Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Arab Ear and the American Eye: A Study of the Role of the Senses in Culture

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Arab Ear and the American Eye: A Study of the Role of the Senses in Culture

Article excerpt


This article is a translation (with a translator's preface) of an essay by Sharif Kanaana on the significance of hearing in Arab culture. The analysis is based on Alan Dundes' "Seeing is Believing." Proceeding along the same lines as Dundes and using similar procedures, the author seeks to establish the hypothesis that in Arab culture the ear is more significant than the eye as a guide to belief. While "Seeing is Believing" is about American culture, in using its categories as a basis for the study of the Arab ear, this article brings to the fore its implicit comparative perspective. The theoretical point at issue is the determining power of culturally established cognitive patterns.

The dialogue between the two articles (Kanaana's and Dundes') is an instance of intercultural communication, which could not have come into being without the decisive role of translation. The translator's preface and response explore the reciprocal discursive connection between translation and ethnography, given that both of these, as disciplines, have to grapple with the problem of how to interpret the Other for a domestic audience. The analysis elaborates upon the metaphorical significance of the eye in Arab culture, showing that the Arab fear of the eye may be justified in view of the manipulative power that resides in images. Translated in terms of culture, it may be that the reliance on the eye breeds a need for visual stimulation and constant change, while reliance on the ear leads to reliance on tradition and fear of change.

Translator's preface

My contribution consists of three parts. The first is this introduction; the second is a translation of the better part of an article by Sharif Kanaana, and the third is my response. The original article appeared in the year 2000 in Kanaana's book on Palestinian folklore, Min Nisi Qadimo ... Tah! ("He Who Forgets His Past ... Is Lost!"). The ellipsis is part of the original title, which is a Palestinian proverb. I translated this piece not only for its cultural contribution but also because of its attempt to establish a dialogue based on shared scholarly interest, and that dialogue in turn cannot take place without translation. Therefore, the translation is itself the completing process of that dialogue. Additionally, and with respect to this dialogue, the significance of Kanaana's piece lies in its uncovering of the comparative methodological implications of the essay on which it is based, Dundes' "Seeing is Believing" (1980).

Dundes' article is based on the assumption that verbal folklore articulates or reflects world view, or both. While I think that the assumption of realistic mimesis (that is, trying to read world view from folktales or proverbs) can, and frequently does, lead the inexperienced into aberrant views of a given culture (Orientalism being an outstanding, and pernicious, example of this process) it seems to me that the exemplary areas of behavior singled out by Dundes, and by Kanaana in turn, do lead to accurate conclusions. To cite one specific example from my own experience, as a person who belongs to a "hearing is believing" culture, I always find it disconcerting when American friends use the seeing metaphor to refer to concerts--e.g., "I saw the San Francisco Symphony last night." Though as a student of language I understand that this is American usage (and no one can argue with usage), the culturally Arab part of me still thinks that this formulation is a distortion of experience. Perhaps we can use translation metaphorically here and think of this process as a translation in terms of one sense of something that takes place primarily in the domain of another.

Turning now to the specific details of that dialogue, we note that the two articles taken together resemble a circle, or a necklace, with Kanaana beginning where Dundes left off. The points that Dundes makes in bringing his article to a close are the very ones taken up by Kanaana at the beginning of his study. …

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