A friend of mine recently admitted to me that he often visits women’s clothing websites. He isn’t interested in buying anything, he just does it to mislead the artificial intelligence following him around on the internet. He knows that computers are constantly surveilling him in order to tailor marketing content. But if they would usually be bombarding him with images of razors and whiskey decanters and other products meant to appeal to his demographic, they are instead filling the little ad windows on his websites with pictures of beautiful, demure women in tasteful clothing. They look on affectionately as he goes about his day online the internet in peace — a small victory in the long psychological war we are losing against artificial intelligence.
These days we’re all trying to hide on the internet. Private browsing windows, proxy servers, and VPNs are all just a normal part of internet life. Samir al-Nimr’s article on Mada Masr last year offered a handy three-step guide to hiding your true political opinions from the eyes of the government. But far more insidious than government surveillance, algorithms are designed not only to find out what we think and want, but to get us to think and want things in the first place. Jia Tolentino, author of the excellent new book Trick Mirror, speaks about what happens when we let our identities be colonized by capitalism, and end up completely identifying with the online marketplace.
“the things that you see are the same things that everyone else sees. Everything is intertwined with these basically four central networks and what everyone is looking at algorithmically influences what everyone else is looking at … and the programmatic capacity for surprise has dwindled to nearly nothing.”
At stake is not only our privacy, but our autonomy. Tolentino claims that the only escape from the hellscape of the internet would be “social and economic collapse.” But my friend, it seems, has begun to find another way: by using AI’s own gullible logic against itself, he is able to surf in peace. His clever deception has made me wonder where else we could find ways of hiding our intentions and meanings in plain sight online.
I discovered a possible answer while reading another story about women, fashion and deceptive codes. It was in the new English translation by Michael Cooperson of Al-Hariri’s Maqamat (Impostures, May 2020). It might sound strange to have found inspiration for digital deception in a work of Arabic rhymed prose from the 11th century, but then again the maqamat features a series of episodes in which an anonymous and eloquent trickster always succeeds in swindling a gullible narrator. In the story in question, the narrator Abu Zayd takes his son in front of a judge to accuse him of borrowing a piece of his property and damaging it. Asked by the judge to describe what has been damaged, Abu Zayd says the following:
She was sharp as a tack and neat as a pin, and she could handle rough patches. She would tear through a job of work, then lie there flat as a board. She didn’t mind filing; she always kept her head, and never lost the thread. She was good for a nip and a tuck, but she only had one eye. She might string you along, or take a stab at you, but she always got her point across.
The “she” to which Abu Zayd refers is made to sound like he’s describing his female slave, but after the judge demands that he speak plainly, Abu Zayd reveals that he is in fact actually talking about a needle. One could argue that the trick works better in the original language, since the word for possession and slave (mamlukah) are the same in Arabic, and since both objects and people can be referred to as “she” in Arabic. But to make up for any of the specific shortcomings inherent to English, Cooperson weaves in a third entendre, composing the whole chapter with the language of sewing, tailoring, and the garment industry, as can be seen in all of the puns and wordplay above. What was already an intense overlapping of codes, languages, and sexual innuendo in the original text becomes even more wonderfully complicated in the translation.
Cooperson teaches pre-modern Arabic literature and translation at UCLA, and his own translations include a modern Egyptian novel about a time-traveling pickle salesman and a 19th century historical fiction about the fall of the Abbasid Empire. He has also translated from French a book by the Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito called The Author and His Double which argues that genre, not authorship, is the single most important feature of classical Arabic literature. This is an important point to keep in mind when approaching the text in the way that Cooperson does. He claims that previous attempts using the lexical approach have contributed nothing to making the Impostures part of Anglophone literary culture.
Rather than trying to be completely faithful to the details of the author’s original text, Cooperson attempts to translate the genre’s spirit of verbal performance itself. In his manifesto-level introduction, he claims that it is this performance, after all, that is what the maqamat are actually about. That is to say, rather than an innovative plot or characters, much of the appeal in Al-Hariri’s Maqamat lies in the verbal games that he sets up for himself: writing speeches that can be read both forward and backward, poems written with strict constraints on which letters he can use, and riddles that mean two things at once. The challenge for Cooperson is that many of the elements in Al-Hariri’s original performance “are tied to particular features of Arabic. These include rhyme, especially prose rhyme, and constrained writing — lipograms, palindromes, and the like. Strictly speaking, none of these features can be translated; they can only be imitated.” Cooperson’s solution was to take advantage of a feature that makes English itself unique: “Arabic has rhymed prose, which English (mostly) lacks. But English, unlike the kind of Arabic that Al-Hariri is using here, can … be written in a bewildering variety of historical, literary, and global styles.” The performance that Cooperson puts on by making use of this diversity is remarkable: there is everything from imitations of Chaucer and Frederick Douglass, to Singaporean creole and Australian outback idiom, to thieves’ cant and legalese.
But just as there are of course examples of rhymed prose in English, there is also in fact a bewildering variety of Arabics. It is just that the vast majority of historical and contemporary writing in Arabic has tended to be in formal Arabic. As a consequence of this, most of the datasets which have been used to train computer algorithms have also been based on a single formal register. Even if computers are increasingly able to recognize various spoken dialects, they have few defenses against the types of word games and tricks that an author like Al-Hariri specialized in. Even though he himself wrote in formal Arabic, his maqamat is filled with all types of hyper specific verbal performances which no human — much less a computer — could directly translate.
Codes are, after all, one of Arabic’s specialities. One shouldn’t forget that the modern science of cryptology arose with the Arabs in the 700s when Al-Khalil demonstrated the potential of using standard plaintext phrases to decrypt messages in Kitab al-mu’amma. Arabic is rich with a history of idioms, jargons, pidgins, and language games, any of which can be used to secure your interactions from the watchful eyes of the algorithms. Even the simplest of them should be sufficient to throw the digital dogs off your trail. If, as Justin E. H. Smith claims, the current technological moment is to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles, then it’s time to throw a wrench into the works.
Cryptology and Dotless Writing
One of the most famous linguistic tricks that Al-Hariri plays in the original maqamat is that of constraining himself to use Arabic words whose letters contain no dots — which comprise less than half of the Arabic alphabet. Maqamat al-Maraghiya has every second word contain no dots, whereas al-Maruwiya includes a sermon whose words contain no dots at all. (Cooperson constrains himself in his translation by alternating between English words of French and Germanic origin in the first case, and by writing his own sermon without use of the letter ‘e’ in the second case). But Al-Hariri was not the first and certainly not the last to write bil-huruf al-muhmalah (see this Twitter thread by Sohaib Saeed). Entire Qur’anic commentaries, like those of the Mughal court poet Faydi (d. 1595), were written without dots. Even the fourth Caliph Ali wrote a sermon without dots. As for fooling a computer, one doesn’t even have to be half as clever. By merely switching the placement or presence of dots, you should be able to easily stump artificial intelligence. Take this example from Google Translate.
Almost every language has its own language game or argot: a system of manipulating spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear. English has Pig Latin, French has Verlan, and Spanish has Jeringonza. There are several lesser-known Arabic versions, but my favorite was known as Misf: popular as a secret language among young people in Mecca from the 1930s to the 1960s. The game is simple: you add the syllable /rb/ after the beginning of the stressed syllable of the Arabic word. So, for example, the word kalaam (speech) becomes kalaarbaam, fiil (elephant) becomes fiirbiil, and qaal (he said) becomes qaarbaal. A computer has no idea what to do with this.
Along with an assortment of codes and word games, Arabic also has its own history of rich historical and global styles. There is no single equivalent word for ‘jargon’ in Arabic, options include ratana ‘jargon; lingo, gibberish’, lugha siriya ‘secret language,’ sim or sin, g or gaws as they call it in the Maghreb. But what is certain is that the history of the Arabic language contains multitudes, from medieval to modern, from those spoken among Arabic-speaking Jews to those used by Islamic scholars. In modern Egypt alone, the scholar Ali Issa (1988) identifies nine distinct jargons: lughat al-nassaleen ‘the language of pickpockets’, lughat al-ḥaramiya ‘the language of thieves’, lughat an-nassabeen ‘the language of swindlers’, lughat al-muxaddirat ‘the language of drugs’, lughat al-mutasawileen ‘the language of beggars’, lughat al-saa ‘the language of goldsmiths’, lughat al-munajideen ‘the language of craftsmen who renew and restuff upholstery’, and lughat al-awaleem ‘the language of female entertainers.’ Choose from any of the existing jargons, or make a brand new one with your friends. The computers will be none the wiser. I prefer the secret language of the medieval Islamic underworld, the jargon of the famous Banu Sasan. Here is the effect of using just one of their words taken from Abu Dulaf’s Qasida Sasaniya.
يجتمع الناس عليها، والتكسيح: الممانعة.
إلى أن يقع التنبل في محصدة الجزر
The word “al-tanbal” means “the simpleton who is the victim of tricks played on him” (هو الأبله الذي يقبل المخاريق على نفسه). Google Translate is just one such simpleton.
And while computers are not so credulous as to fall for normal dialects (Egyptian or Levantine dialect won’t protect you) there are still innumerable pidgins, creoles, and invented languages that you can use. The advantage of using Juba or Gulf Pidgin Arabic is that they are simple to use by design, meant to help non-Arab speakers communicate while in Arab countries. But even though they are simple, they are immune to digital prying.
And lastly, there are versions of Arabic that never existed in the real world at all. Fremen, made famous by the novel Dune by Frank Herbert, is an invented language which is supposedly an amalgamation of Arabic and another alien language called Chakobsa. Although a sci-fi creation, Fremen is not actually hard to decipher for the normal Arabic speaker. Here, for example, is a proverb attributed to l-Riyas, a religious leader from the planet Bela Tegeuse.
|al-raqs quddam alumi majhudan la yura amal-u||dancing in front of the blind is an effort goes unseen.|
Luckily, your efforts will only go unseen by the blindness of computers who can’t understand encoded language, much less that which uses the ultimate double-code: irony.
Of all of the codes that Al-Hariri puts to use in his maqamat, and which Cooperson faithfully imitates, none is more effective than irony. That is because there is no code to crack; the hidden message is in the code itself. In his famous article “On the Concept of Irony”, Paul de Man tells a story about a German philosophical text by Friedrich Schlegel called “Über die Unverständlichkeit” which, through the mischievous turn or irony, actually begins to read like a description of sexual intercourse. As de Man explains, “It’s not just that there is a philosophical code and then another code describing sexual activities. These two codes are radically incompatible with each other. They interrupt, they disrupt, each other in such a fundamental way that this very possibility of disruption represents a threat to all assumptions of what a text should be.” This same trick used by Schlegel is used time and again in both Al-Hariri’s maqamat, and in Cooperson’s translation. Just like the chapter on Abu Zayd and the needle, Chapter 35, maqamat al-shiraziyya, is simultaneously about a young woman who needs money for a dowry and about drinking wine. For his part, Cooperson encodes the chapter further by using the language of wine-making and wine-tasting. Maqamat al-shatawiya in the original includes an old man telling riddles based on double meanings, and Cooperson ups the ante by adding Cockney rhyming slang to the mix. The old man describes his relationship to telling truth by saying:
I’ll ‘ave a Rex, but no pork pies!
Rex Mossip is gossip, and porkpies are lies.
Ya don’t Adam an’ Eve me? But it’s Irish stew!
The first one’s “believe,” and Irish means true.
It’s all very silly, but at the same time also an astounding performance of literary skill. Just like the riddles themselves, Cooperson’s translation can be read as both things at once.
There is a third entendre as well. Beyond being an important translation of a criminally neglected work of world literature, and an impressive literary work in its own right, Impostures is also akin to a guidebook on linguistic deceit. It gives us all kinds of tips and tricks for confronting the futuristic threat of artificial intelligence with dependable medieval technology. But that is not to say we should be so literal as to just try to use Al-Hariri’s same codes. Instead we should aspire to Cooperson’s spirit of verbal performance, coming up with our own language games, encrypted messages, and ironic codes in an effort to always keep one step ahead of the algorithms. Luckily, one need doesn’t have to be Arabic’s greatest wordsmith in order to do so. If the internet has given rise to an algorithmic surveillance society that Orwell could never even have imagined, it has also given us a Newspeak he couldn’t have comprehended. The internet has changed the rules of language. We forget it sometimes, but we’ve grown up in a revolutionary period of linguistic history. While we might not be as familiar with lipograms or palindromes, we’re all fluent in the language of emojis, acronyms, and memes. As Gretchen McCulloch explains in her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, “the internet was the final key in [a] process that had begun with medieval scribes and modernist poets — it made us all writers as well as readers.” Like my friend and his women’s clothing models, we can all invent our own impostures, coming up with ever-new scenarios of eloquent tricksters swindling gullible narrators.