Father Anawati, Part Three

Father Anawati, Part Three March 30, 2019


Zamalek, from above
A view of Cairo, looking down upon one of the city’s Nile islands  (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


I’ve posted twice previously about my teacher at the Institut Dominicain des Etudes Orientales in Cairo, Egypt, Father Georges Anawati:  here and here.


He frequently had me read aloud from the texts that we were studying together.  With regard to Arabic, this isn’t quite as crazy and pointless as it may seem.


Arabic is commonly unvoweled, or mostly unvoweled.  But the vowels are important, and the reader needs to be able to provide them (if only mentally and internally) in order to properly understand the text in question.  It has been said that, in Arabic, the written text supplies only about sixty to seventy percent of the meaning; the reader must supply the remainder in order to make sense of what’s written.


For instance, to take a simple example, the three unvoweled or unvocalized letters ktb might be read as kataba (“he wrote”) or kutiba (“it was written,” or “it was fated/foreordained”) or katb (“writing”) or kutub (“books”).


And, to choose just one of those for purposes of illustration, katb could take any one of several final vowelings to indicate its function in a phrase or in a sentence.


Reading it as al-katbu, in the nominative case, makes it the subject of a sentence:  Al-katbu sa‘bun = “The writing is difficult.”  (My apologies to any Arabists out there for my inability to supply diacritical marks or indicate long vowels here.)


Reading it as al-katba, in the accusative case, makes the word the object of a verb: Qara‘a al-katba = “He read the writing.”


On the other hand, reading it as al-katbi, in the genitive case, makes it the possessor of something (e.g., su‘ubat t al-katbi = “the difficulty of the writing”) or the object of a preposition (al-su‘uba fi al-katbi = “the difficulty in the writing”).


Anyway, Father Anawati would have me read aloud in order to demonstrate that I actually understood what I was reading.  Otherwise, it’s just what my friend and now-retired colleague Dil Parkinson likes to call “word salad.”  That could occasionally be rather intimidating; these were and remain difficult texts.


But sometimes (often) the texts were remarkable in a very positive way.  Occasionally, Father Anawati — who obviously imagined me to be some sort of Latter-day Saint clergyman — would suggest that I use this or that passage, from a philosophical text by Ibn Rushd (Averroës) or even from the Qur’an, in one of my “sermons.”  He told me that he himself had done that, quietly and unobtrusively — truth is, after all, truth, no matter its source, and sometimes it’s expressed very beautifully and with power — and that none of those in attendance had ever complained.


I confess that I’ve done it, too.  Only a few times.  But, as with Father Anawati, nobody has ever complained.



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