Using Arabic for Research
Recap & Overview
The previous section introduced colonial archives and records as a way to enhance your independent Arabic language learning at the advanced level. We covered how, when approached with caution and a critical eye, these kinds of documents provide several opportunities to remote and independent learners wanting to challenge themselves while in the US. In this section, we cover more practical elements: how to get started, and how to start thinking about creating exercises.
- Select and find archival material. While not the focus of this guide, do not assume that step 1 is applying for a grant to fly to Cairo, Washington D.C., London, or Paris! There are plenty of faculty in Madison who have digitized versions of archival material that they may be willing to share. If you are clear that you are using these materials for language learning and are not asking for all of their data, they are likely to be willing to share a selection of their files with you. The advantage here is that these files are likely to already be triaged in a sensible order, which allow you to focus on reading the material. A good amount to start with is 100 pages of material, and diplomatic cables are usually the most straightforward and ideal type of archive to start with.
- Skim through the English/French language material first. These can take many forms, but will likely include indexes, cover letters, summaries, and other correspondence. This will allow you to get a sense of the “case” and understand the basic overall narrative and why the appended Arabic documents were included.
- Triage the interesting Arabic-language files. Official documents are not organized to clearly flag what is most interesting, so separate what you want to read from the rest. Looking at the bottom of cover documents in the “attached” section is a quick way to get a sense of what is in the Arabic documents.
Now that you have your work cut out for you, you can begin reading. One advantage is that the quality of colonial archives often vary immensely in who was writing the translations and their interpretations. Look for different English/French language documents that interpret the same Arabic language source. You will likely get a pretty good sense of what this quality is rather quickly if you are studying a file in a particular bureau or particular period. As such, helpful exercises can include:
- Paired Analysis–Non-Arabic and Arabic: read the Arabic document associated with a pair of “official” documents. Analyze discrepancies in translation, interpretation, and tone in relation to your understanding of the Arabic text. This builds the skills necessary to engage with Arabic sources as a means of interpreting documents in your own language, the inverse of what many are used to doing directly in their stronger language(s).
- Paired Analysis–Arabic and Arabic: In many contexts in MENA, colonial powers did not always have the resources to surveil and often relied only on newspaper clippings as “intelligence.” This is especially true in the era of “nominal independence” in states like Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan in the 1920s-1950s before true independence, when the French and British empires were crumbling and had limited resources to expend on administration. As such, they often sought to collect a maximum of Arabic-language sources from different perspectives on events that they cared about. Take two or more Arabic-language articles on the same event and compare them. Reading in Arabic is hard enough, so this is a good entry point to analyzing primary sources in dialogue with one another with minimal “context scaffolding.”
- Bonus Challenge: Many archives will contain handwritten documents. These can include handwritten notes, completed forms, or more official handwritten correspondence. The context-driven approach that has guided the rest of these exercises provides the perfect opportunity to challenge yourself with handwritten reading for the first time.
These last two entries have provided a case and blueprint for incorporating colonial archives into your independent language study. The examples above should offer you a jumping off point to begin designing your own exercises based on your learning goals and what kinds of documents you are able to acquire. Ultimately, the method described here isn’t perfect, but offers one path to begin your journey into Arabic-language archival research to move onto a more diverse and representative array of sources that may be much more useful but difficult to tackle based on where you are in your language journey.