Monday, May 16, 2005

Urdu Blossoming on the Internet

For those not familiar with it, Urdu is the language associated with the Muslims of South Asia--fully almost half of the world's Muslims. It is the language in which the madrassas of Pakistan and India operate. The official language of Pakistan, a country that needs no introduction to most readers in this day and age, it is also the language in which a great volume of literature, especially poetry, has been written--a lot of it with Sufistic content or undertones.

On the Internet, Urdu has had a presence for a while. But up to now, it has been in the form of content created using specialized software (like the ubiquitous "InPage") and then converted to a graphic format (like GIF or JPG) and then placed on a website. The content itself has usually been in the form of poetry, literature, or news and current affairs that has been created for another medium--or in another time-- and "re-purposed" for the Web. Original content creation specifically for the Internet has been very tentative; though we have had some poets use the Web as their first or main outlet and some news sites, etc. have come up.

But all that is changing. In the last few months or so, I am tracking a blossoming of Urdu language for blogging and other live discussions, and original content being developed for, and often on the web.

Blogs, of course, are where everything "is at" nowadays. And blogging in Urdu seems to have been triggered by the direct support for Urdu script that is available in Windows XP and the phonetic keyboard developed by the CRULP (the Center for Research in Urdu Language Processing at the National University of Science and Technology in Pakistan). A follow-up piece to this one will lay out the how-tos of this. Please watch this space and feel free to get in touch with the author/editor of this piece.

By way of background, this phenomenon has been preceded by the explosion of blogging in Farsi. And yes, I use that word advisedly; if what is happening in Urdu now is a "blossoming", then what has happened in Farsi is an "explosion". Farsi is reputedly now the third most popular language for online journals, and Farsi blogs are to the political scene in Iran what printed pamphlets were to revolutions in the early 20th century. But I digress. You can follow the links earlier in this paragraph to catch up on that discussion. Back to Urdu.

Here's a short round-up of things that will provide you a lay of the land, so to speak.

There is now a list of Urdu blogs:

http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/listed-at-urdu-blogs-directory.html

The above link is to a post is from "Urdu ke Naam", a collaborative blog that includes contributions by the current author, and announces that blog's being included in the list. A closer look at that blog entry will also point to a page--on, what else? a blog--that describes how to start blogging in Urdu. And one that provides templates for setting one up.

The comments on that post above also mention "Urdu Planet", a site that aggregates the content of a lot of Urdu and Urdu-related blogs in one place:

http://urdu.zackvision.com/urduplanet/

The list of blogs that page points to is hosted on the "Urdu Wiki":

http://www.sovereign-renditions.info/urduwiki/UrduHome

For readers not familiar with them, "wikis" are a wondeful new class of websites which are great for colloboratively creating content and gathering infromation. The "Urdu Wiki" has become a good place for the community forming around this whole phenomenon of Urdu on the Web. Among other things, it has pages where the community is starting to do some of the work on developing and fine-tuning the terminology for computer usage, for example. To use another link from Urdu ke Naam, see:

http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/technical-terminology-in-urdu.html

South Asian readers will remember that, till very recently, this kind of list was sent around as a joke, with satirical translations of Windows features into Urdu, Punjabi, or what-have-you. Now we are working on the real thing. And I do mean "we"--anyone can participate. I wish everybody would.

Which brings us to the next topic. A real encyclopedia in the language. The Wikipedia community has set up an encyclopedia in Urdu. Everyone can and should participate; it is a wonderful way to engage the Urdu-speaking community and Urdu lovers with the Internet, while helping the collection and growth of knowledge in Urdu. The address to get to it directly is:

http://ur.wikipedia.org

By way of background, here's a link to an earlier post by the current author on this topic:

http://ifaqeer.blogspot.com/2005/02/wikis-and-encyclopedia-in-urdu.html

One could see a conflict, or redundancy between the above two projects--but I dont. Here's why: One is a place for collaboratively developing content about Urdu and related topics, while the other is a real encyclopedia about anything and everything (or aims to be, anyhow) in Urdu. A project that, to my knowledge has not successfully been carried out since before colonial times.

To give you an example of the kind of discussions that are starting to happen as the use of the language starts to mature in its use on this medium, see the following posts on "Urdu ke Naam":

http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/urdu-speaking-wikipedia-users.html
and
http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/on-being-saahib-e-zubaan.html

Before I close, a few specific observations:

The community I am talking about spans India and Pakistan. Which, IMHO (in my humble opinion), is a good thing. It is good for the health of the language and intellectual strength of the community using it, as well as for world peace. The interesting thing is, the only tensions that arise in this online community do not arise out of national differences, but about things like the strong feeling amongst some users that the Urdu script should be the only one used for such discussion. (See the comments under the main post at http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/genres-of-urdu-poetry.html and then the current author's own post at: http://urdu-ke-naam.blogspot.com/2005/05/blog-post_11.html)

Secondly, from where I sit, the discussion of just a couple of years ago about whether Urdu is on its way out in India (see, for example, the 2003 article on Chowk that has been making the rounds on e-mail again recently) is moot. Some of the most passionate members of this community are currently based in Hyderabad, one of the historical "homes" of the language.

Another interesting thing is that the diaspora of Urdu speakers and lovers around the rest of the world is the furthest behind in this regard. Most people one talks to around Silicon Valley, for example, start the discussion with a "but I can write Urdu now, in InPage (a software for desktop publishing in Urdu)". When, after a few minutes of explaining that what is being talked about is exactly that one now does not need specialised DTP software and can employ the Urdu script anywhere in their day-to-day computer use, you can practically see the lightbulb go off above people's heads. What follows is requests for "how to" and so on.

And lastly, an expression of humility. I write this piece not to take credit for any of this, but to pay homage. The people in the trenches, doing the real work, are people like Asif Iqbal, father of the Urdu Wiki mentioned above; Danial, a blogger in Karachi; Umair Salaam, who makes a rather credible claim to have started the first blog in Urdu; Qais Mujeeb and Manzoor Khan, founders of "Urdu ke Naam"; Qadeer Ahmad Rana, the 19-year old student in Multan, Pakistan who finally scolded and shamed the current author into learning how to write in Urdu. (Wish him luck, he's in the middle of exams now.) Heartfelt khiraaj-e-thehseen and nazrana-e-aqeedhath to them. For these are the "Asathaza", the founding fathers, as "hamaari zubaan" moves into a new medium.

PS: Shapar86, my apologies for writing another piece in English, but I really wanted to reach an audience outside those that are already set up to read and write in Urdu.



NOTE: Versions of this article have appeared in my column in Al-Mizaan and at http://Urdu-ke-Naam.blogspot.com/ and http://PakistanFutures.blogspot.com.
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