Monday, January 12, 2015

Some questions about Boko Haram and language

I have been following the violence in Northeast Nigeria for a while now, with mounting horror.

My interest in the region developed from Blaft's project of publishing, in 2012, Sin Is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu, who hails from the nearby city of Kano. It was the first English translation of a Hausa-language novel written by a woman. This book has many "soyayya" pop-fic elements of romance and black magic, but it also advocates strongly for education and self-reliance for Hausa women. It was written in 1990, long before the violence started raging; still, in light of current events, the work of this writer and many other Hausa novelists seems to me ever more important and brave.

I have never been to Nigeria, and most of what I know about the north of the country I learned from working with translator Aliyu Kamal and consultant Abdalla Uba Adamu on Balaraba's book. For me, as an amateur linguistics geek, it was fascinating to learn about Hausa language and literature, and also about other languages spoken nearby, including Zabarma--a minority language spoken by one of the characters in the novel, who comes from Niger--and Kanuri, the primary language of Borno state in the extreme northeast, where the worst atrocities have occured. (Kanuri is the mother tongue of Abubakar Shekau and most of the rest of the Boko Haram leadership.)

In trying to understand the current conflict a little better I've been frustrated by the lack of attention that the international English media pays to language. I thought I would ask some questions here, then send a link around and hope to get some experts to answer in the comments.

One big doubt concerns the meaning of the name "Boko Haram". Here's what I know:

Haram--in Arabic, Hausa, and presumably Kanuri as well--means "forbidden/prohibited by the Koran". Fairly straightforward. But boko is more complicated.

In Hausa, one meaning of boko is the adapted Roman script used to write the language, as opposed to ajami, the Arabic-derived script used for religious literature. Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and the other soyayya novelists write in the boko script.

Another meaning is "Western Education". Makarantar boko means any school where reading is done in Roman characters.

Yet another meaning of boko is "book", and this is apparently derived from the English word. This is how Wole Soyinka translated it in a call-to-arms speech at the Hay Festival a while back:
This... is a kind of fundamentalist tyranny that should be totally unacceptable. So a group calls itself the Boko Haram, literally: “Book is taboo”, the book is anathema, the book is a product of Western civilisation, therefore it must be rejected. You go from the rejection of books to the rejection of institutions which utilise the book, and that means virtually all institutions. You attack universities, you kill professors, then you butcher students, you close down primary schools, you try and create a religious Maginot Line through which nothing should penetrate.
Recently, the international media has been translating boko haram as "Western Eduction is forbidden". But the first meaning of boko given in the Bargery online Hausa-English dictionary is quite different:
boko, n.m. Doing anything to create impression that one is better off, or that t. is of better quality or larger in amount than is the case, e.g. half filling vessel with pieces of corn-stalk or sticks and placing food on top to make it appear a big present; smearing round stopper of bottle with scent superior to that inside.
Which makes me skeptical of Soyinka's translation; he's not a native speaker. American professor William F.S. Miles has also written about the ambiguity of the word boko in an article which I found perplexing because it didn't mention Kanuri at all. Neither does this paper by a scholar named Paul Newman, disputing the "book" etymology:
The Hausa term boko, used in the name Boko Haram, is commonly asserted, by journalists and political commentators as well as by academic linguists, to be derived from the English word “book”. This turns out to be false. Boko is not an English loanword. A careful analysis of Hausa phonology and morphology shows clearly that boko could not have come from English “book”. Rather, boko is an indigenous Hausa word originally connoting sham, fraud, deceit, or lack of authenticity. When the British colonial government imposed secular schools in northern Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century, boko was applied in a pejorative sense to this new system. By semantic extension, boko came to acquire its current meaning of Hausa written in Roman script and Western education in general.
I'm confused, and I'd really rather hear from some people who grew up in the area. So here are some questions for people in the know:

  • 1) Which Hausa meaning of boko came first, and which are derived from which others? How similar are the meanings in Kanuri?
  • 2) How often do members of Boko Haram actually refer to themselves as Boko Haram? The official name of the group is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal-Jihad ("People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad"), which seems pretty different. Also, is that official name Kanuri, Hausa, Arabic, or something else?
  • 3) If they do refer to themselves as Boko Haram, which meaning of the word "boko" are they intending? Is the name Hausa or Kanuri or does it not make a difference?
  • 4) Is Kanuri taught in government schools in Borno? What's the primary language used in the schools that Boko Haram is burning down? I have read that the girls abducted from Chibok were primarily speakers of yet another language, Kibaku. What was the primary language of the victims of the recent Baga massacre?
  • 5) How much and what sort of literature has been published in Kanuri? Or in Kibaku? Youtube seems to have at least a handful of Kanuri films; how big is "Maiduguriwood"? Is there anything similar to the Hausa soyayya novel scene? 
  • 6) Are there people in Borno writing literature and making cinema with pro-women, pro-education politics in the local languages? And if so, can we please find them and get a kickstarter going and make sure that those books and movies are distributed everywhere and translated into many languages and that their creators become fabulously wealthy?

I hope some of you--especially native Hausa or Kanuri speakers--can help me with some answers in the comments. Thanks in advance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

2012 & 2013 titles now available in the US


At long last, our 2012 and 2013 releases are now available in the USA from the excellent Berkeley, California-based Small Press Distribution.

Click on each cover to read a description or to order.




http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9789381626399/stupid-guy-goes-to-india.aspx

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9789383260720/stupid-guy-goes-back-to-india.aspx

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9789383260799/the-obliterary-journal-vol-2.aspx

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9789383260843/subramaniyapuram-the-tamil-film-in-english-translation.aspx




Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Things We Found During the Autopsy by Kuzhali Manickavel


We promised this book in February, then in August. Now it's finally available, and you should read it, because Kuzhali is totally amazing.

We made a book trailer. Check it out:

 
Buy the print book online from here or here, or buy the ebook from here, here, or here. Enjoy!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Maharaja of Tamil Pulp steps up output


Rajesh Kumar, the most insanely prolific of the many Tamil pulp fiction authors whose work we featured in The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. I and Vol. II, has apparently begun writing even faster. The Coimbatore-based writer has been averaging three new titles a month since he got started in 1968, and was reportedly up to a lifetime total of around 1500 books. Now, however, our local tea kadai proprietor tells us that he's stocking eight or nine new Rajesh Kumar novels every month.

Let's repeat that: Eight or nine novels. Every month.

If you aren't familiar with the Rajesh Kumar yugam, peruse this profile by Samanth Subramanian.

Also, check out this interview of G Asokan, one of Rajesh Kumar's publishers, where he reminisces about the eighties when television had not yet taken over people's lives.

Here are a few of this month's Rajesh Kumar covers:




Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Launching tomorrow!

Subramaniyapuram: The Tamil Film in English Translation

Please join us at 3:30 P.M. tomorrowFriday, January 17, 2014at the Chennai Book Fair (at the YMCA grounds in Nandanam) for the launch of our new release, a translation of the screenplay of one of the most acclaimed Tamil films of recent years.




Director M. Sasikumar will present the first copy to chief guest Gautham Menon. Actors Jai and Samuthirakani and cinematographer S. R. Kadhir will be there, along with Anand Pandian, the editor and co-translator of the book, and film critics Baradwaj Rangan and Preminda Jacob, who have contributed essays. Sahitya-Akademi-award-winning Tamil author Su. Venkatesan will also speak at the event.
There will be a question and answer session at the end, followed by a book signing... and afterwards, of course, you can head onwards into the giant book fair tent and browse the stalls of hundreds of publishers, all of whom are offering their titles at a discount of at least 10%.
If you're not in Chennai tomorrow, please note that you can order the book online from our site.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Photos from the Chennai launch of The Obliterary Journal Vol. 2: Non-Veg

 Before the crowd arrived

 
 This paati (center, in pink) was drinking a lot of elaneer



Contributors. Clockwise from top left: Mihir Ranganathan, Nagavalli, Ratzzz, Aneesh K.R., Thulasi Kumar, Kala, Rakesh Khanna, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Kadamma Ilavarasi, Sathyanarain Muralidharan


Photos by UK. (Thanks!) Order your copies today!

http://blaft.com/view_details.php?id=37