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.