A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘French’ Category

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 »

feeling nervous

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 21, 2009

My aunt recently wrote a charming post, “words strung together in new ways“, about the joys of hearing English phrases put together in fresh new ways by people for whom English is a second or third language. “When you put words together in new ways, you think new thoughts”, she notes, citing a friend’s use of “Christmas wrath” rather than “Christmas wreath”, and how that led my aunt to think about the many stresses that do often hit around Christmas-time.

I’ve been thinking about language cross-overs as well, but more so in terms of what the French call faux amis: words that exist in either the same or slightly modified form in two languages, but whose meanings don’t really match one another’s. They look like friends – like the words you already know – but their different meanings make them false.

There aren’t many faux amis causing trouble between English and Arabic, but there are a number of French/English faux amis running around in Lebanon, even when the speaker in question isn’t French educated, because the French definition has taken over the English word – as with ‘nervous’.

‘Nervous’ and ‘énervé’, its French counterpart, both have the same baseline: they refer to an agitation of the nerves. But in English, ‘nervous’ refers more to apprehension – an anxious or slightly frightened state brought about by sensitive or easily jangled nerves. In French, ‘énervé’ refers more to irritation – an agitation brought about by something, as we English say, ‘getting on’ one’s nerves.

So when I say “Person X makes me nervous”, or “flying makes me nervous”, I mean something subtly but substantively different than “Person X gets on my nerves” or “flying [through the oft-delayed O’Hare, for example] irritates me”.

But in Lebanon, the easy flow of speech between Arabic, English, and French has meant that these differences have been smoothed away: ‘nervous’ is used in English as if it were French. Which of course for me made for many awkward conversations in Beirut.

I feel really nervous today, G would say.

Ah, I would say, struggling for context. Do you mean that you are worried about something, or irritated about something?

DIAMOND, G would reply, I just said “I feel really nervous today”. What do you think that means?

And thanks to the all-caps use of my name, I would have my answer :).

There are also faux amis that exist within English: between British and American English, most notably. When I lived in Damascus, I would be equally thrown by my friend S’s use of ‘boring’.

The border crossing is so boring, S would say, referring to the crossing between Syria and Lebanon.

Being the people-watching nerd that I am, I found the border crossing fascinating, but I didn’t think that S really meant ‘tiresome’.

Do you mean that you find it tedious or that you find the process annoying? I would ask.

S would look at me. Both, Diamond. The border crossing is tedious and the process is annoying, as are the border guards, the customs inspectors, and everyone else.

(S grew up in Britain, and sometimes found the lack of orderliness in Syria a bit overwhelming.)

Having just spent an evening with two friends, one who has been laid off since September and one who says that he and the rest of his team have “three things to do, max” each day, I find myself with a growing sympathy for the dual meaning of both words. Being anxious, as so many of us are these days thanks to the plummeting economy, is both nerve-wracking and irritating. And being bored at a job that may soon be cut because there is no work to be done is also annoying – not to mention frightening.

Posted in Arabic, French, words | Leave a Comment »

Joyeux Noel de Taanayel et CDG

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 22, 2008

Qifa Nabki sent me this link, to Taanayel’s holiday ad, on Saturday, with a note stating apologetically that “I’m about 99% sure that you’ve already seen this ad”. Well, I hadn’t – count  me among that remaining 1% of slow adapters / inept YouTube’rs.

But it was worth the wait. The ad itself is a total hoot, and as an amateur linguist, I also enjoying pondering when (and why) Mme. Lebneh /Teta Latifeh switches to Arabic:

If only the CDG flights-to-Lebanon/flights-to-North-America terminal hop were this smooth in reality 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Arabic, family, French, Lebanon | 2 Comments »

a mandate mystery: Night Falls On Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 29, 2008

You said that you read two books this past weekend, my aunt noted. What was the second book?

Oops. I got so carried away with my post on Jamelie, Jamelie that I forgot about the second one – and it was a total gem. Frederick Highland’s Night Falls on Damascus is set in the mid-Mandate period of the early 1930s, and it tells the story of a Lebanese man, Nicolai Faraoun (whose mother was Russian – hence the curious spelling of his first name), a former Legionnaire who has recently been appointed chief of Damascus’ police forces. He’s a few other things besides, but I won’t ruin the narrative for any would-be readers – like you, Intlxpatr :)! – by revealing all so soon.

The story is good, the characters are well-drawn, and the setting … well … nothing can beat Damascus :). But what I loved best about this book was the way in which it read like a part of a much longer series. From the first page, I felt that I had entered a world that was already in motion – Highland handled the tricky issues of narrative exposition and background with incredible finesse. It was almost like watching a movie – except, of course, that the movie was entirely in my mind.

There were a few oddities – but most were oddities of time rather than authorial mis-understandings. I almost laughed out loud seeing the streets called “boulevards” – especially “Midhat Boulevard”, which locals today know as Midhat Pasha, and which tourists call al-sharia al-mustaqim, “the street called straight”.

(I know: that’s the name of the street in the Bible. But the Bible was published a long, long time ago – and since the 1870s, the street has been known as Midhat Pasha, after the reformist bureaucrat who modernized Ottoman law.)

I laughed, but at the same time I realized that during the Mandate era the French government probably did insist on referring to the city streets as “Baghdad Boulevard”. And of course there was no “Sahhat Yusuf al-Azmeh” then!

Highland maintains a website dedicated to the books he has written (several, although no other books set in Damascus, sadly!), with a page about Night Falls On Damascus that includes short essays he has written about Damascene food, the battle of Maysaloun and other Mandate-era events. You can visit it here.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Beirut, books, Damascus, family, French, Lebanon, media, politics, Syria, time, travel, women, words | 4 Comments »

French: God’s gift to the world

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 17, 2008

This morning at the gym I nearly fell off my elliptical machine at the earthshaking news contained in a rather tame-looking account of a recent lecture at Kaslik’s more-Maronite-than-thou Holy Spirit University.

The lecture was somewhat grandly titled “International Relations and Francophonie Employed for the Dialogue of Civilizations”, which in retrospect I should have taken as a warning – but the article began rather innocently, describing the talk as “focusing on the advantages of being francophone”.

Okay – fair enough. I don’t think of myself as francophone per se, but I do speak French, and I did live in Paris, and I do have a weakness for fresh baguettes … so I’m not un-sympathetic to the cause of francophonie.

The article continued with a further description of the talk, explaining that it “championed the Canadian method of promoting the French language in academic and diplomatic contexts”. The Daily Stars information-provided-on-a- need-to-know-basis-only style of reporting neglected to identify the speaker, but I’m guessing that he/she was Canadian. And as a pretty Frenchy-French speaker, I’m hoping that the “Canadian method” does not also involve promoting the French Canadian accent.

The article next listed some of the eminent audience members, including the university chancellor and “various dignitaries”, including Canada’s ambassador to Lebanon. Again, no hint as to who the speaker might have been, but using my amazing powers of deductive reasoning, I’m still guessing that he/she was Canadian.

Or perhaps it wasn’t one single speaker, but a chorus. Here’s where the lecture took a sudden jump from minorly piquing my interest to making me question both the speaker’s (s’?) sanity and my own:

Members of the International Francophone Organization emphasized that half of the world’s francophone communities are in Africa and argued that knowledge of the French language brings academic, economic and political advantages in terms of curbing terrorism, spreading peace and ending tribalism.

What? All that? So merely by knowing French, I am not only helping the war on terror, but I am also contributing to world peace AND the end of tribalism?

I had absolutely no idea that I do so much good for the world.

Posted in Beirut, French, Lebanon, words | 8 Comments »

Lunch with love and protesters: Valentine’s Day in Saifi

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 16, 2008

Like many people in Lebanon, I had Thursday off, thanks to Prime Minister Siniora’s declaration that February 14 would be a national holiday in honor of Rafik Hariri.

I didn’t mind – it would have been difficult to get much done on Thursday anyway, with half the country staying home for fear of roadblocks and political tension, and the other half turning out in force either to the March 14 rally downtown or to Imad Mughniyeh’s funeral in Dahiyeh.

With two dueling politicized commemorations scheduled, not to mention Valentine’s Day, Thursday was the perfect day for a holiday – and a luncheon.

M & M live in Saifi, just below Gemmayze and a few blocks from Martyrs’ Square, where the March 14 rally was being held. None of us is ardently March 14, especially on a rainy winter day – but we all do like to eat, and we all love to keep up with current events. So when M invited H & I for lunch, we happily accepted.

Outside the downtown area, the city was largely deserted. I took this photograph of Hamra at 9:30, when the street is usually packed with honking cars & trucks:


Ghost town.

We left for the M’s early, before noon, assuming that it might take us ages to reach their neighborhood. But we had almost free rein over the roads – at least, over roads like Basta, which were far from the scene of either side’s gathering, and heavily policed by army patrols.

In fact, the only trouble we encountered was the usual kind: parking trouble in Saifi/Gemmayze. Pasteur Street was blocked to non-neighborhood cars, and most street parking was taken by Ouwwet and Kataeb supporters who had come for the rally. Luckily, I had worn “walking” heels, and H had brought an umbrella – so we were well-prepared, by New York standards at least, for the long walk to M’s.

What amazed us were the number of people leaving – it was 12:30, and the rally was only half over, but the cold and rain were clearly sending some people off in search of warmth and dry clothing.

People leaving the rally on the near side of the divided road; people going to the rally on the far side:


For us, the afternoon was all about warmth and dry clothing – not to mention good food. M had made a thick vegetable soup, followed by mjaddara with raita for me, and beef lasagne with salad for the normal (i.e., meat-eating) guests.

As we ate, we listened to the speeches and tried to discern who was speaking and what was being said. Since we heard both the rally’s loudspeakers and the Kataeb headquarter’s rebroadcasting, it was mostly a wash.

I think he just said “Hariri”, J said at one point. J’s Arabic is limited to “hello”, “thank you” and “all of it”, for when he goes to the barbershop for a head shave – but given the day and the occasion, “Hariri” was a good guess. (And when we needed confirmation, H would check with the television in the living room, where all the news channels were broadcasting the rally.)

Looking towards the northern edge of Martyrs’ Square from M’s mezzanine terrace:


Looking towards the upper center of Martyrs’ Square (the white tent covers Hariri’s grave):


Looking down at Pasteur Street and the lower end of the Kataeb building:


Looking across the way to the next building, whose rooftop had been rented by France 24, according to H:


The square emptied quickly once the rally ended – by the time we left the M’s, the neighborhood was as empty as Hamra had been that morning. But as we spooned up the chocolate mousse-cum-praline that M had made, round after round of machine gun fire reminded us that quiet is a relative term.

Does someone in Gemmayze love Nasrallah, who was just finishing his eulogy/call to war? We couldn’t figure it out. And what I can’t figure out is how five utterly sane people can hear sustained machine-gun fire and consider it so normal 😐 .

Posted in Beirut, food, French, friends, Lebanon, media, neighbors, photography, politics, rain, television, time, traffic, umbrellas, vanity, weather | 2 Comments »

glamour & espionage: Vichy Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 6, 2008

H’s dream of ordering a whiskey straight up at the old St. George Hotel Bar died in the mid 1970s – but Beirut was glamorous for decades before. During my flight home from Seattle, I entertained myself with Open House, a 2000 novel written by Nabil Saleh, a Lebanese-British lawyer perhaps better known for his writings on Islamic (la riba) investing.

Here’s what Open House‘s back cover had to say about the story inside:

Beirut in 1940-a carefree social whirl under the shadow of war, a city of torn allegiances, treason and love. After France’s crushing defeat by the German army, the pro-German Vichy French control Lebanon and Syria, while Britain tightens her grip over Palestine and Iraq. Diplomats and politicians manoeuvre as spies and agents intrigue in the narrow and deadly streets.

Commandant Robert Herve’s plotting to remove the Vichy High Commissioner, Nadine de Kebourg on a secret mission from France. Albert of the Jewish Agency and the socialite Odene Philips and Rashid Habib, a journalist caught in a tangle of greed and loyalty. These and many others are the actors in a tense and powerful drama, shot through with dark humor.

The writing gets a bit over-wrought, but the story is good and the texture of the setting is really wonderful. Its a great joy to read a book that gets the geography of Beirut right – and it also gives a sense of what kind of center Beirut’s downtown area used to be. The Vichy connection is also interesting – several characters are Lebanese Jews, not particularly interested in Zionism but very concerned about rumors that Vichy regulations regarding Jews will be implemented in Lebanon.

All in all, a delightful airplane read – although I’m still mystified by the Chinese lanterns on the cover:


Posted in Beirut, books, French, Lebanon, nightlife, Palestine, politics, romance | Leave a Comment »

red, red w(h)ine

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 14, 2007


To most Lebanese bartenders, I look like a white wine drinker.

This would be infinitely more appealing if I were a white wine drinker. Instead, I prefer red, which creates all kinds of confusion when ordering.

Last night, for example, I went out with some friends for drinks in Gemmayze. When the waiter arrived, I said: a glass of red wine, please.

White wine? he asked.

Red wine, please, I replied.

White wine? he asked, again.

No, I said. Red wine.

Of course, he said, returning a few minutes later with a glass of rose.


For a while, I thought the problem lay in my pronunciation – particularly since I often ordered in Arabic. Maybe my “nabid a7mar” and “nabid abyad” somehow sounded similar.

So I switched to French – vin rouge vs. vin blanc, with no success. Obviously, it wasn’t the language – the problem is me.

I used to find the glasses of white wine that magically appear in front of me annoying, but I’ve learned better. Now I just smile and tell my friends: watch. Its like my own little magic trick.

Posted in Arabic, Beirut, French, nightlife | 2 Comments »

a leader by any other name …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 11, 2007

This weekend should be a busy one both for and in Lebanon. For some of my friends, it promises to be a big beach weekend; for others, its the chance for a long weekend in Istanbul; and for G, it means an eagerly-awaited reunion with a high-school friend.

For Lebanon’s politicians, this weekend brings the long-anticipated and much discussed summit in France, which has been receiving great international attention thanks to its inclusion of Hizbullah – the first time the party has been welcomed as a Lebanese political participant by a Western government.

I’m optimistic about the talks, although I am pessimistic about the Lebanese political system overall. Much as I complain about faults in the US system, I miss the idea of political parties when I am here.

Parties, as in institutionalized organizations whose life and relevance does not depend on the charisma of one particular man, or the long-standing eminence of one particular family. For example, the GOP may have supported Bush pere et fils, but it does not need them – its institutional structure and voter base are what give it strength and longevity, not any one political figure.

With that on my mind, I scowled at one of the graffitis I pass every morning – graffiti that was painted on the walls late this spring, and that no one in the neighborhood wants to (or feels safe to) take down:


Its a message of support for Saad Hariri, and it says: “yes to the leader of the Future Party”.

At least, that’s how I would translate it for comprehension in an American context.

But the word I’m translating as “leader” is “za3im”, which is less a political leader (or even a business manager, which is the primary function of the US party heads) than a charismatic figure whose leadership is grounded in his monopolization of both the means of force and the local patronage networks.

And the word I’m translating as “party” is “movement” or “tendency”, two much more transient entities.

I’m optimistic about the talks in France, but that graffiti reminds me that what I wish Lebanon’s political class would take from France is a civics lesson.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, citizenship, French, friends, graffiti, Lebanon, politics, research, words | 1 Comment »

the ABC’s of advertising

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 10, 2007

ABC, Lebanon’s main department store, started decades ago as a little five-and-dime on Hamra street. It has since become a much more upscale, glamorous place – so much so that Achrafieh’s mall, which it anchors, is called “the ABC”. That’s “Ah-bay-say”, as in French :-).

I have a soft spot for the ABC, as two of my favorite scarves came from there. They are beautiful, and people comment on them wherever I go. I love it when someone in, say, the St. Louis airport compliments me on one and I say, thank you. I bought it in Beirut.

Anyway. ABC has recently begun a new advertising campaign, one that I quite like.

The ads appear in local newspapers and on billboards around the city, in Arabic, English, and French, and I think they are brilliant.

They play with two-word expressions common in each language, super-imposing each word over an image that suggests products available at the store.

Here’s an example, taken in Hamra:


The text in Arabic reads “qahwa 7elwa”, which we might translate as “coffee with three sugars. The ad suggests that shoppers can get a coffee at the ABC (which does indeed have a cafe, as well as numerous restaurants in the mall proper), and also that women can become “7elweh” there thanks to ABC’s extensive make-up selection.


This one is equally nice (and no, the rubble behind the billboard is not war damage – its construction. an old building has been torn down to make way for a new luxury mini-condo building). The Arabic reads “sitt [al-]beit”, which means lady of the house.

Again, the images suggest that ABC sells things for women as well as household decor.

The English and French ads are equally nice: an English-language one shows a man hugging a boy and a cornucopia of ties, with the text “Family Ties”, and a French one shows clothing and a smiling boy and reads “Filet Mignon”, which separately mean “thread” and “cute”.

What I like about these advertisements is the way they link text and imagery directly to the notion of ‘department store’.

Advertisements here tend to have captivating visuals and text that is delightfully witty but … barely connects to the brand or product being advertised.

These advertisements use visuals and text to communicate “upscale, family-centered department store” – which to me makes them not only appealing, but also successful.

Posted in advertising, Americans, Arabic, art, Beirut, clothing, economics, fashion, French, Lebanon, media, photography, words | Leave a Comment »