A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘Arabic’ Category

Levantine literature: translated by the enemy.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve to those of you who are celebrating, and for those of you commemorating Ashoura, I hope that it is an opportunity for reflection for you. (And I hope that you are as pleased as I am that Muharram was included in my employer’s “Season’s Greetings” email.)

At the start of the month, I read a very interesting article in Ha’aretz, which I had intended to post immediately. “Immediately” turned into several weeks, but am pasting it in below. The article announces a planned law that would allow Arabic-language works – originals and translations – produced in the confrontation states to be sold in Israel.

Those of you who, like me, are obsessed with the Mandate era, will be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to learn that the current law is a gift of the British. And those of you who, also like me, enjoy following the twists and turns of the cozily hostile Israel-Syria relationship, will be delighted to learn that the Arabic-language translations of well-known Israeli writers like Amos Oz are produced in Syria.

Happy reading!

Books translated in “hostile countries” will soon be allowed to be sold in Israel, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided yesterday to support a bill overturning a World War II-era law aimed at blocking information from enemy states.

This will allow the Arabic translations of best-selling children’s books like “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as Arabic versions of prominent Israeli authors, to be sold here.

Until now, Arabic translations of popular children’s books and works by authors like Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Eshkol Nevo were not available in Israel, because they were printed in hostile countries like Syria and Lebanon. This was because a 1939 British-Mandate era law prohibited literature from being imported from enemy states.

Given the relatively low readership of Arabic-language books in Israel, and the resulting low returns on translations, almost none have been produced in Israel.

The present bill, initiated by MKs Yuli Tamir, Yariv Levin and Zeev Bielski, aims to make literature in Arabic more readily available.

Tamir (Labor) said yesterday, “This would be an important law, one that ensures the freedom of literature and culture of all citizens. Every citizen is entitled to read literature in his mother tongue. This law would end the absence of children’s books and belles-lettres for Arabic readers.”

The bill calls for freedom to “import books from any country, and allow translations into any language, in order to ensure exposure to a wide array of literature and to expand citizens’ rights to rich cultural lives in their native tongues.”

The proposal allows security authorities to reject the importation of a certain book or journal for content that could be used for incitement, such as literature denying the Holocaust or encouraging terrorism.

In January, the human rights organization Adalah petitioned the High Court to allow Kol-Bo Sefarim – Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic-language textbooks – to import books from Egypt and Jordan that were published in Syria and Lebanon.

The book supplier has imported books from Egypt for three decades, and since 1993, it has imported books from Jordan as well. Most of the books were printed in Syria or Lebanon, but the company had received permission from the chief military censor to import them.

In August of last year, however, Kol-Bo received a letter from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stating its permit to import books from enemy countries would not be renewed. The letter said such books could not even be imported through countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, due to the World War II-era law.

Adalah’s petition noted that 80 percent of books intended for Israel’s Arab community, and most Arabic books destined for college and university libraries in Israel, are printed in Syria and Lebanon, where several large publishing houses hold exclusive rights to translate major Western literary works into Arabic.

Lebanese printing houses hold exclusive rights to translate “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as works released by Britain’s Ladybird Books, which publishes a variety of popular children’s books. The Lebanese printing houses also hold exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of classic works by William Shakespeare and Moliere, and modern works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.

A handful of Syrian printing houses have exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of Hebrew works by Oz, Kaniuk and Nevo.

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Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Damascus, Israel | 1 Comment »

moving from “poor” to “petty”: from مسكين to mesquin

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 26, 2009

Last night I rang in Thanksgiving Eve by reading a little novel with some phrases en francais. One of them used a word that I hadn’t seen before – but which looked a great deal like a word I knew in Arabic.

The French word was “mesquinerie”. Doesn’t that look a great deal like “meskin”, or مسكين?

I thought so, and since I didn’t have a dictionary at hand, I turn, ed to the Internet. Wordreference told me that “mesquin” means something slightly different than “meskin”: “mesquin” means “petty”, or even “cheap”, while “meskin” means “poor”, both in the sense of “without money” and also in the sense of “needing sympathy”.

But – at least according to myetymology.com – the two words are indeed related, and uses of “mesquin” are found as far back in time as the 1600s.

It may be that the connection came through Spanish: An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language, published in 1882 and available online as a Google Book, describes “mesquin” as a Spanish term that came into French in the 1100s:

Mesquin: adj., mean, shabby (properly, poor); from Sp. mezquino (properly the Ar. maskin, poor, mean, servile, then a slave.

The Spanish word also made its way into Italian, as “meschino”. If you are interested in the Italian derivation, as well as an intriguing discussion of how “meskin” came into Arabic, you might enjoy this 1935 article, “The etymology of meschino and its cognates”.

Those of you – like me – with no digital library access will only be able to read the first page – but its a pretty rich page, and well worth reading. It suggests that the “slave” meaning in particular comes from the pre-Arabic usage, which helps explain the seeming oddity of an Arabic root that means “live” (as in “reside”) transmuting into an adjective that means “poor”.

Posted in Arabic, French, words | 1 Comment »

that old black magic …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 25, 2009

Several years ago, my aunt pointed out something I had never noticed: the great frequency with which articles about – and editorials against – magic and sorcery appear in Gulf newspapers. I thought of her observation when I read earlier this month that Ali Sibat had been sentenced to death for his work as a television psychic. Sibat is Lebanese and lived worked in Lebanon, but was arrested in Saudi Arabia while there on a religious pilgrimage last year.

Here’s an excerpt from the latest Associated Press article on the story:

Saudi Arabia should overturn a death sentence imposed on a Lebanese national convicted of practicing witchcraft during a visit to the conservative kingdom, an international human rights group said in a report late Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Saudi government to halt “its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”

The report highlights the ongoing complaints over the Saudi justice system, which, while based on Islamic law, leaves a wide leeway to individual judges and can often result in dramatically inconsistent sentences.

Ali Sibat, a Lebanese psychic who made predictions on a satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut, was arrested by religious police in the holy city of Medina during a pilgrimage there in May 2008 and then sentenced to death Nov. 9.

Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom by local papers for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortune-telling. These practices are considered polytheism by the government of this deeply religious Muslim country.

Sibat seems to have been arrested somewhat by chance: he was recognized while in Medina, and those who recognized him informed the local authorities.

Here’s a September article from Arab News, the English-language Saudi newspaper, that addresses the issue of magic (or sorcery, as it is often called in the Gulf papers). It incorporates several common themes: the sinfulness of magic and its historic omnipresence; the connection between sorcerers/magicians and 1) Africans or dark-skinned people, 2) avarice, 3) women; and the real presence of evil in this world, which religion can address but magic cannot.

JEDDAH: Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery. It is, however, not just sorcerers who make money — those who treat (or claim to treat) magic and the evil eye are also rolling in dollars. While there is mystery surrounding how magic is done, some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries.

At the same time, magic is an old human practice, which has existed in many countries and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.

Sara Mohammed, a single 28-year-old woman, said a sorcerer once told her she was unmarried because someone had cast a spell on her. “I have been facing problems all my life and I was looking for something to change my fortune for the better. A relative told me that she knew a man who could help me because I may be under some kind of spell,” Sara said.

The man who her relative introduced her turned out to be an African sorcerer who had been residing in the Kingdom for some time. Sara visited him at his home, which she described as a “rotten place with a terrible stench.”

Afraid to go alone, she took her cousin along. “I went in and his wife offered us tea. We refused to drink anything there. My cousin was laughing and giggling as she felt the entire setup was just a big joke. The man then began asking me about my situation and held up a small cup filled with olive oil,” she added. Sara laughs for a few seconds and then explains that the sorcerer then began acting strange by whispering into the cup. “He then said my ex-fiancé had cast a spell on me and that he could undo it for SR1,800. I told him that he was asking for far too much money. He held the cup up once again and started talking and haggling with this supposed jinn inside,” she said, laughing.

“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said.

People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is. Some people pay large amounts of money to sorcerers, believing they will eventually give them happiness. Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals.

“Two elderly members of my family who are sisters met a sorceress who told them that their sister-in-law had cast a spell on them. They believed everything that she told them,” said Saleh. She added that the two sisters were experiencing some domestic problems and in the course of their fascination with magic even claimed to have seen the ground split open and their sister-in-law appear and cast a spell on them. “They then began selling their personal belongings and even furniture to pay the sorceress to break the spell,” said Saleh, adding that other members of the family even tried to explain to them that magic was forbidden in Islam, but to no avail. “They’re still, even to this day, engrossed in weird rituals. They burned coriander and black pepper at my sister’s wedding to protect her wedding dress from harm,” she said, adding that her relatives are educated women and not ignorant.

Reports surfaced in July that divers searching for the body of a young woman who drowned off Jeddah’s Corniche discovered 22 bottles containing papers with names scrawled on them, as well as pieces of jewelry and locks of hair. It is thought these items were spells cast into the sea as part of some magic ritual. Some sheikhs cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected.

Some of these people have even developed reputations of being very proficient in what they do and are known to charge around SR100 or more per visit. One sheikh who helps fight black magic and the effects of the evil eye said that magic is everywhere. The sheikh, who asked not to be named, charges SR100 per visit. He even has an office where he receives clients.

“Black magic is widely practiced nowadays. It’s all over the Internet and even in toy stores,” he said giving the example of Ouija boards, which are sold in stores.

A woman told Arab News that she went to this sheikh after her son decided to break off his engagement. “I just felt my son was behaving strangely. It was out of character. The girl he was engaged to was suitable for him,” she said. “The sheikh treated my son with verses of the Qur’an and Zamzam water. He then abandoned his intention and then married that girl. They are very happy,” she added.

I’m personally not a great fan of astrologists, psychics, etc. But this story is rather horrifying: a man goes to the holiest cities of Islam to perform an act of piety, and is arrested and sentenced to death for breaking the law – a violation that occurred in another country, under a different set of laws. Talk about a guardian state …

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, education, Islam, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia | Leave a Comment »

“When the midnight camel leaves for Tripoli…”: Bing Crosby’s “The Road to Lebanon”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 23, 2009

Inspired by QN’s recent musical turn (“it took five minutes,” he claimed when I spoke with him yesterday. “Much less time than researching and writing another analysis for the blog.”), I thought I’d share another musical gem with all of you: The Road to Lebanon, a bizarrely enticing 1958 television special. Think “movie of the week” meets “vaudeville”, with a splash of camels and some belly dancing.

The entire production is viewable online at Retrovision, which describes the show as follows:

A rare, television-produced “road” picture which most fans don’t know about. Bing Crosby is scouting locations in Beirut to do another road picture – without his [usual] partner, Bob Hope! When he runs into Danny Thomas, who is judging a local beauty contest, Bing and Danny are kidnapped by a sheik who is out to punish Thomas because one of his ancestors committed the sin of getting a nose job. Many musical numbers, live camels and even Bob Hope himself add to the fun in this TV rarity.

The twist here, of course, is that Danny Thomas was Lebanese – and spoke Arabic. He plays all the male Arab characters, including Ali-Ali-Oxen-Free, the sheikh who seeks to put him to death because Danny’s emigrant ancestor supposedly got a nose job after arriving in the United States. While the story itself is beyond light, and the stereotypes are rife (the title of this post is taken from the opening song), the Arabic is hysterical. Clearly, he and the producers anticipated at least some Arabic-speakers among the viewers, and cared enough about them as an audience to give them a good laugh.

Let me give you an example.

While wandering through the desert (I know: its not Lebanon. But in the story, its a desert) to escape the sheikh, Danny tries to plead his case before an unsympathetic armed guard. “Amil maarouf,” he starts. “Bt7ibb la7m bi-tanjara, kibbe nayyeh, ou baba ghannoush?” The guard nods, grinning, and turns away.

“What did you say?” Crosby asks. “I don’t know,” Danny replies. “I either said, ‘Take me to your leader’ or ‘someone’s taking a bath in the water hole’.”

But he did know, and so would any Arabic speaker watching, and so will you.

Happy watching!

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, cedar, music, women | Leave a Comment »

taking the “advertising cake”: today’s Arab satellite channels

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 15, 2009

I’m not a big television watcher: I don’t even own a television. But I do watch the television industry – particularly that in the Arab world. This weekend, The National, Abu Dhabi’s well-funded English-language newspaper, published a very interesting piece on the current state of the Arab satellite television industry.

Here’s the article, with commentary:

ABU DHABI // Despite losing billions of dollars every year, many Arab satellite television channels continue to operate because their purpose is to push political agendas, a recent report says.

[I’m not sure about the idea that each of these channels is meant to advocate a political agenda. There are all kinds of channels on air: real estate channels, “environment” channels, children’s channels, music video/sms channels, movie channels, etc. I agree that most are not economically viable – but this doesn’t mean that all are operated for political reasons. Some seem to be more vanity channels than anything else – a sign of the owner’s wealth, or philanthropic outlook, or cultural orientation, or technological hipness, or … the list is endless. After all, who knows what someone rich enough to bankroll a satellite channel might want out of it – the delightful variety of buying something other than another sports car?]

There are 510 Arab satellite channels operating at a cost of nearly US$6 billion (Dh22bn) a year, according to the report from the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research.

[Wow. in 2007, if I remember correctly, there were just over 300 channels. That’s a growth of 100 channels per year in the past two years – two years dominated by a major economic crisis. It might also help to think of this comparatively. The Arab world has an estimated 2009 population of nearly 340 million – which means that there is one channel for approximately 670,000 viewers. The United States has an estimated 2009 population of 304 million, which would mean by extension that we would under the Arab model have more than 450 channels. But our channels are meant to be profitable – and profits for them require viewerships in the millions.]

The combined annual revenue of those channels is less than $700 million, the report said.

[Wow, again. Operating costs: $6 billion. Revenues: $700 million. That’s an annual operating deficit of $5.3 billion. Even taking out the operating costs borne by state channels, think of how many sports cars and other luxury items that money could buy for these stations’ owners. The intangible benefits of station ownership must be very, very compelling.]

“That clearly means there are a number of satellite channels that are able to continue broadcasting despite their losses for more than 18 years,” said Ali Jaber, the dean of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School For Communication in Dubai.

“It also means that those who fund those channels despite their losses are governments and businessmen who have political pursuits.”

[Ummm. Here’s where we differ. I do agree that the clear non-viability of these channels means that they are being bankrolled by people who are indifferent to the cost – including governments running national channels. But I do not agree that all the private channels must be run for political gain – and I don’t think that Jaber has made his case for this argument.]

However, many of the channels have been unable to achieve the social and political change they had hoped for, researchers found.

“It’s true the number of channels has doubled and the quality of programmes has developed,” said Dr Mohammed Ayesh, a communications professor at Sharjah University.

“But the bigger question is how much they have contributed to political progress and cultural development. That is something that is still far out of reach.”

[Is that the standard by which television channels should be judged? I think there has been an elision here, between American and European ideas of public, non-profit channels and Arab-world channels that de facto bleed money. We do not ask whether NBC or HBO aid Americans’ political progress, or enhance our cultural development. I’m not sure that this is a fair standard to put on Arab-world channels.]

He said many channels were a source of cultural confusion because their programmes were not in harmony with the social norms of the Arab community.

[This is an interesting, but somewhat different issue.]

The report, which was published in the latest issue of Future Horizons magazine, found that Arab satellite channels account for two per cent of global advertising spending.

Most of that revenue, 95 per cent, is collected by fewer than 10 per cent of the channels.

[Advertising rates are incredibly low throughout the region, including print as well as broadcast media. I think these statistics show two things: that there are some highly viable channels broadcasting today, and that the others either have too few viewers to attract advertisers or do not make an effort to attract them.]

But the goal of many satellite channels is not to earn revenue, but to attract viewers to serve political agendas, Mr Jaber said.

“The advertising cake is known and its value is, at most, US$700 million annually, which is shared among the main networks, with small amounts left for small channels that revolve around the main ones,” he said.

[Um. First, I love the translation of “pie” as “cake”. Second: $700 million was the amount listed above as the total channel revenues. If this is the same number, I would like to know why other revenue streams – including mid-2000s revenue darling sms scrolls – have been excluded.]

Ahmad Abdul Malik, a Qatari writer and a founder of Sharjah TV, said many Arab satellite channels failed to attract large audiences because they lacked quality programming and were seen as propaganda outlets for governments and other groups. “I think the Arab official satellite channels have been obsolete,” he said. “And I can list more than 16 official satellite channels that no one in the Arab World would want to watch because they lack the basics of television operation, and they were established for political propaganda.”

Mr Malik said only a few private channels attracted large audiences because they “deviate from the ways of the official propagandistic channels”.

The rest, he said, either claimed to be independent when they were really official “to the very core” or called for sectarianism and indecency.

[This man says quite a lot. There is a quality issue: many channels simply buy older, already-broadcast content, generally from the U.S.. People still refer to Friends, for example. There is also an issue of blatantly propagandistic channels, often also sporting poor-quality productions – like Al Hurra :D. I think his statement about what channels people choose not to watch needs to be parsed a bit further: channels people do not watch because their content is bad or not interesting, and channels people do not watch because they disagree with their political line.]

Mohammed al Mashnooq, another media expert, said channels had fallen into the “hands of governments” because they lacked clear media strategies. TV channels that met the demands of genuine democratic change, transparency and freedom were the ones that would flourish, he said.

[I like Al Mashnooq’s optimistic viewpoint, but again, I’m not sure that television channels should be expected to do all this.]

The report found that despite current losses, some advertising experts were predicting an increase in spending in this sector, because of the growing number of channels and a larger, more active advertising market.

Between 2004 and 2007, according to Arab Consultants Group, the number of Arab satellite channels grew by 270 per cent.

The number of channels owned by the private sector increased by 56, music channels increased by 54 and channels owned by governments increased by 38.

There are now 1,100 satellite channels registered in the Arab world, but only 510 are operational, broadcasting from three satellites: ArabSat, NileSat and NourSat.

[Goodness. 1,100 channels? I can’t even imagine.]

Some of the more popular channels are Al Jazeera, which is based in Qatar; and Al Arabiya and MBC, which are based in Saudi Arabia but broadcast from Dubai.

[These are popular channels – actually, networks, with each having one flagship and several subsidiary channels. But Al Jazeera has historically had a very difficult time getting advertising – other than ads from Qatari state companies, that is. And I’m not sure that Arabiya does all that much better. MBC is the only network I see with a fully articulated economic model that pushes for a sizable advertising revenue stream.]

The UAE hosts 22 per cent of Arab satellite channels, the most of any country in the region.

[And most of these are Saudi-owned. Again – a very, very interesting article, about a complex, engaging topic.]

You can read the article, sans commentary, here.

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Arabic, economics, television | Leave a Comment »

Logorrhea, Mufti-Style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 2, 2009

When it rains, it pours. and pours. and pours. and sometimes pours out so much that it starts to sound rabid. or maybe just very, very, very post-modern.

When I clicked on Naharnet’s evening headline, Jouzo: Let the Lebanese Maronite and the Rest of Lebanon Go Back to Syria, what I hoped to find were a few mis-translation gems. It never crossed my mind that this headline might in fact actually be what Mufti “dare to spell differently” Muhammed al Jouzo said. But apparently it was.

So. Let’s take this step by step.

In a statement on Sunday, Lebanese Sunni Mufti of Mt. Lebanon Sheikh Muhammed al-Jouzo said that “Lebanon has turned into an Arab Babylonian tower with its folkloric leaderships and new parliamentary faces only fit for exhibitions and decorations while the losers turn into sectarian symbols standing on the government’s doors” with their conditions hindering the formation of the government.

It must be hard to be the Sunni mufti of Mount Lebanon, an area historically low in Sunnis and high in other groups with elevated senses of their own importance. But sometimes getting up on a soapbox does more harm than good. Ancient Babylon was not Arab, and Lebanon’s leaders are not folkloric, unless “za’imi” now translates as “folkloric”. On the other hand, a MP campfire singalong would make for a priceless photo op. And I bet Sheikh Saad has a guitar.

“There are politicians who move from right to left and vice versa while their slogans change with the stock exchange. One day you see him a Gulf Arab and another day a Persian Iranian when a third time he becomes an American and then again a Russian. One day you see him an enemy of Syria and then again Syria’s best friend and so on. There are no principles, no morale, no charters and the ‘unity’ presidency stands bewildered before the political “Sufi-sectarianism”; next to the allies or to the opposition!” he added.

The Lebanese stock exchange changes basically only when Solidere does. The U.S. stock exchange, on the other hand, has been on a pleasant upward tick, Friday’s 250-point decline aside. Which bourse is he referring to here? And the only political figure who might possibly qualify for the bewildering khaliji-ajami-amerki-russi raqs is, of course, Yoda Bey. But even with him I’m skeptical. As for “Sufi-sectarianism” … hunh. I just don’t get it, but I’m trying. (Sunni Mevlevis twirl with hands up, Shii with hands down?)

“There’s no civilized nation in the world like that of our Great Lebanon. The Lebanese people abhor this category. To those I ask you, what’s your true identity? Who robs the electricity money, the foreign, internal, sea and land telecommunications’ money? A nation that lives the culture of hate with leaders leading them to sectarian wars, hating each other; hatred in the name of religion, in the name of sectarianism and in the name of the parties,” he added.

I’ve read this bit several times now, and I’m still wondering: which category is it that the Lebanese people abhor? Civilized? Nation? Great? Lebanon? And are they the “those” whom al Jouza addresses? (I think we all get the point of his question about robbery, but I don’t understand its connection to this bit about categories and abhorrence.) Condemning hate sounds more equitably distributed – “hating each other” – and hate is a good thing for a religious leader to condemn, even if his words are a bit vague.

“Our educated youth is faced with only one exit, that of emigration. They have grown to hate their country and their nationality and have traveled in quest of finding another one keen to protect their integrity and protect them from the politicians and their resentment,” he continued.

What? I’m not questioning the fact of emigration, but what other types of exits might there be? Mental? And as for “hating their country and their nationality” and journeying on some heroic quest to find another (a much nicer way of putting it than “trying for the American passport”), most overseas Lebanese I’ve met want nothing more than to return home.

This is the Lebanon of today, so why don’t all the people emigrate and offer our country as a gift to Syria and their infidels? Did not the Maronite come from Syria, so why not go back to it and along with them all of Lebanon and not just those who have missed Syria?,” he concluded.

Ah, the sectarian fun begins. Here’s where an Arabic original would be helpful (and here’s also where we reach and exceed the limits of back translation …), as well as a history lesson. By “infidels” does he mean the Alaouites who run Syria, or is suggesting that Syrians in general are irreligious? And what’s with the jibe at Maronites?

Finally, and just as a minor point: historically speaking, the Lebanese who wanted Lebanon to go back to Syria were the Sunnis. And only the Sunnis.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Islam, Lebanon, religion, Syria, Uncategorized, words | 1 Comment »

ones & zeros, waheds & sifrs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

A friend of mine works as a technology journalist, and she just gave a big thumbs up to the newly launched Windows 7. I’m happy that the new system seems to be such a hit, although I doubt that I will personally get to try it out anytime soon. I use a Mac at home, and my work PC snidely reminds me that I “do not have Administrator privileges!” every time I try to approve even the most innocuous update.

However, I’m not writing this post simply for the chance to whine about my dis-empowerment. I’m writing because I’m happy to report that Windows 7 is also launching in Arabic – not a year from now, not six months from now, not whenever the programmers remember that there are indeed people in the world who do not use Roman script, but in two weeks. (You can see the news on PC Mag‘s website, here.) Nor is this a last-minute line extension, either: I remember seeing news about the availability of a beta version last winter.

I think this reflects a very healthy evolution in computing culture. After all, computers think in 0s and 1s. They don’t care whether programs use script that reads left to right or right to left – but historically, programs have been biased towards the former, meaning that Arabic script often looks buggy.

Actually, Arabic still usually looks buggy on my Mac – not that I plan to go back to a home PC anytime soon. But for those of you who enjoy living in the PC world, you might check out Microsoft’s dedicated Arabic product and support site, here.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic | Leave a Comment »

imagining a big bottle of water

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 28, 2009

Generally speaking, I prefer not to be a spectacle. In public, I like it best when people look at me once, decide that I am of no particular interest, and move on to look at other things.

But sometimes a little spectacle is a worthwhile price to pay for a great outing – as when my aunt and I go out with some of her Doha friends.

The morning after I arrived in Doha, we went to the beautifully restored Souk al Wakif for breakfast with Umm M and three of her daughters. I hadn’t seen any of the Umms in four years, and it was a delight to reconnect.

Our outing was a delight for everyone in the souk that morning as well. To the untrained eye, we don’t look like a group that should belong together. Some of the Umms wear niqab; some wear abayas with headscarves. I dress in the Gulf in what might be best described as “bohemian music teacher” style: long swoopy skirt, long-sleeved shirt, and hair left to its own messy devices. The khala wears tea-length linen or cotton dresses. As a group, we look like a live-action staging of Sesame Street‘s “One of these things is not like the other” series.

We know this, and we accept that together we are indeed spectacular. (The six of us think that the stares are kind of a hoot, actually.)

After gracing the souk with our collective presence, and providing its merchants and shoppers with ample topics for morning chats, we entered one of the nicer restaurants and sat down for a heart-healthy breakfast of hummus and falafel.

Our waiter, a young Levantine man with beautiful eyes, did his best to act nonchalant, and to cope with the fact that each item ordered prompted extensive discussion among the five of us, in a mixture of Arabic and English. And this is where things got tricky.

Umm M had been doing most of the ordering – in Arabic. But when he asked whether we wanted anything to drink, our ordering was derailed by the need to count and recount the number of women who wanted tea. I love tea, but only with milk, so I wanted to be sure that we had water as well.

Ou 2aninat mai2 kabireh, please, I said.

It didn’t seem like a difficult request. After all, I was the person nearest to him, I was speaking clearly, and I wasn’t whispering.

I’m sorry? the waiter said, looking at me as if I had just broken into Japanese.

Sigh. I’ve mentioned my troubles with the Arabic word for “water” before – but the problem was one of having a culturally awkward pronunciation (Syrian rather than Lebanese), not one of having an incomprehensible pronunciation. And “large bottle of water” is a phrase that I have said at least one thousand times – so I didn’t think that I had mucked it up too badly.

I tried again, in English, with Umm M backing me up in Arabic.

When the waiter left, she burst out laughing.

Did you see, IntlXpatr? she asked my aunt. The waiter looked at her and couldn’t imagine that she was speaking Arabic – so he didn’t understand her.

Thank you, I said. I was beginning to wonder whether I had really lost my Arabic.

I haven’t lost it, but I did forget how jarring it is for people when I speak – a total face and language disconnect. In Beirut I used to find that people were much more willing to take me as an Arabic-speaker when I kept my sunglasses on.

So: lesson learned. The next time we have breakfast with the Umms, I’m going to add to our collective spectacle by wearing a pair of massive sunglasses inside the restaurant :).


Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, family, food, friends, Qatar, women | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, research, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

hummus for the Homsis

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 17, 2009

Its been a work-weekend for me, and I’m afraid that I have nothing witty or even vaguely interesting to contribute to the blogosphere. On the other hand, I did manage – barely, but still! – to make several key deadlines, which is making me inordinately impressed with myself.

When not work-working, I’ve been working on straightening up my apartment. My parents, Big and Business Diamond, are arriving on Friday, and while they aren’t staying with me, they certainly will not be impressed by the amount of paper debris collecting on my desk, side table, and coffee table. What can I say? I am a paper magnet.

Buried in those paper piles are several old issues of Aramica, which I skimmed before adding to my recycling. Those of you who read Arabic may get a kick out of this issue’s collection of Homsi jokes:

IMG_1159

My understanding is that Aramica’s audience includes Arab New Yorkers from all around the region, although skewing slightly Lebanese in its coverage thanks to the publisher. Evidently the market for Homsi jokes is broad enough to amuse all of them – Egyptian, Yemeni, Palestinian, etc.

The jokes are a little stereotypical for me, but they were certainly a change from everything else I had been doing 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, humor, Syria | 1 Comment »