A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Folklore and other adventures in English

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 3, 2009

Sometimes I have trouble finding a really good topic for my daily post. Thanks to Naharnet, today was not one of them.

One of Naharnet’s (the English-language, rabidly-March 14 news and commentary website whose more moderate views and charming linguistic gaffes make it much more fun than Now Lebanon) morning leads is a piece on the criticism that Syria’s representative to the Arab League yesterday heaped on the launch of the United Nations-overseen special tribunal, whose mission is to investigate Rafiq Hariri’s and assorted other political assassinations, and – if possible – bring the perpetrators to justice.

I personally have grave doubts that the tribunal will do anything more substantive than waste dozens of millions of dollars, in the way that so many UN projects seem to do. But its been an ongoing bone of contention, particularly since Lebanon’s pro-tribunal folks have made no bones about their desire (and expectation) to see Syrians charged, found guilty, and punished. Forget justice: what they want is an international stamp of approval on their prejudices.

So: that’s the back story, with commentary. And here is the article:

Syria has criticized the March 1 launch of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, describing it as “folklore.” The daily Al Mustaqbal said on Tuesday that an argument erupted between Syrian and Lebanese representatives at a meeting of the Arab League at the level of delegates in Cairo.

It quoted Arab diplomatic sources as saying that the quarrel developed after Syrian ambassador to Cairo Youssef al-Ahmad objected to a “Solidarity with Lebanon” clause which included the phrase “welcomed the establishment of the tribunal” and “Arab confidence in the fairness of the court.”

“No such thing as launch of the court has taken place,” al-Ahmad has reportedly told the meeting that was held in Cairo on Sunday, claiming that the supposed launch of the tribunal was just a facade for the media.

“What has happened was folklore,” Ahmad was quoted by an Arab diplomatic source as saying, in reference to the launch of the tribunal in The Hague on Sunday.

What on earth does that mean? Some of you may be thinking: well, perhaps its just a bad translation. But in fact the “folklore” is used as a transliterated foreign term in Arabic:  فولكلور.

Does Mr. Ahmad mean that there was singing and dancing, rather than a proper launch? Too much debke, too little ribbon-cutting?

Here’s how he sees the tribunal in its non-folkloric guise:

“The international tribunal is still a gymnasium; and the proof is that U.N. Security General Ban Ki-moon has personally said that the court will be launched in 2010 when the courtroom is ready,” he added.

Erm. A gymnasium? Another word that also exists in transliterated form in Arabic: الجمنازيوم ? Or perhaps he means it literally, as in “qa3at riyadiyya” – a sporting hall?

What am I missing here? I think the use of these two terms is nothing short of bizarre, but they must be applicable than I understand. Why? Because rather than responding to al-Ahmad by saying something like: “What on Earth are you trying to say?” the Lebanese representative to the Arab League, Ali Halabi, used the same word:

Lebanon’s representative Ali Halabi hit back, saying “you should not underestimate the launch of the international tribunal.”

“It is a major event in Lebanon’s history. It’s not true that it is mere folklore,” Halabi argued.

So minor events are folkloric; major ones are historic and may involve the launch of a tribunal. As for setting the gymnasium reference in its proper cultural context, I look to all of you for help.


7 Responses to “Folklore and other adventures in English”

  1. Jad Aoun said

    I completely agree with the translation. I honestly think that something was definitely lost.

  2. smk said

    re: the gymnasium comment, I believe he’s refering to the fact that the physical venue IS an actual gymnasium which is suppose to be “transformed” into a high-security court room. See paragraph 4 of the following article . . . http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/eu_netherlands_hariri_tribunal

  3. I don’t think I’ll loose my precious time to reply to a diamomdinsunlight…and what a diamond…..

  4. qussa said

    I, too, often laugh about Naharnet, but it’s the kind of laugh of ‘a farmer with a tooth-ache’ as we say in Dutch. The comments there just make me sad.

    As to the Tribunal; March 14 has so much faith in its opening, that they turned off the counter on the Hariri picture at Bourj el Murr! I thought they wouldn’t do that until The Truth was known, but apparently the opening of the Tribunal (in a local sports-hall indeed) is enough truth already. Curious.

  5. Qifa Nabki said

    Hi Diamond,

    I think that he meant that the whole thing was a farce, a performance, a charade, a spectacle, much ado about nothing, etc.

  6. Jad, thank you! SMK, thank you very much for the link – gymnasium mystery solved! Qussa, love the Dutchism. I’m sad to hear that the counter is off – I don’t have much faith in this tribunal’s ability to bring justice. I hope very much that the families of all the victims – political figures and bystanders – are able to find peace on their own, and to find some personally meaningful way to honor their loved ones.

    QN, thank you from taking time out of your busy weather reporting gig to comment here :D. I get the general tone, but I don’t understand why he used “folklore”. Whenever I’ve heard it used – foklor, foklori – the referent has been something traditional, and the tone has been positive. Like: you’ll enjoy old Jbeil because it has a very folkloric atmosphere. What am I missing?

  7. Qifa Nabki said


    “Folklor” can also refer to a piece of theater, like the Rahbani musical spectaculars (Bayya3 al-khawatim, al-Shakhs, etc.) This is the sense that it was used: literally as a “production”.

    Back to weather reporting… 😉

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