A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

words and things: what’s in a car?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 18, 2009

I’ve been slowly working my way through a thin but rich family memoir: Grace Dodge Guthrie’s Legacy to Lebanon, about the various contributions of her paternal and maternal families (the Dodges and the Blisses, both deeply connected to AUB and to Robert College in Istanbul). Grace, who was born in Beirut in 1915, writes sweetly of her childhood there and her parents’ work while her father, Bayard Dodge, served as AUB’s president.

She describes her father’s arrival to Beirut during a family trip in 1910:

After being ferried ashore by red-tarboushed boatmen rowing forward to prevent colliding with other boats and being waved through customs under President Bliss’s wing, the Dodge family would have ridden to the college in arabiyehs, open carriages manned by colorful drivers urging on their scrawny horses with cries and whips.

I’m rolling my eyes a bit at this depiction of AUB extra-legality (though under Ottoman laws the Dodges were likely exempt from most customs scrutiny in any case), but what really makes me curious is the word “arabiyeh”. When I studied Arabic in school, I was taught that “siyara” was the word for car.

As my aunt says, sometimes you don’t even know what it is that you don’t know. I didn’t hear the word “arabeh” in Damascus for some time, because I didn’t know to listen for it – just like I didn’t know to listen for “bagnole” when listening to my Parisian friends, because I knew that the word for “car” in French was “voiture”.

But I did begin to hear it – both as “arabeh” and “arabiyeh” – and I did begin to wonder. Why would there be a word for “car” in Arabic that sounded just like the word for “Arabic” in Arabic?

My short attention span meant that I stopped wondering at some point – probably when I grew enough accustomed to Lebanese car culture to refer to cars by their model and make, rather than simply as “car” :). But Guthrie’s use of the term reawakened my curiosity, and I turned to my dictionary and to Google.

My dictionary confirmed what I already knew: that “araba” and “arabiyeh” both refer to a “carriage, vehicle, araba, cart, car, [or] coach”. And Google produced a Wiktionary entry, which gave me a sense of 1) just how much the Wikipedia empire has expanded and 2) the origins of the term. It defines “araba” as: a carriage used in Turkey and Asia Minor drawn by horses or oxen.

And – just like the OED – it includes historical illustrations of the word’s usage:

Quotations

  • 1836: No one but a native of the luxurious East could ever have invented an araba, with its comfortable cushions, and its gaily painted roof, and gilded pillars. The prettiest are those of brown and gold, with rose-coloured draperies, through which the breeze flutters to your cheek as blandly as though it loved the tint that reminded it of the roses of the past season amid which it had wandered.”— Julia Pardoe, City of the Sultan; and Domestic Manners of the Turks, in 1836.
  • 1845: I found the examination of these antiquities much less pleasant than to look at the many troops of children assembled on the plain to play; and to watch them as they were dragged about in little queer arobas, or painted carriages, which are there kept for hire. William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 1845
  • 1898:There is, however, such a thing as an “araba,” a vehicle drawn by oxen, in which the wives of a rich man are sometimes dragged four or five miles over the grass by way of recreation. The carriage is rudely framed, but you recognise in the simple grandeur of its design a likeness to things majestic; in short, if your carpenter’s son were to make a “Lord Mayor’s coach” for little Amy, he would build a carriage very much in the style of a Turkish araba. — Alexander William Kinglake, Eothen, 1898.
  • 1917:Whenever I mounted the araba, he would whip his horses to a sharp trot or canter for half a mile, and then at a word stop for me to get out. — W.J. Childs, Across Asia Minor on Foot, 1917.

I love these quotes, and even though I’m not a wiki’er, I love knowing the origins of the word “araba” (or “arabiyeh”). I see so many Ottoman influences in Lebanon and in Syria and am delighted to have found one more.

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4 Responses to “words and things: what’s in a car?”

  1. Kheireddine said

    Here is a song about cars from my childhood in the late 60’s by Houda Haddad (Fayrouz’s sister: Rizkallah ala al arabiyat :)))

  2. intlxpatr said

    So does the current usage of arabiyat imply a particularly luxurious vehicle, or just any old car?

  3. Kheireddine said

    In the song I posted,arabiyat mean horse carriages. “3arabiyeh” (plural: 3arabiyat), it is also an adjective of “sayyarah” (automobile/car);but nowaday, the tendency is to use “sayyarah” rather than “3arabieh”.

  4. I am in my mid 40s; when I was a girl in the 70s, my Lebanese villager grandmother always called the car the “3arabiyeh.” I grew up thinking there were two words for automobile in Arabic (and of course we use both car and auto in English)

    Thanks for doing the research. And thanks for the YouTube link – must switch computers to the one with functioning sound system. Looks delightful.

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