Alphabets are Not Scary

A long, long while ago I had a girlfriend who spoke Arabic. Cairene Standard apparently. I have no idea how well, but well enough to get us around Egypt with it and talk to people on the phone. If you ask me, which you aren’t necessarily, that is pretty damn good and would probably qualify as conversant.

This was right around the time of the Gulf War pt II and well, Al Qaeda and all that, and the Arabic alphabet meant just by its looks, meaning its association, like something to be scared of by a lot of people in the West. Whenever you saw that alphabet, it was on fuzzy, glitched videos of bottom thirds titles on islamist propaganda videos or on flags being waved by very angry people who were burning things a lot of times and/or holding machine guns.

To combat this I though it would be really clever if we printed shirts that said “Party Your Ass Off” in Arabic. Apparently it doesn’t travel well into that language or alphabet. It wasn’t that great of an idea anyhow. The language I don’t know so much about really beyond it being Semitic and it being in Group 4, meaning the hardest of the hard, of languages to learn according to the US State Department. It is inspiringly beautiful to look at though. I’m so drawn to the forms, the curves and the continuity of line, dot and swoop I could look at it for ages.

Graphic: Mada Masr

Then I came across this article about people fighting AI discrimination with an ancient version of the Arabic alphabet, which I thought was positively fascinating. It seems that Facebooks various platforms will ban anything in Arabic related to Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Al Aqsa mosque is one of Islam’s, meaning a fifth of the planet’s, holiest sites. This place, not an organisation mind you, but a place, was deemed being associated with violence and terrorism. So arabic speakers and writers wanting to write about it have started using a thousand year old version of the alphabet with all the dots taken out – which apparently the AIs can’t handle.

In all the ways that we think that the machines have won, you can always dig up a variant of your writing system from 800 years ago and sort it out it looks like. The machines are only as clever as what they’re working with and what the people feeding them can read.

Here’s some more Arabic alphabet amazingness if you’re typographically inclined. I can look at this stuff for ages, likely as a result of not being able to actually read it, so drawn purely to the form, but also knowing that it says something.

Mohammed Samir is owning it