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Humanist Archives: April 11, 2022, 6:06 a.m. Humanist 35.648 - Course on Arabic Sources

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 648.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2022-04-10 13:18:58+00:00
        From: Crane, Gregory <Gregory.Crane@TUFTS.EDU>
        Subject: Classical Historiography at Tufts include histories in Classical Arabic composed in Timbuktu on the Songhai Empire and West African history

Dear All,

I will be working on the digital versions of these histories this coming
summer. If anyone is interested in participating or contributing, let
me know!

   Course on Arabic Sources by West African scholars about the Mali and
   Songhai empires: Digital Humanities and a new model of Classical
   Studies at Tufts

Share <>

At Tufts University, the course on Classical Historians (Classics 141 —
details in thedepartmental course booklet
<>) will focus on Classical
Arabic sources composed in, and about, pre-colonial West Africa. While
we will consider Arabic sources produced outside of West Africa and
accounts of European travelers, we will focus primarily on two different
historical sources from West Africa istself: the*Tārīkh al-Sūdān*and
(what has traditionally been called)*Tārīkh al-Fattāsh*. Our goal is not
just to learn about the Mali and Songhai empires but to use what we
learn to create openly licensed, digital sources of various kinds that
will help others explore a major historical period that has attracted
far too attention in the teaching and research.

Students will have an opportunity to explore emerging, digitally enabled
methods by which global audiences can begin exploring the human record.
In particular, we will exploit techniques by which we can begin to make
the Arabic source text itself accessible to a general audience. We will
begin publishing sections of these sources in the new version of the
Perseus Digital Library that we are developing with support from the
NEH. The development site for this isBeyond Translation
<>and will be augmented between
now and the fall semester.

Figure 1:Conclusion of an unpublished historical source in Arabic from
Mali, preserved by Yaro family collection andhosted by the British
Library <>– one of more than
2,000 West African manuscripts that the British Library has made available.

The course itself will meet during Tufts’ fall semester Monday evenings
from 6:00-8:30. Space allowing, we hope to see students from other
institutions participate, whether by direct cross-registration or by
getting credit through a directed study authorized by a faculty member
at their own institution.

We will also offer a weekly reading group for those who wish to go over
sections of the Arabic. This will can be taken as an optional addition
to the Monday class or as a separate class. The Arabic reading group
would be 1 credit (vs. 3 for the Monday class). Any students taking both
would receive 4 credits.

During the summer, I will also be working on the digital edition of
these two histories and of other sources. If others are interested
learning more and in possibly contributing, they should contact me.
There are a number of ways to contribute that match a range of
skillsets. The basic requirement would be an ability to read English
carefully but there are also clearly opportunities for those with
knowledge of French, of various aspects of Computer and Data Science,
and of Classical Arabic.

I am hoping this summer to resuscitate my own Arabic and to see how far
that helps me with the language of these Islamic scholars from Timbuktu.
I will be using tools such asthe suite of Arabic natural language
processing tools developed by the CAMeL Lab at New York University Abu
Dhabi <>to extend my (not very
advanced) knowledge of Arabic. The goals are to create exhaustive
annotations, included translations aligned at the word and phrase
levels, for (1) a small but extensible set of passages and (2) sets of
sentences that allow readers to trace the meaning of Arabic words which
cannot properly be translated.

The larger goal of this class and the larger project that it represents
is to create openly licensed digital materials that are not only of
immediate use but that also can be modified and, wherever possible,
reused under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. Such a license is not
suitable for publications that seek to represent a particular scholarly
voice at a particular time. We are, however, managing the sources in
Github and so each particular contribution is recorded in the versioning
history. We are supporting a collaborative model of authorship that may
be familiar to readers from Wikipedia. That said, individuals will be
able to use the Github versioning history to document what they have
done and to create hybrid publications that contain their own accounts
of what they did and what critical decisions they needed to take.

     the*tārīkh al-sūdān*and the*tārīkh al-fattā*sh

The fall course will focus primarily on two histories —/tarikh/,
pl./tewarikh/— composed by Islamic scholars in West Africa.

   (1) The*Tārīkh al-Sūdān*(TS) by al-Sa’di (1594-1655+ CE) focuses on
the history of the Songhay Empire from the mid-fifteenth century until
1591 and then the Moroccan invasions and subsequent administration down
to 1655. Houdas (Sa’dī 1900 and 1900a) published the Arabic text and a
French translation. In 1999, John Hunwick published a scholarly
translation with notes that covered the 28 of 35 chapters most relevant
to Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire.

Figure 2: Map of places mentioned in Chapter 5 of the Tarikh
al-Fettash:interactive map
with the Tufts Datalab.

(2) Thirteen years later, Delafosse (1913 and 1913a)  published the
Arabic text and a French translation for a far more challenging source
that has been known as the*Tārīkh al-Fattāsh*(TF), the “Chronicle of the
Researcher,” an account of the Songhay Empire through 1599 and thus
includes the early years of the Moroccan occupation. Almost a century
later, Wise and Taleb (2011) published an English translation of the
Tārīkh al-fattāsh based on Delafosse’s French translation and the Arabic
text.  Tārīkh al-fattāsh is a novel chronicle written in the 19th
century, and not the effort of three generations of scholars who worked
on it starting from the early 16th century and eventually interpolated
in the 19th century, as previously advanced by most scholars. This 19th
century TF was composed by a substantial rework of a 17th century
anonymous work. With support from the NEH Translation Program, Mauro
Nobili and Ali Diakite are publishing a new edition of this work that
contains an English translation, the Arabic text and clear indications
of how the 16th and 19th century texts relate to each other.

We will, however, also consider other sources. We have a reasonably
accurate transcription for the Arabic of Ibn Battuta’s description of
West Africa and an accompanying French translation, long in the public
domain. We can use DeepL or Google Translate to create a quick first
English version and then edit this as we align it to the Arabic original.

     where the project stands.

Work on this project begin in summer 2021, when Ayah Aboelela (UMass
Boston CS ’21) led preliminary work. We found not only PDF versions of
the public domain Arabic/French editions of the TS and TF but also text
automatically generated by Optical Character Recognition.

The French OCR-generated text was good enough as a base for further
work. We applied DeepL and Google Translate to convert the French into
English. The results were surprisingly good: we did find ourselves
making occasional changes to the English but such correction did not
materially add to the overall work of adding base TEI XML tags, marking
footnote markers in the text and footnotes on the bottom of the page,
adding occasional Arabic words in the notes, and adding Arabic numbers
in the translation that pointed to the corresponding pages in the Arabic
edition. Readers can examinea sample of such work, chapters 21-22 of the

The Arabic text was more problematic and, in two different
OCR-workflows, had a character error rate of c. 5%. The text is still
sufficiently accurate to support a range of text mining (such as topic
modeling and text reuse detection). It is also good enough as a starting
text if the goal is to add extensive annotation to relatively short
passages and to create an initial reader. Ayah producedinitial versions
of curated passages
where she took the time to correct errors in the OCR-generated text.

A few thousand words of carefully edited Arabic with aligned translation
and annotation would be a useful start and allow readers at an
intermediate level to familiarize themselves with the style and content
of these sources before moving to passages without curated annotations
and translations.

Figure 3:word and phrase alignments between the Persian poetry of Hafez
an English translation, with words left in red that cannot be aligned to
the original

Ayah publishedexploratory work
<>using natural
language processing tools for Arabic available fromSpacy
on Github. She tested services for morphological analysis and disambiguation 
and dependency parsing for the Arabic.

Figure 4: Dependency parsing of Arabic text from the Chronicles,
produced by Stanza and visualized with Displacy (NB: this system writes
text out left to right rather than right to left).

For named entity recognition (NER) (determining whether names are
people, places or groups), we decided to apply tools from Spacy to
English generated from the French with machine translation. A relatively
modest amount of training improved the accuracy of NER from 60% to 82%.

Figure 5: NER visualization, using SpaCy’s visualizer Displacy, on
passages from the chronicles

Not only do these two histories constantly refer to places with which
most readers in the US are probably not familiar, but there are many
personal names, often complex in form, and rarely familiar.` Identifying
these names and creating links between related characters, and linking
this information directly to the source text will, we hope, make it
easier for readers to see who is who and to identify characters on whom
they should focus their attention.

Figure 6: Social networks for Roman history developed by Zach Sowerby,
MA student in Digital Humanities in the Tufts Classics Department6

Figure 5 illustrates social networks derived from primary sources about
Roman history. We use simple collocation to posit connections. Our hope
is to include more complex information about relationships (son-of,
occupation, etc.). Zach Sowerby was working with a much larger text
corpus than the two histories and his relatively rapid prototyping
already reveals basic patterns of who is important and which characters
are connected. We can get useful information starting with this fairly
rapid work.

In fall 2021, I taught the first iteration of this class. We spent much
of our time readingMichael Gomez’s 2018 book/African Dominion/
now the standard English account of early and medieval West Africa and
then examining the accounts in the two histories on which Gomez bases
much of his work (and which he carefully cites). The map in Figure 2
(above) was produced for this class by members of the Tufts Data Lab as
a model for additional student work. I will adding results from student
projects in this class during the summer.

Let’s see what we can do in the summer and then in the fall!

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