Unconventional Arabic Language Resources, Vol. 1

1950s DLI students sit riveted by another mind-blowing Arabic lesson.

In the military, within the language analyst community (government speak for ‘translator’), there is a phrase that sends shivers down the spines of most service-members. The phrase is… “language maintenance.” It makes the language retention process sound as interesting and thrilling as changing a car’s oil, which is probably why most military “language maintenance” materials are so damned boring. From my experience, most materials consisted of either a written article from Al Jazeera or BBC Arabic, or a 2-3 minute audio passage from the same sources. Bilateral trade agreements! Weather reports! The Joy! Now, these sorts of materials are certainly important – especially since the DLPT draws almost exclusively from them – but they can become stale very quickly, especially at the higher levels. It’s also understandable that since the personnel tasked with putting together materials for language maintenance are swamped with a million other tasks, they naturally reach for the same resources time and again. In that regards, I thought I’d list a few places where you can find Arabic Language materials that are both authentic and engaging.

Disclaimer: I like Arabic, but I love Iraq and Iraqi Arabic. As such, you’ll probably notice a certain bias towards materials related to Iraq. You just got to deal with it, yo. Also, most of these materials are probably in the 2+ and higher range of the ILR scale. If you aren’t there yet, you might not get as much out of these.

1. The Harmony Program Documents from West Point’s Countering Terrorism Center
These documents are probably some of the most unique documents of their kind on the internet. Documents captured from insurgents and terrorists across Iraq and Afghanistan were made available by the US Military to researchers at West Point’s CTC under the agreement that they were allowed to be publicly published. It doesn’t get more “real” than this. Want to read the letter that al-Qa’ida’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sent to the former leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? What about the form that al-Qa’ida required its soldiers to fill out if they were quitting jihad in Iraq? There are tons of different documents that you can pore over; all of them interesting and historical. The best part of all, however, is that every single Arabic Language document has an English translation accessible by clicking the “View English Translation” button in the upper right corner of the page. It not only provides a word-for-word translation, but adds context and background history on the who/what/where/when/why of each document. You almost don’t need your trusty Hans Wehr!

2. Baghdad TED Talks
Yeah, you read that right. Official TED talks… in Arabic… from Baghdad. This is actually very, very recent (last week). The footage isn’t actually up on the official site just yet, but you can still watch a replay of the livestream here.

3. Iraqiyah Confessions
These are pretty wild; there isn’t really any correlation to this practice on mainstream American TV. Basically, some of the most “infamous” of Iraqi terrorists and insurgents that are rounded up by US/Iraqi Forces are brought on TV for dramatic one-on-one mea culpas where they detail their sordid jihadi ways. One of the lengthiest interviews is one done with Munaf al-Rawi, the so-called “Wali of Baghdad,” who led al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s Baghdad operations and who was captured back in 2010 and sentenced to death this March. The entire interview can be found conveniently pieced together on my youtube playlist. There’s plenty more out there. I should note, some people might find it repulsive to dedicate 30-40 minutes listening to a terrorist talk, but I think most people will see the value. Maybe I’ll post a transcript some day for the non-Arab speaking folks out there?

4. al-Jazeera Sports
I have a theory that sometimes the best thing to do on certain days is just put on some Arabic in the background and let your mind absorb and work with the Arabic passively. Don’t worry about looking up words, don’t mess with trying to understand everything, just get in that messy stream of Arabic and let it wash over you like a warm shower. That’s right. And, in my opinion, the best way to do that is to put al-Jazeera Sports on. They generally have soccer (football lol) on at some point during the day and it’s super easy to just pull it up and watch some soccer for 30 minutes. This method is even more beneficial if you follow American sports, as a lot of the chatter between broadcasters is the same so it is fairly easy to figure out what they are chatting about after a while. al-Jazeera Sports streams live from this website. Enjoy!

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Love My Fear More Than My Money

Shocker! Guantanamo Bay is a complete waste of money. The Miami Herald‘s Carol Rosenberg – uber guru on all things Gitmo – has a new article up that estimates that the facility costs the US Government $800,000 annually, per detainee. That comes out to roughly thirty times the cost of holding a prisoner on US soil. Mother Jones adds on an interesting factoid:

The irony is that with only 171 detainees left, there are more convicted international terrorists in federal prisons in the United States than there are detainees remaining at Gitmo.

Our inability – here, in 2011 – to close the prison at Guantanamo is the most damning indictment of the cowardice and ignorant fear that lies at the heart of American politics. I could ramble on all day in regards to the shame of that place, but instead I thought I’d provide a solid list of material that has helped shaped my mind on it.

Web Sites:
Guantanamo Bay Section, Miami Herald. By Carol Rosenberg.
Carol Rosenberg won the Robert F. Kennedy award for Journalism (Domestic Print) in 2011 for her body of reporting from Guantanamo. By all accounts she has spent more time down at Gitmo than any other reporter; indeed, she has probably spent more time there than most military personnel. If you want one news source on Gitmo, this is all you need.

Audio:
Habeas Schmabeas, This American Life. by WBEZ Chicago
Ira Glass and his merry band of radio wunderkinds produced this episode, which actually won them the 2006 Peabody Award for “clarifying and emphasizing the significance of a fundamental American legal right and for giving voice to victims of its abuse.” (Peabody Award citation.) It’s worth your time.

Books:
The Least Worst Place, by Karen Greenberg
The best book to start with. Karen Greenberg goes through the very first 100 days that Gitmo was open in meticulous detail. The narrative focuses on Marine General Michael Lehnert who fought tirelessly, and ultimately in vain, for the Geneva Conventions to be upheld at the camp. It’s worth it alone as a case study in the costs and difficulty inherent in living out true moral courage and leadership.

The Eight O’clock Ferry To the Windward Side, by Clive Stafford Smith
Clive Stafford Smith was one of the first lawyers to arrive at Gitmo, and this book is a cataloging of much of his time spent at the camp and with the detainees he represented. Well written, engaging, insightful.

Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, by Mernat Kurnaz
It doesn’t get any more personal than this: the author, Mernat Kurnaz, was wrongfully imprisoned at Gitmo for five years. This is his story.

Enemy Aliens: Double Standards And Constitutional Freedoms In The War On Terrorism, by David Cole
This book does not focus solely on Gitmo, but places it in the context of the War on Terrorism and the legal framework (or lack thereof) for much of what was happening. An excellent read.