I received my BA and PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. My first book was on language and gender in Cairo and addressed one of the main questions emerging out of sociolinguistics in the 1980s—who are the agents of language change, women or men?
I gravitated toward linguistic anthropology after finishing my dissertation. Based on a second period of fieldwork in Cairo in 1995-96, I wrote Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (2003). In this book, I explore the dilemmas that have arisen as a result of choosing Classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) as the official standard language of Egypt (and of other Arab countries), rather than Egyptian Arabic, the mother tongue of Egyptians. As part of the reform movement beginning in the 19th century, the choice was made to “modernize” Classical Arabic in order to make it more suitable for contemporary needs rather than standardize the vernacular language. I argue that Egyptian Muslims (like other Muslims) are custodians of Classical Arabic and as custodians, the question of who has the right to change the language is deeply contentious. Up to the present time, the language question is addressed in conferences in many parts of the Arab world and continues to be deeply divisive. It is also addressed in the volumes on Arab Human Development Reports.
Out of this project, I collaborated with Dr. Catherine Miller, Director of the Institut de recherches et d’etudes sur le monde arabe et musulman, IREMAM on language and modernity in various parts of the Muslim world such as Turkey, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, East Africa, Cameroon, among others. The topic continues to interest me and I hope to go back to it soon.
Over the years, the projects that have interested me most have revolved in one way or another around questions of language and subjectivity. At the moment, I am exploring the role of language in constructing a relationship with God, through various kinds of prayer, for example. What is inward speech like and is it very different from the kinds of speech we use to address others around us. Similarly, I am asking what is poetry doing in the relations we are continuously building and rebuilding with intimates, friends and strangers. The question comes up because quoting poetry is central to the communicative practices of Iranians across ideological divides and class and gender lines.
I received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Stanford Humanities Center Fellowship in 2015-2016.