A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Camels of Shebaa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 29, 2008

(I know: another post about camels. Somehow one camel thought just led to another …)

Sometimes I find myself thinking that I am much smarter than I actually am.

Before I left Lebanon, we went on an all-day excursion to Shebaa Farms. If you think that sounds like a bad idea, particularly for an American, you are in the solid majority of our friends and family members. But we liked (and trusted) the group organizing the trip, so we went anyway.

And yes, being a foreigner was a bit tricky – mostly in the sense that the three of us with non-Lebanese passports slowed down everyone else, because at each checkpoint the soldiers asked our leader: ma3ak ajanib? Luckily, we were all women, which seemed to make us much less of a security threat in their eyes. (As a woman, I am torn between hoping that governments and militaries recognize how powerful we truly are and enjoying the gender-based “free pass” at checkpoints and immigration/emigration booths.)

The trip itself was almost beyond words – an eye-opening experience on many levels, and one that I as a non-Lebanese could never have had on my own.

But it also provided me with a golden opportunity to exchange hubris for humility.

When we all climbed out of the car to photograph the famous “Shebaa Farms” sign, I snickered to myself:

I should note here that I was taking the photo from a decent distance away. I’m a bit of a weenie when it comes to off-piste’ing in Lebanon. In the north, I worry about being mistaken for wild game. In the south and the Bekaa, I worry about left-over Israeli cluster bombs or lingering Israelis with itchy trigger fingers.

So I was too far away to read the Arabic – but not too far away to read, or rather mis-read, the French.

Chameaux de Chabaa, I read. And it didn’t seem that improbable – after all, the terrain in which the sign stands looks more camel-friendly than farm-friendly.

I wonder why no one ever corrected that sign, I thought to myself. The word for “farm” in French is “ferme”.

Luckily for my ego, I didn’t share my wondering with any of our fellow day-trippers, and saved it until we returned home and I could get to an online dictionary.

There I learned that “hameau” does indeed not mean farm – but it isn’t just a typo for “chameau”, either. A hameau is a hamlet – a small village, or a rural community too small to have a town’s right to self-government, commercial center, and house of worship.Both words come from the Frankish “haim”, from which the English word “home” also apparently derives. (Thank you, Online Etymology Dictionary!)

This in turn made me curious to know more about the Arabic term, “mazari3a”. After all, the French mandate officials were no slouches when it came to learning the Arabic language. If they chose to translate “mazari3a” as “hameaux”, they must have done so with good reason.

And … well … mazari3a does mean “farms”. But it also means “fields under cultivation”, “plantations”, and “country estates”. So there is more flexibility in that word, too, than I had imagined.

As for “hamlet”, when I translate it into Arabic, I get two options: قرية صغيرة or كفر قرية, both of which mean “small village”. Go figure.

I do still believe that the French were great Arabic linguists (and am increasingly aware of my deficiencies in that area!). But the use of “hameau” over “ferme” still puzzles me.

(S’il y a quelqu’un qui pourrait m’aider a resoudre ce mystere, je serait reconassiante :).)


One Response to “Camels of Shebaa”

  1. There must have been at one point, a few inhabited small farms, that is why it became “hameaux de Chebaa” during the French Mandate. It was not big in enought to be designated a small village قرية صغيرة as قرية means a certain social structure.

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