Shifting between languages: looking back on my project on Qashqa-Darya Arabic folktales

I’ve always been quite reluctant to confess it, but I had to come to terms with the truth: for some obscure reason I seem to enjoy grammar. Therefore what initially sparked my interested in Qashqa-Darya Arabs, a small community of few thousand people living in Uzbekistan,  was that some of them are still able to speak an Arabic dialect which displays features of at least three different languages, namely Arabic, Uzbek and Tajik (a variety of Persian). Considering that research on the speech and ethnography of this community has been carried out to a large extent in Soviet times, and therefore many of my sources were written in Russian, choosing to research this topic gave me the unique opportunity to bring together the three languages I have been studying at university: Arabic, Persian and Russian.

However my research was not only concerned with linguistics: after taking a selection of folktales from the monograph Qashqadarya Arabic Dialect of Central Asia[1], I analysed both the linguistic features of the dialect and the main folkloristic motifs displayed, trying to relate them to the collection One Thousand and One Nights and to motifs appearing in Persian and Turkic folklore. As part of my research, I arranged an interview with Prof Chikovani, author of the analysed collection, in Tbilisi, Georgia. This experience, apart from providing me with helpful knowledge of ethical implications and procedures to bear in mind when arranging an academic interview, has been highly enriching on a personal level. It also allowed me to practice my spoken Russian and network directly with scholars specialised in the study of this dialect.

Instead of discussing my findings, I would like to share here some of the challenges I faced while carrying out my research and how I overcame them. As my project highly relied on the use of secondary literature, I faced a few issues related to my sources. First of all, the topic itself, due to its comparative nature, implied the use of a great number of sources often written in foreign languages and I underestimated the difficulty of getting hold of them, in particular the ones in Russian. Libraries in the UK adopt different transcription systems for titles originally written in other scripts. This means that titles originally written in Cyrillic most frequently appear on library catalogues after being converted into Latin characters, but libraries adopt different conventions. As a consequence, one has to try countless different transliterations to find the right title. As well as that, reading papers in Russian took me roughly three times longer than I initially expected, making me quickly fall behind on my schedule. At first I concentrated on getting a hold of sources I considered to be essential, but I soon came to question the reliability of some of them, having to readjust my plan accordingly and starting to look for alternative sources. Finally, I spent a large amount of time looking for material which, as I eventually found out, had never been published and can only be accessed by visiting an archive in Saint Petersburg. These complications at times made it difficult to stick to my original plan, although eventually I completed my research successfully.

Dealing with these issues taught me the importance of flexibility. I continuously readapted my plans to the circumstances, while bearing in mind the original aims of my project. The main lesson I learnt was that although being ambitious is undoubtedly good, I should be more realistic when setting my goals, taking into account the aforementioned problems that might arise when dealing with a large number of sources. Apart from that, the experience of the project taught me a great deal on a personal level: how self-leadership is important in maintaining one’s determination when working towards a goal, in particular when facing difficulties, and how to best manage my time and plan efficiently.

In conclusion, I would like to express my gratitude both to Lord Laidlaw for this amazing opportunity which turned out to be extremely enriching and to my supervisor Dr Elmaz for his precious help, valuable expertise and eclectic knowledge.

[1] Chikovani, G., Kashkadar’inskij Arabskij Dialekt Central’noj Azii, Mtsignobari, Tbilisi, 2008

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