Saturday, March 19, 2011

Can I Read Arabic?

As I discussed in an earlier post, when people learn that I have written books about the Qur'an, their first question is usually to ask me if I am Muslim. Once that issue has been dealt with, they are curious about whether I can read Arabic. I assume that the motivation for asking is to determine by what authority I presume to write about Islam's sacred book - one that is deemed to be a sacred book only in the original Arabic. As with the previous question, however, the answer does not come down to a simple yes or no.
I first point out that I do not speak or read modern Arabic, emphasizing that knowing how to ask directions to the subway, or being able to order eggs and coffee for breakfast, are not really matters that get discussed in the Qur'an. I then go on to point out that while those who are proficient in modern Arabic will be able to read the literal text of the Qur'an, that is not the same as saying that they will then understand what they are reading. The Arabic of the Qur'an represents a stage of linguistic and cultural development in the Arabian peninsula 1400 years ago, and much has changed linguistically, culturally, politically and religiously since then. Even for those modern readers whose first language is Arabic, reading the Qur'an in Arabic means reading the Qur'an in translation.
I then indicate that while I have some ability to read the Arabic of the Qur'an, I do not claim any special expertise as a linguist, nor do I think I will ever reach a point where I consider myself to have mastered the subject. Rather, I see myself as a perpetual student of Classical Arabic, of the Qur'an, and of Islam more generally. I have to read translations of the Qur'an in order to think and write about it, and so does everyone else.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Discovering Distant Relatives

My maternal grandmother Marie Des Neiges Proulx was born on October 8, 1897, in Perce, Quebec. Her great grandfather Joseph Proulx had moved to the Gaspe region from the Quebec City area in about 1802. Joseph was a descendant of Jean Prou, who had come to Canada in about 1666, settling in Montmagny on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. I have not been able to determine at what point and for what reason the spelling of the family name picked up the "lx" ending, but I have discovered that Jean's surname had been changed from Proust to Prou, upon his arrival in Quebec.
Jean Proust had been born in the village of Distre, a few kilometers from Saumur, and about 40 kilometers from Angers, in the district of Maine-et-Loire (formerly Anjou), France, on December 2, 1646. Local records exist for his father and grandfather, both of whom had been named Jean. Not being able to trace the family line back further than the late 1500s, I started to wonder if I could establish a link between myself and the acclaimed French author Marcel Proust, who had been born near Paris, and who had died there in 1922.
Marcel Proust is perhaps best known for his seemingly endless, and actually never completed, epic novel, most commonly referred to in English as Remembrance of Things Past, the title given to it by its first translator Moncrieff, but perhaps more appropriately called, as it is in some more recent translations, In Search of Lost Time. The novel, which runs for more than 4000 pages over several volumes, contains over 2000 characters, and so it only seems appropriate that my relationship to the author is one of Proustian proportions, in that I was able to determine, thanks to the efforts of many distant relatives for whom genealogy research has become an addiction, that I am his fifty-eighth cousin, nineteen times removed.