Research at Boston University

BU Joins AAU

The Other Side
of theStory

By Cassandra Nelson
Paper Trails

From music, to poetry, to ancient African manuscripts, Boston University researchers are interested in the ways in which today’s audiences engage historical texts. They are driven by a passion for discovery, as well as for clarification, so that contemporary readers and musicians can enjoy great works as their authors intended. When it comes to manuscripts that have been lost, misinterpreted, or undeciphered, these three faculty demonstrate that there’s plenty of work to be done—if you know where to look.

The Rosetta Stone unlocked Egyptian hieroglyphs in one fell swoop, but there are no such shortcuts for Ajami, a form of modified Arabic script that has been used for centuries to commit otherwise oral African languages to the page.

“It takes several skills to read Ajami,” says Fallou Ngom, associate professor of anthropology and director of the African Language Program. “First, you need an understanding of classical Arabic script, and second, an understanding of the sound systems, the linguistic systems of the relevant African languages. Third, you have to know about the local culture,” in order to make sense of documents written in Ajami, which often draw on indigenous traditions and worldviews.

It’s a daunting task, but the potential payoff is vast. Numerous Ajami manuscripts await translation, and they cover an astonishing number of subjects, ranging from Islam and shopkeeping to snakebite cures and the benefits of drinking coffee—as well as the downside of too much alcohol. “You find both the concerns of the average Joe and the concerns of the elite,” says Ngom, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011 for his work promoting Ajami. “You find everything. Some of the things even make me laugh. But this is normal, this is what comes up” naturally in a record of human life.

More than 5,000 Ajami manuscripts have already been scanned and stored online in the African Ajami Library, an open access digital repository created by BU and the West African Research Center, with funding from the British Library. There, they are protected from the elements and from neglect, while the number of scholars able to read Ajami grows.

What’s at stake in making this collection accessible and intelligible to a wide audience is no less than a rewriting of key parts of African history. For years, Ajami manuscripts were dismissed as “unreadable Arabic,” says Ngom, with scholars relying instead on archival materials from colonial sources. But history is in the eye of the beholder. External accounts—once the only evidence of the past—often tell a story different from what Ngom appreciates as Africans’ own “version of what happened and how they see themselves, their worldview, and how they have coped with globalization.”

For example, Ngom is currently at work on a book about Ibrahim Fall (1858–1930), leader of an important Sufi group in Senegal called the Murids. Long regarded as unorthodox Muslims, the Murids actually consider themselves to be more orthodox, says Ngom, “because they live in the essence.” For them, work and ethics are not separate spheres: “If you have to choose between going to the mosque and going to your farm, Fall says to go to your farm. He thinks you should go to work. For Murids, work is actually the highest and fastest way to reach God.”

Because Ajami is a living script, it has modern-day applications as well—in a surprising number of fields. Two of Ngom’s students are combining this particularly complex branch of the humanities with their studies in public health, looking for ways to “Ajamize” contemporary medical literature and peer-reviewed treatment regimens into language and concepts that can be understood by, say, elderly malaria patients in a rural African village. A history PhD, Alex Zito, defended the first dissertation on Wolof Ajami literature in the United States last spring. Much more material awaits future scholars of anthropology, comparative religion, and literature.

“I think we owe that to students in the twenty-first century,” says Ngom, “to teach them how not to be consumers of pre-established knowledge that perpetuates misunderstanding, but instead to lay the groundwork for deeper understanding between people and societies.”

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