A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

a pen from Sukleen

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2008

I have mentioned Sukleen’s advertisements/PSAs in several posts in the past couple of years – primarily because I find that the company/public utility/gift of the Hariri family takes interesting positions on the array of issues that Lebanon and its people face.

This is from yesterday’s newspaper:


And here is my translation of what the text says (with apologies as I am not sure that I have gotten the first bit entirely right – so if you are a native speaker, please feel free to jump in with corrections!):

We’re getting by with a green pen*

*the green space in Lebanon has shrunk to only 13%

Between forest fires, unregulated development, pollution, and generally weak environmental policies, the size of Lebanon’s forests has shrunk dramatically from year to year. (You can see a surprisingly good story that CNN’s Brent Sadler did earlier this month on this same issue here.) Sukleen’s ad suggests that using a green crayon to draw a cedar will be an adequate replacement for the actual tree.

This ad is intriguing on a textual level as well. The Arabic used is Lebanese Arabic – “pen” is spelled “2alam” and not “qalam”, for example. Yet the words are highly voweled: I count four fathas and two shaddas. As Arabic speakers know (and I have mentioned before), vowel markers are used when a word is unfamiliar, or might be mistaken for another word with the same consonantal spellings. In other words, they are used for clarification, and for formal writing.

Although I’ve seen vowel markers used with spoken Arabic in other advertisements, I still find it a bit jarring – an odd mixing of language levels. I’m also a bit surprised by the use of the alif in “2alam” – it looks confusingly like “alam”, which is a regular Arabic word meaning “pain”.

I think here that the similarity might be intentional – after all, losing Lebanon’s cedars is a source of pain for many people – but in general my understanding is that the hamza’ed qaff is written in Arabic as just that: a qaff with a hamza over it, so readers recognize both the original Arabic word and the regional pronunciation of it.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this – either the ad in general, or on the use of colloquial Arabics in standard Arabic script?


3 Responses to “a pen from Sukleen”

  1. Houssam Moghrabi said

    The actual translation of what is written is: We are celebrating … with a green Pain.

    Pen = qalam
    pain = alaam

    Hope this helps.

  2. Houssam, I did think about celebrating as the proper translation – but since the ad came out after Independence Day, I figured it must be the other. But you think that “celebrate” is the better translation – so I defer to you!

    As I noted in my post, I did get the qalam/2alam/alam “pun”, and here I think it does work well. But for me the larger issue is this question of how to treat colloquial Arabic in the standard script. What do you think?

  3. Houssam Moghrabi said


    Thanks for mentioning me in your new blog but trust me I was not frightened when I heard that you are getting your professional certificate in Arabic-English translation. As a matter of fact, I wish you the best and I can learn few things from you as we go along.

    As for the Sukleen photo/ad, I still think and believe that the word is “celebrating” in the first part of the ad. Aren’t we supposed to celebrate Independence day?

    As for the second part, the artist put a Pencil(Qalam) which in colloquial Arabic is pronounced (alam = same as pain is pronounced), that is green but burnt at its end. Burns give pain. So his intentions (I believe) is that we are celebrating with a green pain (burning of our cedars and so on).

    Give me your opinion.

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