In August 2006 a young American called Raed Jarrar discovered Arabic’s potency. Detained by four guards at New York’s Kennedy Airport for wearing a T-shirt with “We will not be silent” on it in Arabic, he was told that he may as well be entering a bank with a T-shirt announcing “I am a robber.” Recently, Arabic writings in the form of slogans on banners and bill boards carried by protestors or sprayed on walls have acquired even more loaded associations for those watching the political developments around the world – from hopes for democratic change to fears of an incipient Islamic extremist takeover. The sheer quantity of baggage that Arabic has acquired on its travels through the Western consciousness is unique. That the West’s complex and intricate relationship with the language is now characterised above all by fear is a special tragedy, argues Arabist and papyrologist Petra Sijpesteijn in Why Arabic?
In this vigorous defence of Arabic and the long tradition of Arabic studies, Sijpesteijn shows what can be gained by engaging with this extraordinarily fertile language and culture, and how insight and understanding can be found in the most unexpected places. Arabic’s endless riches continue to surprise and reward.
Why Arabic?, the title essay, is in both English and Dutch.
Petra Sijpesteijn holds the chair of Arabic Language and Culture at Leiden University.
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