Commander of Arabic

Juan Cole has taken some delight in smashing pundit Jonah Goldberg, who ventured a one-paragraph criticism of Cole’s take on the Iraqi elections. Cole hammered back that Goldberg knows no Arabic, has no Iraq expertise, hasn’t lived in an Arab country, etc. The spat has been all over the weblogs. Cole draws this analogy:

If you saw an hour-long piece on al-Jazeerah about the reality of the United States, with English subtitles, and the reporter speaking on the U.S. had never been to America, had never read a book about America, did not know a word of English, and moreover said all kinds of things that were complete fantasy and altogether wrong, would that man be someone you would recommend to others as having an important opinion on the matter that millions of people should be exposed to on NPR and CNN every other day?

Quite right. But I see that Cole appeared the other day on Al-Jazeera to discuss the Iraqi elections with Fouad Ajami and an Iraqi opposition figure. Cole decided to speak in English, apologizing to his Arab viewers that “the subject requires precision.” So I guess they gave his remarks Arabic subtitles. Now I wouldn’t dare to speak Arabic on Al-Jazeera either, but then I don’t make the boast that Cole makes: “Unlike a lot of American specialists in the Middle East, who did one Fulbright year and now find their language is rusty, I kept up my Arabic.” His bio also claims that he “commands Arabic.” I guess his Arabic, like mine, doesn’t always obey. I’m a bit disappointed.

Cole also writes in his bio that he’s “lived in a number of places in the Muslim world for extended periods of time,” which is an enviable credential. But the Muslim world is an awfully big place, and to the best of my knowledge, Cole has never been to Iraq. (Ajami, Michael Rubin, and a host of academics have made the trek, some of them repeatedly, over the past couple of years.) So all things considered, I wonder what millions of Arabs who watch Al-Jazeera make of Cole as an expert on the reality of Iraq.

(Here’s an addendum, but only if you know Arabic. It’s a joke I heard ages ago from the late Charles Issawi, a man with an impish sense of humor. I’m sure it’s as old as the Pyramids, but here it is anyway. A Western orientalist goes to Egypt, and strikes up a conversation in Arabic with his taxi driver. The poor driver, after straining to understand his passenger, plaintively asks him how he came to know Arabic. Ana mustashriq! the orientalist answers proudly. In reply to which, the taxi driver mutters: Wa’ana mustaghrib…)

Updates: Read about how Ajami took Cole to task for not visiting Iraq here.

Another update: Cole responds to some of this. Details here.