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Michael Cooperson: Learning Arabic Backwards

March 23, 2022 @ 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm

Learning Arabic Backwards: Was It Absolutely Frightening?

CMES is pleased to present the 2022 H.A.R. Gibb Arabic & Islamic Studies Lecture Series with

Michael Cooperson
Professor of Arabic, University of California, Los Angeles

Register in advance:

Please note: This lecture will be online via Zoom, and everyone wishing to attend should register using the link above. Limited in-person seating for Harvard students and faculty may become available. If so, Harvard students and faculty who have registered will be notified of the campus location for the talk.

Arabic has been acquiring new speakers for some 1400 years. Beginning around 1120, many learners studied the language by reading one of the complex texts ever written in it. Full of puns, allusions, riddles, lipograms, and palindromes, al-Hariri’s Impostures can baffle even proficient speakers. Even more oddly, the seventeenth-century Dutch Orientalists who introduced the work to Europe also presented it as a teaching text. How could Impostures serve that purpose, and what does the answer tell us about the dissemination of hegemonic languages in pre- and early modern times?

Michael Cooperson is an American scholar and translator of Arabic literature. Cooperson studied at Harvard University and the American University of Cairo, and is currently a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has published two monographs on early Abbasid cultural history: Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al-Ma’mun and Al-Mamun (Makers Of The Muslim World).

He has translated a number of works from Arabic and French including: Impostures (al-Ḥarīrī); Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture; Ibn al-Jawzi’s Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal); Khairy Shalaby’s The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets; and Jurji Zaydan’s The Caliph’s Heirs — Brothers at War: the Fall of Baghdad. In 2021, he won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for translation from Arabic to English. His other interests include Maltese language and culture.


Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies