When you see one of those imported cans of Pepsi from the Middle East, more specifically from an Arabic speaking country, it would be funny to read the label on the back. It says “Bebsi”, because Arabic doesn’t have a “p” sound. It really made me giggle as a child, but more recently, when I was offered one from a box of Kimia dates, I realized that, like with the Pepsi can, I could read the label.
I was taught Arabic in school when I lived in the United Arab Emirates, and although I didn’t learn enough to speak or understand it, the script stayed with me. I could read various signage and labels, though the shapes in longer bodies of text would distort beyond recognition. Urdu, while it looked very similar to Arabic was only semi-legible, and only some of the time. With some effort, however, it would begin to make some sense.
At about the same time I began to read Craig Thompson’s Habibi. Habibi is a graphic novel that explores an orientalist landscape, a concoction of a vaguely lslamic culture in a time that is at once medieval and modern. It places heavy emphasis on the beauty of the Arabic script, which is treated as sacred (as it is considered in the Islamic world) and creates a surreal magic around it.
Reading this book created an additional magnetism for me, and I decided to try to learn Arabic online. This was where the reading and research began.