Linguistic Embodiment: A Talk with Lisa J. White and Mahmoud Shaltout

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Rooted in the Body: Arabic Metaphor and Morphology, recently published by AUC Press, is part instructional text, part comix art:

By Tugrul Mende

The collaboration — between Seiner Instructor of Arabic Lisa J. White and comic artist Mahmoud Shaltout — brings together a series of essays and illustrations about the Arabic language. Rooted in the Body invites readers to “explore Arabic’s signature morphology as they reflect on some 120 metaphorically charged body parts,” and the book aims to appeal not only to students of Arabic but also to “linguists, rhetoricians, and philosophers of language.”

How did you two meet?

Mahmoud Shaltout: We met in April 2017 on the American University in Cairo campus, thanks to a fortuitous introduction by another colleague at the university who knew of my work as a graphic and comic artist and of Lisa’s need for an illustrator. 

When did the idea for this book take shape? 

Lisa J. White: Rooted in the Body is the ultimate fruit of Arabic as a Second Language teaching material that I began preparing in about 2007. The actual writing and illustrating began in spring 2017.

What originally brought you to the idea — and what happened in those ten years?

LW: Since the early years of my acquaintance with Arabic, I have been fascinated with the power of Arabic roots. When I stumbled onto the role of the body in Arabic derivation, I began using it to teach morphology. But rather than giving a written presentation, I made vocabulary slides – using a combination of diagrams and illustrations from clip art and other web sources – and then elaborated on them orally in class. The more time I invested in preparing these materials, the richer I realized the subject was. It was also during that intervening decade that I began combing through the constellations of vocabulary that individual body parts generate and identifying more and more of their metaphoric auras. For example, vocabulary derived from the Arabic foot/القدم is always associated with forward motion. During this time, I also discovered the academic field of embodiment, and it took time to read up on it and look for linguists using it in their research.

The problem I faced in moving beyond the classroom audio-visual presentation mode was that getting copyright permission for many of the photos and drawings would have been impossible. However, for the idea to be effective, I knew that a joint visual and written approach was absolutely key. So meeting Mahmoud – an artist who was excited about the idea – was crucial to the project taking shape in book form.

As an illustrator, Mahmoud, did you draw inspiration from any other sources beyond the essays? 

MS: Egypt was in fact my biggest muse in the project. I was particularly inspired by Egyptian popular culture, which I infused into the illustrations. The text already references Egyptian musicians such as Umm Kulthum and Moharram Fu’ad, and they are both depicted in the illustrations. I also used many references from Egyptian cinema. Icons from the golden age of Egyptian film like Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama, and Shadia grace the images. Elements of Pharaonic, Islamic, and Coptic Egypt also feature in my illustrations. Being a third culture kid (raised in Kuwait by Egyptian parents but schooled in English) I was influenced by Western pop culture – comics, movies and music – and you can find many examples within the illustrations. These include two of the Beatles, The Supremes, The Wizard of Oz, Anthony Hopkins, Freddie Mercury, and many more. 

 How is your approach to morphology in Rooted in the Body different from other textbooks, and how did you decide on the title?

LW: Textbooks used to teach Arabic as a Second Languagemust cover a wide range of skills, including listening and speaking, reading and writing. All of those skills depend on vocabulary acquisition and a growing acquaintance with the culture, since culture always goes hand in hand with language. Rooted in the Body is a different kind of work altogether. It is much more specific than standard texts, because it targets vocabulary acquisition through a command of morphology. It is also full of cultural references. And very significantly, unlike any other Arabic language text I know of, it is lavishly illustrated with culturally rich and unique comic material. This is great news for students of Arabic as a second language, but it also makes the book appealing to a much wider audience, from curious native speakers who hadn’t thought much about Arabic’s structure before, and don’t realize how ingeniously interrelated it is, to comic enthusiasts and artists. In short, this book can be integrated into any Arabic teaching curriculum as a supplement, and it can be enjoyed on its own by the linguistically curious, cultural enthusiasts, and art lovers of every description.

As for its title, from its inceptionuntil about 2019, this book was actually called Hidden Bodies. I chose that title because very few scholars were working on the body as a key semantic field of Arabic language, per se. The significance of the body in literature has been well studied, but its morphological power seemed hidden from language teachers and learners. Hidden Bodies also sounded a bit like a thriller, and as I sifted through body parts for semantic and metaphoric clues, it often felt appropriate… However, to reach an audience of Arabic linguists, something more specific was called for, and we finally settled on Rooted in the Body and its subtitle, Arabic Metaphor and Morphology.

At what level should a student be in order to start learning with Rooted in the Body and what difficulties might a student encounter while working on it independently, without a teacher?

LW: Students of Arabic as a Second Language can begin using this book at the high elementary level with the help of a teacher, or on their own at the intermediate level and beyond. Ambitious students who find the pace of their classes too slow can use it to forge ahead, while those who are struggling to keep up can use its explanations and examples for remedial purposes. Those doing their Arabic study online without a standard textbook will find it a very helpful reference. The graphic element of the presentation provides further enrichment, and will help tremendously in conveying the information and making it easier to retain.

In praise of your book, one scholar writes that your underlying research premise — that morphology enhances embodiment — is convincingly and enjoyably conveyed by this collaborative endeavor. Can you talk more about this research premise?

LW: Embodiment is a rather grand academic field. Beginning with the publication of the seminal Metaphors We Live By in 1980, research into the role of the body in human thought and expression really took off. Studies in psychology, philosophy, cognitive linguistics, anthropology, ethnology, and other fields began to explore its many applications. What I discovered as I began looking at Arabic vocabulary of the body was that the language’s very structure amplifies what is otherwise a universal feature of human thought. All Arabic roots have derivatives, but body roots, because they are so ancient and primal, are especially rich. Whereas English uses some body parts in a handful of derivatives (to skin a rabbit, a skinflint, a skinny child), Arabic body parts typically have a very rich derivative field, with a dozen or more derivatives. It is fascinating to trace these words from ancient sources right down into the modern spoken domain. So it is no exaggeration to say that Arabic’s morphology actually enhances embodiment.

 In what way are the illustrations an enhancement to the text and in what way are they necessary in order to understand the content? 

LW: Neither essay nor comic rely on the other to be understood by the reader. Both are complete, well thought out works of writing and art, respectively. This work’s particular power is in the marrying of the two. Over the last couple of decades, research has repeatedly demonstrated the power of comics as an effective pedagogic tool. I authored an academic paper on the use of comics in education and to put theory into practice, I insisted on presenting as a comic. Rooted in the Body thus appeals to different styles of learning, and in terms of traditional Arabic language education (which can be tedious and reliant on rote memorization) it is a refreshing take on a beautiful language that is not done justice by many Arabic curricula.

While working on the illustrations, Mahmoud, what kind of techniques and methods did you use? Did you use only digital tools while drawing these? Why did you decide to do them in black and white?

MS: All my illustrations were hand-drawn. Photoshop was then used to edit brightness, contrast, and fix punctuation errors. I used Lisa’s essays and her PowerPoint classroom slides as references. Once penciled, drawings were sent to Lisa, who would suggest changes and approve. On approval, drawings were then inked and scanned. The decision to use black and white artwork was threefold. First, black and white has its own power and elegance. Second, having a very colorful image and background might compete with or distract from the textual message. Thirdly, economics was a consideration, too; printing a colored book would have cost much, much more, and we didn’t want to price ourselves out of the market.

Did you use the idea of body as you learned Arabic?  

LW: No, as a non-native speaker, I know from personal experience that ordinary vocabulary of the body – vocabulary that native speakers learn as very young children – is often just as unfamiliar as “fancier” abstractions. I took my first Arabic class when I was 21 years old, and actually learned the word متقدّم/advanced, at least a year before the word قدم/foot, from which it is derived. But it makes much more sense to learn قدم first, and then words like قادم/next, and قدّام/in front of, before learning abstract vocabulary like advanced. This is because there’s a metaphor at work. Where do you go on your feet? Forward, of course. We all have bodies, and associating the semantic pairing of the foot with forward movement is easy. Having done so, it’s easier to guess what other words based on the ق- د- م root might mean, and to retain that information. Learning a few high frequency body parts and their metaphors (the jaw & dismemberment, the forearm & power, and the ear & permission) gives students useful vocabulary and a creative way to retain it. Learning that Arabic is full of meaningful vocabulary clusters is intellectually stimulating. Discovering this via the body, which is culturally loaded and ideal for visual presentation is just too good a pedagogic opportunity to pass up. 

 Which references did you use while working on the book, and how did you choose which content to include? What difficulties did you run across while working on the book?

 LW: For the crucial issue of embodiment, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By was indispensable.  Among the Arabic references used were Buckwalter and Parkinson’s A Frequency Dictionary of Arabic, which shows just how common specific body vocabulary is, Badawi and Abdel Haleem’s Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, which helped me find body derivatives in the Qur’an, and the on-line Arabic dictionary https://www.almaany.com, a very helpful reference of classical and modern usage.

Deciding which body parts to include was not always easy. Of course, words like قدم that have many derivatives were essential. For instance, جلد skin, عظم bone, and عنق neck were no-brainers, to use an English body idiom. They obviously had to be included. Other common items with fewer derivatives like خد cheek were eliminated. We also focused on vocabulary with especially rich and accessible cultural associations, such as عرق vein, the root of the country name العراق. 

The order of presentation was another thorny issue. Should it be alphabetic? Or something more organic? In the end, we chose the organic approach, grouping things meaningfully. We began with words for the body itself, then things found here, there and everywhere, like hair, skin, pores, and scars. Then came excrescences and the ineffable, like sweat, saliva, and the breath. And finally, the core body parts, from top to bottom and front to back. 

For me as a writer, some of the metaphors associated with a given body part were elusive and required months of searching. It was also very challenging to compress some of the essays into a one-page format. Mahmoud had difficulties specific to illustration.

MS: While drawing the images, I faced a few challenges. First, the richness of a few body parts meant that they had to be discussed in two pages rather than one. Lisa and I were adamant that each page of text be paired with a facing illustration. Generating two drawings for the same body part took double the work and inspiration, a task I took on with great enthusiasm. A similar issue was faced when drawing a body part that has two or more distinct referents. For instance, three of the essays are devoted to rough synonyms of the English word ‘breast’: بز – ثدي – نهد. Trying to differently depict a single feature of the body proved difficult, but doable, often because of the different metaphoric nuances that distinguish them. Also, body parts like the breast – and there are quite a few in this book – are considered taboo; explicit visual depictions risk running afoul of the censor. I thus had to resort to depicting said body parts in a wholesome fashion that would please both reader and censor, and ultimately widen our readership. I also found elements of the body that are not tangible (such as روح and نفس) challenging to portray; those took a while for inspiration.

After a little under two years of collaboration on the book, Lisa and I had completed over 150 essay-comic illustration pairs. However, negotiations with our publisher required us to limit our presentation to fewer than 125 of them. Choosing which to omit from the final version was probably our hardest challenge. For this, Lisa and I met and each chose their least favorite essays or comics to jettison. Although we were able to come to a decision, cutting out so many entries was a bit like amputating limbs. 

You said earlier that you began drawing when you were seven years old. How did your journey with comics and art begin?

MS: My journey with comics started with my first Tintin book, and you will find Tintin hidden in the images of Rooted in the Body. My father bought me my first Tintin book on my seventh birthday, and I was hooked. I also knew from that moment that I wanted to draw comics. As I read Tintin, I was also studying and emulating Herge’s technique. Tintin was my gateway into Franco Belgian comics, too, and they remain my biggest comic inspiration. My favorite artists all belong to the genre, notably Franquin, Janry, Dany, Uderzo and Emile Bravo. I also grew up with American comics. I was not as influenced by the DC and Marvel universes as I was by American comic strips and humor. Notable influences from the States include authors of the Disney Duck comics (Carl Barks and particularly Don Rosa), MAD Magazine (Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee), Pogo (Walt Kelly), Archie Comics (Samm Shwartz) and Scooby-Doo comics (Dan Spiegle and Joe Staton).

I love Manga as a genre, but my artwork is not as influenced by that style as it is by the Franco-Belgian equivalent, with the exception of Monkey Punch (creator of Lupin III). Growing up, most comics in Egypt were translations of American or European comics, but one Egyptian comic artist who influenced my work was Maalouf, the creator of Bomba. As a teenager and adult, the rising popularity of the more mature graphic novel genre has definitely inspired me; inspirational authors include Marjane Satrapi, Riad Sattouf, Juanjo Guarnido and David B. I hope I can say that my art is an Egyptian mélange of all the previously mentioned artists.  

Your book focuses on Fusha, and not the Egyptian Dialect. Do you think that a version of it might be possible in Egyptian colloquial or other dialects, too?

LW: The Arabic language is amazingly complex. It is not really binary, but rather a sequence of levels from very old فصحى التراث through the colloquials of the completely illiterate, and this picture is complicated by the existence of a large collection of regional and national varieties. Among the spoken versions of the language, there is considerable overlap, especially in neighboring regions. Furthermore, any given colloquial derives much vocabulary from the written language. Considering this overlap, as far as this particular book is concerned, I don’t intend to redo it with a focus on Egyptian colloquial, the variety with which I am most familiar. However, I think it would be wonderful to explore the linguistic role of body derivatives in colloquial expressions — rather than piecemeal vocabulary — of all varieties, and hope many writers will be inspired to do so. There is also room for further exploration of the role of body derivatives in poetry, whether written or spoken.  

What hopes do you have for students working with this book? And for other readers?

LW: To be honest, this combination of metaphor, morphology, and semantic field, enhanced by citations from primary sources and animated with copious illustrations is completely novel, and we can only speculate on its eventual readership. That said, we have been heartened by its critical reception from Arabists and comic artists so far.

The book’s table of contents and selected excerpts are available at the AUC Press website.

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