A roadmap for lasting hummus in the Middle East


As the latest war around-and-about Israel shimmies and shakes along, I am driven back to the question of what went wrong. This is a complex question in general; but in the specific case of the languages of the parties involved in this war, I have a theory.

My theory is that the Middle East's horrible horrible writing systems induce chronic crankiness.

But it was not always so! Both Arabic and Hebrew once used the same script, a script which is clearly superior to either of its modern descendents. But then some sly boots sometime around 0.00 AD (give or take a few centuries) decided to pull some sort of fontographic bait-and-switch: Hebrew changed its lettershapes to the fashionably awful Aramaic style which is only slightly more readable that rows upon rows of Yijing hexagrams, and Arabic switched its lettershapes to context-sensitive Gregg Shorthand scribblese with a forward-looking emphasis on unreadability and pain. This distracts everyone from their duties of 1) making me hummus, and 2) not killing eachother.

And soon after, it was observed that the results of the script changes were bad, but instead of fixing the basic problem, new layers of insulation were added, and each writing system sprouted its own set of endlessly "helpful" vowel points and accents and matres lectionis and doohickii and hummina humminas. You will recognize this "don't bother fixing, just add a wrapper" approach, for this is how we got Clippy, and federalism. And this is what drives people to drink, to rant, to seethe, and to wage ceaseless inter-ethnic border wars.

I don't yet know what to do about these swarms of accents (altho I have a rough idea) -- but I say it's never too late to begin the healing by fixing the basic problem: the alphabet.

Yes, it's time for Hebrew and Arabic to go back to the nice, simple, happy, old-timey Phoenecian letter-shapes. And because this is the Information Age, this changeover can be automated! Using the power of fonts!

Now, I'm no font wizard. But just to start the ball rolling, I have snared a Phoenecian font from somewhere, and overlaid its characters onto the Arabic and Hebrew Unicode code-points, much as the Unicode folks back in the day folded together Japanese and Chinese characters as "Unihan". My resulting font, "Unishem Eshmoon" (actually expressed as two files, for annoying technical reasons) is just a prototype, but already you can see the improvement-- here's the before-and-after, for Hebrew and for Arabic.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

It's still experimental, but you can be among the first to jump on this bandwagon and use Phoenecian/Unishem for all your Hebrew and Arabic text-processing needs. And then the cloud of typography-induced ennui will waft away from the Middle East, the missiles will stop flying, the fountains will be turned on, the giant peaches will be brought out, and all those border checkpoints will be replaced with little diners serving really good falafel and hummus.

I dream of that hummus.

Sean M. Burke, 2006