Professor publishes world's only English journal on Urdu

Jan. 14, 2002

by John Lucas

Photo of the book, 'The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy'

The book "The Splendour of Islamic Calligraphy" by Abdelbekir Khatibi is one of many Urdu texts in the office of Muhammad Memon, professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia. Memon is editor of the Annual of Urdu Studies. (Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart)

Professor Muhammad Umar Memon knows he would never make it as an editor in the world of traditional publishing.

Writers for his publication frequently submit articles days or even weeks past deadline, forcing printing delays. Subscription prices haven't gone up in eight years. To top it off, Memon, a professor in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia, has a circulation of 200 subscribers and rarely turns a profit.

Those issues might be problematic for a newspaper or magazine. But when you're editor and publisher of the Annual of Urdu Studies, you can be sure your readers aren't going anywhere else for English translations of Urdu essays, fiction and poetry, as well as scholarship on Urdu originally produced in English language.

Based in a pair of cramped offices on the 12th floor of Van Hise Hall, the publication is the only one of its kind in the world.

"Nobody's salary depends on it," jokes Memon, an accomplished fiction writer, translator and scholar of Islamic studies. "And nothing really depends on whether we come out 10 days early or 10 days late, or whether an issue is 400 pages or, as in the case of our 2000 issue, 700 pages. It's not exactly a mainstream operation."

But scholars around the world have come to depend on Memon and his publication, which specializes in Urdu, a language with several hundred million speakers, mainly in India and Pakistan. Although the language is still somewhat unknown in the United States, Urdu's profile has received a boost as the world's focus shifts to South Asia and native speakers and signs bearing Urdu script pop up on CNN.

To Memon, who was born in Aligarh, India, near Delhi, and spent much of his early life in Pakistan, it's gratifying to see recognition of the language and culture he's dedicated his life to advancing.

"Urdu is my mother tongue and the love of my life," Memon says.

"He jokes that promoting the language and literature is his mission in life," says Jane Shum, Memon's project assistant for the past year on the annual. "Actually, I don't think he's really joking. His efforts are having an impact, and his many years of hard work are finally beginning to bear fruit."

To many Americans, Urdu, with its flowing script, is a bit of an exotic mystery. Dating back centuries, Urdu was originally known as "Hindavi" or "Hindi." But in the early 19th century, British colonials sought to rename the language Urdu or "camp language" as part of a strategy to brand it -- and Muslims -- as intruders on the Indian subcontinent.

While Urdu grammar and syntax is Indo-European, its script is Perso-Arabic and has no relation to the Devanagari script of modern Hindi. A portion of its vocabulary incorporates Persian and Arabic words. The tendency to borrow from these languages has been steadily rising among its Pakistani speakers since the partition of India in 1947.

Today, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is used by roughly 90 million people, along with another 90 million Muslims in India. Other Urdu communities exist in England and Canada.

With so many speakers, Urdu is in no danger of dying out. But Memon says it's "shameful" and "a little bit tragic" that its talented authors and poets carry such a low profile across the world and in the West, in particular. America doesn't seem to care about cultures that don't affect its own economy or geopolitical standing.

"Globalization has reduced everything to its most elemental economic denominator," he says. "Interest is only sparked by a political need, not a genuine interest in the world or other cultures."

Memon's "mission" to raise the awareness of Urdu in the West began only by chance. Born to a prominent family and educated at Pakistan's Karachi University, he attended Harvard University on a Fulbright scholarship and received a Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1971. Although he intended on returning home, he met his wife, Nakako, in the United States and came to Madison to take a joint appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies and the then-Department of Indian Studies. Instead of returning home, where Nakako, who is Japanese, might have found the practical difficulties of life somewhat daunting, Memon chose to stay. Since starting at UW-Madison in 1970 he has taught a wide range of subjects, including Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Islamic studies.

While also continuing to write and translate from Urdu, in 1993 Memon picked up the editorship of the annual, which was founded in 1980 at the University of Chicago -- but later discontinued. To thrive in the West, the language needed its own journal dedicated to its culture and literature, he says.

Today, the annual, which costs $18, survives through the support of the Graduate School and a grant from the American Institute for Pakistan Studies. However, it counts major university libraries and prominent scholars among its subscribers. Each edition is something of a clearinghouse for all things Urdu, containing research, articles, news, Ph.D. announcements, death notices and even a section written in Urdu script. "There's something there for everyone, not just people interested in Urdu as a language or in Urdu humanities as a field of study," says Shum, who calls herself a "convert" to the language. "In my opinion, the translations that appear there are the best being produced anywhere."

One of Memon's recent successes was his translation and publication of a collection of stories by Indian author Naiyer Masud, titled "Essence of Camphor." After they appeared in the annual, the stories were published in their own English edition in 2000 to critical acclaim. French and Finnish translations of the volume are under way.

"Muhammad works extremely hard, and it's enabled him to raise the profile of the language across the world," says Jane Tylus, associate dean for the humanities in the College of Letters and Science. She describes Memon as a "gentle, thoughtful man." "In the wake of Sept. 11, I think it's opened America's eyes how important it is to understand the language and cultures of South Asia," Tylus adds.