Monday, January 11, 2010

The Ressurection of Ajami

Not a surname, no. It is a script. A few thousand years old. Looks like Arabic, but isn't. Writing in West Africa in Ajami began in the 17th century, increased in the 18th and 19th centuries and continued into the 20th. Since the languages involved have phonetic systems different from Arabic, there has often been modification of the Arabic script to transcribe them (a process not unlike what has been done with the Arabic script in non-Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East and with the Latin alphabet also in Africa.

This traditional Ajami script never died out although it has become greatly overshadowed by Romanized script. It suffered at the hands of zelous missionaries who saw in Romanization the path of "Mohammedan progress" (a bit like Ataturk, minus the nationalist sympathies).

Now the Senegal-born linguistics professor Fallou Ngom, director of the African Languages Program at Boston University, is is training the first generation of American scholars capable of reading Ajami.

Ngom is aware that Ajami script had been widely used across Africa for day-to-day writing in a dozen languages, and those writings had been largely overlooked in the official story of the continent - in part because so few historians could read them. What Ngom hopes is nothing less than to lay the groundwork for a reinterpretation of much of African history, using this widespread but little understood writing system to unearth new information about the daily life of Africans, the spread of Islam, the continent’s literary traditions, the Atlantic slave trade, and who knows what else.

This despite objections from other African scholars that the script was used primarily to record everyday, local concerns such as business deals and cultural practices, and is unlikely to be the source of significant new revelations.

The study of Africa’s history, particularly the region below the Sahara Desert, has traditionally reflected not only the biases of its historians, but also the limits of the written sources available to them. Official African documents tend to be in the languages of the outsiders who held power - either the Arab invaders who began arriving on the continent in the seventh century, or the Europeans who colonized it starting about a millennium later. These outsiders were there to convert the locals, trade them as slaves, and mine their natural resources, and colonial writings helped justify those commercial and religious interests, portraying sub-Sahara Africa as lacking literacy, history, and civilization. What little is known about Ajami texts is reason enough to push deeper. To study Ajami, as Ngom sees it, is to open the door to a different side of Africa, unlocking an oral tradition widely assumed to have vanished with its speakers, and offering an important corrective to the way Africa’s story has been told.

More information can be found here.

For all your English to Arabic and vice versa translations that will help you expand your business into the Middle East visit Arabic Language Experts at

No comments: