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Ahmed is not Dead: An Arab Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

posted on: Apr 18, 2018

Ahmed is not Dead: An Arabic Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

The Arabic Alphabet with the adjacent but different Haa’ and khaa‘ consonants highlighted. Source: Michael Fares

 By Michael Fares/Arab America contributing writer

On the first day of the fall 2017 semester during my office hours, I was reminded in a powerful way about the connections between Arabic language and Arab culture. A student in the introductory Arabic class I teach at University of Houston came in for help insisting he could not, for the life of him, hear the difference between two letters in Arabic; the letter “H”, and its neighbor in the Arabic alphabet “kh”. “H” makes a breathy sound, but “kh” makes more of a “throat clearing” sound. They can often sound confusingly similar to non-Arabic speakers.

My student was able to narrow this problem down even further. he said: “these two letters give me most trouble in words that start with the sound ‘a’ – like in “apple.” So, I proceeded to try and help him distinguish these two sounds by saying a few pairs of words featuring this difference: aHbaab (loved ones) versus akhbaar (news); aHass (he felt) versus akhaaf (I’m scared); aHsan (better) versus akhawaat (sisters).

Amidst these random pairs, I stumbled into saying the name Ahmed, that starts with an “aH” sound and is also one of the most common Arabic names. Then somewhat by accident, I found myself contrasting this name with the all too common mispronunciation “akhmad”, sometimes spelled “achmed”. I told my student I had too many not-so-fond memories hearing this mispronunciation from my own college days during the second Iraq war. “Back then”, I told my student, “I would often hear the name parodied in the Achmed the Dead Terrorist sketch done by some famous ventriloquist.” I couldn’t immediately remember his name.

But what I could recall was how my dorm mates played this sketch on repeat, unable to control their laughter at how funny they thought it was. However, I found it at best tacky and at worst ignorantly unaware about an entire people, no less one by and large innocently caught in the middle of the United States’ latest war in the Middle East.

As if to finish off my mini-rant in the perfect place, my student chimed in with a chuckle: “Jeff Dunham, oh yea I remember his ventriloquism and that sketch”, and then with a look on his face suggesting a flash of awareness at the possible cause of his consonant conundrum, “and I had no idea all these years that “achmed” is actually the wrong pronunciation.”

My student then curiously asked me about my background and how I came to learn and then teach Arabic. I told him about my Arab-American heritage from my Lebanese father and American mother, and how I did not come to be a speaker of Arabic until quite later in life. “Yea, my mom, and dad wanted me to be known as just white American” my student replied, citing the struggles his Yemeni father experienced navigating between two different cultures as a first-generation immigrant to the United States.

His father could have been my own father, who scarcely taught us any Arabic as kids except the typical “hello-how-are-you-goodbye.”  The fluent Arabic I finally came to learn as a result of my own curiosity, prying, and studies in college and graduate school.

As I drove home that day, thinking about this encounter with my student evoked the late Palestinian-American professor and literary scholar Edward Said, who in his work on Orientalism, demonstrated so saliently how early Western scholarship of the Middle East, amidst European first contact with the region from the 18th century onward, constructed and propagated representations of the Arab peoples as a strange, exotic, and mysterious “other”.

Said went on to show how these representations served the purposes of European colonization of the Arab Middle East rather than an authentic understanding of the day to day realities of its people. Moreover,  he also argued that they continue to shape and misinform Western public discourse about the region in the present day.

Ahmed is not Dead: An Arabic Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

Professor Edward Said, 1935-2003. Source: columbia.edu

That a joke at the expense of an “Arab” name that doesn’t even exist earned so many laughs, even from my self-described liberal and globally minded college friends, not to mention the
joke’s application of the term “terrorist” as apparently unique to Middle Eastern acts of violence, is perhaps an example par excellence of Said’s Orientalism still alive and well.

It isn’t that my former college friends, sophisticated people of genuine goodwill toward the world, like I’m sure is also true of Mr. Dunham and most of his fans, were willfully ignorant or hateful. Not at all. Rather, if we are to take Said’s Orientalism as explanatory, it is that they are simply misinformed, and grossly so.

Ahmed is not Dead: An Arabic Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

 The front cover image of Said’s Orientalism, depicting an exotic yet inaccurate representation of Middle Eastern life 

Said’s work would lead to the suggestion that Mr. Dunham’s Achmed character, a bearded skeleton sporting a turban and continually threatening “I kill you!”, is just one of the latest iterations that have bubbled up from the collective body of Orientalist images of the Arab East put into motion by early Western colonial discourse – images like: magic carpets, forbidden princesses, dagger-wielding villains on camels, sultans’ harems, barefoot snake charmers, and desert marauders. You get the idea.

Ahmed is not Dead: An Arabic Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

Ventriloquist Jeff Dunham with his Achmed the Dead Terrorist character. Source: Jeff Dunham, youtube.com

Said’s true insight lies in his observations that such representations of the Arab world, while internally consistent with themselves, are inconsistent with actual realities of the region and the peoples who inhabit it. Like a ship that has been sailing further and further off course for the past 200 years, these representations have failed and continue to fail to examine the Arab peoples as a dynamic product of the forces of history in the same way that all human civilizations necessarily are.

Ahmed is not Dead: An Arabic Professor’s Musings on the Intersections of Language and Culture

Professor Edward Said, 1935-2003. Source: theguardian.co.uk

So, to make a long story short, I was reminded by my inquisitive student during office hours of why I dedicate my professional life to teaching Arabic as a foreign language. Just as understanding language requires the ability to grasp nuance like that between two seemingly indistinguishable sounds, so too does the understanding of culture require a great appreciation for and openness to subtlety. This is because Arab culture is like all culture. It is not a static label, but a dynamic conversation like the very language out of which it has evolved and continues to evolve.

The longer I have studied and taught the Arabic language, the more humbled I have become by this truth. The horizon of what Arab culture means for me seems more and more boundless and infinite with each passing year that I teach this language. And so I don’t pretend I can tell my students “what Arab culture is”. Rather, in teaching the Arabic language, my hope is that I am also giving my students the space to encounter and discover Arab culture and all of its nuances for themselves, as well as the linguistic and intellectual skills to become their own participants in the conversations that shape it.