Saturday, May 24, 2014

India: How and Why?

What is happiness?

How do you define happiness? Maybe it is getting an email from the US State Department that you have been awarded the highly selective Critical Language Scholarship to study Urdu in the distant country of India. YES I'M EXCITED!

What is the Critical Language Scholarship?

Let me explain what the Critical Language Scholarship is. It is a US State Department-administered program that offers intensive summer language institutes for 13 languages in countries in which they are spoken. By administered, I mean that the State Department covers airfare, accommodation with host families, tuition cost at the institute (which can be transferred as college credit issued by Ohio University), a stipend for added transportation and living costs, meals, field trips to local sites, etc. In return, scholarship recipients are to dedicate themselves to continue learning this language after the program ends and use it in their future career (which the State Department obviously hopes will be in their service). The main criteria is that you have to be a full-time student at a US institution of higher education. Since I am moving to London in the fall to start at LSE, this was my very last chance to apply to this program! This year they got 5,500 applications, of which only around 550 students were selected - a 10% acceptance rate! We will be 35 students studying Urdu, ranging from beginner to advanced, and with all sorts of academic and personal backgrounds and professional goals. I can't wait to meet my fellow program participants!

Why study Urdu?

Many have asked me why Urdu (and also what is Urdu, which I will cover in a bit). After all, I've been studying Arabic for the past three years - why didn't I apply for the Arabic language institute offered? I've actually been fascinated by South Asia before the Middle East captured my interest. India and Pakistan caught my imagination both as a child and a young adult as a place of beauty, complexity, extremity, and emotion. Here is an (edited) excerpt from my application essay:

The confluence of water politics, unresolved border tensions, and cultural diversity draw me to the Urdu-speaking regions of South Asia. Suzanne Fisher Staples’ acclaimed children’s books set in Lahore and the Cholistan desert and the enchanting language of the great Urdu poets, such as Muhammad Iqbal and Meer Taqi Meer, had introduced me to the religious realities and gender debates of the region early on, but it was through my study of the Kashmir region that my burgeoning interest blossomed. My first in-depth paper in high school focused on Kashmir, and my position at the first Model UN conference I staffed in college focused on Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations. When I later learned about the water aquifers underneath the disputed territory of the West Bank, I recognized that, like Kashmir, water was an implicit source of political conflict. My long-standing passion for the culture and politics of Pakistan and India could finally be connected with my academic focus in Arabic and the Middle East through the topic of transborder grassroots solutions to the life-threatening issue of water scarcity. The advanced proficiency I achieved in Arabic during my time at the George Washington University and in Jordan will help me learn to read and write Urdu nastaliq script. However, my interest in the region warrants deeper research that requires a more formal study of the language.

You may also know that I have a Pakistani boyfriend and think that I am studying Urdu only because of my relationship. He would not let me pursue the study of Urdu if it was only for him. Although he has helped introduce me to the language and the culture of the subcontinent, my pursuit of the language is based on a passion to understand more about a part of the world so often misunderstood - similar to my inclinations to explore the Middle East.

What is Urdu?

Urdu is historically associated with the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent and has an extensive literary heritage in the region. It emerged as a "camp" language of the Mughals, who blended their Arabo-Persian linguistic origins with the Sanskrit languages native to the Indian subcontinent. Urdu is still perceived in the region as a language of sophistication and poetry.

Centuries-old Urdu satire found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City
As I mention, Arabic will help me master the alphabet faster since the script is very similar and several Urdu words are taken from Arabic. However, conversationally Urdu is nearly identical to Hindi. It will be a quite a change from Arabic, for which reading and writing can generally be understood by all Arabic speakers but speech is highly localized, with dialects possessing very different grammar and vocabulary than the written Arabic. Urdu, in contrast, can only really be read and understood by other Urdu speakers, while spoken Urdu can be understood by the millions of people who speak Hindi. I am very fascinated by the similarities and contrasts between Arabic and Urdu, and consequently the interrelationship between South Asia and the Middle East. 

Why study Urdu in India?

Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. Then why would we study Urdu in India? Urdu is the language affiliated with the Muslim minority in India, and has over 50 million speakers in the country. It is an official language of six states, of which Uttar Pradesh, the state I will be in, has the most speakers (numbering more than 13 million). Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, has a substantial Muslim shi'a minority, since there are significant shi'a shrines in the city. I will write a post at a later point about the history, demographics, and geography of Lucknow. We will be studying at the American Institute for Indian Studies in Lucknow, which has been hosting American university students to study India through its diverse languages since the 1960s.

This is where you will find Lucknow
In the next few weeks I have a few planned posts, including a more extensive profile of Lucknow, a list of things I am packing for India that I have heard are essential, and a list of books on Urdu language and culture that I am reading or plan to read. But now I need to go to bed!

Shab bekhair (good night in Urdu)!

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