Arabic letters as Rorschach test

A few articles in recent months on Arabic letters as a sort of Rorschach test–the visual equivalent of the mondegreen, though far more malevolent.

  1. June 2015

“CNN mistaking dildos and buttplugs for Arabic script is arguably the most apt metaphor for political discourse in America.”


There’s something akin here to Maggie Thatcher’s equivalence of the miners and the Argentinians during the 80s: We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.

2. October 2015

NYT Arts Beat, Oct. 15, 2015:  “‘Homeland,’ Graffiti and the Problem of Only Seeing Squibbly

In a 2004 episode of “Arrested Development” — a dysfunctional family sitcom and one of TV’s best satirical responses to the war in Iraq — Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) tells his brother Michael (Jason Bateman) that he’s found a contract their real-estate developer father signed to build houses for Saddam Hussein. “I’ve got the thingy!” he says, excitedly. “Half in English, half in squibbly!”

I thought about this scene after hearing the news that a group of graffiti artists had punked the makers of Showtime’s “Homeland,” who had hired them to paint a Berlin set meant to depict a camp of Syrian refugees, with graffiti in Arabic. They did the job, and how; as they revealed online, they tagged the set, which appeared in Sunday’s episode, with messages including “ ‘Homeland’ is racist” and “ ‘Homeland’ is a joke.”

Arguably, this kind of small detail is the greater problem with “Homeland” and other American dramas set in the region: the tendency to use the signifiers of a culture — clothes, music, street urchins, unfamiliar writing — as a kind of spicy Orientalist soup of otherness. Even in a well-intended drama, if you approach another culture as set decoration, in which the alien appearance matters more than the content, you risk sending a subtle but strong message: this is a terrifying, unknowable land where everything goes squibbly.


3. December 2015

Washington Post, December 18, 2015:

A high school geography teacher in rural Augusta County asked students to try their hand at writing the shahada, an Islamic declaration of faith, in Arabic calligraphy. The task, community reaction to it, and a sudden influx of outrage from around the country — including angry emails, phone calls and threats to put the teacher’s head on a stake — led the school district to close rather than risk disruption or violence.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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