A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

further adventures in semi-Arabic

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2008

Its been a Lebanese weekend for H and I. (Well, with the exception of my Saturday walking tour.) He spent most of it working on a project due Monday morning by email to Beirut, and I spent it reading two books set there. And we both took a break yesterday afternoon for a delicious, laughter-filled lunch with the (adult) children of his parents’ neighbors back in Lebanon.

The first book I read was a biography of a Lebanese woman, Jamelie Boutros Shami, who had immigrated to the US in the 1930s to join her husband, a man from her village who had emigrated to the US some years previously. She was 16 when they married, and he was 28; but they lived apart for seven years while he tried to raise money for her ticket to the US.

Amazingly, their marriage seems to have survived the seven-year gap, and they lived and worked as a team, working to restore a total fixer-upper of a house while raising five children. Jamelie’s husband died relatively young, at 58, but she lived into her nineties, the hub of a rapidly expanding family network.

When she died, one of her daughters began to write her biography, or rather a biography-cum-collective memoir, integrating stories from all five of her children. The book is largely chronological, but it ends with short essays by various members of her family: three children, one daughter-in-law, and several grandchildren, all sharing some memory of their mother/-in-law/grandmother.

Its a sweet book, although it could use a bit more narrative juice – and Jamelie herself would come to life more if the narrative showed more of the vim and vinegar she clearly had, rather than simply iterating and re-iterating that she was a paragon of self-sacrifice. But it is a book published by family members for family members, so as an outside reader I am likely a welcome audience, but not the primary one.

What intrigued me most were the several Arabic words used throughout the book. Many, like “ma’amoul” and “aynee”, were close transliterations of Arabic terms. But others fell into the category of words I call “semi-Arabic”.

About 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 I needed – engaging, personable, and filled with a few terms that the author described as Arabic, but which were total mysteries to me. One of these terms was “sakhtange”, which I finally deduced meant “sahtein”, or “bon appetit”.

Jamelie, Jamelie is filled with a similar mix of semi-Arabic words. Some are easy to sort out, like “bitlawa” (ba2lawa, or baklava) and “nat nat” (na3 na3, or mint), in which the “ayn” becomes a “taa” in the American English-speaking ears of Jamelie’s children. Or “mahadajan” (mahrajan, or festival), which is a funny word in Arabic too – I think its Persian originally.

Others are a bit more puzzling, like “nishka Allah”, which the author translates as “with God’s help”. Could this be “nishkur Allah”, and mean “we thank God”?

And one phrase totally stumps me: “bistrante aleichem”, which the author describes as a New Year’s Day greeting that means “success be with you”. I can see that “aleichem” is “3aleikum”, but “bistrante”? Someone with better puzzle-solving ability than I have, please help!

2 Responses to “further adventures in semi-Arabic”

  1. intlxpatr said

    Maybe the ‘bis’ part is “bes?” And the second part means some good thing – lifelong success? Fascinating book – what was the second one? 🙂

  2. del said

    what this should be: bistraynte 3alayk or 3alaykon.

    it is customary to give people (especially in ur immediate family) money for new years. bistrayne means money gift. bistraynte means my money gift. usually on new years, when u r congratulating people for the new year, whoever says bistraynte 3alayk first does not have to pay the other person. so for example, if i say to you bistraynte 3alayk, that means u pay me and i don’t pay u. something along these lines. but usually everybody says it, but also usually parents end up paying their kids.

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