A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

sakhtange: adventures in semi-Arabic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 8, 2007

When I travel, I like to bring loads of books to make the long airplane hours pass more quickly. I can read through anything – almost.

I found it very difficult to read during my sixteen days in Seattle. The sadness, the happiness, the stress – I found it difficult to focus on anything other than being-with: being-with my family, even when there was no task to be done.

Midway through those days, a book arrived at my sister’s house – one I had ordered online and promptly forgotten. I had been intrigued by its subject – a memoir of personal salvation through belly dancing, written not by one of the over-aerobicized gym “Oriental Dance” teachers so common in American cities but by a late generation (many thanks to my friend K for explaining that this term refers to not to those recently arrived from Lebanon but those whose ancestors come from the early 1900s) Lebanese-American:


Snake Hips turned out to be far more interesting than I had anticipated. I find myself me still thinking about Soffee’s narrative, mulling over some of her life choices, rather than – as I had anticipated – putting it cleanly aside after the last page. (I should have known better – after all, when I finished reading, I passed the book to my aunt, IntlXpatr. Had it been total rubbish I would have been too embarrassed to give it to her.)

Soffee’s narrative is structured around her experiences as a novice belly dancer (a term she prefers over the more linguistically correct raqs al-sharqi – “Eastern dance” – or the more poetic (and a bit snootier) danse orientale), which she begins studying as a means of helping herself over a particularly brutal break-up. The heartbreak is sincere, and her descriptions of herself stuck in its midst are wry and engaging, but it is her musings on belly dancing in the contemporary US, as well as in the context of her Lebanese-American family’s imaginary (my more academic term for what we in our family call our “family culture”) , that by turns delighted, intrigued, and frustrated me.

Long after all my intelligent thoughts on Soffee’s narrative disappear into forgetfulness, I am sure I will remember two Arabic malapropisms: sakhtange and wallah.

At the back of her book, Soffee offers a glossary of the Arabic terms she uses. She admits that none of her generational peers in her family speaks the language – and admits her suspicions that no one in the generations preceding speaks it either, although they use an Arabic-ish mishmash of corrupted language.

The belly dance and other musical terms she uses are the proper ones – but some of the “family” Arabic terms are a real hoot.

Sakhtange is my favorite. Soffee defines it as “bon appetit”. I puzzled over it for more than a day, wondering what on earth such a Persian looking term was doing in a Maronite family. Linguistic inspiration struck suddenly: sakhtange is Arabish for sa7htein, “two healths”, which is indeed what is said in Arabic at meals, when the French would say “bon appetit”.

If sakhtange is my favorite (admittedly, that aspirated h – the 7h – is a difficult one for Americans to grasp), wallah is a close runner up. Soffee defines wallah as an Indian word, somehow brought into Arabic. She must be thinking of the Hindi use of “wallah” in reference to someone’s appointed task, which English has also absorbed (as wordreference.com indicates:

A noun
  1 wallah
    usually in combination: person in charge of or employed at a particular thing; “a kitchen wallah”; “the book wallah”

). In the Indian usage, the accent is on the first syllable. In Arabic, the accent is on the second, and for good reason: that second syllable belongs to God. Wallah in Arabic is an elision of two words: w Allah, sometimes w Allahi – “by God”. It has been absorbed into Turkish (though I understand that in Turkish it is considered more of a men’s expression than a gender-neutral one) and, centuries ago, into Spanish as Ojala, accent on the final “a”.

I think of all the word mistakes I have made over the years, in English as well as other languages, and I love Soffee’s definitions of these two words all the more.


3 Responses to “sakhtange: adventures in semi-Arabic”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Loved the book! I didn’t expect to, but I did. Thanks for passing it along to me.

  2. […] like her, I kept reading in spite of myself – the book drew me in. Little Diamond reviews the book here, (as well as several others that sound really […]

  3. […] a year and a half ago, I blogged about reading the memoirs of a several-generations-removed Lebanese-American woman, Snake Hips, which focused on how she discovered belly dancing. The book turned out to be just what […]

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