Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

Do You Believe in Studying Languages? I Do

hello-wordleIt’s January, in an obscure New York diner, where I’m meeting a close friend from high school, now a student at Yale. We haven’t seen each other for a year, and complaining about how difficult my Arabic class is seemed like a perfect icebreaker.

“I told you so. That’s why I stopped believing in studying foreign languages,” he says, nonchalantly, as if talking about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

“What do you mean by ‘I don’t believe in studying foreign languages’?”

“I just stopped. I realized that it took me ten years to become comfortable with my German and speak it as well as I speak Arabic or English. I did Italian for two years now, and I just don’t feel like I’m fluent. I can’t express myself in the way my thoughts actually flow. You understand what I mean?”

With only slightly better Italian than his, I was teaching it to beginners, so no, I didn’t understand.

“The time I’d invest in learning a foreign language I could use to learn a skill that is tangible, can make money and all of that,” he said.

The food came and we changed the topic. I left the restaurant wondering about the purpose of studying a foreign language. I started to question my decision to dedicate a huge portion of my college experience to studying a language that I might end up “not feeling comfortable with.” And then I wondered, in an era in which everyone speaks English, why bother with anything else?

Unfortunately, my friend’s opinion is shared among many other educated people, many of whom are not themselves monolingual. Michael Long, an expert at the University of Maryland, says that only a tiny minority of post-adolescent learners will attain near-native proficiency in another language. George Orwell, despite speaking seven languages said that he didn’t believe in foreign language instruction.[1]

So who does believe in language instruction? Europeans. In all the European countries except Wales and Italy, students must learn a foreign language throughout their compulsory education.[2] The literature on the benefits of bilingualism is vast: it improves your decision-making skills, increases brainpower, improves your employability, memory and interestingly, your English.

For me the debate is more personal. The language of my heart will always be my native Serbian, but I know that with every new language that I learn, I gain a new mind-set. With Italian, I picked up idioms that I can’t translate into English, precisely because they represent a reflection of Italian culture that is only comes with immersion, with the language itself. For example, Italians often say “Se devi fare una cosa, falla tutta” when they talk about their experiences. This idiom cannot be translated smoothly into English, but it roughly translates to “If you are to do something, do it completely.” Italians are such passionate people — the “all-or-nothing” type — and this idiom mirrors their mentality perfectly. The same applies to “I cavoli riscaldati,” which literally means “reheated cabbage,” but is used to describe a love affair revived. As this idiom reveals, Italians regard the “old-new” relationship as messy, stale and not worth getting into.

The differences between the languages are complicated, but make close reading in translation much more debatable and, to us literature geeks, more pleasurable. Close reading of my favorite Serbian poet, for example, is almost impossible in English as all of his work focuses on discussing the difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” concepts that are merged together and simplified to “feelings” in English. But there is a big difference between “осећај” and “осећање,” and you would be surprised how much knowing to differentiation between these two can influence your view on relationships. “Oсећај” is a feeling that derives either from satisfying an instinct or from anything related to physicality. If I were to touch you, for example, the result would be an “осећај:” you would feel my touch. If you were to sleep with a person you’re attracted to, you would still have an “осећај” because you do have “feelings” for him even though these feelings are inextricably linked to your sexual pleasure. “Oсећање,” however, is a feeling used strictly with the concept of love. You have feelings for your spouse, your relatives, close friends. “Oсећање” is always a spiritual connection, and preferably a lasting one.

In his poem “An Honest Poem,” Milan Rakic tries to tell a woman that he has “осећај” for her, but not “oсећање.” At the time when the poem was written, extramarital sexual intercourse was a taboo, and talking about them made Rakic a controversial poet. You can’t discuss Rakic without discussing this problem. Let’s take a look at the excerpts from the original and the translation:

O, sklopi usne, ne govori, ćuti,

ostavi misli nek se bujno roje,

i reč nek tvoja ničim ne pomuti

bezmerno silne osećaje moje.

O, close your lips, don’t talk, be silent,

let your thoughts pollulate,

and may your word do nothing to obfuscate

my unmeasurably deep feelings.

In the first stanza, the poet says that he has “unmeasurably deep feelings” for a woman that woke up next to him. A bit later he says something that to an English speaker could seem contradictory:

Za taj trenutak života i milja,

kad zatreperi cela moja snaga,

neka te srce moje blagosilja.

Al’ ne volim te, ne volim te, draga!

For that moment of life and delight,

In which all my strength trembles,

may my heart bless you.

But I don’t love you, I don’t love you, my dear!

What happened to the “unmeasurably deep feelings” we just read about? Nothing. They are still there, but they are coming from spiritual love. The whole poem is about how “осећај” can be beautiful and grand, but is not an “oсећање.” The two should be recognized as different and that is the only way that we can have healthy relationships. I can’t even count all of my girlfriends who got into (now failed) relationships with someone for whom they had an “осећај,” but thought they had love for.

English speakers sometimes seem confused when you ask them if they have feelings for someone they are considering getting into a relationship with. I never met a Serbian with the same problem. Serbians can have feelings while waiting for an”oсећање” to form. You have more time to figure things out before making a decision about declaring your feelings.

I don’t have a single argument that will make you believe that learning another language in the future will be profitable, but I can assure you that the beauty that you will start seeing after being exposed to a new system of forming communication will enrich you forever. Imagine how impressed your Russian business partner would be if you spoke to him in Russian. He would feel that you understand them better, be more open to compromise and more trusting. Knowing a foreign language in this situation seems like such a small thing, but it makes a huge difference. If anything, learn a foreign language to defy the notion that all you do has to have a tangible outcome, and you will be a step closer to what we all want to achieve in life: purpose and happiness.

(And of course, if you learn Serbian, you could finally figure out what you “feel” for that person you started seeing recently.)


[1] Simon Kuper, Learning another language? Don’t bother.

[2] The Benefits of Second Language Study.

The Crochet Coral Reef Project Comes to Abu Dhabi

The Crochet Coral Reef Project Comes to Abu Dhabi

Turning the woolly marine creations around in her hands, Margaret Wertheim, one of the founders of the Crochet Coral Reef Project and co-director of the Institute for Figuring, spoke to a small, but diverse collection of people from the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) community. Students, faculty members, Global Academic Fellows, administrative staff, and members of the Abu Dhabi community were in attendance for the workshop, each person closely listening—with a ball of yarn in one hand and a crochet hook in the other.

hands2013-10-02 18.13.51

The Crochet Coral Reef Project was co-created in 2005 by Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim, inspired by their mutual concern for the devastating effects the rising of temperature and pollution have had on the coral reefs. Ms. Wertheim and her sister, Christine, grew up in Queensland in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged by the warming of the water. “[The project] has exceeded our expectations in any possible way,” said Ms. Wertheim, while starting to crochet a simple green coral reef structure. “When my sister and I started this project in 2005, we honestly thought that maybe 20 or 30 people would be interested in doing this project with us, and now there are well over 7000 people who have made models for the exhibitions themselves, and 3 million people have seen the exhibitions- we never imagined it would become a world-wide phenomenon.”

Ms. Wertheim showed the participants the different hyperbolic structures that could be made with a simple knowledge of crochet techniques, from a tight, dense hyperbolic pane made with red yarn, to a more elaborate kelp-like structure made from a special material called Jelly Yarn. The coral reef can be crocheted with any material, even with strips of disposed plastic bags, a bold statement in itself that protests against the immeasurable amount garbage present in the ocean today.

The most significant achievement of the Crochet Coral Reef Project is that in bringing the various levels of community together, the end result reflects the overarching culture of the region in which the project is executed. Together, participants create a rich composition of textures that represent the various customs, attitudes, and lifestyle of their community. Each city that has participated in creating a Satellite Reef has exhibited a different theme—and message—to its viewers. I suspect that the NYUAD Satellite Reef will be a veritable conglomeration of shapes, sizes, and colours, owing to the spectacular diversity of backgrounds present in the community body. “Abu Dhabi is a very unique place to be doing this project for various reasons,” said Ms. Wertheim, continuing on to expound on the logistical challenges the location has already presented – “This is the first time that we have done [the Reef project] in the Middle East, which is exciting in its own right, but [New York University Abu Dhabi] is very eager to involve people from all sectors of society as much as possible, which presents many logistical challenges because there is a [severe] separation of communities here…[one must] do outreach to individual communities…there is the student community, the Emirati community, the guest workers who work at NYU, the academic staff, and each of these populations have to be targeted in a different way.”  Although NYUAD students fully embrace the cosmopolitan nature of the university, they have also experienced much difficulty in connecting with the different populations that exist within the university. Communal projects like the Crochet Coral Reef Project are important because they present great opportunities for collaboration across the community that might otherwise have difficulty establishing connections.

An important aspect of the project is its connection to feminism. Crochet as a handicraft has traditionally been passed down from mother to daughter, and remains to this day a female-dominated activity. It is not surprising, then, that the participants in the Crochet Coral Reef Project are almost all female. In fact, the project has met with disapproval from some women, who consider the project to be propagating the stereotype that women must take care of domestic responsibilities, and engage in feminine activity in their free time. The tradition of a mother teaching her daughter “hand work” has suffered over the past half-century, in part due to the idea that these skills are “old-fashioned,” or limiting. The word ‘feminist’ has developed negative connotations precisely because of those who call themselves active feminists and challenge the traditional separation of roles and hobbies to advocate sexual prejudices, mistaking cultural gender differences to indicate sexual discrimination; in this way of taking issue with everything, people have ceased to take their concerns seriously because the resolution of such matters does not advance the agenda for equality. It is altogether too easy to forget that feminism is the advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men- the abolition of a traditional handicraft will never achieve this feat, and will more compromise the rich history and significance of female history.

Lamenting that gender feminism has overwhelmed what was coined as equity feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism, Ms. Wentheim declared that crochet is a distinctly feminine activity that empowers women and men alike, a technical skill of artistry that must be mastered like any other skill or craft. The Crochet Coral Reef Project is a feminist project that unites women and men from all walks of life, allowing them to collaborate on making stunning models of marine structures through the beautiful feminine tradition of crochet. Personally, I felt joy in learning how to crochet again, because my mother had been increasingly reluctant to teach me the technique as I grew older.

The opening statement on the Crochet Coral Reef website is the perfect distillation of the project: “The Crochet Coral Reef is a woolly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world.” The people who attended the workshop held at NYUAD had varying levels of experience with crochet, but all were present because they had taken advantage of the communal space and time that the project created for the community. Bringing the Crochet Coral Reef Project to NYUAD is the beginning of a powerful series of conversations across the many layers of community extant in the university, one that will gain momentum as the project progresses.

For more information about the NYUAD Crochet Coral Reef project, please email:


MultiMex: Manifestations of Mexico

MultiMex: Manifestations of Mexico


This photo essay explores the various manifestations of my Mexican identity. There are many stereotypes and assumptions that people have about Mexico, and my project attempts to visualize these stereotypes. The assumptions about Mexico that people have create masks through which others see me; in this project I wanted to transform and “fit” the masks that might be placed on me by others.

Mexico’s involvement in the drug war has made drug-related crime a widely spoken topic in the media. Sometimes, when I say I come from Mexico, people ask me about the drug situation, and I have to explain that the entire country is not drowning in violence and crime. Even though I don’t have a personal connection to the drug war, many people in my world do have a connection, a theme I portray in photo seven.

People also know Mexico because of the immigration problems that Mexico has with the United States. But not all Mexicans are immigrants. I portrayed myself as an immigrant to explore another image that might mask my identity, and that affects how people look at me, whether I like it or not (photos 2 & 3).

Other images in this series are not related to precise stereotypes but play with Mexican folk traditions and artwork. For example, the “calaca” or “catrina,” shown in photos 4 & 5, is a folk representation of death in Mexico used in celebrations like “Día de los Muertos” (“Day of the Dead.”) The artwork in photo 6 is typical of Mexican homes, created by a group of indigenous Mexican people, the Otomí. These are things, along with my family, seen in photo 1, that I associate not only with Mexican culture but also with personal memories of Mexico.

This photo essay is meant to show the way that I, as a Mexican, embody not only my own memories, but also the memories and experiences of my country.

I am Mexican because of my memories and my nuclear family in Mexico.

I am Mexican because of my memories and my nuclear family in Mexico.
2 & 3
The stories of Mexican immigrants to the United States, whether they directly affect me or not, form part of my Mexican identity.

The stories of Mexican immigrants to the United States, whether they directly affect me or not, ...

4 & 5
I embody a “catrina” or “la calaca”. Even though foreigners think the “calaca” might be scary, it can be found in many Mexican homes, representing something that is actually a joyful celebration.

... it can be found in many Mexican homes, representing something that is actually a joyful celebration.

An Otomí piece of artwork. The Otomís are indigenous people from the center of Mexico.

I am recreating a drug-related crime. Frequently, victims show signs of torture, and have a sign with some sort of message stabbed to their bodies. The sign in the photo says, “So you learn your lesson motherfuckers.”

In this picture my reflection is not my face but another face, with darker skin. This picture represents the assumption that all Mexicans have dark skin when, in fact, there are Mexicans with dark skin, and there are Mexicans with fair skin.


Boom Cities Conference

Boom Cities Conference

Analyzing the Urban Environment of the Arabian Peninsula

Cities Conference_BENCHETRIT_heritage site

The Arabian Peninsula is home to a number of “boom cities,” urban environments where state initiative, oil money, and globalization have led to rapid development. “Cities in the Arabian Peninsula are at the intersection of global energy markets, local and regional politics, international investment, religious networks, and labor migrations,” write the organizers of the Boom Cities conference, hosted at NYU Abu Dhabi on December 3 and 4, 2012. The urbanization of the Arabian Peninsula has led to cultural and economic regeneration and opportunities for modernization and renewal, but also to urban marginalization, shifts in urban social structure, environmental degradation, and increasingly creative forms of public protest. Papers given at the conference by international specialists of urban studies covered these topics in the context of Doha (Qatar), Ras al-Khaimah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi (UAE), Sana‘a (Yemen), al-Madina, Jeddah, ‘Unayzah, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Kuwait City, and Manama (Bahrain).

Organizers Claire Beaugrand (Institut Français du Proche-Orient, Beirut), Amélie Le Renard (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France), Pascal Menoret (NYU Abu Dhabi), and Roman Stadnicki (Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales, Cairo) were commended by panelist Ulrike Freitag for their “courage” in convening a conference encompassing such a wide range of disciplinary approaches. Presenters came from a multitude of different backgrounds, including anthropology, history, literature, political science, and biology. The multidisciplinarity of the sessions was productive rather than dissonant, and the papers were complementary, not disjunctive or incompatible. Andrew Gardner’s paper on urban spaces in Doha, for example, which was the first presented, provided a basis for many subsequent presentations, as many found his references to the “interstitial spaces” in the “enclaved” city useful terms with which to articulate their own research.

The conference spanned two days and included an exhibition by photographer Manuel Benchetrit, a public lecture by Yasser Elsheshtawy (UAE University), and four panels covering urban development, urban renewal, spatial politics, and urban margins. Papers given at the conference will be published in full in the Fall 2013 volume of Arabian Humanities, an international journal of Archaeology and Social Sciences in the Arabian Peninsula published by The French Centre in Sana’a for Archaeology and Social Sciences (CEFAS). In anticipation of this volume, Electra Street has gathered abstracts and short excerpts from many of the presentations for those who were unable to attend.

— Sachi Leith

Cities Conference_BENCHETRIT_Pool and slum

[Photos above courtesy of Manuel Benchetrit; used by permission. Top: “Heritage Site”; bottom: “Pool and Slum”]


Andrew M. Gardner (University of Puget Sound), “The Amalgamated City: Petroleum Wealth and Urban Space in Doha, Qatar”

This paper is built upon an ethnographic foundation, largely a result of two years (2008-2010) spent in Doha, Qatar. In this paper, I attempt to explain and explore how Doha, as an urban built environment, serves and functions in the political/economic context of the Qatari state, I attempt to explain why the city (and, to some degree, other cities in the region) grow so rapidly and constantly, and I posit a fundamental (and often overlooked) urban spatial discourse that, in my estimation, is essential to understanding the pattern of contemporary urban development in the Arabian Gulf.

I begin this paper with a description of a prototypical experience of Doha and the lived spaces of the city. This experience focuses attention on the contrast between the “modernity” embraced and fetishized in managed or planned spaces and the chaotic and disheveled interstitial spaces in between those planned spaces. I also suggest that passing over this threshold is a recurring experience in the Gulf City, and one that I return to and reflect upon throughout the paper.

CitiesConference_Gardner_interstitial space

“Interstitial” Space

The first analytic section of this paper, tentatively titled “The City as a Trophy Case,” seeks to engage and explore the role that monumental architecture and “prestigious projects” — those vast-in-scale supermodern components of Doha’s built environment — play in codifying nationalism. I recognize that cities dialectically function to reinforce nationalisms in the region while simultaneously registering in a cosmopolitan symbolic index of modernity and development.

CitiesConference_Gardner_trophy planning

“Trophy Planning”

In the second analytic section of the paper, I seek to explore and explain why the pace of urban development is so accelerated in Doha. I argue that while there has been sufficient attention to the public sector’s role in transferring state-controlled petroleum wealth to citizens, real estate and urban development represent a second and unexplored conduit for these transfers. Part of my argument rests on the fact that for every monumental construction built in Doha, there is a less visible sea of construction involving compounds, labor camps, and service industry. I contend that the act of urban growth has become an integral component of the implicit contract between state and citizen.

Together, the two processes described above have yielded a city (and, around the Gulf, cities) patterned in a particular spatial discourse. I draw on Aihwa Ong’s notions of “zoning technologies” and “graduated sovereignty” here, and therefore note the many “exceptional zones” that have arisen in Doha and elsewhere in the GCC. In my analysis, this spatialization is about more than the political and economic functions that are the focus of Ong’s work. In Doha, this spatialization, or “enclaving,” appears to be more about the compartmentalization of “foreign matter” (Dresch 2006): amidst unparalleled flows of global capital, culture, and people, the “zoning technologies” used in the compartmentalization of “foreign matter” can be grasped as an essential component of the regulation and governance of these global flows, and more directly, as an ongoing assertion of Qatari cultural identity and belonging to place amidst the proliferation of exceptionalism.


Brigitte Dumortier (Université Paris Sorbonne), “Concurrence and/or Complementarity between Coastal Cities in the United Arab Emirates

Ras el Khaimah refers to both one of the seven emirates forming the United Arab Emirates and to the capital city of this emirate. The present article shows to which extent the city belongs to the model of boom cities along the Gulf and which are its specificities. Ras el Khaimah benefits from a natural environment less arid than the neighbouring emirates and presents a particular identity associated to its history. Today, the authorities show an ambition to recover a lost rank among the Gulf coastal cities. On the master plans the border between virtual and reality is unclear, as is often the case on documents and websites devoted to urban development in the Gulf.  Some proposals seem oversized or unrealistic and make an impression or give an illusion that Ras el Khaimah will become a miniaturized Dubai.

Ras el Khaimah is the heir of a history dating back to the highest Antiquity. In the Middle Age and the Early Modern Period, it was known as Julfar, one of the major ports in the region. Later, it became headquarter of the Qawassim, a maritime power that presented a firm resistance to British imperial ambition in the vicinity of Hormuz. Like the neighbouring cities, it remained a prosperous port thanks to pearling, before it began to decline in the late 1920’s.

Ras el Khaimah is a hydrocarbon-poor emirate and yet it enjoys oil revenues through the federal budget. Remarkable because of its mountainous and immediate hinterland, Ras el Khaimah develops its geological resources with an active building materials industry, taking advantage of the regional boom in the building and public works industry. Companies like RAK Ceramics, a local enterprise that has grown into a global company, or Julphar, a leading pharmaceutical firm in the Arab world, illustrate the early industrial development of the city and show the strong linkage between public and private stakeholders as well as between local and foreign ones.

Ras el Khaimah didn’t experiment the same tremendous growth as the biggest cities on the Arab shore of the Gulf. Nevertheless, the population increased from 40, 000 inhabitants in 1980 to 110, 000 in 2005. Like most of the Gulf cities, one can observe faster demographic growth from the middle of the 2000s. Free zones, new property laws, international hotels and resorts, and real estate programs could make Ras el Khaimah appear as a future little Dubai. This hypothesis suffers serious reservations because differences in scale and chronology induce differences in the origin of investors and visitors. Although one can imagine that Ras el Khaimah will compete with other coastal Gulf cities, it is more likely to reflect an economic specialization and territorial ranking as an effect of globalization on an emerging megalopolis with Abu Dhabi as its centre.

[Source: Ph. Cadène, B. Dumortier, Atlas of the Gulf Countries, Brill, under press.]


John Burt (NYUAD), “The Environmental Costs of Coastal Urbanization in the Gulf”

Most major cities in the Gulf are located along coastlines. The rapid growth of populations and associated coastal urban development may be the greatest threat to marine ecosystems in the region. Some Gulf countries have already developed over 40% of their coastlines, and the pressure is particularly acute in small coastal countries like Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, where over 85% of the population lives within 100 km of the coast. Rapid development has led to the loss and degradation of important and diverse coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds, while environmental policy and regulation have generally lagged behind the pace of development. Improved economic valuation of ecosystem goods and services, expanded technical capacity of Gulf nationals, enhanced environmental and social impact assessments, and Gulf-wide policy frameworks need to be developed to stem the decline of the unique and important coastal environments in the Gulf.

Cities Conference_Burt_Palm Island

Coastline modification: Dubai

Cities Conference_Burt_graph

The Changing Coastal Environment of the Gulf

Atef Alshehri (University of Oxford), “Resetting the Urban Clock: Reconfiguring the Sacred City of al-Madina”

The city of al‐Madīna represents the archetypal Islamic city as it witnessed the formative years of Islam. As a pre‐modern city, it maintained a continuous and gradual growth since its foundation in the seventh century. This paper focuses on tracing the urban growth process of the city of al‐Madīna in order to reveal how it was historically enshrined in its significant spiritual position. Its major urban elements and institutions all revolved around the sacral significance of the city as a resting place and witness to the life (sīra) of the Prophet Moḥammad, and as the foundation of Islamic civilization.

The city has endured major events and urban evolution processes that, throughout its history, have shaped its urban and architectural character. This paper, therefore, follows two strands:

First, the perpetual iconic image of al‐Madīna, as a sacred site, has always been signified by the combined effect of its constituent urban elements such as, the Prophet’s mosque, the historic marketplace, the city wall and other various urban and social institutions and practices. However, the overall contemporary renewal process of the city for the past several decades has had an adverse effect on the cohesion of its urban fabric, social structure and the overall urban character.

Second, since the mid‐1950s, al‐Madīna embarked on an urban expansion process that reversed the continuous historical urban growth of the whole city, and restaged the entire urban scene into a new picture that can represent nothing but a dangerously widening rupture with the heritage and legacy of the place. The core of the city, which has been its beating heart and treasury of its memory for centuries, went back to a state of “tabula rasa.”

This is neither a comparison between old and new, nor an argument for or against preserving urban heritage. Rather, it is an analysis of the integrity of an urban system that evolved for centuries, as compared to an imported urban scheme that maintained very few links, if any, with the genesis of the city’s form in its totality, with all its functional, formal, and social constituents.

The attempt to explain how the process of regeneration has failed might prove to be a formidable task, but some possible areas of failure will be briefly discussed, including urban policymaking processes versus public engagement. Although al‐Madīna has its own specificity as a holy city, it is still inevitably subject to the socioeconomic conditions of its wider national and regional contexts. Thus, a brief look into the relevant current and future urban renewal trends will be discussed.


Patrizia Zanelli (LUSPIO University, Rome), “Rapid Urbanization in some Yemeni Short Stories by Muḥammad al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān”

This paper deals with Sana’a, focusing on the negative effects of rapid urbanization described by the famous Yemeni writer Muḥammad al-Ġarbī  ‘Amrān (1958) in his 2001 short story collection ðarīm A’azzakum Allāh (Women, Excuse the Term!).  The analysis of the contents of these tales requires a consideration of Yemen’s low rank of human development, high rates of poverty and of population growth, and large gender disparities.

In his stories, al-Ġarbī  ‘Amrān conveys a wide-ranging rejection of tradition and, implicitly, a strong demand for modernization. On the other hand, he also denounces negative aspects of modernity, such as environmental pollution, disturbing landscape alteration and, above all, social fragmentation and individual isolation in urban and suburban contexts—themes obviously linked to rapid urbanization. Yemenis still chiefly live in rural areas, but they are urbanizing at a much higher pace than any other Arab population.  In 1998, 28% of urban residents were living in Sana’a, where construction and infrastructure development has accelerated since the 1990s. Thus, new buildings, towers, roads, tunnels and bridges have consumed the rural and mountain landscapes surrounding the Yemeni capital.

Internal rural-urban migration is the key theme al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān tackles in the tales that this paper examines. In one story, the author tries to highlight the contrast between the city and the rural areas, expressing a positive opinion on the traditional life style in Yemeni villages where solid communal bonds offer protection to the people, and where even animals are perceived as full members of the community. In the tales considered in this paper, al-Ġarbī ‘Amrān does not ever describe Sana’a’s famous ancient walled centre, which is now encircled by a huge ring road, mentioning only modern parts of the city or some of its suburbs. The author tries above all to show how social fragmentation caused by rapid urbanization added to old problems such as gender segregation, racial discrimination, and a general refusal of diversity, forcing many young Yemenis in Sana’a to live in solitude. In fact, the protagonists of his stories are lonely bachelors who had moved from their native villages to the capital.

Other tales presented in this paper explore themes of poverty, beggary and violence against women.


Laure Assaf (Paris West University), “The Corniche of Abu Dhabi: Public Space and Outdoor Intimacy”

The Corniche, which runs along the seafront in downtown Abu Dhabi, is one of city’s main centers of outdoor activity, and a diversity of populations comes there for familial or friendly outings. In this paper I question the uses and modes of appropriation of the Corniche by its visitors, and analyze the ways in which urban space is shared between Abu Dhabi’s different groups.

The Corniche can first be considered as a showcase for the city. Designed and developed by the emirate’s rulers, the Corniche takes part in Abu Dhabi’s efforts to stand out as the capital of the UAE, and as the center of the Emirati nation. Its skyline has become a symbol for the city and every main event finds a translation on the Corniche. The Corniche also serves as a gathering place for very heterogeneous groups—exceptional in a city where socio-ethnic hierarchies rule over daily interactions, usually defining urban spaces with differential accessibilities and uses according to one’s social status, gender and ethnicity.

From the early morning joggers to the evening crowds, including the Asian workers sleeping on the benches during the day or the groups of women picnicking on the grass while watching their children play in the afternoons, the range of practices on the Corniche varies widely according to the time of day, the type of activity, or with whom one comes. With its open access, diversity of populations, and plurality of uses, the Corniche thus appears to fit in with definitions of public space by urban anthropologists.

But different categories of the population develop unequal uses of the place in terms of activities or of time spent on the Corniche: those who have access to more private spaces of leisure (Emiratis or Western expatriates for instance) tend to come less often to the Corniche.  Moreover, the way space is negotiated between groups is not necessarily deprived of conflicts, as shown by the complaints that led to the creation of the “Family Beach,” an area that excludes single men – i.e. mostly poor Southeast-Asian migrant workers, who are considered a threat to women.

I then move on to describe two of the most widespread and visible practices on the Corniche: family picnics and the practice of sports. Both could be considered forms of familial or individual intimacy – being understood as a certain mode of appropriating public space and coping with heterogeneous populations.

Picnics on the Corniche are mainly associated with the ahl as-shâm (families coming from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) and can be regarded as an extension of the home into public space. They contribute to the constitution of a homogeneous social group, along the lines of a shared regional origin and kind of practice.

The practice of sports is probably one of the major activities on the Corniche, whether it is jogging, “fast-walking”, or cycling. The individual nature of these sports allows one to practice alongside others while forbidding different kinds of interactions. This is especially important for young Muslim women, to whom cycling on the Corniche, for instance, provides a good way to put up with social norms without renouncing outdoor sports.

Uses of the Corniche then make visible an urban community which is larger than the national community – since most of these Arab expatriate families have been in Abu Dhabi for more than twenty years but have no chance of becoming citizens.

We’re left with the question of the possibility, for an ever-transforming space like the Corniche, to become a place of urban memory for the groups that appropriate it.


Manifesting “Multidisciplinarity”

Manifesting “Multidisciplinarity”


“Multidisciplinary” is, to me, one of the most enticing pieces of educational jargon there is. As someone who has been described as chronically indecisive, I have a hard time keeping my interests within isolated fields of study, and the word “multidisciplinary” is like a shining beacon of hope. Sure, I think, I can study science and literature and art and economics, and someday I’ll be able to mash them together into a tailor-made career that I will enjoy for the rest of my life! But when reality hits me, as it so often does, like a record-breaking skydiver at 833.9 mph, I’m sure that the Renaissance woman is irrelevant these days and that I’ll be living in a cardboard box for the rest of eternity. Who in the real world applies “multidisciplinary” to everyday life?

Angela Palmer, that’s who.

Angela Palmer embodies “multidisciplinary,” and she plays the part with style. A Scottish artist who began her career as a journalist, Palmer merges her MFA with, among other things, biology, archaeology, film, ecology, history, literature, music, physics, and anatomy. But it is her career in journalism, she says, that informs the way she approaches each project—the output is a journey more than a static work of art. “The end product is just part of it,” she says. “It’s really about the story.” It can be tedious to hear someone discuss the minutiae of their own work, but Palmer tells these stories with such selfless excitement that one can’t help but be intrigued by both work and artist. “Art is about asking; asking, questioning, challenging, breaking rules, but driven always by curiosity. Curiosity underpins everything I do. Was it a successful piece of art? I don’t know, but for me it satisfies a curiosity.”

One of her most recent works is a sculpture, on 111 sheets of glass, of a child mummy from the Ashmolean Museum, at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Using CT scans of the mummy, she was able to recreate an image of the body, slice by slice, without disturbing his wrappings . From this, scientists were able to reproduce a cast of his skeleton, determine his age, and make discoveries about his teeth and bone structure. She’s performed the same process on herself, author Robert Harris, and the heads of horses, cows, and pigs. 

Accompanying the sculpture is a short documentary film from her trip to the mummy’s hometown and tomb (just outside of Cairo), and art pieces constructed from linen wrappings and natural dyes.

Another project, entitled Ghost Forest, involved transporting ten enormous tree stumps from the Ghanaian rainforest to the middle of Trafalgar Square, at the heart of London. Palmer’s aim was to promote awareness of climate change and responsible forestry. The massive stumps stood looming around Nelson’s Column, which stands 50 metres, or 169 feet, tall, the height that many of these trees would have been. The trees were moved to Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference; sat for two years in the front lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History; and have now found their final resting place at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The entire project has been declared carbon neutral, its emissions offset by a company called ClimateCare working to introduce efficient stoves in Ghana, the trees’ birthplace.

“What staggers me,” she marvels, “is that we have these problems in the world and so few artists are responding.”

Even on video, the project was breathtaking—the tangled roots are reminiscent of nerve endings, their silent and majestic presence among both natural and man-made landscapes a reminder of our own insignificant mortality; I can only imagine its power in real life.

“I’m not an activist,” she’s quick to say, “but I’m surprised.” When asked where she draws the line between activist and artist, Palmer pauses. “I don’t see myself as an activist in that quite often with activists, they’re associated with one issue. And that’s a determining factor that underlines their activism. When I was in Copenhagen, I met a lot of activists, and they were very determinedly single-issue. Quite often they were just exhausted by their own activism, in trying to effect change. I’d never want the shackles of it, to be limited to a single issue. The environment does interest me, and I do think we have got a duty, as human beings, but I’m not a preacher, and I don’t exactly go about living in a very pure way. Purity just doesn’t exist in my case.”

And she’s so much more interesting for her impurities. They make her seem so … what’s the word?


[Images credit:]

Arabic Typography

Arabic Typography

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.


photo courtesy of author