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DeArabizing Arabia: Tracing Western Scholarship on the History of the Arabs and Arabic Language and Script Paperback – April 4, 2012
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About the Author
Arabic type designer, independent scholar, librarian, and systems engineer. Born 1958 in Sacramento, California, and grew up in Karbala and Baghdad, Iraq. Moved in 1979 to New York, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and a Master of Science in Library and Information Sciences. Served for 12 years as a Senior and Supervising Librarian in the New York Public Library, specializing in Arabic, Science, and Business subjects. Served for 15 years as a Systems Librarian and a library IT director in the City University of New York (CUNY.) A known and active Arabic type designer especially noted for his non-traditional, innovative, Arabic typeface designs. Awarded a US design patent in 2000 and a utility patent in 2003 for his Mutamathil Type Style, an open template for simplified, technology-friendly, Arabetic font designs. Published several articles in scholarly journals about Arabic script history, typography, and computing. Contributes regularly to discussions on Arabic script related topics on international typography and archeology forums.
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Discussing this with my friend, he strongly reacted. He asserted the Arabic influence was far deeper than I thought. That actually it was *impossible* to even study and understand ancient Semitic languages without using Classical Arabic linguistic tools and approaches. He painted a picture of philologists running to a back room and sneaking peeks at Ibn Mandhur when no one was looking. As for the book of Job, he asserted Job himself was an Arab, that the whole region was full of Arabs, and that the other professor wasn't going far enough.
I was taken a bit aback because of everything I had learned in class and like a fool argued with him. It took years for me to understand what he was talking about. He was right, it's deeper than I ever imagined. Saad Abulhab covers some of these deep waters.
<b>The massive yet un-admitted dependence of Semitic studies on Classical Arabic linguistic tools, past and currently, is one of the dirty little secrets of 19th and 20th century linguistics and philology.</b> This only one of the subjects Saad Abulhab explores.
Abulhab competently and eruditely explores a politically and historically sensitive subject; the Arabian background to Near East's 'Semitic' cultures and languages and also the tendentious, concerted efforts in many historical and linguistic circles to completely minimize the role of the Arabs and the Arabic Language in the Near East's ancient history.
Academia today is allergic to admitting a more ancient deeper role of the Arabs and the Arabic language in the ancient Near East. And while this is gradually changing. Courageous scholars like Warwick Bell and M. MacDonald are gradually articulating safer, more limited version of what Abulhab is arguing here. But for reasons of career, perhaps, or just the massive historical survey needed, no one if coming out and clearly stating that the ancient history of the Near East cannot be understood without reference to the Arabs, whose role in the ancient Near East has been systematically under-represented for a very long time, and that the ancient languages of the Near East, North Africa, the Sahel and Sahara, cannot be understood without using the tools of Classical tools of Arabic philology and linguistics
The reasons most (not all, by any means, but most) scholars won't touch this with a ten foot stick are both political and religious in origin. Certain biases existed, and indeed remain, from the early days of Orientalism during the age of European expansion and colonialism. These biases against the Arabs remain today, even in our age of ostensibly more objective and scientific approaches to Afro-Asiatic and Semitic history, linguistics and philology.
Abulhab is almost alone in strongly exploring these subjects with an immense amount of erudition and knowledge of Semitic and Arabic lore, languages, and scripts.
I strongly recommend this book. When I first wrote this review I said that I thought that in the next few years more people would begin to address these themes, examining the deeply Arab background to Semitic and Afro-Asiatic history, languages and dialects. That's actually starting to happen, but I feel because of the political issues at stake for some time we will just have short veiled and timid approaches from in the field. It will take someone coming from an interdisciplinary approach, who has already established his expertise iin another field, like Mathematics or Physics, to come in from the outside and fully show that the emperor has no clothes.
Saad Abulhab has made a really useful, valuable, deeply researched and well argued step in this direction. The effort needed is massive. I hope he continues with other works.
Until more people explore these themes, it will be some time before the field shakes off some of the remaining bigoted assumptions underlying the formal study of Semitic languages and Ancient Near Eastern history. But as Warwick Bell, Saad Abulhab, Oxford's M.C.A. Macdonald, and a few others are doing - I believe we will eventually move beyond the long history of denigrating or trivializing the role in history and language played by Arabic and the Arabs.
What caused me to initially (unfairly) dock a star from my review was the book's presentation. The cover and packaging is great, but there is a need for more careful line-editing. Now, I've seen glaring typos in works from larger academic and popular Publishing Houses. The problem is that in a work this sensitive presentation is absolutely vital. It's far too easy for the superficial to criticize important work because of a grammatical error.
The second observations point to the trap of erudition. The more erudite you are, the easier it is to end up talking to yourself, in effect. Abulhaab makes many allusions that would be lost on someone without an obsessive interest or knowledge in not only Ancient Ear Eastern Studies, but also formal Arabic grammar, Sarf and Nahw, lexicography, the history of Khatt and Khutut - Arabic scripts and calligraphy - as well as a deep knowledge of Syriac, Aramaic, and other recondite subjects. Then there are the political allusions, things that are grounded in the region's political history and well known to specialists in the fields, but that a less informed and already biased reader might dismiss as mere conspiracy-minded thinking. Some of these asides and tangents support his thesis and work, but perhaps some of this background could be better packaged into notes or discussion in another section, the initial work and analysis given and then drawing from that, his allusions and asides presented and drawn out upon.
With better structural editing his allusions, assertions, arguments, and supporting evidence could be better woven into a solid whole. As it is, it feels choppy.
<b>To conclude:</b> Saad Abulhaab covers vital ground, with a thesis that's not only sound, but really is the only obvious conclusion any fair minded person would come to after they invest the time in the evidence given about the languages and history involved. If you go out there, assemble all of the facts independent of the conclusions others are already giving, and squarely look at it you too will come out of it with the impression that not only is there a deeply Arabic linguistic and historical background to the Ancient Near East, but that most of the people and players involved in Mesopotamia and Syria from time immemorial were in some very real way actually Arabs, and spoke and wrote dialects that were far closer related to what we today narrowly and restrictedly see as Arabic than we have previously been told. This is glaringly the case with Ugaritic, from whose orthography we have a dialect which is practically Classical Arabic without a definite article, and more subtly the case even in Akkadian and Ancient South Arabian both.
Sometimes the most obvious conclusions are the ones everyone avoids. In other words, no one wants to say the Emperor has no clothes,.
I hope Abulhaab continues to flesh out and develop this work, and that future volumes structure it more smoothly. As it stands, this book is a vital, important, and useful initial "shot across the bow" and harbinger of a coming revolution in the field. I look forward to more from him on these themes.
I particularly liked that the author did not dive into the subject of his study without giving a historical and sociological perspective first, he, successfully made the point that the Arabic language was a product of an already existing culture prior to Islam; this, of course, is common knowledge to those of us familiar with the language and the culture but others need to be told, especially if they are going to assume the role of experts in the field.
Speaking of experts, the responses that the author received when he attempted to publish his findings were humorous, astonishing, and a little bit sad all at the same time. Most responses were childish in tone and revealed laziness and an extreme unwillingness to be exposed to challenging views, contrary to the author who included other findings in addition to his. I was shocked and saddened by the close-mindedness exhibited by the scholars who are supposed to honor discussion of varying views, as it is the essence of scholarship.
If you want to learn something and enjoy a good read at the same time, then this book is for you, it definitely was for me.