Adventures in Arabic, Part II

Welcome back, Arabophiles! And thank you for joining us at Glocal Notes for the second edition of “Adventures in Arabic.” As promised, this week we will share “Ways To Cope with Difficulty” and “Miscellany.”

As always with this blog, one of our most pertinent goals is to make you more aware of the resources that we have in our library and on campus to help you with your needs. These resources come in many forms. Among them are the print, the digital, the human, the interdepartmental, and the ones that go beyond the borders of our university. Shall we take a tour?


A screenshot of the homepage of the International and Area Studies Library's portal to materials and research strategies pertaining to the Middle East & North Africa. Found at

A screenshot of the homepage of the International and Area Studies Library’s portal to materials and research strategies pertaining to the Middle East & North Africa. Found at

Print & Digital Resources

As mentioned in Part I, in Arabic class here at UIUC we use a text book called Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad and her colleagues. Aside from occasional dalliances with Google Translate’s pronunciation function, I’ve found the text to be quite sufficient as a learning tool. What’s more, it is accompanied by a compact disc which holds the class’ listening exercises and videos that demonstrate how the script is written.

However, if a beginner were interested in complementary texts, one might consult the call number ranges or addresses that indicate where print reference materials are held in our library. Don’t know where those are? No problem. That’s why we have lib guides. Our University Library is a big proponent of lib guides, which are concentrated, digital resources designed around a theme and meant to help you find what you need when you need it. Here are four that pertain to learning about the Arab world and the Arabic language:

Human Resources

But there’s more!

Professor Laila Hussein is the Middle East and North African Studies Librarian at the University Library. Specifically, Professor Hussein works at this blog’s home unit, the International and Area Studies Library. She can help you find sources for your term papers, tell you about the Bibliography of Africa course and, as a native speaker of Arabic, discuss how Modern Standard Arabic differs from regional dialects. She recently published a piece about her broader work in the American Library Association’s International Leads.

Professor Kenneth Cuno is the campus’ local expert on most things Egyptian. He has spent decades studying Egyptian society and culture to come to a better understanding of how the country and its people link their ancient and pharaonic past to the present and its political uprisings. His courses this semester focus on modern Egyptian history and mutable concepts of family over time. His recent publications include Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Egypt and Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire.

Dr. Eman Saadah is the director of the Arabic Language Program. In addition to coordinating the multiple sections of beginning Arabic courses, she is the official faculty chaperone for students traveling in the winter study abroad program to Jordan. She coordinates an annual 3-week trip for students interested in visiting the Middle East. Moreover, if you’re studying Arabic, you can write to her and ask about the weekly conversation tables held on Thursdays in La Casa on Nevada Street at 4:00 p.m. that discuss modern issues in Muslim-majority countries.

Angela Williams is the Associate Director of the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES). She is a doctoral candidate in the Education, Policy, Organization and Leadership program. Aside from being a competent Arabic speaker, she is also studying Persian.

Interdepartmental Resources

A screenshot of the University of Illinois' Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies website's home page.

A screenshot of the University of Illinois’ Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES) website’s home page.

The Center for African Studies (CAS), the Center for Global Studies (CGS), and the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES), and the European Union Center (EUC) have affiliated  professors who offer a variety of courses pertaining to the Arabic-speaking world. Moreover, these three centers host a series of events and talks that shed light on multiple topics, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and development efforts in Sub-Saharan African countries. There are also regular Iranian tea times at these campus cultural houses. To sign up for the Center for African Studies’ weekly newsletter, delivered by e-mail, write to Terri Gitler (; to be included on the Center for Global Studies listserv, complete this form; and for CSAMES’ email list, click this link and fill out the form.

The Summer Institute of Languages of the Muslim World (SILMW) is native to our campus and is currently run by Dr. Eman Saadah. She is from Jordan and teaches Arabic during the eight weeks of the summer term. In addition to intensive courses, the program offers cultural workshops and field trips to help introduce students to Islamic cultures. Also, if you recall the federally funded fellowship mentioned in Part I of this post, also known as the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship, SILMW is FLAS-eligible and offers up to seven different languages for study, including Arabic.

Outside Academic Resources

Middlebury College offers intensive study every summer for eleven modern languages. Arabic is offered at its California campus site and is eligible for the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) federal award.

Middlebury College offers intensive study every summer for eleven modern languages. Arabic is offered at its California campus site and is eligible for the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) federal award.

Arabic at Stanford: If you’re feeling a bit shaky writing and pronouncing your letters, this nifty website can help you to perfect scribing and vocalizing the Arabic script.

Georgetown University: This page tells you what makes learning the Arabic language challenging for native speakers of English.

Middlebury College: If you’re looking for an immersive experience, but can’t quite make it abroad, you might consider Middlebury College’s Language Schools. At Middlebury, you can join a summer-long program in which you sign a Language Pledge and communicate almost exclusively in your target language for the duration of the summer term. In addition to courses, there are extracurricular activities that are all conducted in the target language, including theater, cooking, sports, poetry, and more. A total of eleven modern languages are taught through the Middlebury College Language Schools: nine are offered on the Vermont campus and two, including Arabic, are offered every summer in California. As with SILMW, these programs are also FLAS-eligible.

Around the Web

Thankfully, learning Arabic isn’t all about dictionaries, papers and tests. It is also about humor, travel, struggles, pronunciation, sharing, solidarity, culture, and community. When you’re not sounding out your alif tanwins, deciphering your waslas and choosing your proper kursis, you can check out these pages that will speak intimately to your challenges and successes:



 A female student wearing a hijab. Photo Credit: Tahir Ansari

A female student wearing a hijab. Photo Credit: Tahir Ansari

What’s required vs. what’s necessary

I’ve come to think of my relationship with Arabic much like any long-term one that I might have with another person; I’ve found that when I put in the time, energy, and attention for working on Arabic, peace, harmony and good tidings are my rewards. When I don’t, there’s discord, anxiety and friction between us. Knowing this, doing “just enough to get by” isn’t the best approach in creating a strong foundation for a lasting love. This frequently means requiring more of myself than what is recommended. Doubly more. As a friend of mine likes to say, “The struggle is real.”

This is my first time having an instructor who is a hijabi*.

As far as I can tell, what my instructor wears has had no bearing on the efficacy of her teaching. As a Westerner and a feminist, I’ve been exposed to schools of thought that suggest the garment is outrightly oppressive. However, writing off the cultural practice entirely without hearing from the people who respect it would be unjust. As the many think-pieces published on various Internet platforms state, a hijab does not equate to oppression just as a bikini does not equate to freedom. When we assign definitive meanings to garments, we limit the dialogues we can engage about them. Interestingly, recent news articles seem to suggest that the hijab is taking a strong foothold in the mainstream. See a Muslim policewoman’s uniform in Minnesota and a retail model’s attire for H&M. It would seem that fewer and fewer preconceptions about the covering are true.

There are heritage speakers in class.

In language pedagogy courses, new instructors are taught that there are “true beginners” and “false beginners.” True beginners have had zero to little meaningful contact with the target language being taught. False beginners are learners who may have taken the language years ago and have significant gaps in their history of learning. Or, a false beginner could be a heritage speaker who has spoken the target language for years at home but has insufficient experience in terms of reading and writing it. The heritage speakers, it seems, ask fewer questions and make fewer comments. This may be because the basic principles of the language come more easily and/or naturally to them based on their more personal experiences.

I still can’t write my name.

At the time I started writing this post, the statement written just above was true. It took me about four weeks to learn to write my name. This isn’t because my name is inherently difficult or that I’m painfully slow at picking up grammar cues. It is because the letters “k” and “n” come rather late in the abjad (alphabet) – “N” is the fourth to last. It may, then, take 20 class meetings before you can use the Arabic script to write your name, and even more than that if you’re a Henry, Harold, Heather, or Helen, as “H” is the last consonant of the alphabet. Here are some of the names I learned to write rather early: Rashid, Sara, and Tabatha.

This is not something you do for “fun.”

Over the course of my foreign language learning career, I have noticed that there are some languages that students from the United States approach casually. We say, “I’m going to brush up on my [fill in the language of your choice here].” Or, “I used to study [fill in the language of your choice here] in high school.” These languages tend to represent cultures that are nearer to the U.S. geographically and ideologically than the Middle East. Arabic is not one of these languages.

If you are American, chances are that there were no cable channels in your home that featured the Arabic language. Chances are that your local grocery chain didn’t have a specific marketing campaign to celebrate an Islamic holiday. Chances are, if you’re from the U.S., your favorite pop station isn’t regularly mixing Arabic-infused songs into its daily rotation. My point is this: Different languages and cultures are portrayed in different contexts in the United States. While Arabic class is fun, it’s also demanding, informative, challenging and rewarding. One thing it is definitely not, however, is an “easy A” for a Western, non-native/non-heritage speaker.

With this course, time must be carved out minimally five days a week for attentive practice. More than anything, this teaches me to moderate my expectations. If by the end of the semester I can…

  • politely and warmly greet people from the Maghreb, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula
  • introduce myself properly and respectfully
  • pronounce vowelled texts
  • count to one hundred
  • state the colors
  • know the days of the week and months of the year
  • name common food items
  • talk about the weather
  • and mention how I’m feeling…

I will be content.

If you didn’t catch Part I of this series last week, click here to go back in time, and be sure to follow our page on Facebook for more posts like this one.

Multiple types of marinated olives, a common food eaten in the Mediterranean. Photo Credit: Speleolog from Flickr

Multiple types of marinated olives, a common food item eaten in the Mediterranean world. Photo Credit: Speleolog


 *Mini-glossary of terms

abjad: The Arabic alphabet, which relies exclusively on consonants; most vowels are largely excluded from the script in writing.

hijabi: Any Muslim woman who wears a hijab, a covering for the hair, head, and upper body.

kursi: Literally “chair,” “throne,” “seat” or “stool.” In grammatical terms, the kursi is a written symbol upon which the Hamza (ء) sits but has no pronounced vowel.

Marhaba!: “Hello!”

Mumtaaz!: “Excellent!”

taliib (masc.)/taliibah (fem.): seeker of knowledge (“student”)

tanwiin: A grammatical term that refers to three different diacritical marks that indicate that a word ends in the sounds “-an,” “-in” or “-un”

Tasharrafna!: “Nice to meet you!”

ustaad (masc.)/ustada (fem.): teacher

waajib: homework

wasla: A diacritical mark (ٱ) that indicates the sound Hamza should be elided or suppressed in pronunciation

Adventures in Arabic, Part I

The Arabic alphabet or "abjad*" of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

The Arabic alphabet or abjad* of 28 letters, read from right to left. (See glossary for asterisked items.)

After more than a decade of study, it’s safe to say that I’m a pretty experienced language learner. To me, languages are a medium for learning more about neighbors, those near and those far. If you say “direct and indirect object pronouns,” I know what you mean. “Accents and diacritical marks”? Got that, too. “Formal and informal registers?” Yes, I understand. But here’s a series of terms that are altogether new to me:

  • hamza and glottal stops
  • teeth and tails
  • vowelled and unvowelled texts*.

(See the glossary at the end of the article for asterisked items.)

These are all characteristic of the Arabic language, and, before August 24, 2015, the first day of the Fall 2015 term, I had never heard of them.

Thanks to the Center for African Studies and the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS), I am on a journey that is not only introducing me to new vocabulary but is taking me on a metaphorical tour of lands I’ve never known. In this two-part blog series, I will review the first month of class meetings my Arabic 201 course has had and introduce you to some potentially new revelations.

The overarching goal of these pieces is to introduce you to print, digital, human and interdepartmental resources available to you in our library and all over campus should you be interested in Arabic, the Middle East, its diaspora, and/or Islam. In the first installment of “Arabic Adventures,” we will cover two topics, each with five themes: “Modern Day Use of the Language” and “Characteristics of the Language.” Be sure to check the Glocal Notes blog next week for “Ways to Cope with Difficulty” and “Miscellany,” in which we will explore more curiosities.


coffee shop

The Farsi (Persian) language written in Arabic script. It reads kaafee shaap, or “coffee shop.” Photo Credit: Rui Abreu

The Arabic script is used to write many different languages.

Just as the Latin script—the one you are currently reading—is used to write many languages like English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and German, the Arabic script is used to write multiple languages as well. That is, the symbols used to write Arabic are the same symbols used to write Persian, Urdu, Pashtu and Kurdish. Combined, there are more than 560 million speakers of these four languages all over the world. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was also written with the Arabic script (Csató 135).

Demand for the language is growing (Conlin)!

Every seat in my classroom is full and has been for four weeks. This surprises me because the class meets five days a week and has handwritten homework due almost every day. Among the undergraduates and graduate students, we even have someone auditing the class. Students want to be there and are very motivated with the language. Moreover, the United States’ government has recognized the importance of developing a multilingual citizenry and has therefore established multiple lines of funding to support committed language learners in their efforts to master other tongues. Among the scholarships and fellowships available are the following:

There will be an information session regarding the Critical Language Scholarship Program on campus, October 8, 2015 from 3:30- 4:30 at 807 S. Wright St. Floor 5 (Illini Union Bookstore), Room 514. Students of Arabic and 13 other languages are eligible to apply.

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

An early edition of the textbook Alif Baa by Kristen Brustad used in beginning Arabic classes at the University of Illinois. Photo Credit: Meedan Photos

Variants of the Arabic language are not 100% mutually intelligible.

In our classroom, we use a pair of textbooks titled Alif Baa and Al-Kitaab. (Alif is the first letter of the Arabic abjad* and baa is the second. Kitaab is the word for “book.”) With this text, we learn Modern Standard Arabic, which is also known as fusHa and is understood by most native speakers of Arabic. However, given the wide breadth of people and countries where Arabic is spoken—conservatively, from Morocco to Iran— the variations between and among regional dialects can make communication challenging. For example, as people in the West are infrequently exposed to the Englishes of India and Nigeria, one must accustom him or herself to varying accents and vocabulary in order understand and be understood. Therefore, learning Arabic in a classroom is a beginning on the road to competency and fluency, not an end.

It is a standard practice for Muslims to learn to read Arabic for the purpose of reciting verses from the Koran (Qur’an), the sacred Islamic text.

However, many Muslims do not speak Arabic or use the language outside of religious contexts. For example, one graduate student I know at the U of I is from Bangladesh. She is a practicing Muslim and is able to read the Koran, but beyond the holy book and polite greetings, her knowledge of Arabic as a modern language is limited. Speaking of which, the Koran’s surahs (chapters) can be read and/or heard for free at and, as with the Bible, multiple sites allow you to order a free copy. The Google search “free qur’an” yields more than 33 million results.

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia

A young girl learns to read the Koran. Photo Credit: Plan Asia


Remnants, vestiges and “fossils” in the language reveal its history of contact with other cultures.

Did you know that Arabs ruled what came to be known as Spain and the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries? The most commonly cited dates are 711- 1492 A.D. (Watt). Arabs also traded heavily with peoples in East Africa, particularly in places like the Swahili Coast and Dar es Salaam (Horton), which forms part of modern-day Tanzania. Wherever the Arabs went, they left a lasting vocabulary that provides evidence of their travels, influences, cultures and wares. While the words below are not all direct translations, they do reflect origins, roots and terms that have had centuries of comparable use in their respective tongues:

Arabic Portuguese Spanish French Swahili English
Insha’aallah! Oxalá!/Espero Ojalá!/Espero J’espère Insha’aallah!/Natumaini I hope/God-willing
mi’a cem cien cent mia one hundred
qmees camisa camisa chemise shumizi/kamisi chemise/shirt
rafeeq amigo amigo ami rafiki friend
sukkar açúcar azúcar sucre sukari sugar
zeit azeite aceite huile mafuta ya kupika cooking oil


A group of Muslim men bowed in prayer and a young boy playing. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

A group of Muslim men bowing in prayer as a young boy poses playfully. Photo Credit: Daniel Bayona

Religion is embedded in the language.

If you ask someone of the Arab world in Arabic how he or she is, an appropriate response is “al-Hamdu li-llah,” meaning, “Thank God.” This could mean “I’m great,” “I’m fine,” “I could be better,” “God is merciful” or simply be a verbal enunciation to accompany a shrug. Here is a list of five common, everyday expressions in Arabic that all contain a variant of “Allah,” the Arabic word for and name of God:

  • Allah!: Wow! What a surprise!
  • al-Hamdu li-llah: Thank God
  • Bismi-llaah: In the name of God (said before or upon beginning something)
  • Insha’aallah: God willing, hopefully
  • Maa shaa a-llah!: Wow, that’s wonderful/beautiful/adorable! (Brustad 166)

When you think about it, this is not so different from:

  • God bless you (after a sneeze)
  • Jesus Christ! You scared me!
  • Lord, have mercy!
  • OMG/Oh my God!
  • TGIF/Thank God it’s Friday!


You have probably already heard that Arabic is written from right to left.

.tfel ot thgir morf daer era secnetnes taht snaem osla sihT

Did you catch that?

This also means that sentences are read from right to left.

And organizational paradigms are constructed from right to left. For example, math equations were once carried out as follows:

4 = 2 + 2

7 = 3 – 10

8 = 2\16

Also, when you open a book, its front cover rests in your right hand. If you examine the comic below, note that the text begins in the upper right-hand corner of the right page and ends on the lower left-hand corner of the left page.

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya

A comic written in Arabic. Given the right-to-left reading pattern in Arabic, the panel in the lower left-hand corner of the entire image should be read last. Photo Credit: Maya


Some sounds are entirely foreign, like the letters ع (ayn) and غ (ghayn).

There are no English equivalents for either of them and, therefore, they can represent real challenges in aural perception for native English speakers. In transliteration (Language Library), the ع character appears as a small, elevated “c,” as in the following word for “university”: jaami ͨ a.

A screen shot of the word "university" in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.

A screen shot of the word “university” in English, its Arabic script translation and the ع character circled in red, courtesy of Google Translate.


ب ت ث

See those three symbols above? Each of them shares the same skeleton. However, the dots, their placement and their numbers distinguish them from one another. On the right, the letter is baa; in the middle, the letter is taa; and on the left, the letter is thaa. Arabic can be resourceful in that it uses a limited amount of skeletons for different letters and makes minimal but perceptible changes to convey new meanings.


Where the English language uses one symbol for the letter “t,” Arabic uses multiple symbols to distinguish its varying sounds. Being mindful of your tongue, say the words “tab,” “thank,” “that” and “taught” aloud. If you pay close attention, you realize that the “t” sounds are different, particularly with the blends or combinations of two consonants. In Arabic, “tab” would be written with a ت,“thank” with a ث,“that” with a ذ and “taught” with a ط. The same is true with the letter “s”: “said” would begin with a س, “should” with a ش and “sought” with a ص.

Cursive is mandatory.

Lastly, for this week’s post, know that in Arabic, letters are generally connected in the written script. Just a handful of the 28 letters make up the exceptions, like ا (alif), (daal), ذ (thaal), ر (raa), ز (zaay) and و (waaw). What makes the writing truly engaging is that the letters generally have an “independent/isolated” shape, an “initial” shape, a “medial” shape and a “final” shape. That is, depending upon where the letter appears in a word, it may take on a different appearance. Take nuun (ن), for example, the equivalent of “n” in the English alphabet. See the image below for its four different manifestations, all dependent upon position.

A screenshot from as seen on

A screenshot from as seen on depicting the four representations of the letter nuun.

For more on this topic, visit Glocal Notes next week and remember to like our Facebook page!

*A mini glossary

abjad: A system much like an alphabet that relies strictly on the writing of consonants to relay messages. In other words, short vowels are largely excluded from the script in writing.

hamza and glottal stops: The word hamza describes a written symbol and a sound made with one’s throat. For example, upon saying “uh oh”, the “uh,” the sound produced is hamza. In linguistics, this vocal phenomenon is called a glottal stop. While most native speakers of English only make this sound to signify something haphazard, it is in fact an integral part of the Arabic language.

teeth and tails: Just like tittles – the dots topping the letters i and j – in learning to write Arabic, it is important to pay attention to the letters’ dots, serifs, curvatures, strokes and lengths. The “teeth” refer to the beginning and connecting segments of letters and the “tails” refer to their ending segments.

vowelled and unvowelled texts: In Arabic, words are typically written without short vowels. So, for example, the word “continent” would be written solely with its consonants, such as “cntnnt.” The language relies on the reader’s prior knowledge to supply the necessary vowels. For young and new learners and/or ambiguous messages, texts are generally “vowelled,” or, that is, they include the letters necessary to sound out the words’ pronunciations. These texts, however, are the exception, and not the rule. “Unvowelled texts” are far more common.


Brustad, Kristen. Alif Baa: Introduction to Arabic Letters and Sounds. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995. Print.

Conlin, Jennifer. “For American Students, Life Lessons in the Middle East.” The New York Times. 6 August 2010. Web. 26 September 2015. <>

Csató, Éva Ágnes. The Turkic Languages. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Horton, Mark. The Swahili: The Social Landscape of a Mercantile Society. Oxford: Blackwell publishers, 2000. Print.

“Transliteration.” Language Library: A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Hoboken: Wiley, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 27 Sep 2015.

Watt, W. Montogomery. A History of Islamic Spain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1965. Print.

A Journey to Latin America through Films

LAFF posters

Image Credit: UIUC-CLACS: Latin American Film Festival/Art Theater Co-Op

As valuable as it is to study other countries’ histories and contemporary cultures through classes, academic books, and papers, it is equally important to approach them through their people’s own voices. This is always a critical task for building fair and inclusive views of the world. And there are a lot of voices still to be heard from contemporary Latin America’s artists, academics, and in general, from its people.

That is why, on this blog, we would like to celebrate spaces such as Champaign-Urbana’s annual Latin American Film Festival. This event allows us to see beyond the commonplace and to experience diverse views about realities that might be either familiar or unknown to us. Also, the International and Area Studies Library is excited to announce our recent acquisition of “Latin America in Video,” a large database of documentaries from independent producers throughout the region. This resource is available to the entire campus community.

L.A. in video2

Image: “Latin America in Video” database, provided by Alexander Street Press, LLC

Recently, between September 18th and 24th, the 8th Annual Latin American Film Festival took place. The event was organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), led by CLACS Associate Director Dr. Angelina Cotler, and hosted at the Art Theater Co-op in downtown Champaign.  From the 30 to 35 films that Dr. Cotler receives each year, 6 to 8 are selected for screening. This year’s Festival included 7 films originating from Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.

Like every year, this year’s film selection opened the door to an immersive experience in  diverse social relationships, historical contexts, political situations, varied musical experiences, different landscapes, and of course, the people of the nations represented. The 2015 Festival included films tackling issues such as illegal migration and the altruistic mission depicted in the film Llévate Mis Amores (Mexico). Family violence, social inequities related to class and gender, educational issues in difficult social environments (Conducta and El Vestido de Novia, both from Cuba) were all at the fore. Also covered were critical approaches to past political authoritarianism (Zanahoria, from Uruguay); stories that reveal the complexities of modern urban life (Yo No Soy Lorena, from Chile), social status in rural settings (A Coleção Invisível, from Brazil); and humorous topics relating to the clichés of a pretentious filmmaker in Buenos Aires (El Crítico de Cine, Argentina).

If you would like to know more about contemporary film production in Latin America, here are some great books you can find in our library:

And these are just a few! Many more interesting books are available at different library locations.

As for this year’s Festival, Angelina Cotler’s recommendations were (Conducta, Cuba) and The Invisible Collection (A Coleção Invisível, Brazil). For her, “These are films of an extremely high quality and sophistication. They are the type of films that you start watching and cannot stop; that make you think, enjoy, laugh, and even cry.” (Watch the trailer of Conducta here). She also has recommendations for her all-times favorite Latin American and international films. What’s more, you can find most of them here, at the Undergraduate Library Media Collection! Some of her all-time favorites we invite you to watch are Amores Perros (Mexico), which is one of the most renowned Latin American films of all time, Fresa y Chocolate (Cuba/Spain/Mexico), La Historia Oficial (Argentina) and Lucia (Cuba).

Image Credit:

Image Credit: Popcorn and Balderdash

And that is not all!  We invite you to take a look at the great collection of Latin American Films covering a wide range of topics and genres, such as the Argentinian contemporary dramas El Secreto de Sus Ojos, Anita, and XXY; Mexican films about soccer and rivalry like Rudo y Cursi; and renowned films from that country such as Como Agua para Chocolate and Y Tu Mamá También; Chilean films about that country’s political history like Missing; or love stories based on famous novels such as Cachimba. Other films about Cuba include the fictional Guantanamera and documentaries about women and literacy such as Maestra. Films about armed conflict in Colombia that stretch beyond the usual approaches include Los Colores de la Montaña; others deal with urban settings in that country, like Karen Llora en un Bus. There is even a collection of silent films!

If you have questions about Latin American films, history, or any other research interest about this region, you may contact our Latin American & Caribbean Studies Librarian,  Professor Antonio Sotomayor, Ph.D.

You may also find many more Latin American and other international films at the Undergraduate Media Collection. Here you can find international films at the Local U of I Catalog, where you can filter the search by the region, language, and topic of your interest using the menu in the column on the right side of the screen. Also, here are some instructions about how you can search films at the Undergraduate Media Collection in the Classic Catalog. Also, there are a variety of specialized area films, as the Korean Film Collection, and the Africana Film Database.

Don’t miss the Latin American Film Festival next year! In the meantime, visit the library, pick up some great movies, and have a pleasant, eye-opening journey!

What’s in a Flag? A Brief Introduction to Vexillology


Photo Credit: Sami Sarkis

If you followed the news this past summer, you likely noticed that there was much talk of flags and their significance. This was especially the case for the State of South Carolina as legislation was passed to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the capitol in Columbia. This came after a horrific mass killing took place at the hands of a white supremacist who had previously been photographed brandishing not only the Confederate battle flag, but also those of apartheid-era Rhodesia and South Africa. Much has since been written about the implications of flags in this context.

The potent symbolism attached to a flag’s history may be manifested in various and complex ways – ways that may also change over time. The study of these issues is known as vexillology (from Latin vexillum;flag, military ensign, banner”), a term coined by American flag historian and expert Whitney Smith in 1958.

Even before it is made official, considerations of a flag’s design are often highly politicized, as seen in the current case of New Zealand’s various proposals to change their national flag. In the case of the Republic of Cabo Verde, a Portuguese-speaking West African island nation also known in English as Cape Verde, the changes from one national flag to another have heralded the various changes to the nation’s administration and political configuration over the last fifty years.

Here is the flag that was proposed for the territory during the 20th century while it was still under Portuguese rule (until 1975), but was never fully instituted due to various historical instabilities:


Proposed colonial Cape Verdean flag (pre-1975)

We can see the use of the ancient Portuguese flag – itself a conglomeration of various symbols dating back to both the Age of Discovery (c.1300-1600) and the Middle Ages (c.1100-1300), with a unique coat of arms for the colony of Cabo Verde in the bottom fly (“right corner” in vexillological terms). The ship symbolizes the Portuguese arrival at the previously uninhabited islands in the mid-to-late 15th century and the islands’ subsequent importance as a depot in triangular trade. The green sky and waves refer to not only the sea, of course, but also to the second word in Cabo Verde’s name, which means “green” in Portuguese.

Next we have Cabo Verde’s first national flag after it had declared independence from Portugal on July 5th, 1975 and was still united with Guinea-Bissau (formerly Portuguese Guinea) on the African mainland:


First Cape Verdean national flag, 1975-1992

Clearly some major changes in policy had taken place. In fact, since those fighting for independence from Portugal – some since the 1960s – were socialists allied with the Soviet bloc under the aegis of PAIGC, the “African Party for the Independence of [Portuguese] Guinea and Cabo Verde,”  which is today’s left-center PAICV party, it is not surprising that their eventual victory would be reflected in the fledgling nation’s new flag. The red, yellow, and green bars are traditional African colors symbolizing the struggle for freedom, mineral wealth, and the earth, respectively. But in this context, red can also denote socialism. The black star is a symbol of African/black solidarity that can also be found in the flags of Ghana and Guinea-Bissau as well as within the liberation symbolism of Jamaican Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). The ears of corn flanking the star stand for the importance of agriculture and traditional rural communities. The clam shell at the corn’s base hints at the great significance of the sea to the archipelagic nation.

When full democracy was obtained in Cabo Verde in 1990 with the admission of a second political party, the Movimento para a Democracia (MpD; “Movement for Democracy”), a new flag was called for. Thus, in 1992, the following was unfurled for the first time:


Current flag of the Republic of Cabo Verde

As we can see, almost all of the socialist-leaning, Afrocentric symbolism is gone. In its place is a scheme at least partially influenced by the red, white, and blue of the American flag, which hints at the fact that Cabo Verde and the USA maintain close and friendly relations to this day. The ten yellow stars arranged in a circle represent the ten islands of the Cape Verdean archipelago, though the islands’ actual relative position forms more of a flying-V shape. The blue represents the ever-present sea surrounding the islands. The red still stands for struggle/sacrifice as in the previous flag and the white bands stand for hope and/or peace, as in many other flags of the world. The intention with this particular change in design stems from Cabo Verde’s policies during the last 25 years of promoting homegrown unity and identity while simultaneously fostering links with a wide range of foreign partners such as Cuba, China, various member-states of the European Union, and the United States.

So what’s in a flag? A whole lot, once you stop to take a closer look.

Glossary of some vexillological terms:

  • charge – any part of a flag that features a design in the foreground
  • canton – a distinct rectangular area marked off in a flag’s corner
  • hoist – the left side, where a flag would be attached to a pole
  • fly – the right side, where a flag might flutter in the wind
  • saltire – an X shape, as in the Union Jack of the United Kingdom
  • coat of arms – a more complex design incorporating elements from heraldry, usually traceable back to a specific dynastic family

For more on this topic, check out these links as well as print titles from the University of Illinois Library and its affiliates:

Gideon, Richard, Ed. 2003-2015. American Vexillum Magazine. Self-published.

Shaw, Caroline, Compiler. World Bibliographical Series: Cape Verde. Oxford: Clio Press. (IAS Reference/Non-circulating).

Smith, Whitney. 1975. Flags Through the Ages and Across the WorldNew York: McGraw Hill.

Smith, Whitney. 2001. Flag Lore of All NationsBrookfield, CT: Millbrook Press.

The Urbana Free Library. 2015. “Flag of Earth.” Blogs. 11 August 2015. Online: Accessed 16 September 2015.

Znamierowski, Alfred. 2010. The World Encyclopedia of Flags: The Definitive Guide to International Standards, Banners, and EnsignsLondon: Southwater.