Monday, 30 May 2011

Book covers promote orientalist portrayal of Muslim women

They say never judge a book by its cover. Yet how does the picture gracing the front of a book construe its characters to the reader, and what impression do certain images convey about the subjects they discuss?

Many a book on the Middle East, its women, its extremists and some of its fiction has been increasingly appearing on western bookshelves in the last decade or so. But even a fleeting glance at these book covers displays a remarkable lack of understanding of the region and a continual stubborn tendency to portray the Arab East through orientalist spectacles.

Look at this collage of recent books about Muslim women. Almost of all them are biographical (memoirs) or deal with issues facing  women in the wider Middle East.

Notice immediately that the two books below the top right-hand corner have the same cover picture, as do the two in the bottom left-hand corner. No women are presented as unveiled, and some of the images evoke an semi-erotic harem-like depiction, especially the three on the right hand side from the bottom up.

It’s particularly disappointing that Nawal El Saadawi has surrendered her books to these stereotypes seeing that she herself champions womens’ emancipation and abhors the veil in any of its manifestations (two of her books appear at the bottom of the above picture).

The images of veiled women, especially the close ups of the eyes, act to extricate these women from their identities or their realities. Instead they become a popular image for consumption, as demonstrated by the fact that most of these images are available from stock-image websites or image libraries such as Getty. One of the authors seen in the image above is Jean Sasson, an American who has made a career by penning the lives of Saudi princesses and their escapades. Her later book Mayada (in the picture above) tells the story of a well-heeled Iraqi woman of Ottoman descent and distinction. She was arbitrarily arrested under Saddam’s Bath party and shared a jail cell with other Iraqi women. 

The book describes the harrowing torture these women suffered in Iraqi detention on spurious charges. Sasson’s books are an incredible read mind you, but have a look at  the cover of another of her  books (right). Another stock image of a veiled woman in heavy mascara and eye-liner.

We saw Sasson's Mayada in the collage above, but take note of these two German translations of the very same book:
They portray veiled women with no background images- these memoirs are simply telling the bookshop browser ‘here’s another oppressed woman who will unveil if only you would read me’. Nothing of the scenes and incidents in the book are captured (I've read the book three times). What remains is the submissive delicate woman with eyes either averted or staring the reader directly in the eye. 
 The irony of these books is that the stories they tell often refute popular assumptions about Arabo-Islamic Muslims- these are stories of women overcoming torture, facing draconian traditions, discussing the illicit details of Lolita in a clandestine book group in Tehran, and finding their voices. Yet the covers portray the exact opposite. The casual bookshop browser of course would not be aware of this.

To that extent, the trivialized images on the covers of these books can be described as orientalist- they do nothing to expel the tired stereotypical images of the Middle East that we are fed from an early age. The cover on the above left displays an sexually enticing woman robed in a romantic-red veil. For a book recounting torture in Iraqi prisons, it's a very suggestive cover. What it does evoke, however, is the nineteenth century European fascination with the Hareem women. The woman in the picture does not even look Arab, let alone Iraqi.

It is not the writers of the books that are to blame, it is the publishing houses that design the covers to a certain specification- what they feel the public readership wants. And according to these publishers, it seems the readers still want these clichéd images of lone, veiled women with heavy mascara. It sells. Books on these sort of issues published and sold in the Middle East itself are not sold with these banal images (although it may be fair to say they have their own stock designs). 

Much of our (by 'our' I mean western) actions in the Arab and wider Muslim world are unfortunate catastrophes of presumption and intervention justified on the sort of orientalist stereotypes perpetuated in material like the book covers above (I'm not commentating on the value of the books' content by the way). 

 Publishers must become more aware of how their cover designs speak to their audiences.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Arabic words recognized differently by the brain

The field of neurolinguisitics has recently shed light on how the brain deals with Arabic and whether this process is different from other languages. Recent findings from the University of Haifa suggest that "brain's right hemisphere is not involved in the initial processes of reading in Arabic, due to the graphic complexity of Arabic script" and that acquisition of Arabic reading skills for native speakers is more difficult than English for example. Another research paper released recently shows how Arabic words are best understood by the brain when it focuses on the center of the word as it appears on a page, due to the semantic root structure of Arabic words. English differs in that readers focus on the beginning and end of words. These findings are not exactly surprising, but it's nonetheless exciting to see more mainstream linguistic studies of Arabic available. 
This article is taken directly from the Dash24 news service and based on a research paper published by the University of Leicester- 
Arabic readers recognise words in a different way from readers of other languages a new study has discovered.
This doctoral research at the University of Leicester is analysing the reading differences of individuals as well as across languages - and has shown dissimilarities in how Arabic readers recognise words.
Conducted by Abubaker Almabruk from the School of Psychology, the study has shown there are clear differences in how the right and left sides of the brain recognise Arabic words. 
Almabruk’s study is one of the first to examine the cognitive and physiological processes underlying word recognition and reading in Arabic, providing important insight into the effects of direction of reading, the form of the script and the construction of the language.
His research reveals the intricacies of an everyday behaviour that most people find relatively easy and will help explain why some people find it difficult to read and provide insights into how these difficulties might be remedied.
Almabruk commented:
“Differences in left and right brain function influence the recognition of words each side of where a reader is looking on a page but only when these words are outside of central vision – this reveals both left/right brain specialisation for reading and evidence that the two halves of the brain collaborate when making sense of words in central vision. Native Arabic readers recognise Arabic words most efficiently when they fixate these words at their very centre.” 
“This shows that where we look in a word is very important for reading and the findings for Arabic are different from findings for English and other western languages, which are read most efficiently by looking at a location between the beginning and middle of the word.”
On the possible causes for the reading differences, he said that "this might have happened because Arabic is read from right to left and words are formed from cursive text (i.e., the letters in Arabic naturally join together, even in printed formats, much like hand-written text in English).”
Dr Kevin Paterson from the School of Psychology added:
“Arabic is one of the oldest and most beautiful languages, and the second-most widely used language in the world, yet how it is read and understood has received surprisingly little attention. The experimental approach that Abubaker has taken in his research promises to reveal a huge amount about how this language and other languages are read and understood.” 

Friday, 27 May 2011

Aleppo-born linguist: we are able to conceive of ourselves and others only through language

The linguist Émile Benveniste was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1902 and became a renowned semiotician and structural linguist in France where he lectured. I came across his essay, Subjectivity in Language and found it an inspiring text on the connection between the self and language the establishment or reproduction of his own self through language. In his essay, Benveniste opines that language is fundamentally essential for our ability, as human beings, to conceive of ourselves, and that this necessarily occurs through language as each speaker appropriates the pronoun ‘I’, placing all things in the universe as objects in relation to himself as the subject. That the speaker designates himself as ‘I’, infers that he conceives of his conversation partner as ‘you’, hence establishing the very essence of the self through the mutual relationship between the two pronouns. Only by this appropriation is a human able to identify himself as a ‘person’, and access the consciousness of others.

A speaker can only identify himself as a person by appropriating for himself the pronoun ‘I’ since this condition is fundamental to subjectivity.

Benveniste’s style is so lucid that I have mainly quoted him in this post.

Subjectivity in Language

Émile Benveniste opens by visiting the seemingly obvious and popular assertion that language is the instrument of communication. Language does, after all, transmit what I intend to communicate, and it elicits an adequate response from my interlocutor (speech partner). In that sense, it acts in terms of stimuli and response according to the behaviourist model and this supports the idea of language as an instrument for communication. Yet upon closer examination we realise we are in fact here describing discourse- language put into action. In other words we are claiming that language is an instrument because it is an instrument. The author then dismantles the notion of language conceived of as an instrument as unhelpful, since it implies an opposition between man and nature. Instruments such as the wheel or the sword are not in nature but in man’s nature, whilst language is inherent to man’s own nature.  It is naïve to conceptualize primordial man, in his complete state, stumbling across another human being and the two of them contriving a language together from scratch. We will never get back to man as reduced to himself (without language) and able to conceive of the existence of another by means other than linguistic. In the world what we find is a speaking man: language provides the very definition of man. In short, to view language as an object of any sort is to ignore its characteristics of immateriality, its articulated arrangement, and the fact that it has content. The moment we employ language, we instrumentalize it, yet this does not engender that language can be called an instrument. Rather, the instrumental function belongs to the act of speech, which itself is a manifestation of language.

So we have established that speech is a mere function of communication, which itself is only the actualization of language. What is it therefore that enables us to render language into communication? It is explained by a function residing deep within language itself.

Benvenist then comments, ‘It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language alone establishes the concept of “ego” in reality, in its reality which is that of the being’.

The ability of the speaker to posit himself as the ‘subject’ is known in linguists as ‘subjectivity’. Subjectivity is a fundamental property of language. It is not the feeling that everybody experiences of being himself, but as the ‘psychic unity that transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that makes the permanence of the consciousness’.

We can only be conscious of ourselves by experience of contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone I identify as you in addressing them. As Beneviste notes, ‘it is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally I becomes you in the address of the one who in his turn designates himself as I. Thus language is possible ‘only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself to I in his discourse. Because of this, I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me. This polarity of persons is the fundamental condition in language, of which the process of communication, in we share, is only a mere pragmatic consequence’.

This polarity is particular in that it can be found nowhere outside language-‘the polarity does not mean either equality or symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible.’ No parallel to this exists in the universe; the condition of man in language is unique’.

The implications of this are enormous. Benevist puts it so well that I can merely quote him, ‘[...] the old antimonies of “I” and “the other”, of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term, whether this unique term be the “I”, which must be established in the individual’s own consciousness in order to become accessible to that of the fellow human being, or whether it be, on the contrary, society, which as a totality would pre-exist the individual and from which the individual could only be disengaged gradually, in proportion to his acquisition of self-consciousness. It is a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.’

But must the basis of this understanding of oneself in relation to ‘the other’ be based in language? Could it be that the ‘ego’ can be expressed outside of language? Benveniste argues that language is fundamental to subjectivity. He demonstrates this by the existence of personal pronouns in all languages and in all regions and ages known to man. Though it is easy to overlook, pronouns such as “I” and “you” are inherent to all languages. In fact, ‘a language without the expression of person cannot be imagined’. What makes pronouns distinguishable from all other linguistic designations is that they neither refer to a concept nor to an individual. As Benveniste illustrates, there is no single concept of “I” that in one moment incorporates all the I’s being uttered at any given moment, whilst there is in fact a single concept of “tree” to which every single utterance of the word tree refers. Of course, speakers may be referring to a specific tree or a type of tree, yet they are aware at the same time that the designate of “tree” is stable. As the author continues, ‘The “I” then, does not denominate any lexical entity. Could it then be said that I refers to a particular individual? If that were the case, a permanent contradiction would be admitted into language, and anarchy into its use. How could the same term refer indifferently to any individual whatsoever and still at the same time identify him in his individuality? We are in the presence of a class of words, the “personal pronouns” that escape the status of all the other signs of language. Then, what does I refer to? To something peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in what we have called elsewhere an instance of discourse and that has only a momentary reference... It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker designates himself as the “subject”.

It is therefore true that the basis of subjectivity is in language. As Benveniste notes, ‘Language is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I... Language is accordingly the possibility of subjectivity because it always contains the linguistic forms appropriate to the expression of subjectivity, and discourse provokes the emergence of subjectivity because it consists of discrete instances. In some way language puts forth “empty” forms which each speaker, in the existence of discourse, appropriates to himself and which he relates to his “person”, at the same time defining himself as I and a partner as you. The instance of discourse is thus constitutive of all the coordinates that define the subject [...]’.

It is therefore the case that subjectivity, (that ‘psychic unity that transcends the totality of the actual experiences it assembles and that makes the permanence of the consciousness’), as expressed in language, creates the category of person.

The material in this post is based on the essay Subjectivity in Language by Émile Benveniste and appeared in his book ‘Problems in General Linguistics’, as well as Journal de Psychologie 55 (July-September 1958)

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

كتاب المقامات الأدبية: مقامات الحريري

 بقلم فرح ناصيف
لأبي محمد بن القاسم بن علي بن محمد بن عثمان الحريري البصري

تاريخ النشر:1289 هجري
 مطبعة الجوائب في قسنطينة

إحدى أكثر كتب المقامات شهرة وتنافسِ الأمراء باقتناء نسخه. وهو الكتاب الرابع من كتب المقامات حسب التسلسل التاريخي،
 والمقامات  هي  نوع من أنواع الفنون الأدبية النثرية المطعمة بالشعر أي إنها اقرب إلى أن تكون قصة مسجوعة أو حكاية خيالية أدبية لها نفس البطل في كل المقامات

و مقامات الحريري تضم خمسين مقامة،في كتابه هذا جعل الحريري بطلها الحارث بن همام البصري، وهو اسم بلا مسمى، و جعل راويها أبا زيد السروجي وهو شخصية حقيقية، قام أولا بإنشاء المقامة الحرامية، ثم بنى عليها سائر المقامات و ولمقامته شروح كثيرة جداً،على أن أجودها شروح أبي العباس الشريشي   . وقد ترجمت مقاماته إلى العبرية  تلبية لرغبة أصدقائه الذين شغفوا بالأدب العربي في طليطلة. وسمى ترجمته (حكايات إيتيئيل) كاسم لبطل هذه المقامات بدلا من الاسم العربي كذلك ترجمت حاليا إلى كلا من الفرنسية والانكليزية والألمانية

مقامات الحريري لها مكانة عظيمة عند أهل الأدب واللغة والبيان والبلاغة، بما حفلت به من فنون البلاغة النثرية التي تقرب من ضرب من ضروب أوزانها إلى الجرس الشعري، ولم تقف بلاغة الحريري اللغوية من جناس وطباق وتشبيه وكناية وغيرها في فنون البيان بل تعداه إلى السياق الذي قاد به جنود ألفاظه والذي عكس في كل مقامة من هذه القامات صور عن العصر الذي عاش فيه، حتى أن القارئ يستطيع استشفاف جوانباً من الحياة الاجتماعية والسياسية وحتى الاقتصادية التي كانت ساندة في زمان ذاك المبدع. فقد عاش الحريري في أواخر العهد العباسي الثاني ذلك العصر الذي تميز بالنزاعات السياسية  وضعف مركز الخليفة في بغداد آنذاك إلا أن  حركة التأليف والترجمة كانت على أشدها وظهر العديد من المؤرخين والجغرافيين والعلماء

 أبو محمد القاسم بن علي بن محمد بن عثمان الحريري البصري الحرامي.
 فالحريري نسبة إلى الحرير وعمله أو بيعه، والحرامي نسبة إلى سكة بني حرام، وهم قبيلة من العرب سكنوا هذه السكة بالبصرة فنسب إليهم، وكان يزعم أنه من ربيعة الفرس.
ولد الحريري سنة1054م هجري ونشأ في المشان أو (مشان البصرة)وهي بليدة فوق البصرة كثيرة النخل، وموصوفة بشدة الوخم، كان له فيها ثمانية عشر ألف نخلة، ولعله بملكيتها عُدَّ من ذوي اليسار.
أخذ الحريري علوم اللغة والأدب والفقه من علماء البصرة،
ولي الحريري منصب «صاحب الخبر» في ديوان الخلافة بالبصرة، وظل في هذا المنصب حتى مات، سنة 1122فتوارثه عنه ولده وللحريري مصنفات أخرى غير المقامات أشهرها كتاب «دُرَّة الغوّاص في أوهام الخَوَاص»
ومن مصنفات الحريري «مُلْحة الأعراب في صناعة الإعراب» وهي منظومة في النحو. وكتاب شرح «ملحة الأعراب» المسمى «تُحْفَة الأحباب وطرفة الأصحاب».

وللحريري أشعار تبدو مظهراً للبراعة اللغوية أكثر من بدوِّها نماذج للإبداع الأدبي، منها قصائد استعمل فيها الألغاز والتجنيس من مثل قوله:

لا تَغترِرْ ببني الزمان ولا تقُلْ
                                                          عند الشدائد لي أخ ونديمُ
جرَّبتُهم فإذا المُعاقِرُ عاقرٌ
                                                       والآلُ آلٌ والحميم حميمُ

أراد بالمعاقر: المنادم الذي يتعاقر معه الخمر. وبكلمة عاقر: الجارح، من عقر الذبيحة.
والآل الأولى: الأهل، وآل الثانية: السراب. والحميم حميم: أي الصديق الحميم كالماء الحار المحرق
والمتأمل في مصنفات الحريري بما حملت من عناوين، وفي أسلوبه فيها وجرأته على اللغة، يستخلص أن المخزون اللغوي لديه كان غزيراً متنوعاً، وأن جل اهتمامه كان منصرفاً إلى ميدان الدلالات اللغوية أكثر

الشريشي: أحمد بن عبد المؤمن بن موسى بن عيسى ابن عبد المؤمن القيسي أبو العباس الشريشي الأندلسي المالكي النحوي توفي سنة 619 هجري يعد أفضل من قام بشرح مقامات الحريري الأدبية