made it unstable and an accumulation of water used to fight the fire, together with strong winds, is thought to have been the final straw.

An Egyptian parliamentary inquiry blamed the ferry company for the disaster. The ship's owner, Mamdouh Ismael – a well-connected member of the upper house of parliament – was allowed to flee Egypt, allegedly with help from senior officials. He was tried in his absence two years later along with four others and initially acquitted of all charges. The captain of a passing ship which had failed to stop and assist was sentenced to six months in jail. 

Last year, an appeal court overturned Ismael's acquittal and 
sentenced him to seven years in jail – though he remained at liberty abroad.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 April 2010. Comment

First Moroccan gay magazine

Morocco's first gay magazine was launched this month, in print and on the internet. Mithly (Arabic for "gay") says it aims to give a voice to "lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals, to express themselves despite the fact that the authorities pretend that they do not exist." 

It is being produced in Spain by the Moroccan LGBT organisation, Kifkif, but copies are reportedly on sale in Morocco under the counter. 

Currently, Mithly is thought to be the only gay Arab magazine in existence – though it is not the first. A Lebanese magazine, Barra ("Out"), written in Arabic and English, ran to three issues (here, here and here) in 2005-2006.

Article 489 of the Moroccan penal code of Morocco punishes “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex” with up to three years in prison.

For further reports about the launch of Mithly, see: Blog Média & LGBT (in French), Le Soir (Belgium, in French) and AlarabOnline (in Arabic).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 April 2010. Comment

, 22 April: I've been taken to task for saying "Mithly is thought to be the only gay Arab magazine in existence". Sorry – though it does depend (a bit) on how you define a gay magazine.

  • In Lebanon there is Bekhsoos, published online by the people at Meem. The Los Angeles Times has an article about it here.

  • In Jordan, there is My Kali (in English), published in print and online.

  • There's also Gay Middle East, though personally I think of it more as a news website than a magazine.

The future of Arabic (2)

Here's a further contribution from Benjamin Geer on the subject of coining new words in Arabic. I'm quoting his email in full:

You write:

Take the word "toxic". In English, we can add bits to make "toxicology" and "toxicologist". Arabic, with its three-letter root system, can't do this. For "toxicology" you have to say "the science of poisons", while "toxicologist" becomes "a specialist in the science of poisons". Basically, it means adding whole words rather than syllables and the more technical it gets, the more cumbersome it is to express complex scientific ideas in Arabic.

Actually, the most common Arabic term for "toxicologist" is أخصائي سموم.  It has the fewer letters than "toxicologist", and only six syllables as opposed to five, so it's hardly more cumbersome. Why does it matter that it's two words instead of one? And in this case, the meaning of the Arabic term is clear to non-specialists, whereas the meaning of the English term is not.

Another point is that the way new words are constructed in English results in concise terms with a very precise meaning, and little room for ambiguity. For example, "anaesthesia" and its related words have a very clear medical context in English, while the relevant Arabic roots, b-n-j and kh-d-r, are potentially more ambiguous because they have more general connotations
relating to drugs and narcotics.

All languages are rife with polysemy. You can always cherry-pick examples of words that are more precise in one language than their equivalents in some other language, but if you look at language overall, you find that polysemy is everywhere, and that technical terms often have a variety of more general meanings. A "ring" can be a circular piece of jewellery, a square space where boxing matches are held, a certain kind of algebraic structure in mathematics, or the structure of the molecules in certain chemical compounds. A "track" can be a strip of ground where races are held, a metal bar on which a train moves, or a sequence of sectors on a compact disc. A "head" can part of the human body, part of the hard disc in your computer, or part of a syntactic structure in linguistics. A "base" can be a military installation, the radix in an exponential expression in arithmetic, or a certain type of liquid in chemistry. None of these ambiguities poses the slightest problem in practice, because context enables us to identify the relevant meaning.

Obviously, some new English words need explanation, though many do not. Very often, a native speaker can quite easily work out what they mean without help from anyone else, or having to look them up in a dictionary.

Your example of "toxicology" shows that this happens in Arabic, too. However, I think that in reality, very few technical terms in any language are immediately comprehensible to someone without specialised training. I suggest you open a dictionary of technical terms in mathematics, medicine, computer science or physics, and see how many words you can understand without help.

Before making judgements about the ease or difficulty of coining technical terms in Arabic, I think you should talk to people who are actually doing it. In my fields (sociology and linguistics), I've found that Arab researchers are doing a very good job of translating the latest terminology into Arabic. In my view, their efforts demonstrate that, far from being cumbersome, Arabic is fully capable of expressing current scientific concepts in a straightforward and convenient way.

I won't respond at the moment, but it would be nice to hear some thoughts about this from native Arabic speakers.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 April 2010. Comment

'Vote-buying' in poetry contest

Allegations of vote-buying are casting a cloud over the results of the great Arabic TV poetry contest which ended earlier this month.

Nasser al-Ajami, a Kuwaiti, walked away with the the top prize of $1.36m. But it has now emerged that victory came at a price: his tribe spent millions of dinars [1KD = $3.46] organising votes in his support.

According to The National, Mishal bin Hethlain, a leading sheikh of the Ajami tribe, "co-ordinated a fundraiser to persuade wealthy members of the tribe to donate":

The money was used to raise al-Ajami’s profile in the media and send bulk text messages through the country’s telecommunications companies to encourage Kuwaitis to vote.

Some tribesmen ... said the bin Hethlain family distributed grants worth hundreds of dinars among the tribe to cover the costs of the text votes; others who attended were happy to pay out of their own pockets.

"I voted about 400 times, which cost me about 200 dinars ($700)," said Naif al Ajami, 38, a detective at the ministry of interior. He said he was keen to give his support to al-Ajami because although “he isn’t my cousin, he is closely related to me”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 April 2010. Comment

The future of Arabic

Further to yesterday's discussion about the future of the Arabic language, Benjamin Geer writes:

"Arabs often switch to English when discussing technical subjects simply because they've studied those subjects only in English, or because Arabic equivalents for many technical terms either haven't been coined or haven't become well-known. And the reasons for this are social, not linguistic.

"Medieval Arab scientists had no trouble coining all the technical terms they needed in astronomy, mathematics, optics, medicine, etc., and many of those terms have entered the English language as a result: algebra, alkaline, algorithm, almanac, zenith, nadir, azimuth, and so on. (Is the meaning of those words obvious, or did you have to learn what they meant?) 

"The difference is that today, the dominant language of science is English. Standardisation and dissemination of new technical terms in any language don't happen without an active community of scientists who publish research in that language, a well-developed publishing industry that makes current scientific knowledge accessible to laypeople, and good schools that integrate that knowledge into their curricula. All of these are in short supply in the Arab world."

I agree that the early Arab/Muslim scientists developed many terms that were later absorbed into everyday English and that a lack of effort or incentives may be one of the reasons why few technical terms are created in Arabic today. But I still think it's more difficult to create them in Arabic than in English.

Take the word "toxic". In English, we can add bits to make "toxicology" and "toxicologist". Arabic, with its three-letter root system, can't do this. For "toxicology" you have to say "the science of poisons", while "toxicologist" becomes "a specialist in the science of poisons". Basically, it means adding whole words rather than syllables and the more technical it gets, the more cumbersome it is to express complex scientific ideas in Arabic.

Another point is that the way new words are constructed in English results in concise terms with a very precise meaning, and little room for ambiguity. For example, "anaesthesia" and its related words have a very clear medical context in English, while the relevant Arabic roots, b-n-j and kh-d-r, are potentially more ambiguous because they have more general connotations relating to drugs and narcotics. 

Yesterday, I wrote that when new Arabic words are coined, "the precise meaning may only become apparent (even to Arabs) through repeated use in a specific context" and Benjamin suggests this is true in all languages.

But I still think there is an important difference here between English and Arabic. Obviously, some new English words need explanation, though many do not. Very often, a native speaker can quite easily work out what they mean without help from anyone else, or having to look them up in a dictionary. And, I would contend, this happens far more often in English than in Arabic. Try the following words for size (they are all recent additions to the Oxford dictionary):

  • agroterrorism

  • celebutante

  • obesogenic

  • upskill

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 April 2010. Comment

Is Arabic dying?

"Arabic will die out if it is locked up in classrooms." That was the provocative headline of an article by Achraf El Bahi in The National a few days ago. Lamenting that "proficiency in Arabic, proper grammar, conjugation and a broad use of vocabulary are seen as the sole purview of language geeks," the article says:

"Fluency in French and English in the Middle East and North Africa has come to imply intelligence, erudition and even affluence, even if that person struggles with Arabic. 

"Many Arabs feel that speaking modern standard Arabic, the form of the language taught at school, is something of a burdensome, if not embarrassing, endeavour. It is not the local dialect that they use at home and on the street, which they speak with ease."

Such complaints are not at all uncommon. Last year, for example, the Arab Knowledge Report noted the comparative dearth of Arabic content on the internet and called for a "revitalisation" of the Arabic language.

El Bahi's article has provoked comment from a number of bloggers. Michael Collins Dunn, writing for the Middle East Institute's blog, says

"I suspect that this article somewhat overstates the case. Yes, many Arabs do not have a fluent command of Modern Standard Arabic, for the well-known reason that it is no one's native tongue ...

"But it seems extreme to suggest, as the editorialist does, that Modern Standard Arabic will die out if not emphasised more. The fundamental thing that has bound the various dialects of Arabic together, so that they do not separate as the Romance languages did from their Latin roots, is the Qur'an and the fact that the dialects are not themselves normally written (except for occasional plays or political cartoons). While that has impeded the spread of literacy, it has maintained a certain unity for the Arabic language, intimately tied, as it is, to Islam through the Qur'an."

That Arabic is the language of Islam is certainly an important factor in helping to preserve it, but the same was once true of Latin. Thanks to Christianity, Latin survived for several centuries after the fall of the Roman empire but the Latin Bible did not ultimately save the language from fragmenting into French, Italian, Spanish, etc.

I think a stronger argument in favour of Modern Standard Arabic today is that it provides a practical means for Arabs from various countries to communicate with each other (albeit in rather limited but important circumstances, such as the news media). I can't see the need for that declining and, with the growth of modern communications, it might even increase.

There is a problem, though. I've heard Lebanese editors grumbling, for instance, that journalists who can write "good" Arabic are in short supply. And who can blame students if, with an eye on their future careers, they put more effort into mastering English than Modern Standard Arabic?

The other problem is that Arabic is not particularly well suited to creating new words. "If you’re an Arab," El Bahi writes, "ask yourself: how do you say 'zipper' in your supposed mother tongue?" 

The Ruh of Brown Folks blog retorts that El Bahi ought to know better:

"The word for "zipper" is سحاب in Modern Standard and سوستة in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. More to the point, it's completely irrelevant whether Arabs know how to say "zipper" in their mother tongue, or just use the English word. Zippers are called "zíper" in Portuguese and "jippa" or "fasuna" in Japanese (from "zipper" and "fastener," respectively). German, Italian, French, and Spanish all have official, native words for "zipper," yet a variant of "zipper" or "zip" is popularly used in those languages as well. Are they all also in danger of dying out?

"The fact is that most major world languages, including Spanish, French, and yes, Arabic, don't have a native word for many such everyday items as "telephone" and "television". Instead, they've simply borrowed the English word, and they're no worse off for it. More than 60% of English vocabulary is of foreign origin (including such basic words as "table", from French), yet somehow English appears to be surviving."

Borrowing from other languages is OK, up to a point. In comparison with many languages, though, Arabic does seem less capable of devising new words that sound authentically Arabic. Of course there are some but the three-letter root system restricts the scope for doing this and the precise meaning may only become apparent (even to Arabs) through repeated use in a specific context.

For example, sahhaab ("zipper") – used mainly in Syria and Palestine, according to Wehr's dictionary – comes from the root s-h-b which has connotations of withdrawing, dragging or unsheathing. It's quite a neat word for "zipper" when you think about it, but the connection is not immediately obvious.

Modern Standard Arabic may be fine for literature and talking politics but it rapidly becomes inadequate when the vocabulary starts getting technical and loan-words are needed by the bucketful – so many that Arabs often give up and use English instead.

Some years ago, when I was doing an Arabic course in Jordan, the class was taken to see a man who was researching solar energy. After a few sentences of Arabic he switched to English. The teacher stopped him and explained that the point of our visit was to gain practice in listening to Arabic. 

"I'm sorry," said the man, "but I can't. I don't have the words for it."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 April 2010. Comment

Sectarian violence in Egypt

Few countries are immune to the possibility of communal violence, but they differ in how they deal with it and what steps they take in the aftermath to prevent a recurrence.

A new report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights looks at the growing problem of sectarian violence in Egypt and finds that the government has no long-term strategy: "Viewing such incidents purely as an issue of security, it seeks only to impose order and calm on the affected area," the EIPR says

When violence does break out, the first reaction of many officials is to deny that it has any sectarian basis:

"Nothing is more indicative of this than statements made by the governor of Minya to al-Watani al-Youm, the mouthpiece of the ruling National Democratic Party, on 24 November 2009. Speaking to the paper, he denied any instances of sectarian violence in his governorate, which is, in fact, the site of the largest percentage of cases in Egypt."

The report continues: 

"In the period under review, the state viewed sectarian violence as purely an issue of security. As such, it wholly failed to deal with the problem, viewing it as a series of isolated events in the absence of any comprehensive understanding of its causes, manifestations or solutions. It falls to the Ministry of Interior, specifically the State Security Investigations, to deal with each incident ... As for the remainder of state ministries, they normally distance themselves from sectarian violence and tension, as if it has nothing to do with them."

While security forces seem constantly at the ready to clamp down on anti-Mubarak demonstrations, "in cases of sectarian violence, the police are unable and sometimes unwilling to intervene to protect the homes and property of Copts, particularly in attacks that take the form of collective retribution and involve large numbers of Muslims," the report says. 

"In some cases this may be due to the fact that the assailants outnumber security forces, making the latter fearful of engaging them and risking losses in their own ranks.

"A clear example of the inability or unwillingness to engage is seen in the violence that took place in Dayrout in the Assyout governorate on 24 October 2009. In that case, the violence began at 10:30 am and security forces refrained from intervening until 3 pm, leaving Muslims free for five hours to attack five churches and numerous pharmacies and shops."

In the aftermath of sectarian violence, the usual approach is to impose "reconciliation" – which in practice means dropping charges against the perpetrators and forcing victims to withdraw complaints against them.

"Of the crimes of sectarian violence documented by the EIPR over the last two years in Minya, exactly zero have been referred to trial. Virtually the same situation obtains in all other governorates that were the scene of violence. In the very few cases that are brought before the courts, investigators have not done sufficient work to identify the perpetrators; in addition, proper legal procedures are not followed and insufficient evidence is presented to the court. The result is acquittal."

This, the report says, has "made impunity the rule in these crimes".

"In short, assailants feel a sense of victory twice: once when they are able to carry out their criminal assaults against a weaker party and again when the state stands beside them and protects them from any punishment for their actions. 

"By the same token, this impunity leaves victims feeling like strangers and second-class citizens in their own country. First they are attacked simply because they are Christians and then the state does not bring them justice; it does not even stand by as a neutral party, but chooses to stand with the assailants against them."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 April 2010. Comment

Protests sweep Yemen

Demonstrators took to the streets of numerous cities throughout Yemen yesterday in what appears to have been the biggest nationwide protest for some years.

Organised by the Joint Meeting Parties (the main opposition grouping), the demonstrations highlighted a host of grievances, including poverty, hunger, price rises and government repression.

Although protests in the south are now routine, the those in the north show that public discontent is not confined to the southern separatists and ought to be a worrying sign for the government.

Reports: Reuters, AFP, Sahwa.net, Yemen Post.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 April 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




April 2010

Misery of the housemaids (9)

Renewed violence in northern Yemen

Apartheid in Saudi Arabia

'Obscenity' of 1001 Nights

Solidarity against ElBaradei

Security men assault Yemeni Jew

Big news: Briton unhurt

Battle of Baalbek

Fred Halliday, RIP

Magazine closed, writer threatened

'Civil marriage, not civil war'

Rewarding Syria?

BBC tackles an Arab taboo

Yemen's snake-dancing president

Blogger imprisoned without charge

Marching for secularism in Lebanon

Death on the roads

Jordan textbooks still inadequate

Misery of the housemaids (8) 

Journalists to be freed

Another child marriage scandal 

Crackdown on dangerous ships

First Moroccan gay magazine

The future of Arabic (2)

'Vote-buying' in poetry contest

The future of Arabic

Is Arabic dying?

Sectarian violence in Egypt

Protests sweep Yemen

Arms dealer's assets frozen

Hepatitis man, 65, to wed girl aged 11

Misery of the housemaids (7)

Kuwait deports more Egyptians

Saudi cleric's lady friends

Kuwait deports ElBaradei supporters

Misery of the housemaids (6)

Middle East bookshelf: Yemen

Kuwait arrests ElBaradei supporters

Child bride bleeds to death

Third place for Saudi poetess

Yemen frets about its flag

Cairo protests suppressed

Egyptian hashish crisis

Al-Qaeda leaders 'quit Yemen for Somalia'

Smearing ElBaradei

Writer accused of apostasy

Arrested publisher is released

Randa's story

Emo shock for Saudis

From souqs to super-mall

Saudi Arabia, mother of parliaments

Not praying in vain ...

ElBaradei interview

The Great Escape, or not

TV fortune-teller to be beheaded

Corruption news


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 30 April, 2010