“The Odyssey of Ajami…”

Yale Library was host to a talk by Dr. Fallou Ngom of Boston University last Thursday.  The talk was well-attended, and co-sponsored by the Standing Committee on Professional Awareness, the Yale African Students Association, and the Yale Muslim Students Association.  Dr. Ngom touched on many aspects of the use of Ajami, or modified Arabic script, as it relates to African languages as diverse as Afrikaans, Malagasy, Hausa, and Wolof.  He covered material found in his book, published by Oxford University Press, “Muslims Beyond the Arab World”.

There were three manuscripts of particular interest that he brought up; one in Wolof and two written in Mandinka.  The Wolof poem is from a period between 1912 and 1927, by Mbaye Diakhaté, entitled “In the Name of Your Quills and Ink”, found in the British Library’s Endangered Archives collection 334.  Dr. Ngom played an audio recording of the poem and provided a full transcription.  One of the Mandinka manuscripts dates to the 1940’s and is a curse against Hitler, rendered as “Ikleer”–something like “إکلںڔ”, although my rendering of this here is only a rough attempt.  The actual image from the text is:  ikleer

Another Mandinka manuscript turned up on a search of the Harvard catalog; it’s not covered in Dr. Ngom’s book but it is apparently an incantation that dates to 1789.

Many interesting questions were posed afterward, including one about the need for a romanization table to process these texts, and one about the prevalence of Koranic schools relative to public schools teaching in French in regions of Senegal and Mali.

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African Ajami Digital Library

Congratulations to Boston University on the launch of their African Ajami Digital Library!  This follows another collection of texts hosted at Michigan State’s African Online Digital Library, Harvard’s ASK-DL, and a research collection on Tijāniyyah and the Fayḍah maintained by the Medina Baay Research Association.

The Library of Congress also hosts a fully imaged set of 32 Islamic manuscripts from Mali, which are written mainly in Arabic.  While full-text digital search and complete translations are not yet available, there are some indications of use of ajami characters in this set as well.  A longstanding project to catalog four collections at the Herskovits Library at Northwestern, begun under John Hunwick, has continued in various stages since 1991.

For more background on the historical development of literature in Ajami, see: Fallou Ngom. “Aḥmadu Bamba’s Pedagogy and the Development of ͑Ajamī Literature.” African Studies Review 52.1 (2009): 99-123. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011.

To read up on the technical standards coming into place for Ajami in the version 6.1 release of Unicode, see: Priest & Hosken, “Proposal to Add Arabic Script Characters for African and Asian Languages.”  2010.

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