Is the Al-Kitaab Arabic language textbook anti-Israel?

A book I once used for Arabic language study, Al-Kitaab, is in the midst of a political controversy.

Matthew Iglesias over at the Atlantic has been following the issues surrounding the Washington Post‘s op-ed about the Arabic language textbook. I found out about it through ArabLing, which I found on the blogroll of Jabal al-Lughat, which I found a link to in a post about some esoteric point in Koranic Arabic from LanguageHat, which I keep meaning to take off of my feedreader since I always end up getting engrossed in it and spend too much time following the links. Apparently someone was offended because the maps in the textbook didn’t identify Israel as an “Arabic speaking” country.

Well, one picture is worth a thousand words, so I offer here some pictures of the maps and pages in question. Israel and Palestine are both all over the maps in question. The images here have been resized for faster page loading, but if anyone really wants to do a save to examine them closer, they should all be in a resolution large enough to read. (1) The first group of images is from the second edition of Al-Kitaab Part One published in 2004. (2) The next group is from an older version of the same text, the first edition of Al-Kitaab Part One published in 1995 and the companion workbook for the alphabet, Alif Baa, from the same year. As you will see, they changed the maps a little bit. Both versions list Israel in their glossary, and I throw that in too. Then I throw in a page from (3) Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, a text completely without illustrations which was the standard Arabic language text before the publication of Al-Kitaab. Oh, and the before and after picture of the “old” and “new” (4) Maha, since she has somehow gotten in the middle of the controversy for alleged whining.


1. The latest edition of Al-Kitaab:

2) First edition of Al-Kitaab and the companion wordbook Alif Baa:

3) Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, the previous standard Arabic text:

4) The old Maha; the new Maha with laptop:

Okay, what do I see?

First of all I consider monitoring textbooks for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias to be a valid exercise. Monitoring for anti-Arab bias as well. I have seen translations of textbooks that shocked, but did not surprise me. In particular, it does not strike me as particularly honest to claim some other group is thinking something bad or wanting something bad or has evil motivations. The only way you can know someone’s motivations is by what they do and what they say. I also think the standard for, say a sixth grade text is different from the standard for a university text, which Al-Kitaab is, and has more leeway for political viewpoints instead of bare facts.

While the old Al-Kitaab textbook lists only Palestinian as a nationality, the old workbook shows Palestine/Israel together geographically. This is continued in the new textbook. Both old and new versions list Israel in the glossary. If the book was one of those “Israel-does-not-exist” advocates, which is pretty rare anymore, they would not print the name “Israel” in the text as an exercise and in the glossary. I would like to see the nationality “Israeli” written in Arabic. The Arabs I know refer to Israelis as “Yahood”–Jews–which I don’t think is either accurate or promoting the values I would like to see promoted. It would be nice to have an alternative word to inject into conversation.

Teaching about culture is a valid and necessary part of any language instruction.  When we come to the “How old are you?” lesson in my English classes, I always talk about “good questions” and “bad questions,” and when it is appropriate to ask someone’s age.  Students need to know that.  In many parts of the Arab world it is not wise to say the word “Israel” in public.  In my opinion the book does not go far enough in explaining these cultural cues, but I suppose like language, culture is also in flux and it will depend on who you ask.

The Al-Kitaab series is far, far better than the old chestnut Elementary Modern Standard Arabic. The one pictured here was published in 1999, but has been in continuous copyright since 1968.  It doesn’t have so much as one picture.  The page shown above is a story about a tourist trip to Lebanon. Those days are long gone.

As far as Maha, a lot of language texts use a Dick, Jane, and Sally character to try to generate interest for the language.  The Jordanian Petra English language series has a “TV Presenter” (yes, it was written by a Brit) and also a boy named Marwin who whines a lot about food he doesn’t like.  Marwin is quite useful for learning negatives. I didn’t connect with either Maha. The second Maha reminds me of some urban Arabs I once worked with who we nicknamed Gucci and Channel, for the range of their interests and professional capabilities. At least she covers her arms down to the wrist.  The first Maha seems to be showing a lot of skin from the elbow to the wrist. In my experience this is maybe marginally okay in the city when the temperature is over 100, but definitely not okay in the country.

My real beef with the series, and with Arabic language textbooks in general, is that they only teach Modern Standard Arabic–“foos-ha”.  No one in the world actually speaks Modern Standard Arabic.  It is an artificial language–a construct.  Probably someone was hoping for some Arab Unity, but of course they got some Arab nationalism instead. Now the language has snob appeal and some countries will only print newspapers in that language, forbidding even common words like yalla (“let’s go”) from being printed in advertisements. If someone would print a serious textbook in Colloquial Levantine Arabic, which is what they speak from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Palestine to Iraq, I would buy it. Unfortunately the Arab concept of language acquisition consists of presenting charts of those awful conjugations and what they call “vocabs”–lists of out-of-context words with unfathomable meanings.


Note: This post has been sitting in my “drafts” since last summer. I’m only dusting it off now because my beloved LanguageHat blog is currently experiencing technical difficulties and I have not had my Linguistics Chew Toy fix for today. I will have it even if I have to write it myself.

Since in the post I also complain about the lack of colloquial Arabic resources, let me also reprint a subsequent comment from LH himself after a similar lament on a thread there. So any LHers who might also peek in here from time to time can get one of the Hat’s past Oracles as well:

There’s an excellent Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic by Mark W. Cowell if you can find it (I got it at the French & Spanish Book Shop in Rockefeller Center in 1991, but it was published in 1964), and an equally excellent Dictionary of Syrian Arabic: English-Arabic by Karl Stowasser and Moukhtar Ani; Routledge has a short but useful Colloquial Arabic (Levantine).

UPDATE 12/9/09: For some unknown reason, the textbook images here have become unclickable. I have now made the first one (of the textbook cover) clickable (linked to it’s original file) again.  It’s a somewhat time consuming, but if anyone is interested in seeing a closer view of certain images, leave a comment and I’ll start re-editing the images. UPDATE: images are now clickable.

11 Responses to “Is the Al-Kitaab Arabic language textbook anti-Israel?”

  1. abdulkabeer Says:

    pleaase i want you to supply me current islamic text books and sent me an allart notification truoghj my typed email adress. thank.

  2. Nijma Says:

    I sent you an email with the following message:

    Hi abdulkabeer.

    I didn’t understand your message. I don’t know very much about Islamic commentary. Did you try


  3. Katie Says:

    Of course not all of the nationalities are provided. The goal of the lesson is to teach the students the skills to determine how to say the nationalities of any country. The focus on the lesson was to be able to have a conversation around where people are from. Rather than filling up the chapter with a list of countries and nationalities, the chapter teaches students the skills to determine nationalities and how to form actual sentences.

    Although many consider Israel an illegal state, they are still called Israelis….

    Masculine: إْسْرائيلي (Israeli)
    Feminine: إْسْرائيلية (Israelia)

  4. austin Says:

    i’m taking arabic at ucsd. the course is broken up into 2 parts:

    grammar (fuhsa) using the book al kitaab, which is quite wonderful

    and conversation (MaSri) using the “kallimni arabi” series textbooks which teaches egyptian colloquial, and is a serious
    text book as far as i can tell.

    the two approaches is a little confusing since day-to-day words are almost completely different, but hopefully it will pay off when we do visit the middle east.

    by the way, maha is way hotter in version 2. love it.

  5. Nijma Says:

    austin, I haven’t seen that textbook, but then again, having lived in Jordan, I’m not interested in Egyptian Arabic. Some Amazon reviewers have some very favorable comments about it (Kallimni Arabi : An Intermediate Course in Spoken Egyptian Arabic) here.

    For colloquial Levantine Arabic I have used

    Mary Jane Liddicoat, Syrian Colloquial Arabic (download)
    Pimsleur, Arabic in Ten Days (Syrian Arabic, 6 CDs, audio only)

    Here are Amazon links to the colloquial Levantine Arabic resources mentioned above:

    Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic by Mark W. Cowell
    Dictionary of Syrian Arabic: English-Arabic by Karl Stowasser and Moukhtar Ani
    Routledge has a short but useful Colloquial Arabic (Levantine) Current edition. Older edition.

    Also interesting is

    Saudi Arabic Basic Course (Hippocrene Language Studies) by Margaret K. Nydell (English and transliteration, no audio, but good conversations, target audience is diplomatic staff)
    Arabic-English Dictionary. Hans Wehr’s standard and affordable Modern Standard Arabic dictionary.

  6. Al-Kitaab Student Says:

    I just wanted to point out that fusha Arabic is not an artificial language or construct. It is simply the proper, literary form of Arabic. As you say, no one speaks it in a common setting, as it would be akin to speaking Shakespearean English. However, just as the President and speakers at formal events do not use English slang, some settings in Arabic-speaking countries involve speaking fusha instead of amiyyah.

  7. Nijma Says:

    Al-Kitaab Student,
    Not everyone would agree that languages that are mutually incomprehensible are just different registers of the same language. For a discussion, see Languagehat’s THE PROBLEM WITH FUSHA. I would echo languagehat’s observation in the comments that “…the spoken varieties of Arabic, rather than being treated as national vernaculars like the Romance languages, are treated as embarrassing vulgarities that foreigners shouldn’t be exposed to, which means that foreigners either find it hard to communicate or have to go to excessive trouble to acquire fluency.” In the linked article at Language Log, Mark Liberman makes a similar observation , “A rough (but fairly accurate) anology would be to see MSA in the role of Latin in 17th-century Europe as the language of formal discourse. As I understand it, the modern Arabic “colloquials” are as different from MSA and from one another as Italian is from Latin or from Spanish.”

    For more, also see the wiki for Modern Standard Arabic. Also, Jabal al-Lughat has some interesting comments about Arabic diglossia.

  8. Will Says:

    I was also thinking that many would find an “anti-Israel bias” if they were to read al-Kitaab. It would be pretty silly to say so, but as you say, in the first book they call Israel/Palestine “filisteen”.

    Now, if someone gets up in arms about that, I’d point them to every movie ever made with stereotypical Arab terrorists in it.

  9. Nijma Says:

    No, you misunderstand. Both first and second editions use the name “Israel”. I have just edited the small images to link to their larger image so you can see for yourself. On one map you can clearly see the outlines of the West Bank; in the workbook the area is labeled “Palestine and Israel” in Arabic (إسرائيل وفلسطين). It is the last image of item #2, of the three columns above the map, it is the column to the left, the second item from the bottom.

  10. Mohammed Says:

    You say in one of your replies: “the modern Arabic “colloquials” are as different from MSA and from one another as Italian is from Latin or from Spanish.”
    What makes you think that?
    Mashreqi Arabic (Egyptian, Levantine, Gulf, Hejazi and Iraqi) dialects are mutually intelligible for the most part. Excluding some remote areas in such regions. Furthermore, speakers of those dialects are able to understand MSA (without formal education), and some CA (also without formal education). You can’t say the same regarding French, Italian and Spanish mutual intelligibility. And certainly not with Latin.
    On the otherhand, Maghrebi Arabic (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian) are for the most part mutually intelligible. Not accounting also for some remote areas. And the interesting thing is that Maghrebi Arabs are also capable of understanding MSA (without proper education) and some CA.
    Altho Maghrebi and Mashreqi Arabs do have some trouble communicating with their respective dialects, they can still communicate with MSA, which is usually more of a colloquialized inflection-less MSA. But it gets the job done.
    The value in learning MSA, for Arabs, is to maintain this connection to CA (the language of most of our heritage) and modern colloquial varieties, with lots of modern scientific terminology, which provide a nice basis for further pursuit of literature, modern science and philosophical studies.
    Saying that every region should teach their respective form of Arabic is like saying Cockney English should be taught formally in schools. It would serve no major purpose, and contrarily it would only distance Arabs from each other and from their 1400 years of heritage.
    I do agree that foreigners only wishing to visit an Arab country should be able to find sources and materials which would teach them local dialect of the region they’re visiting.

    P.S. If you’re wondering how I know that Arabs with no formal education can understand MSA, it’s because I live in a region with lots of illiterate Arabs who didn’t even receive any form of education and can only speak the colloquial variety of Arabic, yet they can understand what they watch in the news which is presented in MSA, and can understand the other dialects which are also presented in our media, such as songs and TV shows.

  11. Nijma Says:

    You say in one of your replies: “the modern Arabic “colloquials” are as different from MSA and from one another as Italian is from Latin or from Spanish.”
    What makes you think that?

    No, I didn’t say that. It was a direct quotation from Mark Liberman, a linguist who writes at Language Log, which is why I set off his exact words with quotation marks. Here is a direct link to the piece:

    I live in a region with lots of illiterate Arabs who didn’t even receive any form of education and can only speak the colloquial variety of Arabic, yet they can understand what they watch in the news which is presented in MSA

    It’s hard to imagine an area in any Arab speaking country where no one receives an education. In Jordan, even the most remote Bedouin children start learning MSA in the first grade; they have Koran classes as well. When I asked a group of seventh graders how to say the pronoun “we” in Arabic, they initially wanted to tell me it was “ehna”, which is what Jordanians say, but quickly decided amongst themselves to correct it to “nahnoo”, the MSA form, which they learned in class.

    Saying that every region should teach their respective form of Arabic is like saying Cockney English should be taught formally in schools.

    The comparison isn’t really apt, since Cockney
    is used in a working class neighborhood of one city, not across a whole nation. The Jordanian “ehna” for “we” or “gadesh” for “how much” is not just used by one low-status group of people, it’s used by all social classes across the whole country. Cockney is also mostly a different way of pronunciation–dropping h’s, pronouncing /t/ as a glottal stop, etc.–while in colloquial Arabic, the vocabulary and verb conjugations are different from MSA.

    It would serve no major purpose, and contrarily it would only distance Arabs from each other

    One might argue that the 18th century practice of speaking French as the court language of European nations, and the earlier court practice of employing a Latin-speaking priest for ecclesiastical communications served similar purposes, but personally I find it strange that the daily language used by Russians or Norwegians or Germans would be so little respected in their own countries that those languages would not be used for official communication. Maybe the degree of attachment you feel to MSA depends on how you feel about pan-Arabism (which Jordan’s King Abdullah I was very big on), as opposed to nationalism.

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