< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050825"> Amendment Nine: Election Observers & Normal Sounding Arabic

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Election Observers & Normal Sounding Arabic

Strange to spend the holidays away from home, especially in a place like the West Bank. I've been out here most of December, on a gig training election observers in advance of the Palestinian presidential elections to succeed Arafat on January 9. (see the project here.)

Aside from the depressing experience of waking up on Christmas morning in an empty hotel room, the most interesting thing i've noticed is the sound of Arabic when it is spoken in the mundane rhythms of normalcy.

When we see or hear Arabic in the western media, it is almost always sinister. It sounds scary. It scrolls across the bottom of the Al Jazeera feed like a snake across the desert floor coming at us, or courses from the mouth of Bin Laden like venom.

When I hear Arabic here, through my interpreters, or on the street, or in polling places during the local elections I observed on December 23, it sounds...well...nice. It's a pleasant sounding language.

Remember how Russian used to sound during the Cold War? Can't get more sinister than that. When I finally lived in the former soviet republics, and heard Russian everyday, it finally took on the poetic drama native speakers know of it. Instead of hearing Kruschev & Stalin, I heard Pushkin and Dostoevsky.

Today, though, to so many American ears, when someone says in Arabic, "Good morning," or "did you get a good night's sleep last night," or "I ate some bad homous last night so I'm not feeling so good," it sounds like the voice of evil itself.

Try to imagine that in all those tapes and videos, Bin Laden is really saying something like, "Would you please pass the tabouleh? Thanks."

Doesn't really work, does it.