It was some months through my semester in New York before I realized that I didn’t have as strong a grasp on the “classics” as I thought I did. By “classics,” I mean non-contemporary works by mostly white, mostly male authors. “Dead White Men,” so to speak. Sure, I took Classic American Literature once, so I could tell you a little something about Charles Brockden Brown if you needed me to. And I read an adaptation of Beowulf in high school. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything else about Old English, or epics, or what was happening across the pond while Brown was getting his Gothic on.
In other words, I had no sense of literary tradition; there was no narrative arc in the literature electives I had taken. In retrospect, there were some warning signs along the way, moments that would have troubled any other self-respecting literature student. For instance, I only learned in my junior year that Othello isn’t a Greek tragedy, as I had thought; it’s actually a work by Shakespeare. I also learned that The Odyssey not only isn’t the same thing as Othello, but it’s also not written by Virgil. Virgil did The Aeneid.
So I knew there were gaps, but I didn’t really know how much I was missing. No one ever forced me to take the NYUAD course Foundations of Literature, and I wasn’t about to subject myself to authors I wrote off as “Dead White Men.” In New York, however, there was no escape. Classics, by authors mostly male, nearly all white, and all definitely dead, clogged my course syllabi, and I realized I liked reading some of it. I liked the feeling of connecting the dots. And I couldn’t help wondering if, in the name of expanding my worldview and rethinking old conceptual frameworks, I’d missed out on something important. Had I, much like the baby and the bathwater, thrown out the hegemon with the counter-hegemon, the core out with the periphery, the masterminds and masterpieces out with the “Dead White Men.”
I’m a dying breed of lit major at this university. When I started at NYUAD, there weren’t many requirements to the literature major beyond a theory course. There are now two required courses in the literature major called Foundations of Literature, which I obviously never took, was not forced to take, and only now, with less than a semester left of my undergraduate career, wish I had. The younger students in my literature classes aren’t confusing Greek tragedy and Shakespeare. (Or they’re doing a commendable job hiding their confusion.)
Think of me — and my bizarre, decentered, historically backwards literary education — as an interesting case study: How important are “the classics” really? What happens when students skip them altogether? Do they make more interesting connections? Or are they left historically adrift, without any means of drawing connections? Does reading things chronologically matter, or do we just need a sampling of all the pieces?
My editor suggested I have an opinion about these questions, or at least something close to an opinion. So here’s what I think, as someone who attempted to school herself in the “classics”: Foundations are good, and necessary. Devaluing the classics isn’t a path towards valuing the more contemporary revisions, adaptations, rethinkings, and rebuttals. While I understand that it might be more interesting to be purely critical, I have to say that I think Foundations of Literature has got it just about right.
In the end, my case was solvable. I dealt with this situation in the same way that I deal with practically any situation; only in this case, it was probably the right way to deal with the situation. I headed to the library. This was a job for Norton Anthologies, and maybe the occasional Longman edition. And, as tends to happen when you sit in front of a book and move your eyes consistently over the words on the page, I learned things. Did you know, for instance, that Brecht and Beckett are different people? You probably do, but now I do too. And that Yeats — that’s Yeats-with-a-Y, who is not the same person as Keats — wrote things other than the poem from which Chinua Achebe took the title to Things Fall Apart? I know that now too. Gradually, my ability to distinguish between even the Abbreviated Anglo Authors — T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence — improved. Nowadays I feel a little like someone at the eye doctor, finally able to keep straight the “D” from the “O” on the bottom line of an eye chart. Each new author, period, style, that I’ve learned has brought the literary world into focus a little bit more and in new, fun ways, like twists on a kaleidoscope.
At another university, even as a literature major at the College of Arts and Sciences in New York, I suspect my major would have had a different valence to it than it does here at NYUAD. But I didn’t choose to go to the NYU in the Square; I chose to come here. In that respect, I feel fortunate and privileged to have spent four years at NYU Abu Dhabi, among students and professors sympathetic to my literary interests in mostly non-white, non-male, non-dead authors. But you should still force me to read the other guys.
All this discussion of canons leads me to update an old saying: Give a student the literary canon, she thinks for a day; give her the conceptual tools to question the literary canon, she thinks for a lifetime.
Senior Lit major Lauren Horst is writing a capstone project about the Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta and thinking about which doctoral program in literature to attend in the fall.
Next in our Roundtable: NYUAD alumnus Krisztian Kovacs reflects on his experience of the NYUAD Core Curriculum.
Perhaps you spent the day at school, immersed in the Pan-African theories of Ghana’s founder, Kwame Nkrumah, or at your internship for the nearby hospital. Or maybe you sweated your way through the sprawling open-air Makola Market, purchasing off-brand toothpaste and colorful African print to add to your ever-growing fabric collection. Maybe you tasted the plantain chips, roasted yams, groundnut paste (essentially, peanut butter), and impossibly sweet pineapples sold at the stands on the side of the road.
You might think you’ve seen all Accra has to offer.
As the sun goes down, however, Accra’s vibrant arts, music and literature scene comes alive. Twenty-eight cedis in your pocket is all you need to immerse yourself in that world.
First, before leaving your neighborhood, catch a bite to eat at the famed Auntie Muni’s. Widely touted as the best waakye (a beans and rice dish) joint in all of Accra, this budget-friendly meal will run you no more than seven cedis. If you’ve already grabbed dinner, or are in the mood for something sweet, the recently opened Italian-style gelateria, Arlecchino, on bustling Oxford Street, offers some exotic flavors, including cashew, for around the same price.
While you’re in the trendy Osu neighborhood, consider stopping by +233 Jazz Bar and Grill (so named for Accra’s mobile area code). For five cedis, you’ll hear Ghanaian and other African musicians live. Or bring your five cedis to The Republic, where one night you might hear a Nigerian band cover “Wonderwall” and “Use Somebody”, and the next cheer for an expat college student as she opens for a local jazz band. Either way, five cedis well spent.
Afterwards, swing by Reggae Night at Labadi Beach, where another five cedis will get you a slightly grungier and certainly sandier experience, or head to an event at the Ohene Djan Sports Stadium like the Independence Day concert, which featured dozens of West African artists. Ask anyone to teach you the azonto, the newest Ghanaian dance craze that’s sweeping the West African and international music scene.
By now, you’ve heard everything from American pop covers to traditional Ghanaian high-life to reggae. How about some spoken word?
It can be tricky finding out about art events and exhibits in Accra, where art galleries and theaters are fairly recent and their websites outdated and unhelpful. Here’s a trick: head to Facebook and other social media platforms for the most up-to-date information.
The Goethe-Institut, Alliance-Francaise, Nubuke Foundation, and the Dei Centre all put on exceptional exhibits and events, most of which you can discover through their Facebook pages if not their websites. For example, the arts collective Ehalakasa hosts monthly “Talk Parties” at the Nubuke Foundation – essentially open mic nights. For ten cedis, you’ll get to hear and rub shoulders with some of Ghana’s most well-recognized performers, including Mutombo da Poet and WanLov the Kubolor.
If you didn’t buy a gelato earlier, you’ll have a few cedis left over, which you can use to pick up a CD from one of the artists you heard tonight. The CD purchase will support the Ghanaian arts scene and be a lasting memento of the evening—a unique souvenir of your time in Accra. Just make sure to keep back a few cedis so that you can split the cost of a taxi home with some friends.
With its colorful markets and rich heritage sites, Accra during the day is something to see. But Accra at night, that’s something to experience.
[Photo credit: Lauren Horst. Independence Day concert at Ohene Djan Sports Stadium]
Many people know the name of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type press that touched off a printing revolution in fifteenth-century Europe.
What comes after Gutenberg, especially in the Arabic-speaking world, is perhaps a little less familiar.
Enter the research of typographer, student and teacher Titus Nemeth, who was at NYU Abu Dhabi on September 23 to give a lecture entitled “Arabic Typography: Complexities and Simplifications.”
Nemeth, who holds an MA with Distinction in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, UK, currently teaches at ESAV Marrakesh and ESAD Amiens while working independently as a designer and consultant. Since 2010, Nemeth has researched Arabic typography as a PhD candidate at the University of Reading.
In his lecture, Nemeth provided an abridged history of Arabic printing beginning with the first book printed in Arabic more than a century after the printing of Gutenberg’s Bible.
Nemeth compared the error-ridden, slipshod technique of this early printed Arabic with a handwritten sample from around the same time, concluding that Arabic printing lagged behind its western European counterparts mainly for technological reasons.
“The typographic image doesn’t come close to the intricacy of the handwritten script,” said Nemeth, gesturing to the ornate and delicate curls of the Arabic script projected behind him.
It was not until the nineteenth century that Arabic found the first “at least partially successful” typeface. However, the complexities of the Arabic language, in which a single letter can look dramatically different depending on its position within the word, made Arabic printing a laborious task, to say the least.
For the quantitative at heart, Nemeth included some comparative figures between Roman-based and Arabic-based fonts. In the late nineteenth century, Arabic printing still required more than 1500 separate letter blocks, compared with roughly 100 blocks for a Roman font.
By the middle of the twentieth century, Arab newspapers like Al-Hayat had embraced the principle of character reduction in order to fit the Arabic alphabet to the space constraints of the typewriter.
Throughout these early slides, I sensed a common strain: the story of Arabic type design as Nemeth presented it is essentially one of man versus machine. Over time aspiring Arab publishers needed to adapt to western machinery devised for Roman type. Conforming to the mechanical limitations of the printing press, and later the linotype and typewriter, meant sacrificing the sophistication of the language.
By this point in the lecture, feeling sufficiently caught up with Arabic typography, I began to consider what implications a digitized Arabic type design holds for the world today, and what role the NYU Abu Dhabi community mightplay plays in that digitization.
Nemeth didn’t leave me wondering for long.
Like so many disciplines, typography – Arabic or otherwise – has felt the dawn of the new digital world keenly. If the space constraint of print and printing presses was the only hindrance to a better Arabic typeface, what possibilities exist for Arabic typeface in a world without physical constraints?
Nemeth demonstrated one Arabic font type that uses computer programming to simulate the practice of Arabic handwriting. The digital font is comprised of only a few hundred modules based on strokes, rather than individual letters, whichcan be adapted and reused depending on the position within the word. To my eyes, the end result evoked the elegant, meticulous script I’ve seen in much older Arabic handwritten texts.
Clearly, the advent of computers provides unparalleled opportunities to find new Arabic typeface. New, however, isn’t the same as “good.” The challenge typographers face now is defining what makes a typeface “good.”
For Nemeth, a good Arabic typeface would be one that is less cumbersome for the reader even if the design is more difficult for the typographer. Such an analysis hinges on a socio-historical understanding of Arab language use.
“We need an understanding of what a good type is,” he said. “The starting point is to know history, what has been done and what can be done.”
I smugly nodded my head in agreement, satisfied that NYU Abu Dhabi – with all its talk of cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural understanding – would somehow contribute to this process. That made the next slide in Nemeth’s presentation all the more surprising.
I saw on the screen a close-up shot of one of the familiar purple and white signs that dot Sama residence halls and the Downtown campus. Until that moment, I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t noticed that the signs are in both Arabic and English.
It took a typographer to point out that the spaces between the characters, called kerning, made the Arabic hard to read, and that the Arabic type was centered on a base-line higher up than the English one.
Passing these signs in the hallway now, I see the excessive kerning and the off-center baseline where I never did before. I’m aware of the room for improvement.
With the advent of technology and the rise of the Arab world, there is no question that the story of printing and type design now extends far beyond Gutenberg. In fact, one small chapter of that story is written on the walls in Sama and DTC. The question that remains now is how that story will be written in later chapters, and of course in what typeface.