Global Trends posted on November 19, 2019, The Dilemma of English-Medium Instruction in International Higher Education written by Philip G. Altbach, Research Professor and Founding Director, and Hans de Wit, Professor and Director at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. This article gives us an instead glance at the worldwide debate that is emerging about the role of English and languages in general in higher education. The issue in the MENA region has been de facto settled sometime back, despite resurging questions as to the position of the local language utilisation in the universities. Hence the featured picture above.
WENR would like to congratulate our partners at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) for its upcoming 100th issue of International Higher Education. Enjoy this advance look into the issue with Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit’s article on the increasing global dominance of English-language instruction.
By the mid-twentieth century, English had become the global language of science and scholarship. With the rise of the internet and globalization in the latter years of the century and in the new millennium, this domination has only increased. The top 50 scientific journals are published in English, as are the vast majority of internationally circulated scholarly articles.
The advent of mass student mobility (more than five million students now study outside of their home countries, the majority of whom choose countries where English is spoken) has also increased the attraction of English. An increasingly mobile professoriate, including thousands of postdocs, gravitate to English-speaking universities. In non-English-speaking countries such as Ethiopia, academic programs and even entire universities use English as a language of instruction, or even as the only language of instruction. In Africa, Rwanda moved from French to English as a country and in higher education; and Algeria’s minister of education recently announced a shift from French to English in higher education.
Indeed, most countries now have English-medium universities, branch campuses that use English, or complete graduate programs in English. For example, one can obtain an English-medium Master of Business Administration from more than 30 universities in China. Universities in Russia are offering academic programs in English that target mainly Russian students, who seek such degrees to boost their prospects in local and international job markets. Chinese universities urge their faculty members to publish in prestigious English language journals and offer them handsome financial rewards for doing so—while, at the same time, publishing in Chinese journals yields few benefits. Indeed, the number of journals in English in China is growing exponentially. The same is true in South Africa and other countries. Without question, English will remain the key global scientific language and an important language of instruction for the foreseeable future. Even in these days of nationalism and populism, its role is likely to increase. Countries, institutions, and individuals are seeking to adapt to the impact of global English on academic life worldwide. Yet, at the same time, a worldwide debate is emerging about the role of English and of languages in general in higher education.
Questions Worth Asking
It is worth raising questions concerning the impact of the tide of English. In the broader sense, there is no use in rejecting it; just as globalization is an inexorable force, so is the role of English in higher education.
Language is more than just a means of communication; it is also an aspect of culture. The implications of using English as a key language for higher education in non-English-speaking countries may affect culture and ways of thinking. The French and the Italians, historically protective of their culture, have long resisted the use of English in higher education, but even they have recently yielded. There are now a growing number of English-medium courses in France and Italy, despite intense protests not only by nationalists and advocates of safeguarding their national cultural heritage, but also by academics.
Using English also has implications for research methodology, publication, and academic orientation. This is true for several reasons. The prestigious English-medium journals are edited almost exclusively by academics in English-speaking countries, and these editors rely in large part on reviewers also located in these countries. Even the most internationally minded editors will bring a bias toward the methodologies and academic orientations favored in English-speaking academe, as will most reviewers. Studies show that the journals and articles that are most cited are written in English, disadvantaging academics from non-English-speaking environments in several ways: The academics’ command of the English language will often be imperfect. More important, in general, they will be pressured to conform to the methodological strictures of mainstream English-dominated trends in their disciplines. This may be less consequential in the natural sciences where methodologies may be more universal, but it has considerable salience in the social sciences, where cultural and national realities shape scholarship. And researchers and scholars in all fields may be tempted to orient their research topics toward what will appeal to journal editors and publishers in the dominant English-medium markets.
Another implication, especially for the humanities and social sciences, is that the pressure to publish in English-medium international journals limits opportunities to contribute to the debate in local language media and to contradict fake news. Academics in the Netherlands have argued against this pressure. In International Higher Education No. 88, Winter 2017, Akiyoshi Yonezawa noted that “limited publication in English in these fields is becoming a serious obstacle to the further development of the humanities and social sciences in Japan,” and that “it is unlikely and undesirable that English as an academic language should continue to monopolize fields such as the humanities and social sciences, which are deeply rooted in multilinguistic and multicultural activities and values.”
A consequence of offering English-medium courses and programs in many non-English environments is the poor quality of the instruction offered by many faculty whose command of English may be only rudimentary, or whose ability to teach in the language is limited. This low-quality instruction, often combined with limited English comprehension on the part of many local and non-Anglophone international students, creates an environment where little actual learning is taking place. Additionally, knowledge of and access to current course texts and other materials in English may be limited. In short, offering high-quality programs in English is a complex undertaking that requires a high level of fluency on the part of both faculty and students.
A little-noticed consequence of the rise of global English in universities is the deteriorating status of learning other languages by students in English-speaking countries. Enrollments in “foreign language” courses and programs throughout the English-speaking world have declined, with many students (and faculty) feeling that they can communicate anywhere in the world in English. This trend has also led to declines in courses on world cultures and world civilizations, thus reducing in-depth knowledge of cultures among native English-speaking students. An additional concern is the increasing sophistication of machine translation of academic materials of all kinds, further reducing the perceived need to learn languages other than English.
There is also a consideration about the role of colonial languages in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Local languages are used in public primary and secondary education but, with some exceptions, are not the language of instruction in higher education. The risks of such policies are high and can result in or exacerbate elitism in higher education access, lower quality education and research, lack of alignment with local needs, and the dominance of Western paradigms.
The Debate in the Netherlands
Resistance to the use of English as a language of instruction in the developed world is increasing. In Italy and the Netherlands, academics have gone to court to stop universities from adding more English-taught programs to their course offerings. Arguments vary, from concerns about maintaining the national culture and the quality of education, to claiming that internationalization is a source of revenue that is promoted at the expense of good education for local students. These last two arguments are dominating the current debate in the Netherlands, where there is a general feeling that the spread of English as a language of instruction, with its lack of a strategic approach, has gone too far and become a liability.
The following are among the questions that have been raised:
Why should subject areas such as Dutch literature, history, or law be taught in English?
Are disciplines like psychology taught in English in order to attract international students and compensate for a decline in interest among local students?
Should the substantial contribution that international students make to institutional budgets and to the local and national economy count more than investing in quality education for local students?
Why should local students have to compete with international students for limited student housing?
How does one counteract the declining interest of local students in Dutch language and literature?
The Dutch minister of education, culture, and science along with institutional leaders is caught between the pressure to compete internationally and the imperative of responding to these arguments—as well as those of nationalists in parliament. Finding a compromise is not easy. Other countries, like Denmark and Germany, are having similar debates.
There are no easy solutions to what some are calling “English imperialism.” It is a fundamental reality today that English is the dominant language of science and scholarship, and increasingly of communication, both formal and informal, among students and academics globally. Understanding all the implications of selecting the language of instruction of a program or of an entire institution, including the costs and benefits of that decision, is crucial, and decision makers bear a heavy responsibility.
EF Education First (EF): MENA Countries Ranked for English Proficiency by Global Index of 100 Countries shows clearly that the ranking of each country has if only culturally, little to do with, as it were, its specific historical track record. The top ten middle eastern countries are as follow.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 12, 2019 / PRNewswire/ — EF Education First released the ninth annual edition of its EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), analyzing data from 2.3 million non-native English speakers in 100 countries and regions, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and other Arab countries. The Netherlands topped this year’s index, placing Sweden, last year’s top-scorer, in the second position.
In the MENA region, Bahrain scored the highest. However, the region has continued to lag behind the other regions of the world. The index has also found that in the MENA region, young adults have a somewhat similar English proficiency level as adults over 40 years of age. This suggests that English instruction in the region’s schools has not been evolving over the years. The results have also shown a great convergence in the levels of proficiency among adults in the region, with only 9 scores separating Bahrain, MENA’s best achiever, from the weakest performing country, Libya.
The EF EPI has shown a direct relationship between the average per capita income and standard of living in a country, and the average proficiency in the English language among its adults. Moreover, with exports accounting for nearly 20 per cent of world trade output, adopting English as a language of communication will further reduce costs for businesses and governments. These findings indicate the potential returns of investing in English instruction to qualify the young human capital in MENA for the major economic transformations that the region is witnessing.
In speaking about Saudi Arabia, EF Education First‘s country manager in the Kingdom, John Bernström, said: “This year’s ranking arrives as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and its National Transformation Program are in full swing to transform the Kingdom’s economy. As the country invests tremendously in the education and training of its youthful human capital, our report aims to assess how local English language proficiency fits within this frame and what are the best methods to optimize it in the future”.
The EF EPI is based on test scores from the EF Standard English Test (EF SET), the world’s first free standardized English test. The EF SET has been used worldwide by thousands of schools, companies, and governments for large-scale testing.
The EF English Proficiency Index for Schools (EF EPI-s), a companion report to the EF EPI, was also released with the index. The EF EPI-s examines the acquisition of English skills by secondary and tertiary students from 43 countries.
EF Education First is an international education company that focuses on language, academics, and cultural experience. Founded in 1965, EF’s mission is “opening the world through education.” With more than 600 schools and offices in over 50 countries, EF is the Official Language Training Partner for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
But, like women elsewhere, they lag when it comes to careers in these fields. As recent research shows, bridging this gap matters not just for women, but for the future of us all. So, how come Arab women are thriving in science and math education? The New York Times tells this story.
Here’s a strange paradox: In the Middle East, where many countries face stark gender inequality, women earn more science and math degrees per capita than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. In fact, up to 57 percent of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates in Arab countries are women, according to Unesco.
On the other hand, take Qatar, a small country with a population of just 2.8 million. The country’s first university, Qatar University, opened its doors only in 1973, with separate faculties for men and women. But by 2012, there were almost twice as many female students enrolled in the university as there were males.
Bolstered by the country’s fervor for higher education, more women are attending Qatar’s private universities — and more are pursuing traditionally male-dominated career paths, including engineering and science. Qatar Foundation’s 3,000-acre Education City campus, home to eleven K-12 schools and nine leading universities — including branches of Georgetown, Cornell and Texas A&M — standing alongside a science and technology park, global innovation forums, a modern art museum, start-up incubators and more.
Many of these Qatari campuses are already drawing much greater percentages of women in their programs than similar ones in the U.S. At Texas A&M University at Qatar, women account for 51.6 percent of all undergraduate engineers — more than double the U.S. national average of 23.4 percent.“For people who have never been to the Middle East, they may well think women here are somehow oppressed, covered up and kept at a different level,” says Lama Al-Oreibi, reservoir engineer at Shell and former student at Texas A&M University in Qatar. “But engineering and science are professions that are looked upon highly in this part of the world. And I was encouraged by my family to pursue this path.”
In contrast to stubborn stereotypes elsewhere, adds Mashael Al-Sabah, a cybersecurity scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute inside Education City, Qatari people don’t generally perceive men to be better at science and math.
“THE WOMEN IN ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE HERE OUTNUMBER MEN AND, OFTEN, THEY PERFORM BETTER.”
Up to 57%
of all STEM graduates in Arab countries are women.
This sentiment is echoed by Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist and associate professor at Hashemite University, who is currently writing a paper about this subject, slated for publication later this year. “[Middle Eastern] women’s attraction to STEM studies is something that runs much deeper than the region’s modern history,” she says. “A theme in Islamic culture is that you are respected for your mind. Therefore, if you go into science, this is something respectful, because it celebrates your mind — and this was the same for boys and girls.”
THE WOMEN CHALLENGING STEM’S STATUS QUO IN QATAR
From current students to alumni, here are the stories of some women of Education City who have broken through stereotypes in Qatar to pursue their dreams in STEM.
For 14-year-old Al Shamari, technology “is the solution to everything.” “Take astrophysics, for example. If we have a way to control it, we have a way of sustaining life on Earth without having to go back to traditional ways.”
Now a student at Qatar Academy for Science and Technology, she says she enrolled because the only other STEM school for her age group in Qatar is an all-boy school. “Here, everyone puts gender aside because that doesn’t matter in education. We all know how to work together,” she says. And for the future? “I want to go to MIT. There was a girl who graduated from MIT who figured out the algorithm for the black hole picture. It’s like a 900,000-line algorithm to figure out where to put the pieces, and I’m really impressed by her.”
“I LOVE SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY ASTROPHYSICS. PEOPLE ALWAYS LOOK TO THE GROUND FOR SOLUTIONS. WHY DON’T WE LOOK UP?”
As a part of her course, Abdalla, a student at Texas A&M University in Qatar, is currently making an innovative type of low-fuel vehicle — from scratch. But even for a pioneering engineer like her, gender expectations have been hard to escape. “We were taking the car from the garage to the lab,” she says, “and this guy shouted at my [male] friend, saying he should help me carry it!”
The 22-year-old, who is studying mechanical engineering, says she likes that engineering opens up many different areas of work. “I feel that there will always be a need for scientists and engineers. As an engineer, you feel like you’ve got some skills that other people may not have — and I like that.” After graduation, Abdalla is set to start a Ph.D. in Virginia, in the U.S.
“ONE OF THE THINGS I REALLY LIKE ABOUT GOING INTO ENGINEERING IS THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY GO INTO SO MANY OTHER AREAS. I LIKE THAT IT TRAINS YOUR MIND IN A CERTAIN WAY AND I FEEL THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A NEED FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS.”
Al-Oreibi was among the first groups of students to attend Texas A&M University in Qatar. “I wanted to stay in Qatar for university, and Texas A&M was opening here at the time,” she says. “It’s still a male-dominated industry, but in my class there were six girls and five guys, so we had a pretty good head start.”
Now a reservoir engineer at Shell, Al-Oreibi says she’s excited to be a part of the transition toward sustainability in oil and gas. “We have more awareness around our carbon footprint, something that wasn’t as strongly driven when I first joined the industry,” she says. “I’m very proud to be contributing to the global energy supply and doing so in a safe, environmentally friendly manner.”
“WITH SCIENCE, FOR ME, THE SKY’S THE LIMIT. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING WITH IT, AND YOU CAN HAVE AN IMPACT. AT THE END OF THE DAY, I’D LIKE TO THINK THAT WHAT I DO ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS HAS A POSITIVE IMPACT ON MY SOCIETY AND THE HUMAN RACE.”
But for Veronica Bermudez, senior research director for energy at Education City’s Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, the real issue comes after university, when these highly educated women enter the job force — or rather, don’t. In fact, although Qatar’s female labor-force participation ranks higher than the world average, the proportion of Qatari women in the work force still lags slightly behind that in developed countries. “In the renewable energy sector, for example, the growth expectations in terms of jobs are going to triple in the next 10, 20 years,” says Bermudez. “We really need to engage more females in STEM to be able to address that challenge.”
Despite regional differences in female participation in STEM education, getting more women into science and math jobs remains a challenge across the world. High female participation in STEM education doesn’t necessarily translate into employment. Across OECD countries, 71 percent of male graduates in STEM subjects work as professionals in STEM fields, compared with only 43 percent of female graduates, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
For Arab women in particular, a number of barriers block them from finding employment in their respective STEM fields: Unesco’s “Science Report: Towards 2030” points to everything from low awareness about what a career in STEM entails to a lack of female role models and a family bias against working in mixed-gender environments. A dearth of suitable positions can hold women back, too. “We simply don’t have a market like Silicon Valley,” says Sana Odeh, clinical professor of computer science at New York University in Abu Dhabi, who’s working on a study on Middle Eastern women’s participation in STEM. “There aren’t thousands of jobs that are opened up by these large companies.”
Then, of course, there are the more universal issues, which for Dajani are every bit as important. “The workplace as we know it today was created around 100, 150 years ago by men, for men,” she says.
“THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE IS BIOLOGICAL, EVOLUTIONARY — WOMEN HAVE BABIES AND NEED TO NURSE THEM. AND THE MODERN WORKPLACE DOESN’T FIT THIS.”
of the total student body at Texas A&M University in Qatar are women.
Anna Paolini, director of Unesco’s regional office in Doha, agrees. “We see willingness and interest from women to continue working, but once they get married many don’t go back to work, and that’s a loss for the system and for countries as small as Qatar.”
This “loss” that Paolini points to takes a toll on the bottom line, too. A growing body of evidence shows that more diverse organizations enjoy greater creativity, stronger governance, better problem-solving skills — and increased profitability. What’s more, an International Monetary Fund report from this year states that the growth gains from adding more women to the labor force are larger than previously thought — closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35 percent for much of the developing world.
And nowhere is diversity so valuable as in scientific study itself, according to Andrei Cimpion, associate professor of psychology at New York University, who has conducted studies on gender stereotypes in STEM. “The reality of what scientists do is that they work in teams. They work for socially important goals that help humanity,” he says.
“SCIENCE CAN ACCOMMODATE — AND NEEDS — THESE DIFFERENCES. SCIENCE DOES NOT EXCLUDE NOR DOES IT PREVENT SUCCESS BASED ON PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS.”
of female STEM graduates in OECD countries work in STEM fields, vs. 71% of male graduates.
However, for Bermudez, the costs of a lack of diversity in STEM could be even greater than that. “Men and women see things from a different point of view,” she says. “And if we keep this male dominance in STEM, we are skipping 50 percent of human resources around the world. With a diverse group, you have more opportunities to find the right way to solve problems.”
As a Friday essay: why traditional Persian music should be known to the world, Darius Sepehri, of University of Sydney goes through all aspects of why today’s Iran cultural heritage should be appreciated. The author confronting life in today’s world recalls the Traditional Persian Music through remembering his own personal origin rooted in the world’s first superpower that is the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great.
Weaving through the rooms of my Brisbane childhood home, carried on the languid, humid, sub-tropical air, was the sound of an Iranian tenor singing 800-year old Persian poems of love. I was in primary school, playing cricket in the streets, riding a BMX with the other boys, stuck at home reading during the heavy rains typical of Queensland.
I had an active, exterior life that was lived on Australian terms, suburban, grounded in English, and easy-going. At the same time, thanks to my mother’s listening habits, courtesy of the tapes and CDs she bought back from trips to Iran, my interior life was being invisibly nourished by something radically other, by a soundscape invoking a world beyond the mundane, and an aesthetic dimension rooted in a sense of transcendence and spiritual longing for the Divine.
I was listening to traditional Persian music (museghi-ye sonnati). This music is the indigenous music of Iran, although it is also performed and maintained in Persian-speaking countries such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It has ancient connections to traditional Indian music, as well as more recent ones to Arabic and Turkish modal music.
It is a world-class art that incorporates not only performance but also the science and theory of music and sound. It is, therefore, a body of knowledge, encoding a way of knowing the world and being. The following track is something of what I might have heard in my childhood:
Playing kamancheh, a bowed spike-fiddle, is Kayhān Kalhor, while the singer is the undisputed master of vocals in Persian music, ostād (meaning “maestro”) Mohammad Reza Shajarian. He is singing in the classical vocal style, āvāz, that is the heart of this music.
A non-metric style placing great creative demands on singers, āvāz is improvised along set melodic lines memorised by heart. Without a fixed beat, the vocalist sings with rhythms resembling speech, but speech heightened to an intensified state. This style bears great similarity to the sean-nos style of Ireland, which is also ornamented and non-rhythmic, although sean-nos is totally unaccompanied, unlike Persian āvāz in which the singer is often accompanied by a single stringed instrument.
A somewhat more unorthodox example of āvāz is the following, sung by Alireza Ghorbāni with a synthesised sound underneath his voice rather than any Persian instrument. It creates a hypnotic effect.
Even listeners unfamiliar with Persian music should be able to hear the intensity in the voices of Ghorbāni and Shajarian. Passion is paramount, but passion refined and sublimated so that longing and desire break through ordinary habituated consciousness to point to something unlimited, such as an overwhelming sense of the beyond.
Beyond media contrived images
The traditional poetry and music of Iran aim to create a threshold space, a zone of mystery; a psycho-emotional terrain of suffering, melancholy, death and loss, but also of authentic joy, ecstasy, and hope.
Traditional Persian music matters in this context of escalating aggression because it is a rich, creative artform, still living and cherished. It binds Iranians in a shared culture that constitutes the authentic life of the people and the country, as opposed to the contrived image of Iran presented in Western media that begins and ends with politics.
This is a thoroughly soulful music, akin not in form but in soulfulness with artists such as John Coltrane or Van Morrison. In the Persian tradition, music is not only for pleasure but has a transformative purpose. Sound is meant to effect a change in the listener’s consciousness, to bring them into a spiritual state (hāl).
Like other ancient systems, in the Persian tradition, the perfection of the formal structures of beautiful music is believed to come from God, as in the Pythagorean phrase, the “music of the spheres.”
Because traditional Persian music has been heavily influenced by Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam, many rhythmic performances (tasnif, as opposed to āvāz) can (distantly) recall the sounds of Sufi musical ceremonies (sama), with forceful, trance-inducing rhythms. (For instance in this Rumi performance by Alireza Eftekhari).
Even when slow, traditional Persian music is still passionate and ardent in mood, such as this performance of Rumi by Homayoun Shajarian, son of Mohammad-Reza:
Another link with traditional Celtic music is the grief that runs through Persian music, as can be heard in this instrumental by Kalhor.
Grief and sorrow always work in tandem with joy and ecstasy to create soundscapes that evoke longing and mystery.
Connections with classical poetry
The work of classical poets such as Rumi, Hāfez, Sa’di, Attār, and Omar Khayyām forms the lyrical basis of compositions in traditional Persian music. The rhythmic structure of the music is based on the prosodic system that poetry uses (aruz), a cycle of short and long syllables.
Singers must therefore, be masters not only at singing but know Persian poetry and its metrical aspects intimately. Skilled vocalists must be able to interpret poems. Lines or phrases can be extended or repeated, or enhanced with vocal ornaments.
Thus, even for a Persian speaker who knows the poems being sung, Persian music can still reveal new interpretations. Here, for example (from 10:00 to 25:00 mins) is another example of Rumi by M.R. Shajarian:
This is a charity concert from 2003 in Bam, Iran after a horrendous earthquake destroyed the town. Rumi’s poem is renowned among Persian speakers, but here Mohammad-Reza Shajarian sings it with such passion and emotional intensity that it sounds fresh and revelatory.
“Without everyone else it’s possible,” Rumi says, “Without you, life is not liveable.”
While such lines are originally drawn from the tradition of non-religious love poems, in Rumi’s poems the address to the beloved becomes mystical, otherworldly. After a tragedy such as the earthquake, these lyrics can take on special urgency in the present.
When people listen to traditional music, they, like the singers, remain still. Audiences are transfixed and transported.
According to Sufi cosmology, all melodious sounds erupt forth from a world of silence. In Sufism, silence is the condition of the innermost chambers of the human heart, its core (fuad), which is likened to a throne from which the Divine Presence radiates.
Because of this connection with the intelligence and awareness of the heart, many performers of traditional Persian music understand that it must be played through self-forgetting, as beautifully explained here by master Amir Koushkani:
Persian music has roughly twelve modal systems, each known as a dastgah. Each dastgah collects melodic models that are skeletal frameworks upon which performers improvise in the moment. The spiritual aspect of Persian music is made most manifest in this improvisation.
Shajarian has said that the core of traditional music is concentration (tamarkoz), by which he means not only the mind but the whole human awareness. It is a mystical and contemplative music.
The highly melodic nature of Persian music also facilitates expressiveness. Unlike Western classical music, there is very sparing use of harmony. This, and the fact that like other world musical traditions it includes microtonal intervals, may make traditional Persian music odd at first listen for Western audiences.
Solo performances are important to traditional Persian music. In a concert, soloists may be accompanied by another instrument with a series of call-and-response type echoes and recapitulations of melodic phrases.
Similarly, here playing the barbat, a Persian variant of the oud, maestro Hossein Behrooznia shows how percussion and plucked string instruments can forge interwoven melodic structures that create hypnotic soundscapes:
The roots of traditional Persian music go back to ancient pre-Islamic Persian civilisation, with archaeological evidence of arched harps (a harp in the shape of a bow with a sound box at the lower end), having been used in rituals in Iran as early as 3100BC.
Under the pre-Islamic Parthian (247BC-224AD) and Sasanian (224-651AD) kingdoms, in addition to musical performances on Zoroastrian holy days, music was elevated to an aristocratic art at royal courts.
Centuries after the Sasanians, after the Arab invasion of Iran, Sufi metaphysics brought a new spiritual intelligence to Persian music. Spiritual substance is transmitted through rhythm, metaphors and symbolism, melodies, vocal delivery, instrumentation, composition, and even the etiquette and co-ordination of performances.
The main instruments used today go back to ancient Iran. Among others, there is the tār, the six-stringed fretted lute; ney, the vertical reed flute that is important to Rumi’s poetry as a symbol of the human soul crying out in joy or grief; daf, a frame drum important in Sufi ritual; and the setār, a wooden four-stringed lute.
The tār, made of mulberry wood and stretch lambskin, is used to create vibrations that affect the heart and the body’s energies and a central instrument for composition. It is played here by master Hossein Alizadeh and here by master Dariush Talai.
Music, gardens, and beauty
Traditional Persian music not only cross-pollinates with poetry, but with other arts and crafts. At its simplest, this means performing with traditional dress and carpets on stage. In a more symphonic mode of production, an overflow of beauty can be created, such as in this popular and enchanting performance by the group Mahbanu:
They perform in a garden: of course. Iranians love gardens, which have a deeply symbolic and spiritual meaning as a sign or manifestation of Divine splendour. Our word paradise, in fact, comes from the Ancient Persian word, para-daiza, meaning “walled garden”. The walled garden tended and irrigated, represents in Persian tradition the cultivation of the soul, an inner garden or inner paradise.
The traditional costumes of the band (as with much folk dress around the world) are elegant, colourful, resplendent, yet also modest. The lyrics are tinged with Sufi thought, the poet-lover lamenting the distance of the beloved but proclaiming the sufficiency of staying in unconsumed desire.
As a young boy, I grasped the otherness of Persian music intuitively. I found its timeless spiritual beauty and interiority had no discernible connection with my quotidian, material Australian existence.
Persian music and arts, like other traditional systems, gives a kind of “food” for the soul and spirit that has been destroyed in the West by the dominance of rationalism and capitalism. For 20 years since my boyhood, traditional Persian culture has anchored my identity, healed and replenished my wounded heart, matured my soul, and allowed me to avoid the sense of being without roots in which so many unfortunately find themselves today.
It constitutes a world of beauty and wisdom that is a rich gift to the whole world, standing alongside Irano-Islamic architecture and Iranian garden design.
The problem is the difficulty of sharing this richness with the world. In an age of hyper-communication, why is the beauty of Persian music (or the beauty of traditional arts of many other cultures for that matter) so rarely disseminated? Much of the fault lies with corporate media.
Mahbanu, who can also be heard here performing a well-known Rumi poem, are mostly female. But readers will very likely not have heard about them, or any of the other rising female musicians and singers of Persian music. According to master-teachers such as Shajarian, there are now often as many female students as male in traditional music schools such as his.
Almost everyone has seen, however through corporate media, the same cliched images of an angry mob of Iranians chanting, soldiers goose-stepping, missile launches, or leaders in rhetorical flight denouncing something. Ordinary Iranian people themselves are almost never heard from directly, and their creativity rarely shown.
The lead singer of the Mahbanu group, Sahar Mohammadi, is a phenomenally talented singer of the āvāz style, as heard here when she performs in the mournful abu ata mode. She may, indeed, be the best contemporary female vocalist. Yet she is unheard of outside of Iran and small circles of connoisseurs mainly in Europe.
A list of outstanding modern Iranian women poets and musicians requires its own article. Here I will list some of the outstanding singers, very briefly. From an older generation we may mention the master Parisa (discussed below), and Afsaneh Rasaei. Current singers of great talent include, among others, Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, Homa Niknam, Mahileh Moradi, and the mesmerising Sepideh Raissadat.
Finally, one of my favourites is the marvellous Haleh Seifizadeh, whose enchanting singing in a Moscow church suits the space perfectly.
The beloved Shajarian
Tenor Mohammad-Reza Shajarian is by far the most beloved and renowned voice of traditional Persian music. To truly understand his prowess, we can listen to him performing a lyric of the 13th century poet Sa’di:
As heard here, traditional Persian music is at once heavy and serious in its intent, yet expansive and tranquil in its effect. Shajarian begins by singing the word Yār, meaning “beloved”, with an ornamental trill. These trills, called tahrir, are made by rapidly closing the glottis, effectively breaking the notes (the effect is reminiscent of Swiss yodeling).
By singing rapidly and high in the vocal range, a virtuoso display of vocal prowess is created imitating a nightingale, the symbol with whom the poet and singer are most compared in Persian traditional music and poetry. Nightingales symbolise the besotted, suffering, and faithful lover. (For those interested, Homayoun Shajarian, explains the technique in this video).
As with many singers, the great Parisa heard here in a wonderful concert from pre-revolutionary Iran, learned her command of tahrir partly from Shajarian. With her voice, in particular, the similarity to a nightingale’s trilling is clear.
Nourishing hearts and souls
The majority of Iran’s 80 million population are under 30 years of age. Not all are involved in traditional culture. Some prefer to make hip-hop or heavy-metal, or theatre or cinema. Still, there are many young Iranians expressing themselves through poetry (the country’s most important art form) and traditional music.
National and cultural identity for Iranians is marked by a sense of having a tradition, of being rooted in ancient origins, and of carrying something of great cultural significance from past generations, to be preserved for the future as repository of knowledge and wisdom. This precious thing that is handed down persists while political systems change.
Iran’s traditional music carries messages of beauty, joy, sorrow and love from the heart of the Iranian people to the world. These messages are not simply of a national character, but universally human, albeit inflected by Iranian history and mentality.
This is why traditional Persian music should be known to the world. Ever since its melodies first pierced my room in Brisbane, ever since it began to transport me to places of the spirit years ago, I’ve wondered if it could also perhaps nourish the hearts and souls of some of my fellow Australians, across the gulf of language, history, and time.
There are many challenges facing Arab media, starting with national newspapers, news sources, magazines to television stations due to digital incursion, which trespasses geographical boundaries, putting an end to monopoly in the fields of communication that were once the task of giant institutions operating on a global scale. Thus, it is highly recommended to help users and the audience identify false news that has become a phenomenon.
In the past decade, advertising resources for print media fell by two-thirds. The distribution of national newspapers dropped as well, either because of digital copies due to easy access to the Internet by the audience or because many advertisers prefer posting their ads online. Newspapers’ revenues as a result have dropped remarkably. Publishers rely on ads that have now been fully automated and based on traffic volume on news sites.
The question that arises is: Who is responsible for this decline of regional media and lack of professional craftsmanship? The dilemma lies in the collective responsibility of individuals and the media. For example, many people follow social media celebrities, who have millions of followers without providing any useful content. Thus, fame at present does not require people to appear on television and satellite channels, as some Youtubers and Instagrammers have millions of followers; more than TV channels and newspapers due to flip-flopped interests.
A major segment of the deterioration of Arab media lies on recipients or the audience. In other words, some media outlets which respond to audience requests and demands achieve tangible successes. Social media celebrities go by the whims of their followers to secure stardom.
In some countries, there is fear from the media, and this has created a psychological barrier that prevents journalists from dealing with vital issues. Extremist parties and other actors have also contributed to this decline in media and journalism. Lack of journalistic professionalism is a direct outcome of failure of media institutions to provide necessary training for journalists.
Over the past 25 years, the number of media channels, newspapers and websites have mushroomed. In other words, the quantity has not matched the quality due to lack of professional journalists who are well-trained to manage media institutions independently. If we look at the state of journalism now, there are more media outlets, but media independence and freedom of coverage had become less than before. Technological advances on social media have also led people to follow media that are consistent with their views.
Traditional Arab media has lost its role in the industry of opinion and has a marginal contribution to the formation of awareness of the Arab world, while social media has become more powerful and influential. Some media have moved away from traditional means and turned to social media as a better platform to address the public directly. Newspapers have become weak in many Arab countries, even those which are funded, and supported by governments, as the main issue is not related to funding but rather professionalism. Many newspapers do not have remarkable content to grab readers to purchase such newspapers due to citizens’ weak purchase power and absence of real professional journalism.
What these newspapers currently offer depends on news agencies and other sources of content. Very few still have strong journalistic topics that are presented to the reader. Unfortunately, the way such topics are covered and addressed have less freedom of expression and opinion in terms of analysis and prognosis. Since the basis in successful media work relies on science and information, absence of these two elements is one of the major loopholes of media coverage in the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Technological transformation in the world of media industry have raised concerns among the media industry, as this has adversely affected the media spectrum in the MENA.
Thus, we need to improve the horizons of high-level journalism and encourage new media models not only in terms of available technologies, but also in terms of innovation and creativity by hiring national press, digital media and advertising industry figures in order to restore a balance between news publishers and digital platforms that publish what they produce. This comes at a time when many changes in technology and consumer attitudes pose challenges for quality journalism in the region.
Government oversight should be effective from time to time in order for Internet news platforms to adhere to media standards and to enhance confidence in the news such platforms broadcast. The government should also consider direct support for local news sources and provide tax exemptions for media. Information authorities should provide more support to local publishers so that their coverage complements local news. Furthermore, governments concerned should set up independent institutes to provide news of public interest in the future.
Therefore, we should adhere to new standards to restore balance between publishers and online platforms. In addition, Internet platforms must exert an effort to improve their users’ access to news in a good manner.
RUINS OF BABYLON, Iraq (Reuters) – The ancient city of Babylon, first referenced in a clay tablet from the 23rd century B.C., was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Friday, after a vote that followed decades of lobbying by Iraq.
The vote, at a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, made the ancient Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates River the sixth world heritage site within the borders of a country known as a cradle of civilization.
Iraqi President Barham Salih said the city, now an archaeological ruin, was returned to its “rightful place” in history after years of neglect by previous leaders.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also welcomed the news.
“Mesopotamia is truly the pillar of humanity’s memory and the cradle of civilization in recorded history,” he said.
The government said it would allocate funds to maintain and boost conservation efforts.
Babylon, about 85 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, was once the center of a sprawling empire, renowned for its towers and mudbrick temples. Its hanging gardens were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Visitors can stroll through the remnants of the brick and clay structures which stretch across 10 square kilometers, and see the famed Lion of Babylon statue, as well as large portions of the original Ishtar Gate.
As the sun began to set on the crumbling ruins, activists and residents flocked to the replica Ishtar gate at the site’s entrance to celebrate what they called a historic moment.
“This is very important, because Babylon will now be a protected site,” said Marina al-Khafaji, a local who was hopeful the designation would boost tourism and the local economy.
It would allow for further exploration and research, said Makki Mohammad Farhoud, 53, a tour guide at the site for more than 25 years, noting that only 18% of it had been excavated.
“Babylon is the blood that runs through my veins, I love it more than I love my children,” he said.
DECADES OF NEGLECT
Excavations of what was once the largest city in the world, began in the early 19th century by European archaeologists, who removed many artifacts.
In the 1970s, under President Saddam Hussein’s restoration project, the southern palace’s walls and arches were shoddily rebuilt on top of the existing ruins, causing widespread damage.
This was exacerbated during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when U.S. and Polish troops stationed nearby built their military base on top of the Babylonian ruins.
Many inscriptions written by soldiers can still be seen on the ancient bricks.
The site is in dire need of conservation, Farhoud said. Unlike three other World Heritage sites in Iraq, UNESCO did not designate Babylon as one in “in danger” after objections from the Iraqi delegation.
Iraq is replete with thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were heavily damaged or pillaged by Islamic State during its barbaric three-year-rule which ended in 2017.
The other five World Heritage Sites are the southern marshlands, Hatra, Samarra, Ashur and the citadel in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.