Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A question of language: Je suis circumflex

In Paris during simpler times /
At the Place de la Concorde, 2012.

One recent Saturday morning while enjoying breakfast, I read with interest the news from France that tempers have been flaring over questions of language.

Imagine ça!

According to The New York Times, French broadcaster TF1 reported that "changes were afoot" at the Académie française, the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language, "to cut back the circumflex accent, known as 'the hat' from French-language textbooks."


You know the circumflex accent, 
right? It looks like this: ˆ


In addition, according to the story, French teachers are also being asked to make changes affecting about 2,400 French words, including spelling oignon – or onion – as agnon.

Ciel aider ceux qui ne peuvent pas épeler.

"Among the words appropriated from English, news reports noted, the hyphen in week-end would be eliminated, along with the hyphen in tictac (now tic-tac, or ticking, like a clock), while leader would be given a French makeover and spelled leadeur. Nénuphar, or water lily, would be spelled nénufar."

As you might imagine, the reaction on social media – Facebook, Twitter and such – has been harsh and unkind. It should come as no surprise that intellectuals, teachers, and traditionalistes  have come forth to vent their anger. After all, many French see what's happening as an attack on centuries of their culture and history. Some see the "pruning" of the circumflex as a personal affront.

"Others were quick to warn of the linguistic perils of losing the circumflex to distinguish between sûr, or sure, ad adjective and sur, or on, a preposition," according to The New York Times story.

For instance, The New York Times wrote: "'I am sure your sister is well' and 'I am on top of your sister she is well' are not the same thing," somebody noted on Twitter, using a colloquial form of French.

Oh, la confusion!

In fact, the circumflex is becoming optional on i's and u's, and only on those words that do not need it. It will remain mandatory in several French verb tenses and when there is a clear distinction in meaning."

La langue est encore sacré?

Attitudes in language shift and, perhaps, it's a sign of the times that language evolves – even the immortal, sacred French language. And yet, in an ever-changing age of technology and smartphones, there's something charming about a culture that is still wedded to its vaunted dictionaries.

Je vous remercie.

Photo: By Michael Dickens © 2012.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Stuart Scott: Every Day He Fought

"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live." – Stuart Scott

As an anchor and commentator for ESPN's SportsCenter, Stuart Scott became the face of his network. He was the most popular and recognized anchor of his generation, and arguably the hippest sports journalist ever. As lead host of the NBA on ABC and ESPN, and as a host of Monday Night Football on ESPN, Scott brought a unique spirit and style to each telecast.

Scott anchored his first SportsCenter with Craig Kilborn back in September 1996. He had a thick dark mustache, and "I wore my hair in a type of baby high-top fade, which was all the rage among young black men at the time; short on the sides, long on top." And there was Scott's big, boxy suits. "This is back in the day in the day when suits were boxy, with big shoulders. Now everything is Euro, slim-fit. Back in the day, big and baggy was cool," Scott wrote. Looking back at that clip in 2014, what he saw was this: "a young black man rocking the style of the day. But I also saw something else, something harder for the naked eye to make out. I saw a dude who had been given the freedom to let his voice fly."

Scott became known for infusing his reports with a blend of pop culture references, hip-hop slang, and exuberant phrases – Boo-yah! – that made him something of a pop culture icon in his own right.

Shortly before Scott died of cancer on January 4, 2015, he completed work on his memoir, Every Day I Fight, that is both a labor of love and love letter to life itself. Looking for something inspiring to read, I checked out Every Day I Fight from my local public library – and it has been my reading companion the past few weeks, and I've fought hard to put it down. I highly recommend it.

Stuart Scott's story is a very personal one, and page after page of Every Day I Fight  he bares his soul, sharing his intimate struggles to beat cancer and stay alive. As I read, I can hear Scott's familiar voice that I remember from his SportsCenter days.

In Every Day I Fight, written with journalist Larry Platt, Scott writes about illness and loss with relentless energy. His words are raw, honest and powerful. At times over the top, other times irresistibly sincere – just like his television personality – Scott had this to say for those who praised his fortitude once his cancer became public. "Trust me, I ain't courageous. I just don't want to die." The two simple reasons he didn't want to die: his daughters, Taelor and Sydni.

"I'd work out three or four times a week, but the most important workout was the one right after chemo. It was like I was proving a point: While you kick my butt, cancer, I'm gonna kick yours."

Scott was struck by appendiceal cancer in 2007, a rare disease. He fought cancer the same way that elite athletes train in pursuit of a championship – his desire to remain in control of his health, to fight for others who couldn't fight, and to inspire his daughters, who meant the world to him. Scott wanted to be there for Taelor and Sydni, now teenagers, "not simply as their dad, but as an immutable example of determination of courage."

Scott writes: "I needed to do that, not just to show my girls I was fighting for them, but also to show myself I had some control over the situation. 'Cause cancer wants to take control from you. You've got to very purposefully stand your ground. That's what going to the gym is to me. I decide, cancer. That's what going to work is I decide, cancer. That's what traveling all over the country and abroad is. I decide, cancer."

But let's keep this real, Scott wrote. "I'm forty-nine. There's a good chance I'm going to die a helluva lot earlier than I ever wanted to. There's a good chance I'm going to die soon. And I know it. I know it every moment of every day. And that reality is never not with me.

"So this book is a chronicle of my fight against cancer, but it's even more than that. It's really a memoir of a life well fought; in sports, the media, or the cancer ward, the one true thing I've learned is that life is hard but that there is redemption in the struggle."

Scott embraced life and changed lives. His friend and colleague Robin Roberts, herself once an ESPN SportsCenter anchor before ascending to host ABC's Good Morning America, wrote: "Stu's unshakable courage was inspirational. Cancer never defined him; it's not his life's story but rather a chapter in his life's story. You'll see in these beautifully written pages that he set a stellar example for all of us in so many aspects of life. Stu said when you're too tired to fight, rest and let someone else fight for you. My dear friend, you can rest now, and we will continue to fight for you."

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Forever 21: Remembering Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha and her voice full of hope

Ibtihaj Muhammad /
Muslim American
Olympic fencer. 
American Muslims make extraordinary contributions to our country every day. One needs only to look at Wednesday's New York Times to learn the story of Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 30-year-old female fencer, who will represent the U.S. at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and is believed to be the first American Olympian in any sport to compete while wearing a hijab. She was among a select group of prominent American Muslims invited to a round-table discussion with President Obama last week before his speech at an American mosque in Baltimore. It was the Mr. Obama's first visit as president to an American mosque. 
Meanwhile, it's been a year since three young students, who were American Muslims, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., in a brutal crime. Despite the barriers broken by Mr. Obama and Ms. Muhammad, by and large, American Muslims across my country remain worried and afraid. Their concerns include Islamophobia, mass incarceration and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Last year, one of the slain students, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, participated in an NPR StoryCorps oral history project with her third-grade elementary school teacher. The interview resurfaced in the days following Yusor's tragic death and showed a kind and caring individual with a beautiful voice so full of hope. I'm not ashamed to say that listening to the interview brought me to tears then as it does now.


Read on as I share a repost of my Feb. 24, 2015 "A Tuesday Night Memo" blog post.

Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha (21), and
Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha (19) /
They were Americans just like you and me.

American Muslims make extraordinary contributions to our country every day and, yet, we are left asking ourselves why three young university students, who were American Muslims, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., earlier this month.

It has left many American Muslims across my country worried and afraid.

This brutal crime that took the lives of these kind, young and exemplary citizens -- a husband, his newlywed wife and her sister -- came just weeks after other recent anti-Muslim attacks in Europe that were carried out in an apparent response to the January murders (committed by Muslim extremists) of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.

Teacher and student /
Mussarut Jabeen (L) and Yusor Mohammed
Abu-Salha together in happier times.
"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," said one of the slain students, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, during a 2014 NPR StoryCorps oral history project interview that resurfaced days after her death. Accompanied to the StoryCorps booth in Raleigh, N.C. along with her third-grade elementary school teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, Abu-Salha explained: "Although in some ways, I stand out because of the hijab, there's still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. Here, we're all one ... Open, compassionate ... That's the beautiful thing here ... It doesn't matter where you come from. There're so many different people from so many different places of different backgrounds and religions. But here we're all one -- one culture."

Among my many Muslim friends from the North Africa countries of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, whom I've become acquainted with over the past several years via Facebook, they are united by their faith and share in mourning the lives of their American Muslim sisters and brother half a world and many time zones away, too. They insist -- and I agree -- that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship. 

Yet, I'm left wondering and I'm sure others are thinking: How do you convey a message of tolerance throughout a large country like mine that's comprised of so many different religious faiths and political attitudes, especially when certain cross-sections of the American public -- including certain American media organizations -- are not showing tolerance themselves and, worse, come across as Islamophobic? 

My Muslim friends are human and compassionate -- and they share many of the same hopes and feelings just like you and me. None of them are religious fanatics. However, they are very worried about the escalation of deadly violence shown by Muslim extremists, who seem to have taken their Islamic faith hostage through acts of terrorism across the world.

Through dozens of conversations covering countless hours, thanks to my open-mindedness and being a good listener, many of my Muslim friends have shared in confidence with me things they might not ordinarily be comfortable in sharing with their friends or family. So, I can attest to their honesty, their compassion, their sense of wanting to have a better life than their parents and to pass along a better life to their children. Sound familiar? First and foremost, together, we've worked hard to build a sense of trust and, also, to share the love of our friendship. 

Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha /
On the occasion of her 2014 graduation
 from her beloved North Carolina State
University in Raleigh, N.C.
I invite each of you to try reaching out to connect with a Muslim or somebody of a different religious faith than your own -- and truly get to know them and to learn about their faith. Take off your blinders and try to establish a dialogue and build trust. You'll feel better for making the effort.

During their StoryCorps interview, Jabeen recalled: "I remember Yusor as a little girl when she was in third grade. She had this sense of giving that really makes her different from other children."

In December 2014, Yusor graduated from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. 

In closing, Jabeen said: "I would like people to know and remember (Yusor) as a practicing Muslim, as a daughter and, above all, as a good human being. You know, when we write our comments on report cards, we say they exceeded our expectations. She exceeded our expectations."

Now, I hope you will take a few moments of your time to pause and listen to the voice of Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha from her entire StoryCorps interview: 

I'm not ashamed to say that listening to Yusor's beautiful and loving voice -- so full of life and hope less than a year ago -- brought me to tears.

Photos: Courtesy of Facebook, StoryCorps.org, Google Images. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In support of English literacy and a love of learning

In support of English literacy /
Students benefiting from the Morocco Library Project.

During a recent walk through Town & Country Village, an upscale outdoor shopping mall in Palo Alto, California, near Stanford University, I crossed paths with a most interesting window display at independent bookseller Books, Inc., that immediately captured my attention.

Instead of witnessing a display of current New York Times best-selling books, I glimpsed a colorful collection of young adult books, including Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, The Major Poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Books, Inc. window display /
Promoting awareness of the Morocco Library Project. 
In the center of the window display were a pair of signs. One read: Morocco Library Project. The other: Support the Morocco Library Project with Books Inc.! A similar display featuring children's literature awaited customers inside the bookstore, too.

What I learned is this: The Morocco Library Project is Americans and Moroccans building libraries together in support of English learners in Morocco. The group has a Facebook page and you can also find them via LinkedIn.

The mission of the Morocco Library Project is simple: It is designed to inspire and support English literacy and a love of learning in Morocco, and to build a lasting bridge of friendship and peace between East and West. In Morocco, most students learn to speak English as their third language -- yes, third -- after their native Arabic and French.

According to the organization's website, I learned: "We strive to work with underserved communities, where a single library will make a huge difference. For each location, we work with teachers to understand the particular need and to curate a collection of books and other materials for the students and community. The students do a lot of the work putting the library together. This is truly a partnership."

The Morocco Library Project launched its first project, the Erfoud Library, at the Lycée Moulay Rachid, in April 2015. It is located in the eastern part of the country near the Algerian border. I learned that this library supports highly motivated students from under-privileged families in an after-school program called English Access, and it's also open to other students in the area. While interest in learning English is rapidly growing, until recently, there were few resources to support it.

A love of learning /
Young students at the Erfoud Library in Morocco.
However, thanks to the effort of the Morocco Library Project, both in the U.S. and abroad, about 650 books for all ages and in a variety of genres, including art, geography, literature, nature, and science -- as well as Kindles, games, puzzles and an extensive collection of National Geographic magazines -- dot the colorful library. The collection includes about 100 children's books, too.

After a successful launch of the Erfoud Library last year, the Morocco Library Project is now starting new libraries in Taroudant and Essmara in the south, and in Tétouan in the north, for a girls' high school, the Lycée Khadija Oum El Mouminine, near Gibraltar. All are in underserved communities with students eager to study English.

Recently, Moroccan author Laila Lalami, who last year won the Arab American Book Award for her most recent novel The Moor's Account, donated autographed copies of her books to the Moroccan Library Project for distribution in its libraries.

Last month, the Minister of Education in Morocco launched a new nationwide program, CIRCLE (Club of Instructional Resources for Culture and Language Enhancement), and the Erfoud Library was selected as one of the first locations.

So, as you can see, good things are happening with this meaningful organization as they strive to turn collections of books into libraries.

The Morocco Library Project is funded entirely by donations from the public. To learn more about this worthwhile project and how to donate, visit their website: http://www.moroccolibraries.org.

Photos: Window display at Books, Inc. by Michael Dickens. Morocco Library Project photos courtesy of their website.