Teaching Literature and Staying au courantThe Man from Nowhere and the Ancient Greeks

There is a profound joy in introducing students to classic texts. I am very grateful that I have spent so much of my working life among the splendors of ancient Greek plays, Romantic Era poets, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde.

And I am happy that as I teach I have gotten better at choosing classics which speak to my students, from 20th century writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim to more modern writers such as Mohammed Al Murr and Badriyah al Bashar. And it’s fun help them get over the newness of Moushegh Ishkhan, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Ryszard Krynicki, T’ao Yuan Ming, Tomas Tranströmer and Wisława Szymborska.

When I start the poetry class, I know that there is at least one student will be blown away by the Cold Mountain poems, Basho, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye or Fowziyah Abu-Khalid. Someone will fall in love with  “Embroidered Memory” by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis; someone else will champion “About Mount Uludag” by Nazim Hikmet.

It’s a delight to read familiar lines and see how students relate to familiar characters. Who is going to defend Ismene this semester? Who will argue on Creon’s behalf? Who is going to laugh when Patty in Quality Street talks about her hopefulness?  If we read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, who will my students pick as the one who deserves Chris – Kitty, Margaret or Jenny?

At the same time, it is good for me to be in the position of not knowing, to remember how it feels to be confused by a text. I became a better teacher after I spent two summers studying Arabic in Muscat. Sitting in a classroom as a student, panicking when a teacher asked me a question I did not understand, studying for a test and waiting anxiously for my grade made me more understanding of my own students.

So I try to seek out new texts to read and, perhaps, use for teaching. I scan shelves in bookstores and ask friends for suggestions. Since I don’t know Spanish writers, I asked a friend who has expertise and, following her suggestions, found “Marta Alvarado, History Professor” by Marjorie Agosín and “New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez, as well as “Tula” and “Turtle Came to See Me” by Margarita Engle.

Over the past few years, I have realized that I few students are into K-pop (BTS! Blackpink! Twice! NCT!) and so I decided to dip a toe into that cultural tradition.

The easiest way to start was movies so I duly looked at “top 10 Korean movie” lists and rented The Man from Nowhere (2010). One review mentioned that it was similar to Léon: The Professional (1994) in that it involved a young girl who is taken in and protected by a hired assassin. I thought knowing the plot would help me but there were a lot of differences, making the movie both interesting and confusing. For example, the ending surprised me. At the end of Léon, the girl is re-enrolled at her boarding school and she finally plants the small tree that she has been carrying around with her, symbolizing that she is now rooted.

At the end of The Man from Nowhere, the anti-hero asks the police for one favor and he brings the young girl he has been trying to protect back to her old neighborhood, goes into a small convenience store and buys her some composition books, writing supplies and a back-pack. Then he asks her if she will be ok. She nods, they hug and then he turns to go back into the police car.

I stared at the screen in astonishment. “That’s the end?!?” I wondered. Her father left long ago, her mother died at the start of the film, the girl was kidnapped and brutally treated for weeks, and now, with a few stationary supplies, the girl is now alone and supposed to take care of herself?

Over the next few weeks, I watched a few more and was astounded by whole new levels of plotting. It often feels like I am watching several movies at one: Assassination (2015) has freedoms fighters betrayed by team members (shades of Guns of Navarone), funny but doomed killers (shades of Bitch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and twin sisters on opposite sides of an immense cultural, educational and temperamental divide (a grown-up, super spy equivalent of the Parent Trap).

I am often bewildered as I try out comedies, historical fiction and modern thrillers such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), Masquerade (2012), The Villainess (2017) and War of the Arrows (2011).

It takes a lot of concentration to understand each movie, not because of the sub-titles but the  work of trying to create new templates and figure out new tropes. How can I visually tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Is the behavior of this woman showing that she is good or bad? Does this style of house indicate that the owners are rich, poor, old-fashioned or trend-setters? Is the meal the characters being served haut cuisine or everyday fare? Is this behavior normal or odd?

Sometimes it is good to be lost.

New essay: “Shin is for Saracen” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour – http://alifbatourguide.com/

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Shin is for Saracen” – http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/shin/


Shîn is distinguished from Sîn by a triangle of dots over the teeth (as with Tha or Z͎ha). To my ear it makes sense that the Sh sound would be represented like an S with something added. Shîn sounds heavier, thicker, as if it utilized more of the voice-making apparatus. Arabic adds the three dots to Sin (as we add the letter H next to the letter S). 

In manuscripts of sufficient age you will also see the clearer sibilant Sîn carrying the same three-dot load, but underneath, i.e., ڛ, (no doubt to make the difference between Sîn and Shîn unmistakable). In contemporary Turkish (in Roman letters), the SH sound is represented by ş, an S with a cedilla, as in şaşmak, to be surprised, or şişlemek, to pierce to stab, or şiş, a skewer, as in şişkebap


The great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived in Alexandria. He knew enough Arabic to entitle one of his early poems (1890s), «Σαμ ελ Νεσíμ» (Sam el Nesîm), the name of an Egyptian spring festival. Or almost the name, since the festival is properly speaking Shamm al-nasîm, with a Shîn. You cannot blame him, as there is no SH sound in Greek.

Shamma in Arabic means to sniff or breathe in. Shamm al-Nasim means “inhaling the air,” “enjoying the air,” to greet the coming of spring. It can be traced back, before Arabic, to a word with a similar sound, in ancient Egyptian, a proper noun Shemu, the season between May and September. Shamm al-Nasîm is observed by both Christians and Muslims according to the Coptic calendar, the day after Coptic Easter. Edward Lane, writing in 1834, translates shamm al-nasim “smelling of the Z͎ephyr”: “the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northwards to take the air… The greater number dine in the country or on the river” (Lane, 483). It is, Lane adds, a festival observed with persistence: “This year (1834) they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.” 

Cavafy didn’t keep “Sam el Nesîm” in his complete works, perhaps because the premise is too simple. (It’s a poem which says this is a time of celebration, but down deep we know we’ll return to our usual grim lives soon enough. Or, more personally, “it’s their celebration, not mine.”) There are many ways to describe the grain of daily life in a culture other than ours; you can’t help but suspect that even in the most neutral descriptions there is something suspicious or demeaning. If Cavafy knew the etymology, as is likely enough, it would have been possible to make more use of the fact that the contemporary festivals traced back pre-Islamic sources. Poets (شعراء, shu‘râ’) love that.



New essay: “Sîn is for Zenith” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour – http://alifbatourguide.com/

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Sîn is for Zenith” – http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/sin/


The sound of Sîn (pronounced “scene”) is the clear sibilant we represent with our letter S. The S we know is all curves. Sîn is usually more angular, a little closer to the W shape of its Phoenician ancestor. Greek Sigma comes from the same source, the W shape tipped up 90 degrees clockwise.There was a Nabatean predecessor of Sîn in the form of a bowl shape with an upright growing out of it, something like Hebrew Shin. The shape of Sîn grows out of it: two miniature half-circles resting side by side. What strikes the eye are those three short uprights, referred to as “teeth” (Sîn word sinân in Arabic, the plural of sinn). It is not my job to say what is beautiful and what isn’t, but what I’m taken by in the most elegant handwritten Sîn is a slight asymmetry: the space between the first two teeth (reading right to left) is slightly narrower than the space between the second and third.

In terminal form Sîn ends with a rounded clockwise sweep, a shape which fledgling calligraphers struggle over, the clockwise descent and return, thickening along the bottom, tapering to a point as it rises on the left. The same curve reappears in Shin, Ṣad & Ḍad.

Sîn went through a period in its evolution when it had a triangle of dots suspended below the line, to distinguish it from the letter Shîn, the next in sequence, which has three dots above. (Shîn kept them. Present-day Sîn goes commando.) A streamlined variant of Sîn, still used, was developed in interests of efficiency: it can take the form, perhaps as a visual representation of the smooth prolonged sound of sibilance, of a straight unrippled line, often descending slightly, throwing the base line down a notch and continuing at a lower level. Easiest letter ever. In the initial or medial position the line simply continues on for a bit with nothing else happening.

The source of sinn, “tooth,” is the Arabic stem S–N–N, which, as a verb, means to sharpen, mold, shape. In one form, sunna, it means, in Hans Wehr’s definition, “habitual practice, customary procedure or action, norm, usage sanctioned by tradition; al-sunna or sunnat al-nabîy, the Sunna of the Prophet (nabîy), i.e. his sayings and doings, later established as legally binding precedents…” In other words, the ahl-al-sunna are the follows of the sunna, in English “Sunnis.” It’s an admirable definition, if only because Wehr defines the etymological stream of meanings without getting excited, or lost in detail. A history book, once it has said “Sunni,” has to go into teacher’s mode, including the actors and the theology, plus the alternative, Shiism, and to describe how Shiism ended up breaking away from “Sunnism.” Today everyone knows it, or can look it up, and the history hardly seems necessary. Hans Wehr defines shî‘a, the other major branch, as “followers, adherents, disciples, faction, party, sect”; al-shî‘a, the faction of Ali, the Shiah, the Shiites (that branch of the Muslims who recognize Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, as the rightful successor.)” It’s all the definition you need. They’re just words, ordinary words. Neither sunna nor shî‘a occur in the Qur’ân.

Ethnographic Work and Pop Songs

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

A friend jokingly asked if I was going to talk about pop songs in my next book as my books were the only ones they had seen in which an academic author thanked Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Josh Ritter, the Muppets, Pink, Prince, and Toby Keith in the acknowledgments. I said yes.

Living where I do research and living overseas for more than fifteen years is sometimes difficult. Sometimes I drive around town with the car windows rolled up blasting the Boss; sometimes the only way to get motivated to sit down and work on a Friday morning is to play Toby Keith.  I see listing the songs and singers as a way of being honest about how I do research.

Recognizing that I use pop songs to keep me focused is modeling that researchers do not have to be serious all the time, in the same way I try to model honest behavior for my students. Acknowledging pop songs is similar to my saying to students “I don’t know” or “I am not sure about the spelling of that word.” Sometimes a student will gasp, “YOU DON’T KNOW?” I laugh and explain that there are no spelling bees in Germany because they aren’t needed, but every state in the USA has spelling contents because English spelling can be tricky with all the loan words. So, no, I don’t know how to spell every word in English and I sometimes need to do a quick check to make sure.

About a week after I started on-line teaching I watched the movieTrolls and I loved the song “Get Back Up Again.” All that spring “Get Back” was on constant repeat as I fought unfamiliar tech, new ways of teaching, trying to increase student involvement (“TURN ON YOUR MICROPHONES!”). Now when I hear “Get Back Up Again” I am transported back to those tough weeks in March – May 2020 when I left my apartment once a week to go to the grocery store. Bereft of my café, friends, chats with colleagues, the pool where I went swimming and picnics with the research guys, that saccharine song was my stay-positive mantra.

When I first heard the line “I don’t know when, confused about how as well” from the song “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, I thought: that’s my life as a researcher. I am constantly trying to make sense of what I am seeing and I spend a lot of time living in confusion.

When I used to do teacher-training, I would tell teachers to work from their strengths, be frank when they were lost and ask for help when they needed it. By embracing my inner Top 40 doo-wop persona, I practice what I preach. What helped me through Spring 2022:

  • Big Energy – Latto, and the remix with Mariah Carey
  • Devil with the Blue Dress – Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels
  • Don’t Start Now – Dua Lipa
  • Duke of Earl – Gene Chandler
  • Happy all the Time from Elf
  • Hello, Hello – Elton John
  • House on Fire – Mimi Webb
  • I Don’t Feel Like Dancing – Scissor Sisters
  • Leave before You Love Me – Marshmello and Jonas Brothers
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens
  • Mr Brightside – The Killers
  • The Other Side – SZA and Justin Timberlake
  • Pretty in Pink soundtrack
  • So Happy it Hurts – Bryan Adams
  • Thunder – Imagine Dragons

from my books:

Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

I would like to thank the memory of Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, whose books pulled me out into the world: Jersey, Cyprus, Rhodes, Provence and Alexandria. I have lived over 15 years overseas and have missed a lot of popular culture, but I am grateful for The Mummy (1932 and 1999 versions), Chariots of Fire (1981), Sahara (2005), Black Gold (2011), Theeb (2014), and A Perfect Day (2016), and “All these Things That I’ve Done” sung by the Killers; “If You’re Going Through Hell” sung by Rodney Akins; “Club Can’t Handle Me” sung by Flo Rida;  Elton John, especially “Island Girl” and Aida; Prince, especially “The One U Want to C”; Bruce Springsteen, especially “From Small Things” and “Frankie Fell in Love”; Toby Keith, especially “How Do You Like Me Now,” “Rum is the Reason,” and “Ain’t No Right Way”; Josh Ritter, especially “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “Girl in the War”; Bernice Johnson Reagon; John Denver; Jimmy Buffett; Kid Rock, and the Muppets.

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, 2021

Thanks to Kid Rock (for the slow songs, not the politics, not the rap), Pink, Toby Keith and all the songs picked by Steve Nathans-Kelly which got me through a lot of long drives late at night on dark roads.

Houseways in Southern Oman. Routledge, forthcoming

I am grateful for Aida (Broadway and concept albums); “Mama Knows the Highway,” Hal Ketchum; “Unwritten,” Natasha Bedingfield; “La Vie Boheme,” Rent; “Drunk Americans,” Toby Keith; “American Rock ’n Roll,” Kid Rock, “Let the River Run,” Carly Simon, as well as Jimmy Buffet, Pink, Prince, Bob Seger, Shaggy and Tina Turner.

A beautiful poem for the beginning of Ramadan

“Red Brocade,” Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles


The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)



helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion


helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.

Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

I am happy to announce that I will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms”

l will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms” at the English Scholars Beyond Borders – Dhofar University International Conference. Dec. 4-5, 2021.

My presentation will argue that in non-Anglospheric institutions such as Dhofar University, literature teachers will always need to be language and culture teachers. Given that many students on the Arabian Peninsula will use English when traveling or teaching primary or secondary students, texts must be chosen for their linguistic and cultural, as well as literary, qualities. I will use examples from teaching literature, cultural studies and education on the Arabian Peninsula for over 15 years to discuss how to create syllabi which reflect both the literary canon and students’ needs, with an emphasis on teaching multi-level classes and explicating cultural narration differences, as well as sneaking in language lessons. For example, folding language teaching into literature classes means both silent editing (such as not calling attention to spoken mistakes but repeating the student’s words with the correct pronunciation and/ or grammar) and short, explicit lessons. Lastly, it is vital to foreground cultural differences in plot, characters, settings and themes, in addition to narrative structures as an analysis of a literary text in English is expected to have the author’s opinion clearly stated with proof in the form of quotes and specific details, a format that Arabian Gulf students sometimes have not learned.

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi



excerpt of ‘Zhe is for Bijan’

Zhe is the third of the four Persian letters that have been added to deal with sounds you won’t hear in Arabic. The sound of Zhe is the S of “measure,” the J of French (jupe, jour, bijou, jus), or the common mispronunciation of the hard J in “Beijing.” It is for indigenous Persian words still in use after the arrival of the Arabic alphabet, a glimpse of an earlier language. Today it also allows for proper transcriptions of words borrowed from European languages. Zhânvieh (through French) for January, Zhâpon for Japan. Dehkhoda’s massive Loghat-nâmeh, the OED of Persian, includes Zhen for Genoa, Zhâmâ’îk for Jamaica, Zhakobît for Jacobite. The last example may be a key to his political affinities.

The letter J is used for Zhe words in contemporary Turkish, though there aren’t many of them. There is less than a page of J words in Redhouse’s 1,292-page dictionary, most of them loans from French. Nine of them are on loan from Persian.

Household Words

Before Zhe was devised, you would just use Ze (Arabic Za’) and assume the reader would recognize the word from context, spoken but not visible on the page. And then sometimes pronunciation of Zh words would adjust to what the Arabic alphabet was able to express. Zhang, “rust,” became zang. Zhang still exists, with the same meaning, but you won’t see it often. If you look up zhang in a Persian/Persian dictionary the definition is likely to be zang.

Sometimes a Zhe word will evoke the substantial, resonant or sublime, as with the word zharf, “deep, profound.”  It’s a respected Zhe word, the only Zhe entry in A.K.S. Lambton’s shorter Persian Vocabulary. And sometimes a Zhe word will send us back to the heroic world of pre-Islamic chivalry, as in Ferdowsi, like zhubin, a spear.’ More frequently, though, the Zhe words which persisted over the evolution of New Persian, the ones that slipped through the 28-letter Arabic mesh, are the words closest to home, the intimate ones: household words, words for the ordinary, humble and non-heroic. Often you have to dig through those dictionaries which include the obscure and forgotten to find them. Zhakfar means patient, meek, mild. Zhakâreh is quarrelsome, squabbling. Zhan means deformed. (A cultured Iranian friend has never heard of the last three. It’s a good thing we have dictionaries.) Zhulideh, definitely still in use, is to be disheveled, tousled, scattered in the wind. Zhendeh, also a linguistic survivor, means old, worn out, frayed, or a patched garment. Imperfect things can be a source of praise too. Hair which is zhulideh is a source of fascination. Patches or patched clothes can be the clothes of someone who has taken a vow of poverty, a mystic. Zhendeh is a positive image, as you can see in a couplet of Hafez:

Chandân bemân ke kharqeh-ye azraq konad qabûl
bakht-e javân-at az falak-e pir-e zhendeh-push

[Stay as you are (or perhaps “be patient . . .”) until the sky’s patched blue (azraq) coat grants to you, though you are young, a spiritual elder’s patched robe (zhendeh).]

“Altar Smoke” by Rosalie Grayer

I wrote my dissertation on travel writing and, while some people keep a St. Christopher medal for travel protection, I look for travel poems. This is one of my favorites.

“Alter Smoke” Rosalie Grayer

Somewhere inside me

There must have always been

A tenderness

For the little, lived-with things

A man crowds upon his worn fistful of earth.

Somewhere inside of me

There must have always been

A love

Made to fill the square aggressiveness of new-cut hedges,

And feed the pursed green mouths of baby leaves;

A love made to understand

The way grass cuddles up to porch steps leaned upon by time,

And why dandelions nudge the stones along the walk;

A love for the garden hose curled sleeping in the noon hush,

Coolness trickling lazily from its open mouth,

For shingles starched and saucy in white paint,

And an old rake rusty with dreams of tangled grass and butterflies.

A love

for candle flames, like pointed blossoms on their ghostly stems,

And frost-forests breathing wonder on the parlor windows.

Somewhere inside me

There must have always been

An altar of hewn stones

upon which my love casts these–

burnt offerings–

To make a sweet savor

Unto my soul.


Continue reading ““Altar Smoke” by Rosalie Grayer”

“If You Get There Before I Do” by Dick Allen

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

“If You Get There Before I Do” by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,

and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards

lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around

and look out the back windows first.

I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines

leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer

of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,

I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,

only a General Store. You passed it coming in,

but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump

along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.

If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,

that state where people are folded into the mountains

like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there

is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate

on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators

and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,

or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many

take small steps into what they never do,

the first weeks, the first lessons,

until they choose something other,

beginning and beginning their lives,

so never knowing what it’s like to risk

last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,

or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.

That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget

to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times

just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing

make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,

the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:

In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break

who had followed the snows for seven years and planned

on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,

to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find

Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,

as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,

old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.

You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed

when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually

you lose your bearings,

your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,

until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for

and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.

Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,

the long middle passage done,

fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the

checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,

out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,

pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,

then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,

until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,

those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—

that I’m allowed,

and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,

I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.