The Irony of Erasing Arabic
Making Hebrew Israel’s Only Language Ignores History

By Liora R. Halperin, Forward, October 06, 2014

In late August, a group of Knesset members from the right flank of the Likud party, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home party proposed a bill that would make Hebrew the only official language of Israel, annulling a requirement in existence since the British Mandate period that all official documents be published in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. Similar bills to eliminate or demote the official status of Arabic were proposed in 2011 and 2008. Critics have pointed out that this bill is part of a broader effort to affirm the “Jewish” character of the state (as opposed to its democratic character) by enshrining Jewishness into Israel’s basic laws. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, for one, has spoken out against it.

A historical perspective is worth adding to the discussion, one that highlights a contradictory Zionist view of language that has existed since the British ruled Palestine: As Zionists advocated forcefully for the very principle of national language rights, they fantasized about a society in which there would be no national competitors to Hebrew. Israel still is navigating between these two positions. (more…)

In 1981, during a trip to Egypt, I bought the old multi-volume Cairo edition of the mother of all Arabic dictionaries: al-Zabidi’s Taj al-‘Arus. It took up an entire suitcase and was so heavy that I paid the porter extra. As I arrived home, the handle broke and the books spilled in the landing of my home. Those were the days when most Arabic books had to be physically bought in the Middle East and carried home in luggage. Books that used to be accessible only in major libraries are often available online today. If one is patient just about any classic Arabic text from the past is available online. Some are pdf scans, where there is a treasure trove at and It is usually best to search these sites in Arabic. But even a ouja-board Google search in Arabic can yield full texts.


One of the remaining marvels off the east coast of Africa is the island archipelago of Socotra, historically associated with Yemen, the nation which it belongs to. Socotra is a preserve of biodiversity with a local population not yet catapulted into the under-development pains of the 21st century. There is a fascinating film about the need to protect Socotra’s unique environment and its people from the devastating impact of uncontrolled “development.” Among the individuals speaking is Dutch ecologist Paul Scholte, who has extensive research experience both in Yemen and Africa. Check out both parts of the film here and here. There are a number of Youtube videos on Socotra, but most are tourist oriented and do not match the information level of this film.

The Princeton Geniza Project of the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University seeks to extend the methodologies available to Hebrew and Arabic scholars working with the documents found in the Geniza chamber of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo in the late 19th century. The project is dedicated to transcribing documents from film copies to computer files, creating a full text retrieval text-base of transcribed documents, developing new tools such as dictionaries, semantic categories and morphological aids to further the study of Geniza texts. The project is committed to disseminating its materials as widely as possible to the international community of scholars with an interest in the life of the medieval Middle East, as well as to all with an interest in Judaica. It is our hope that by making materials from this very esoteric field widely available that new insights can be gained into the interaction of the peoples of the Middle East in past time. Since inception in 1986, funding has been provided by Princeton University, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, and from 2000 to 2005 by the Friedberg Genizah Project.

There is a valuable resource available for anyone interested in the interchange between Arabic texts and the Latin-writing world. This can be found at

Abdel Sabour

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

[For Part 1 of this essay, click here. For Part 2, click here.]

7. Sabour’s Departure from Traditional Arabic Poetry

Up until now, I tried to demonstrate Eliot’s influence on Abdel Sabour’s poetry, especially with regard to his themes and techniques. Because of the vast gulf that separates the two poets culturally, spiritually, and educationally, it seems a vain effort to look for absolute similarities. On the other hand, it is easier for the critic with an adequate knowledge of the traditional models of Arabic poetry to notice that Sabour’s modern poetry departed almost completely from the classical tradition.

Prior to his exposure to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Sabour wrote traditional poetry using the classical meters. After reading Eliot, the Egyptian poet adopted new themes, techniques, and structures. He no longer used traditional meters with the long, heavy lines, built on two hemistiches and rhyming with each other throughout the poem. This new type of poetry was able to come into existence and flourish after a long struggle led by contemporary poets like Abdel Sabour. (19)

Starting in the late 1950s, the experience of writing in free verse became a familiar occurrence. In the poetry of Sabour, not only the mood, style, use of myth and illusion, and the interior monologue resemble Eliot’s, but “we have a sense of aimlessness and isolation, of memory and futility, it is definitely the mood of The Wasteland and the Hollow Men.” (20) Moreover, there are clear-cut images in Sabour’s poetry which demonstrate Eliot’s great influence on the Arab poet’s attitude toward life and death. Sabour also makes use of Eliot’s theme of alienation and of his description of empty rooms. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot says:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.”

Sabour says, echoing Eliot in his “My Peerless Star”:

“Fingers of an eastern wind
Rub the window-panes.” (more…)

T. S. Eliot

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

[For Part 1 of this essay, click here.]

4. A Brief Summary of Eliot’s Background

T.S. Eliot, the Anglo-American poet, was born in 1888 in Saint Louis, Missouri. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford. Despite the fact that Eliot was brought up in a conservative Christian atmosphere, he exposed himself later to a completely different culture when he went to live in England. It is obvious that the political and spiritual world in which Eliot lived bestowed upon him its own distinguishing characteristics.

Eliot was lucky in his education. Harvard offered him a thorough introduction to Dante and to Romance literature. Since his earlier poetry, Eliot was influenced by Dante. Dante held a central position in Europe and linked the Roman past with the modern age. In Dante, Eliot found the spiritual identity of Europe. This allowed him to try to make Europe more conscious of itself. Eliot also allowed the French culture to influence him. Originally an American without the inherited English rigidity, he accepted the characteristics of the French civilization. His views of criticism were those of Remy de Gourmont’s school, and Charles Maurras influenced him politically.

Although it is always possible to argue that Eliot is, after all, an American, no one can deny that his exposure to different cultures gave him a unique political and literary background. Of course, it was his genius and talent which contributed most to the production of his great works of poetry and criticism.

5. A Brief Summary of Salah Abdel Sabour’s Background

Salah Abdel Sabour was not only a major poet, but also the literary editor of a wide spread newspaper, Al-Ahram. He was born in 1931 in the provincial district of Zaqaziq, Egypt, in a conservative Islamic house. When he was twenty, he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in Arabic Language and Literature. (more…)

Salah Abdel-Sabour, left; T. S. Eliot, right

T. S. Eliot’s Influence Upon Salah Abdel-Sabour

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D.

The degree of influence of the Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot, on the Egypto-Arabic poet and dramatist, Salah Abdel-Sabour, has not yet been vastly explored. In this article, I shall not only attempt to compare the two poets in a more enlightened perspective, but I shall also probe the fundamental methodology governing a general comparative study. My approach includes the following:

1. A Valid Comparative Study and the Importance of Comparative Literature
2. Traditional Arabic Poetry
3. Why T.S. Eliot?
4. A Brief Summary of Eliot’s Background
5. A Brief Summary of Abdel Sabour’s Background
6. A Practical and Comparative Analysis of One of Sabour’s Poems
7. Abdel Sabour’s Departure from Traditional Arabic Poetry
8. A Brief Comparison between Two Plays
9. Conclusion

1. A Valid Comparative Study and the Importance of Comparative Literature

A fruitful and acceptable treatment of a subject which discusses the influence of one poet upon another must not stop at the limits of a shallow consideration of the most obvious similarities of forms, meanings, and techniques. It must go to the depths to consider the various elements that concern the sources of similarities, as well as the differences, in the light of the cultural backgrounds of the two poets. For example, a comparative study between Corneille and Racine, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and Sabour and Mahmoud Darwish would not be valid for each pair of these poets or writers belongs to the same culture and submits to the same political and social atmospheres.

Comparative Literature is neither a literary comparison nor a mere translation of a foreign literature. It is, as Jean-Marie Carre says, a study of the international and spiritual relations between men and cultures. A meaningful comparative study requires two artists belonging to remote cultures, yet dealing with the same literary genre. The comparativist, thereby, investigates the major differences existing between the environments which produced habits, customs, and verbalization of thought. Again, it appears necessary to investigate the spiritual and material factors which establish the concepts of every culture. It is also necessary to determine the degree of understanding each poet has of his own literary tradition and to ascertain the extent to which his cultural heritage pervades his poetry. The political, religious, economical, and linguistic elements are important factors to be considered. (more…)

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