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Power, Language, and Identity in MENA Contexts

Panel IX-13, sponsored byn/a, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel takes diachronic but overlapping approaches to the question of how language–and dynamics of representation and societal renovation thereof–has structured power and identity in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of South and Central Asia. Each paper analyzes the role of language in terms of its intersection with race, religion, class, ability, and agency within states and colonial entities. We underscore the impacts of particular social and political projects and discourses concerning language and identity through comparative consideration of how approaches to language learning and language use transform across time and space. Thus, while one paper assesses the ‘false choice’ between Hebrew and Arabic amongst Arab-Jewish writers in Israel in the face of economic realities and the threat of authorial oblivion, another examines linguistic selection and production in the form of how Urdu-speaking elites under British colonial rule in India generated Orientalist knowledge about Hebrew. And while one paper analyzes representations of various African languages in Classical Arabic literature as forming a racio-linguistic habitus for depicting Black cultural authenticity, another showcases how in the ‘Abbasid era authors likewise were constructing ideas of elite authorial ethos and legitimation through crafting vocabularies of race in their translation of Greek texts.The fifth and final paper closely examines an interwar Juhuri textbook as a vehicle for uncovering translocal relationships among modern Turkish, modern Hebrew, and Soviet languages as national language-building projects in revolutionary times. By placing these research endeavors in close conversation, we hope to forge new theoretical ground in exploring how language both intersects with and organizes myriad forms of inter-communal and interpersonal engagement in the region, across gradients of power and belonging.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • At the height of the ‘Abbasid period, two seemingly mutually exclusive projects of knowledge unfolded. First, there was the documentation through travelers’ and merchants’ reportage, Greek forebears, and contemporary mapping traditions of the dimensions, peoples, and resources of the known world in geographies; second, descriptive theories of eloquence and rhetoricity were formulated by lexicographers who were grappling with an evolving aesthetics of Arabic poetry and prose. Little work–beyond noting such elements as the relationship of terms for social kind such as ‘ajam, or non-Arab, and barbar, or Berber, with intelligibility of speech–has addressed how logics of acceptable and beautiful communication, oral and written, were mapped onto transregional civilizational standards and embedded in structures of imperial domination, commercial venture, notions of enslaveability and religiosity, and more. This paper specifically addresses how African and South/east Asian languages, both grouped as proprietary of “Black” peoples, are represented in ‘Abbasid-era writings. Using the works of lexicographers and litterateurs such as ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjānī, al-Jāḥiẓ, and Ibn al-Nadīm alongside geographers such as al-Idrīsī, Ibn Ḥawqal, and Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī, I argue that Arabophone scholars in central ‘Abbasid lands troped Black authenticity not just through location and embodiment, but through patterns of speech and writing, practicing what Jonathan Rosa and Nelson Flores have termed “raciolinguistic enregisterment.” I also present evidence for the familiarity of certain amongst these figures with languages and grammars used on the East African coast, and their cognizance of the linguistic impacts of Indian Ocean mobilities. Ultimately, I build both on analyses of othering in the premodern Arabic context and on those of transregional and interlinguistic intimacy, showing, in the words of Paul A. Hardy, that “Race [becomes] apparent when it is revealed to whom [authors] considered worth listening as well as whom they allowed to speak.”
  • While Arabic had been an object of study by Indian Muslims for centuries, British colonial rule in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India opened up new possibilities for Islamic philology. Indian Muslim scholars like Chiragh ʿAli (1844-1895), Hamiduddin Farahi (1863-1930), ʿAbd al-Quddus Hashimi Nadvi (b. 1911), and others acquired knowledge of Hebrew from British Orientalists. In the same time period, Ahmadi Muslim missionaries from India visited the Levant, proselytizing in Syria and Palestine. One such missionary, Sayyid Zayn al-ʿAbidin Waliullah Shah (1889-1967), went on to teach Urdu at Salahuddin Ayyubiyya College in Jerusalem. Drawing on Arabic and Urdu-language sources such as diaries, travelogues, and religious polemics, as well as British archival material in English, this paper explores these little-known cases of language learning among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Muslims. What were the motivations for Muslims in this time period to learn languages (like Hebrew in India or Urdu in Palestine) that had not historically been part of Islamic philology? How did they make sense of linguistic difference? How did colonial power—which enabled both the study of Hebrew in India and the mobility of Indian Muslims to Mandatory Palestine—impact Muslim practices of philology? While European Orientalist study of languages has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly inquiry, modern Muslim study of non-European languages remains a neglected question. This paper argues that such Muslim philological practices may complicate existing narratives of Orientalism and study of the ‘Other.’ The case studies also span lands conventionally thought of as belonging to separate regions—the Middle East and South Asia—thus challenging the traditional Area Studies paradigm.
  • Despite robust scholarship arguing for the salience of race in the study of premodern societies, it is still often asserted that such approaches are “presentist” or “anachronistic.” As Geraldine Heng observed in 2018, these anxieties about presentism are often expressed through terminological concerns about what words were used for “race” before modernity. In this paper, I argue that Arabic translations of Greek medical and philosophical texts from the ninth and tenth centuries contain vocabularies of race that were rooted in their ʿAbbāsid context. To accomplish this, I will explore the relationship between Hippocratic, Galenic, and Aristotelian texts translated by Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq (d. 873) and his circle. Within passages about biologized conceptions of human difference, these translations often exhibit more complex, varied, and specific terminologies than their Greek sources. The development of a common (but heterogeneous) vocabulary across these texts was facilitated by Ḥunayn’s scientific project (in which these Greek, Syriac, and previously translated Arabic materials were critically synthesized) and the social milieu that translators shared with imperial elites. In order to make their works more accessible (and perhaps more useful) to their audience, these translators employed administrative terminologies particular to the caliphate, transformed obscure groups into familiar ones, and inserted commentaries that linked different translations. The success of Ḥunayn and his circle at domesticating and elaborating upon these ancient texts is evident in the wide reception of these concepts within various genres—including medicine, geography, and adab—in the ninth century. In sum, this paper is a meditation on how the friction of translation produced systematic thinking on racial kinds that both reflected contemporary attitudes and shaped subsequent discussions on human difference.
  • When narrating the interwar period, scholars in Soviet Studies, Turkish Studies, and Jewish Studies have often positioned Bolshevism, Kemalism, and Zionism as mutually contradictory movements. However, all three attempted to (re)constitute nations by combining the militant demarcation of national lands with the resource-intensive planning of modern national languages. Political and literary historians have gathered mounting evidence that pairs within this trio are interconnected. I extend these interventions to posit that the Turkish term “dil devrimi,” or “language revolution,” can usefully describe many national movements in Eurasia during the 1920s and 1930s. The translocal potency of this term crystallizes for me through a Soviet literacy textbook in Juhuri, the language of the Jewish communities rooted in the Eastern Caucasus. ¶ The two-volume literary anthology Xrestomatijəj Literaturi əri Syfdəi Şkola (A Literary Chrestomathy for Elementary Schools) was issued in 1937 to third- and fourth-grade students. Its publication in Baku amid intense Azerbaijani influence on Turkic language reforms, its mission of reshaping supposedly outmoded Jewish lifeways, and its contributions to state socialism make this chrestomathy an axis around which Modern Turkish, Modern Hebrew, and Soviet language revolutions can be read as an interrelated set. My reading proceeds by tracing the anthology’s structural features through the literacy campaigns that underlay these various language-building projects. Namely, Xrestomatijəj Literaturi participated in the Latinate alphabetization of Juhuri, replacing a previous chrestomathy in the Hebrew alphabet; its texts and its implementation positioned literacy education as a tool of agricultural settlement; and its table of contents consolidated a cohort of modern Juhuri writers alongside a new canon of world literature in translation, framing a national project as a humanist one. Not all of these features came to full expression in both Modern Turkish and Modern Hebrew, let alone in all Soviet languages. For example, calls to Romanize Modern Hebrew as a matter of national policy proved unsuccessful. However, by demonstrating that the proposals evident in Xrestomatijəj Literaturi traveled widely and traveled together, from debates in the kibbutz movement to elite Istanbul high schools, I hypothesize that dil devrimleri marked an early twentieth-century shift in how coloniality works. These ideologically disjunct transformations constituted a loose network of language revolutions that were uncomfortably positioned between their desire for autonomy from Western colonial powers and their own dispossession of communities excluded from their Western-inspired projects of national purification.
  • In Nancy Berg’s Exile from Exile: Israeli Writers from Iraq, one of the only English anthologies of its kind, the author surveys several important Arab Jewish writers who immigrated to Israel after the establishment of the state. Berg argues that these writers found themselves in a doubled exile-within-exile, first in the Diaspora as a Jewish minority within a Muslim Arab majority and then in the Jewish State, where they faced social and political marginalization as Arab/Mizrahi Jews under Ashkenazi hegemony. These writers thus found themselves at a crossroads: “How [would they] choose which language to use and how [would] this choice affect what is written…?” By positing language as an individual decision, Berg, along with a number of scholars in her field, presupposes two fundamental claims: that people have marked agency over language and that languages exist as discrete entities. This paper challenges both notions, arguing that the reality on the ground in Israel–including the dominance of Zionist attitudes and the way these attitudes shaped market demands–precluded the possibility of choice and of the writer’s exercising of agency. Because the ultimate choice was not between Hebrew and Arabic but between Hebrew and literary oblivion, Arab Jewish writers were forced to adopt Hebrew should they have wanted a readership. Those who didn’t–namely Samir Naqqash–remained relatively obscure throughout their lifetimes, given the dearth of Arabic-Hebrew literary translation. Drawing on the works of Abdelfatah Kilito and Jacques Derrida and troubling the scholarship of Reuven Snir, Ammiel Alcalay, and Nancy Berg, among others, I further contend that there is no clear division between the languages of Arab-Jewish writers. What emerges instead is a personal, heteroglossic idiolect that comprises several national languages and forms of language (e.g., Jewish Iraqi dialect, literary Arabic, Biblical Hebrew, and others) and thematizes estrangement in geographically and linguistically itinerant terms. We see this in Naqqash’s novel Shlomo the Kurd, Me and the Time, whose hero traverses Iraq, Iran, India, and Israel and speaks Russian, Persian, and other languages–all except the language in which the novel is written: Arabic.