- 2011 , National Center for Translation, Ministry of Culture, Egypt
- Role: author
Chair and Professor
Wednesdays, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
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.
Notes on Ritual Prayer in Iran: Qunut Choices among a Group of Shi‘i Women. In Approaches to the Qur’an in Contemporary Iran, edited by Alessandro Cancian. Qur’anic Studies Series 18 (Oxford: Oxford University Press in Association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2019).
Review of: Alireza Doostdar, The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam and the Uncanny. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018). In International Journal of Middle East Studies, 51 (2019).
Unbundling sincerity: Language, mediation, and interiority in comparative perspective. This is an edited collection on comparative notions of sincerity in four religious communities that appeared in the journal Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. My own contribution to this section can be accessed on the journal's website. The article is called, "The sincere subject: Mediation and interiority among a group of Muslim women in Iran."
La Salât et son langage: Prier en dehors de la mosquée. In Le social par le langage: La parole au quotidien. 2015. Edited by Myriam Achour-Kallel. Karthala & IRMC.
Do we need the army's helping hand? Le Monde Diplomatique, English Edition. October 14, 2011. (Article on Egypt's "bloody Sunday" when the army used violence to disperse demonstrators).
Clerical Chic. The Guardian. January 5, 2005.
Speaking up for a Plurality of Muslim Voices. The Guardian. July 26, 2003.
Getting Lost in Translation and Quotation. The Guardian. August 30, 2003.
Other Selected Publications
The Elephant in the Room: Language and Literacy in the Arab World. 2009. Cambridge Handbook of Literacy. Edited by David Olson and Nancy Torrance. Cambridge University Press.
The uses and abuses of Classical Arabic. In Transeuropeennes, Vol. 23, special issue on Religions in Politics. 2003. (French-English bilingual journal published in Paris).
Form and ideology: Arabic sociolinguistics and beyond. 2000. Annual Review of Anthropology, 29:61-87.
The Reproduction of symbolic capital: Language, state, and class in Egypt. 1997. Current Anthropology, 38 (5): 795-805, reply: 811-816.
- 2008 , REMMM
- Role: co-editor
- Purchase Online
- 2003 , Palgrave MacMillan
- Role: author
- Purchase Online
- 1998 , John Benjamin Publishers
- Role: co-editor
- 1997 , Brill
- Role: co-author
- Purchase Online
- 1997 , Routledge
- Role: author
- Purchase Online
Prayer and Poetry in the Lives of a Group of Iranian Women
I am writing a book based on fieldwork among a group of Iranian women living in Tehran that I began in earnest in the summer of 2008. The book is on voluntary prayers (du’a), obligatory prayers (namaz), and classical poetry. I also examine debates such as whether a namaz must have a spiritual aspect or is it merely a fulfillment of a religious requirement. What are the stakes of such debates and how are the various positions articulated. I explore 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 analyze the temporality of performing a ritual: Is praying at 18 the same as praying at 60? If not, what are the changes in form and content. What happens to a ritual such as the namaz when it is performed, not in public and with other people, but in private and at home, in the presence of God alone. For more in this project, see this recent interview.
Translation, Education, and the Production of Knowledge
Tehran boasts a surprisingly large number of bookstores, old and dusty ones as well as quite sleek new ones. One is used to seeing translations of literary works, old and new, from many parts of the world. In the last few decades, self-help books that come out in the U.S. are translated almost immediately. What attracted my attention this time is the sheer volume of translations in philosophy and the social sciences from French and English.
Examining reading materials for graduate students in anthropology and sociology, one comes away with the impression that more than half of what they read are works in translation. How do translations contribute to the production of knowledge and to creativity within the local intellectual milieu? Which translations enter the curricula at universities and why? There is a category of books in Iran that are both translations and original works--they are called roughly "translated and composed" (tarjomeh va ta’lif). Often, university professors translate an author’s work and write an introduction to it themselves, adding commentary where necessary. I have begun interviewing translators of social scientific and literary works. I am also putting together a history of course materials in the last decade.
Modesty and Public Appearance Among Jews, Christians and Muslims
I have broadened this project and carried out interviews with rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics in London as well in Iran. I am now in the process of putting together the historical and contemporary materials that I have gathered. I begin this research with the overarching question of the meanings of modesty and ask a number of questions: How do aesthetics and morality intersect for different groups of Iranians and what has changed in this respect since early 20th century? What roles have class and gender played in negotiating the relations between piety, modesty and dress? I have found the literature on the social history of moral regulation in the West and of sumptuary laws to be quite relevant to this project. There needs to be a revisiting of this period in Iranian history that pays close attention to the long term consequences of de-cloaking—suits, skirts and hats, as opposed to robes, turbans and veils; takes into account the effects of the technologies of photography and film (both of which came to Iran only a few years after Europe); proliferation of shops and places of leisure; and steady increases in literacy rates. Most research on hijab excludes three very important groups, men and non-Muslims, and non-believers. There are ways in which what men wear also illuminate the question of modesty. And there is no principled reason why non-Muslim views of modesty should not be researched and analyzed. In Iran, Zoroastrianism predates Islam; and Jews and Christians have been living there for a long time, the latter since the time of Cyrus (550 B.C.). How could it be that their codes, views and practices would not be relevant to Iranians’ notions of modesty.
I have written a great deal on the social, cultural and political complexities of the language situation in Egypt. Some of my discussions on Egypt are also applicable to other parts of the Arab world. In my book Sacred Language, Ordinary people, I pursue the question of what a modern language is and the relation between a “modern” language and modernity. I try to follow the reasons for the historical refusal of allowing vernacular forms of Arabic to become written languages of their own and the consequences of this “decision”; and the varied implications of using Classical Arabic instead—a language which a majority of Arab Muslims (as well as other Muslims) believe to be the word of God and in this sense “sacred.” There is often an emphatic denial of the importance of the association between Classical Arabic and the Qur’an, both on the part of many secular Arab intellectuals and on the part of non-Arab scholars who dismiss such ideas without any systematic study.