From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Abdulkafi Albirini

Abdulkafi Albirini, assistant professor of Arabic and linguistics, is following the Syrian resistance movement through its presence online. By doing so he has found humor in unlikely places.

The Language of a Revolution

By Kristen Munson

Leaning across his desk, Abdulkafi Albirini clicks on a Facebook page run by supporters of the Syrian revolution. He scrolls the feed pausing at videos, cartoons, and updates deriding President Bashar al-Assad and his armed supporters the shabbiha. Albirini has no idea who administers the page.

"No one knows,” he said. “This is secret because they will be persecuted.”

For 48 years Syrians lived under emergency law, meaning most constitutional protections were suspended and civilians could be arrested and detained without charge. People who spoke out against the government sometimes disappeared. Others were imprisoned or tortured.

The Syrian Army squelched an uprising in 1982 in the city of Hama led by opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The operation was ordered by then president Hafez al-Assad and killed from 10,000 to 40,000 people, mostly civilians, depending on which human rights group is consulted. The massacre is considered the most violent campaign by an Arab government against its people, and Syrians like Albirini have not forgotten the brutality.

“The stories are passed down,” he said. “People can’t forget it.”

Albirini, an assistant professor of Arabic and linguistics, was born and raised in the province of Homs, a region known for its sense of humor. Shortly after his arrival at Utah State, civil unrest erupted across the Middle East after the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor protesting government corruption. Riots flared up as Tunisians called for social and political reforms. Demonstrations spread to neighboring countries where unpopular dictators were ousted and powerful regimes toppled. By March 2011, the Arab Spring reached Syria.

“It’s very difficult to track which story was the catalyst, but they all have the same highlights,” Albirini said.

Syrian protests began in the south as citizens clamored for increased human and political rights, but Albirini believes they grew in response to the torturing of schoolboys who allegedly painted public buildings with anti-government graffiti.

“There’s no freedom of press. There’s no freedom of anything,” Albirini said. “The people were waiting. This was the spark. They saw that people can and do change governments.”

Albirini usually calls family members in Syria every week. It can take months to learn how they are faring because the regime cuts electricity and phone lines in areas under siege to prevent messages from coming in or going out, he said.

“It’s scary,” Albirini said. “You feel that human life is cheap. I don’t like to use that word. But there’s less value for human life. These are innocent people who are killed. They are not carrying any weapons. They are not posing any threat to security forces. Things are getting worse. The Syrian regime used to use guns and small weapons, but now they are using everything—bombs, tanks, heavy artillery. They don’t target anyone specifically.”

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the uprising began, and 2.5 million more need humanitarian aid. At least 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Albirini follows the resistance movement through its presence on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Cell phones and the Internet are the primary mode of communication of revolutionary fighters and their political and moral supporters. They are political game-changers allowing resistance fighters to communicate with each other and the outside world, and enable Albirini to study the language of the revolution as it unfolds.

“This is one of the values of the Internet,” Albirini said. “It’s difficult to suppress this medium.”

Typically, he researches heritage speakers. Albirini has several other projects underway, including how standard and colloquial Arabic are used to highlight differences or to establish a shared identity between speakers. However, Albirini began studying the language of the Syrian revolution as a way of merging his personal and academic interests.

Even the terms used to describe the Syrian fighters vary. In Syria, they are called revolutionaries; in the United States, they are referred to as rebels. The Syrian government uses other words like terrorists, Albirini said.

To remain anonymous, the resistance fighters use a global Internet network instead of the government-owned provider. Before the revolution it was easier to monitor activities online—people were afraid to speak out, he said. “They say what happened 30 years ago is the same as now, the difference is we have the Internet.”

He examined the Facebook pages in the Egyptian and Libyan revolutions in comparison with the Syrian uprising and noticed major differences in the content. He came across a Facebook page devoted solely to jokes of the Syrian revolution.

“This wasn’t as common in the Egyptian and the Libyan or the Tunisian conflicts. [The Syrians] use them so profusely. This is surprising to me. It’s not random—they are strategic.”

Albirini translated a joke from the page, “A Homsi person tells his friends: folks, tomorrow is Ramadan, so do not break your fast every time you hear the cannon sound.” It refers to the practice in some Muslim countries of shooting a cannon to announce when to break the fast, he said. “[Now] the sound of cannons is heard many times every day.”

Albirini wants to know why humor is such an important part of the commentary of the conflict. While the majority of jokes are aimed at al-Assad or the shabbiha, international supporters of al-Assad such as Russia and Iran are also targeted. Even former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan has been knocked for his understanding of the situation on the ground. How humor is employed in the revolution is important.

“Jokes are a linguistic mechanism to get one’s message across,” Albirini said. “Jokes are particularly interesting in this situation because it is a bloody political conflict. There are tragedies daily, and yet you find jokes all around. When you use jokes in this context, there’s a reason.”

Albirini suggests the fighters incorporate it to help boost their identity. He believes they use humor to show confidence and assurance of victory. When the revolutionary fighters have made gains, the jokes are often directed towards themselves and point to how strong they are. When things are less optimistic, the comments are directed more at the other party, he said.

“The messages are sometimes clear to me,” Albirini said. “You can feel what’s going on. If they are strong, they have confidence, they have hope that things will change.”

And that’s what languages do—communicate a feeling or a message. Linguists like Albirini parse language to understand political, social, or historical changes.

“Language is attached to thought,” Albirini said. “Language is attached to society. It tells us what people care about. It expresses our thoughts and our experiences.”

Nearly every hour he checks websites, evaluating new posts, trying to understand what revolutionaries are trying to convey. Are they feeling confident? Have they made advances against government forces? All the while he is also thinking about his family in the region.

“I think it’s affecting me,” he said. “Whether you like it or not it affects your productivity.”

Perhaps so, but since the civil war erupted, Albirini continues to teach Introduction to Islam and Advanced Arabic courses and publish in top journals in his field, including Language in Society and International Journal of Bilingualism. He recently helped secure a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant award to bring two linguistic scholars to Utah State.

The university’s Office of Global Engagement awarded him a grant to establish the first travel study trip to the Middle East. Over the summer Albirini led 10 students to Jordan, a nation of relative peace in the region. The students spent a month studying Arabic and conducting original research. Students interviewed women about their social experiences and polled Jordanians about the ongoing turmoil in Palestine.

“Research is about finding problems and proposing solutions,” Albirini said. “It’s not just scientific problems, it’s also social problems. I was pleased that students undertook this subject because it is sensitive.”