Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
History, these days, is made at cocktail parties as often as anywhere else - even Arabic history in which alcohol (a good Arabic word, like many of our scientific terms) has been forbidden for more than 1,000 years.
And so there was a cocktail party at the Embassy of Kuwait Tuesday (when in Washington, the prudent diplomat will do as Washingtonians do) to introduce to the world the latest triumph of Arabic technology: a telex machine that is able to transmit the Arab language without compromise.
Members of the diplomatic corps (including a representative of the State Department), businessmen, scholars and technicians and enthusiastic members of the Arab-American community crowded into the striking main reception hall of one of Washington's most beautiful, embassies to see the first messages transmitted from Washington (where it was 7 p.m.) to Kuwait (whre it was 2 a.m.) and back. Experts in the Arabic language said that they were messages of congratulation and that they were transmitted perfectly, and your reporter had to accept their word.
The machine looked like the familiar, everyday telex found in most American households, except that it wrote from right to left and the writing came out in the graceful Arabic script, which strikes the Western eye as similar to some forms of shorthand.
There had been previously a telex machine adapted for Arabic but it was not able to transmit perfectly. In roughly equivalent terms, a message might come out something like this: "yo Kd nderstand wHt et ment, bt et wsn't very elegnt."
"It was like trying to stuff a marshmallow into a slot machine," explained Khaled M. Diab, president of the Technology International Corporation and one of the developers of the machine. One of the problems was that most Arabic letters take different forms according to their position at the beginning, middle or end of a word, and the directions were too complicated to transmit through a telephone wire to a simple-minded IBM Selectric typewriter.
Workers at the Kuwait Institute for Scientic Research (where the only other telex like this one is kept) have added a computer-decoder to give the machine more detailed directions.
The Arabic alphabet is one of the most widely used in the world, serving the Farsi, Swahili and Urdu languages as well as Arabic, but it has long suffered difficulties in confronting and interacting with a technology based on the very different languages and world view of the Greco-Roman world.
Curiously, throughout the European Dark Ages, the Arabic language was the chief medium for preserving and spreading the scientific knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, and the Arabic numeral system (now universally used) made advanced mathematics much easier to learn and execute than the cumbersome system of Roman numerals.
Some of the scientists at the reception clearly thought that Arab technology (supported by oil-based wealth) may be on the way to recovering the old eminence still commemorated in such Arabic-based scientific terms as "algebra" and "alchemy."
Yesterday, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy said that because of technical problems there is no telex mechanism presently available for transmitting messages in Hebrew. Presumably, an adaptation of the Arabic telex could make this possible, if only . . .
The machine also will transmit messages in the English alphabet or others that are less complicated than Arabic (such as Greek or Russian) provided the right keys are punched and the proper letters are supplied. (Letters for the Selectric are packed on a small metal ball which races across the paper, whirling into position as each new letter comes up.)
"This is the most important development for the Arabic language since the days of the Prophet," said one partygoer nibbling tabouli (finely chopped cracked wheat, parsley, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and oil - delicious) at the buffet.
"Come have some of this kebab," said his wife. "Usually, you have to go all the way to Kuwait to get it like this."