An addendum to Bill Poser's post about the fellow who couldn't fly out of JFK because he was wearing a T-shirt with an Arabic slogan... The wearer of the T-shirt was Raed Jarrar, the Iraqi Project Director for the human rights group Global Exchange, and the slogan in question was "We will not be silent" (لن نصمت), popular among opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. There's a picture of Jarrar wearing the shirt here, and an image of a similar T-shirt accompanies this BBC report. Note that the shirt has both Arabic and English versions of the slogan on it, so it's not like the airline officials had no hints as to what the mysterious squiggles meant.
In protest of the incident, BoingBoing reports, Tim Murtaugh is selling a T-shirt that reads "I am not a terrorist" in Arabic: انا لست إرهابي (ana lastu irhaabi). There's been some nitpicking over the grammar — some say it should properly be انا لست إرهابياً since irhaabi 'terrorist' ought to be in the accusative after the verb lastu 'am not', unless irhaabi is intended as an adjective ("I am not terroristic"?). A good effort, in any case — Murtaugh even offers a female variant of the shirt.
This all reminds me of another example of American anxiety in the presence of written Arabic, involving the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who died on Wednesday at the age of 94. As noted by Lameen Souag on his excellent blog Jabal al-Lughat, Edward Said tried to convince a New York publisher to put out English translations of Mahfouz's great Cairo Trilogy back in 1980 (before he won the Nobel). The publisher demurred, telling Said that "Arabic was a controversial language." Sadly, it remains controversial, at least at our nation's airports.Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 31, 2006 07:48 AM