Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Publishing in Arabic 

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This post has been in draft for WEEKS now. Which tells me something but I am unsure what…going to try to finish it now and publish.

I’m excited and a teeny bit emotional. Intellectually emotional, if that makes sense. My first ever article written in Arabic was published recently  (the date says Aug 31 but I was notified like a week later – and I started writing this post and never finished it). It’s about the importance of offering more Arabic language content online. (there is no English version but two English articles I wrote around the same time touch on similar themes. This on connectivity and this postcolonial look at the future of edtech).

I still need to read other articles in this special issue (so far, not so impressed)…but for now… I just want to reflect on this milestone in my life.

I’ve been writing with crazy frequency since summer 2013. It started as a way to keep my writing muscles working during downtimes in my thesis when my supervisor took 3-4 weeks to give me feedback and I couldn’t keep writing new stuff for the dissertation while he did that. Having a really young child (just under 2) meant my time wasn’t completely in my hands. So I learned to think all day long and type as fast as I could whenever I could. I got used to getting PhD work done while she napped for an hour, for example, or while a granny took care of her for two. After years of procrastinating on PhD dissertation writing waiting for inspiration, I learned how to JUST WRITE. Every minute I could write became a blessing and a precious minute to use. So I just kept treating writing that way even after it was PhD dissertation writing. That’s why I get entire articles written on my phone (yes really) during my commute to campus every day (60-90 minutes)

But I only wrote in English. I tried to translate my own work for Al-Fanar once but they didn’t like my style so didn’t take it. I never tried again, and honestly it’s pretty difficult to write academically in Arabic. Even when I write for Al-Fanar with an Arab audience in mind, knowing my work will be translated, I have a difficult time reading my translated ideas because I am not used to reading academic stuff (even light academic stuff) in Arabic.

Let’s be clear. My Arabic is fine. The other day an American faculty member said she thought English  was my first language. I mean it kind of is, but I am a perfectly fluent native Arabic speaker. My parents spoke to me Arabic at home but they’re also both fluent in English (my mom also in French). I learned English in school and spoke a combo of Arabic and English at home and still do. My child learned both simultaneously and I think she’s more fully bilingual than I was at her age.

But MSA – Modern Standard Arabic (which we write and use during News shows) is a different language than the one we speak (colloquial – with different dialects in different countries and within each country). And even though I understand MSA perfectly well and have read the Quran fluently all my life (Quran is in classical Arabic which is slightly different from and more difficult than MSA for the lay person) – I don’t write it WELL. I can write it CORRECTLY. I just don’t sound very eloquent. 

But anyway. Despite occasionally angry posts to the contrary, I have, for the most part, enjoyed a pretty solid digital presence in the past 3 years. But it’s all been in English. The Arabic of it is translated via Al Fanar. So that’s my first ever article that I wrote in Arabic from SCRATCH. I didn’t even write it in English and translate it. I just wrote it in Arabic. And my Arabic typing is average. Not superfast like English but still pretty good. But I found myself having to think slower. And that was an interesting experience. Because I couldn’t quickly find the appropriate expression, and most definitely not the most rhetorically impressive expression (because writing and rhetorical style are linguistically and culturally specific, wouldn’t you know?) and on top of that the slower typing. But also your academic field  uses jargon and a field like edtech is all English based jargon that doesn’t translate well or clearly if at all.

It’s kind of ironic to be writing a post on the importance of Arabic language content online when I haven’t contributed too much to it myself, right? But I do argue that content by Arabs (or really non-Anglo people of any kind) written in English (by those of us privileged enough to be able to) is valuable because it gets our voices heard (if we can get our voices onto some platform where people can hear it) by more people (Anglo people and people like us who share English as their second or third language or whatever). 

The other thing is that it’s valuable to do what Al-Fanar does and provide content in both languages. I had an article from there re-published in an Egyptian newspaper (Arabic version).  It’s a different audience than I had intended and I don’t know how I feel about it still, but it made me think more carefully about which of my ideas I send to Al-Fanar and which to keep on my blog and which to other outlets (peer-reviewed or edited or what have you). 

I also have a lot of ideas about subaltern scholarship… But I am still deciding where best to publish that! I am trying to decide if I am actually addressing subaltern scholars giving them advice on what to do…or global North publishers/editors/academics on how to embrace diverse scholarship from minority voices…or maybe they’re two articles. Not here though – because some “calls to action” need to take place outside my personal blog so the right audience can see them.
Inspired by

  1. Lee Skallerup Bessette and Laura Gogia’s talk for Ken Bauer’s class
  2. April Hathcock’s writing of decolonizing scholarship 
  3. Our eMerge Africa seminar on OA. + This article shared after the seminar, on scholarship from developing countries. One question asked in the live event was whether African scholars should start their own journals because it’s so difficult to get published internationally.

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