It doesn’t seem that National Geographic would be a likely candidate for a Not Quite Right moment, though the more closely a person looks at another culture the more that even the most familiar things turn out to be slightly twisted.
This twist, in particular, demonstrates a little something about the power of language and the power of having power itself, providing a good example of the old adage about the ‘winner gets to write history.’ And the winner, at least right now in the Arabian Gulf region, is Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Emirates in the UAE and the place where the new, Arabic-language version of National Geographic Magazine started being published last October.
First, let me say that I love National Geographic. My family dreads the moment it arrives in my mailbox. I hide away with it for hours, more hours than normal now that the magazine is available in Arabic. It gives me a chance to learn vocabulary I’ll probably never encounter elsewhere, stuff like: super-nova, Inca lip-piercing, Mormon tabernacle, plate tectonics, Gorilla repopulation studies. It is wide-ranging reading, good for the brain.
But it seems that Abu Dhabi couldn’t resist a little historical rewrite. One of my Omani friends pointed out that the December 2010 cover story is a reprint of a 1956 National Geographic article on the UAE. However, the UAE hadn’t even formed yet. It was still known as the Trucial States (due to a century-old treaty with Great Britain that was aimed at controlling piracy in the Gulf). Or, even more pointedly, as the “Trucial States of Oman.”
In fact, the full title of that 1956 article was, in the typically verbose style of those days:
Abu Dhabi seems not to have liked publishing a magazine cover that hinted at its one-time fealty to the Sultanate of Oman. So they took some liberties and changed the title.
The arabic of the cover story now procliams ساحل الإمارات المتصالح: The Trucial Emirati Coast. The editors in Abu Dhabi went with “Emirati” even though the name “Emirates” didn’t have any association with their chunk of the earth until 1971, a decade and a half after the article appeared.
Slightly political, yes, but mostly just Not Quite Right.