The New Yorker:
The history of Arabia just before the birth of Islam is a profound mystery, with few written sources describing the milieu in which Muhammad lived. Historians had long believed that the Bedouin nomads who lived in the area composed exquisite poetry to record the feats of their tribes but had no system for writing it down. In recent years, though, scholars have made profound advances in explaining how ancient speakers of early Arabic used the letters of other alphabets to transcribe their speech. These alphabets included Greek and Aramaic, and also Safaitic; Macdonald’s rock was one of more than fifty thousand such texts found in the deserts of the southern Levant. Safaitic glyphs look nothing like the cursive, legato flow of Arabic script. But when read aloud they are recognizable as a form of Arabic—archaic but largely intelligible to the modern speaker.
The inscription on Macdonald’s rock included the name of a person (“Ghayyar’el son of Ghawth”), a narrative, and a prayer. It was the narrative that stood out to Al-Jallad. Reading it aloud, he noted a sequence of words repeated three times, which he suspected was a refrain in a poetic text. This would make it the oldest known record of literary expression in Arabic—evidence, however slim, of a written poetic tradition that had never been explored.
Al-Jallad, who is thirty-two, was born in Salt Lake City. His father came to the United States from Jordan to attend college, and met his mother, who is from Texas, at Weber State University, in Utah. The family moved to Kuwait in 1989 but returned a year later, at the outset of the first Gulf War, and settled near Tampa. “We didn’t speak Arabic at home, because my mother didn’t understand it,” Al-Jallad told me. “The only connection I had to the Middle East was through books about ancient civilizations.” When Al-Jallad was a teen-ager, one of his favorite books was “Noah’s Flood,” a study arguing that the flood narratives of the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient texts were inspired by the flooding of the Black Sea, around 5600 B.C. “The mix of archeology, geology, and ancient languages blew my mind,” Al-Jallad said. “I had no idea if it was right, but I was hooked.”
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