A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

Archive for the ‘words’ 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”.

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Posted in Arabic, French, words | 1 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 »

Israeli zen.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 1, 2009

I have a love-hate relationship with the Jerusalem Post. Love the easy access to its archives; hate its stance on many issues. But this afternoon I’m simply impressed with its Naharnet-like ability to put even the most inane statements to good use.

The Post‘s article about the ongoing two-and-a-half-way spitfest between the Lebanese government and/or Hizbullah, and the Israeli government, is interesting for several reasons. First, note how it describes Ziad Baroud:

Israeli spying devices on foreign soil are a clear violation of international resolutions, Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud said during a visit to southern Lebanon on Sunday.

Baroud, a rising Maronite politician who was appointed interior minister in
2008 as a representative of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman’s bloc, expressed his “determination to continue to uncover espionage networks.”

Interesting. I can’t find any mention of Baroud as a Maronite in the New York Times – in fact, the only result I get when I search for “Maronite politician” is a  1993 article that mentions Michel Edde. To me it says a great deal about Israeli political culture (and, perhaps, the lingering presence of the SLA) that the Post can assume that “Maronite politician” is a term that readers will understand.

But what I really love about this article is the closing:

The Lebanese interior minister’s remarks came a day after Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that Israel was gathering intelligence within Lebanon and would continue to do so until Hizbullah renounced its arms.

“During a conflict with an enemy, one must gather intelligence,” he said, adding that the conflict would end once peace with Lebanon was achieved.

The conflict will end when peace is achieved. Thank you, Mr. Ya’alon, for providing this Zen definition of the day.

Posted in Arab world, Beirut, citizenship, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, religion, Uncategorized, words | Leave a Comment »

the origins of jihad, New Yorker edition

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 23, 2009

I’m on a media kick these days – and totally addicted to online newspaper and magazine archives. One thing that interests me is the way that certain terms come into vogue, and how the meanings that attach to them change over time.

So today I took a peek at the New Yorker‘s archives, curious to see when the word “jihad” first appeared, and in what context.

The New Yorker‘s archives stretch back to 1925, but the first mention of the word “jihad” does not appear until 1985, in the July 8 edition of John Newhouse’s “Diplomatic Round”. Titled “A Freemasonry of Terrorism”, the multi-page article uses the word “jihad” four times – but only as part of the group name “Islamic Jihad”, and not as a religious concept or a political strategy.

Terms that today might be associated with jihad, such as “martyrdom”, are used, but there is nothing in this article about terrorists “advocating jihad” or “espousing jihad” or “belief in jihad”.

The next article to use the term is Jane Kramer’s April 14, 1986 “Letter from Europe”. Kramer also uses “jihad” only as part of “Islamic Jihad”. (After introducing the group, she refers to them as “the jihad” in a way that reminds me of how some journalists today talk about “the hizb”. I find this approach bizarre, but what do I know?) Nor does this start much of a trend: the word “jihad” does not appear again until a July 1990 piece on Egypt, where it is again used as the name of a group (“Jihad”).

However, by November 1995, the situation appeared to be changing. A piece by Mary Anne Weaver on “The Annals of Covert Action”, titled “The Stranger”, used the term as follows:

“… the C.I.A.-sponsored “jihad”, or holy war, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan …”.

In other words, “jihad” now appeared as a term of its own, but required a definitional gloss for readers.

By July 1998, the word had become detached not only from group names, but also from the need for definition: a feature on the failure Prince Charles’ campaign for traditional building styles described him as on “a jihad against modern architecture”.

I don’t have any sweeping conclusions to offer about this – I just find it interesting. Next up: “jihad” in the New York Times, where its use as noun and metaphor has a much longer history.

Posted in internet, media, research, words | Leave a Comment »

loving thy neighbor

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 29, 2009

Today’s post was intended to be a tour of Doha’s nightlife. But my eye was caught yesterday by two news stories – or rather, by the popular responses to each.

When it comes to Lebanon, I sometimes find it hard to follow Christ’s second commandment. And as a Christian, the neighbors I find harder to love are more often than not Lebanon’s Christians.

I don’t mean this post to be one of casting the first stone – after all, the United States has had its share of intra-Christian sectarian woes. I recall one of our childhood neighbors telling me that as a child his schoolmates demanded to see his horns, because as Protestants they had been told in church that Catholics have horns on their head like the Devil. But that was 50 years ago, and I am shocked by what I have read this week.

My first shock came from an article in Monday’s Daily Star about the current mayor of Broumanna, Waleed Rizk. Rizk, the town’s long-time vice-mayor, whatever that means, became mayor after the previous mayor, Pierre Achkar, stepped down in order to be eligible to run for Parliament in the recent elections.

That isn’t the shocking part – I think that requiring candidates for one post to give up their current post is not a bad idea, and one that the United States  might consider. What shocked me is the reaction of some Broumannis to the fact that their new mayor is Greek Orthodox and not Maronite:

Traditionally the mayor of Brummana is Maronite, usually running along family lines with Pierre’s own ancestors Georges, Chachine and Georges standing before him.

But, for the first time in Brummana’s history the position has been given not only to a vice mayor but to a Greek Orthodox candidate.

“Usually they say in Brummana the mayor has to be a Maronite, and the vice is Orthodox but now what has happened is I am the mayor and I am Orthodox,” says the newly-appointed Rizk. “When people come into the office surprised that I am Orthodox, I say ‘no, I am not Orthodox, I am simply Brummanese.’”

Rizk says this couldn’t have happened unless the last mayor was forced to step down to run in the parliamentary elections and forfeit his job, leaving little time for a new election.

But now Rizk is having to battle people’s perceptions. “Some people say I shouldn’t be mayor because of my religion, but because I am working hard I am making them start to forget this issue,” Rizk says. “And I do believe the Brummanese will soon forget about it.”

This was shock number one: that the sense of sectarian entitlement extends to the municipal level, and is so deeply felt. For an American equivalent, try substituting race:

“When people come into the office surprised that I am African-American, I say ‘no, I am not African-American, I am simply a New Yorker’.”

“Some people say I shouldn’t be mayor because of my race, but because I am working hard I am making them start to forget the issue.”

Lovely. But there was a second shock – Rizk the sectarian under-dog is also Rizk the very self-entitled member of a big family:

He says that there have always been two families in Brummana who had the ambition to be mayor – the Achkar family and the Rizk family, which caused many years of rivalry. “Our ancestors always used to fight, but now we need to put the past behind us – we are doing what is best for the municipality.”

Right. What if ‘what is best for the municipality’ were the creation of a mayoral position open not only to residents with varied religious backgrounds, but varied family backgrounds as well?

The third shock, as some of you may already suspect given the theme of this post, has been the reaction on assorted blogs and other websites to the wedding of Nayla Tueini and Malek Maktabi, such as these. (I don’t mean to pick on the Ouwet Front exclusively, but the Orange Room’s website is currently down and I’m searching primarily for comments in English.) There are a few voices of reason, but what I notice most is the vitriol of those unhappy with her marrying a Shia – some because she is a Christian MP, and some just because she is Christian.

I personally am not a great fan of Ms. Tueini (or of Mr. Maktabi’s talk show), but the explosive hostility of some of the commentators leaves me with a deep cold pit in my stomach. This type of irrational anger can be  deeply corrosive. On the other hand, both their Facebook pages are filled with congratulations, and at least those posting their anger online are still in conversation with others more sanguine about the ‘mariage’.

I don’t have a good conclusion to this post. I hope for better things in the future, am glad to see  any movement in the political system, and think that mixed marriages could be a major source of strength for the Lebanon of tomorrow.

And I’m looking very much forward to writing a nice quiet post about Doha nightlife tomorrow.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Beirut, citizenship, Lebanon, politics, religion, vanity, women, words | Leave a Comment »

new views, new worlds

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 21, 2009

When I was in graduate school, I took a number of courses outside my immediate field for auditor credit, rather than full course credit. I had no background in petrochemicals, for example, or the oil markets of the Gulf, but I thought that as long as courses were being offered in those subjects, I should try to learn what I could.

One of these “I don’t know enough about this subject but I’d like to” courses was a semester-long class on the region’s political economy. I didn’t know anything about political economy – in fact, I didn’t know what the phrase meant. And I certainly knew nothing about terms like “ISI”, the “rentier state”, or the “tertiary sector”. But I stuck it out, and have been grateful ever since for the opportunity to develop at least a basic understanding of the mysterious world where economics and political science meet.

I have been equally grateful for the professor, Steve Heydemann, and his many memorable classroom quips of – including one that has resonated with increasing urgency over the past few months.

I believe, he said in response to a question about the credibility of another scholar’s recent op-ed, that in-country knowledge has a shelf life of about six months.

In other words, one can write about one’s experiences of the country as it was six months or a year or whatever other point when one was last there, but after a certain period one can no longer claim to have the intimate experiential knowledge of the country in its current state.

Six months isn’t a magic number – and for those with permanent ties, like H, perhaps the time limit is irrelevant.

But for me I find that it is time to make the switch from experiential writing – recounting the goofy bits of my daily adventures – to analytic writing. And quite frankly, I can take only so many analytic blog posts, either my own or others’.

I look forward to reading about the Lebanese elections, the Kuwaiti parliament, and other issues dear to my heart on your blogs, and I look forward to either resuming this blog or starting a new one when I feel that I have more daily-life anecdotes to share.

Posted in academia, blogging, women, words | Leave a Comment »

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 »

introducing Mr. “formerly known as swine flu”

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 1, 2009

Yesterday I received the latest warden message from the United States Embassy in Kuwait. (As long-time readers know, I was never able to successfully register myself for the US Embassy in Lebanon’s warden updates, but like Old Faithful, I receive a steady stream of messages from the embassies in Damascus and Kuwait.)

For those of you currently in Kuwait, the hotlines listed might be useful. For the rest of you – including those who, like me, have been scrubbing their hands like never before – the Embassy’s PR effort may be the most interesting tidbit. Here’s the start of the release:

This Warden Message alerts U.S. citizens to the latest information regarding human cases of H1N1 Influenza A, formerly known as swine flu.  The Kuwait Department of Health has reported that airport authorities have begun screening passengers arriving from countries with reported cases of H1N1.  The Kuwait Department of Health has set up an influenza hotline staffed with medical professionals who speak Arabic and English to answer Kuwait specific questions about travel regulations and health issues related to this influenza.  The hotline numbers are 2486-4936 and 2486-4930 or by fax at 2486-5892; the numbers are currently staffed from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

That’s right: what I and my fellow neurotic New Yorkers are doing our best to prevent, despite the inherent germiness of subway seats, stairway rails, elevators, and – let’s face it – one another, is catching a virus now “formerly known as swine flu”.

I certainly understand the economic and religious/cultural impact of naming a virus after pigs, but: in New York, we’re still calling it swine flu.

Glad to know that the Kuwaitis are so enlightened, though 🙂 .

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Kuwait, words | 4 Comments »

Beirut in poetry

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 29, 2009

I must be on an artsy kick these days – well, if La dama de Beirut counts as art. (My suspicion is that it falls more into the Levantine definition of “artiste”.) This time, my eye was caught by a new book of poetry, titled Beirut Summer:

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How lame, I thought at first. Someone took a 2006 war image and decided to capitalize on Beirut’s reputation without knowing much about the actual city.

Shame on me for being so quick to judge. Apparently the author, a woman named Catherine Evans Latta, does indeed know Beirut – and her time there very much coincided with the city’s war days.

According to the “about me” section of a writers’ website to which she belongs, Catherine Evans Latta is a graduate of Cornell University and the American University of Beirut.  She studied at Stanford as a graduate student with poet Denise Levertov and, later, author Nancy Packer.  Catherine’s poetry has been published in numerous journals: The Beloit Poetry Journal, the Stanford Literary Quarterly, Fresh Hot Bread and elsewhere.  She was a feature columnist for Beirut’s The Daily Star, the largest English language paper in the Middle East.  She taught in the English Dept. of the American University of Beirut where she lived for ten years.  Prior to that, she lived in Cairo for three years.

One day when I have more free time, I’d like to spend a few weeks reading through the old Daily Stars. I understand that its archive is honored somewhat more in the breach than the observance, and that accessing it requires a lot of sweet-talking. But still – it would be interesting both to see the articles and to trace the genealogy of the paper’s many writers. I get the strong impression that most of the foreign writers have been less trained journalists than literate English-speakers who found themselves in Beirut and in need of a job – and that many have gone on to equally interesting post-paper careers.

Back to Latta and her poetry. An account of an interview she gave to a California-based local cable program called “Arab TV” states:

The poems are a series of powerfully disturbing and vivid images detailing the pains of people living under fire in Beirut. She has included poems that cover several wars from 1967 to the present. Written from a woman’s point of view, the poems provide insights into the torn lives of ordinary people.

During the interview, she said that while the events in the poems are told in the first person, they were not all her personal experience “…there is poetic license after all,” but all the people in the poems were friends and it is their experiences and stories, as well as her own, that she drew upon for the collection. One poem tells of the extreme penury of two maids who came from the camps to work for her. She remarked how many had broken lives: — the gardener who moved his family to live in a tent in the garden because it was safer than in his neighborhood; — the friend whose farm was burnt to the ground, but felt obliged to remain to show her commitment to her country; — or the mother whose child could only sleep to a cassette playing the call to prayer.

Latta let her imagination take flight to describe the psychological pain of war. In fact, she sat under fire in 1967, sat out the 1972 War and in 1974 while teaching at AUB had bombs going off in nearby class rooms. She was in Beirut during the beginning of the 1975-1990 Civil War and again in 1983.

I’m not much of a poetry fan: I appreciate poetry, but when looking for a book to read, I prefer novels or biographies or … anything other than poetry, with the possible exception of an economics text. And I’m slightly discomfited by the idea that Latta waited until 2008 to publish her poems on Beirut. To me, this suggests that she or the publisher thought that there might be a larger market for them thanks to the 2006 war, even though (as I understand it) she wasn’t in Beirut then.

The writers’ website includes one brief excerpt:

I saw dawn briefly

quiet

in the hills

above Ba’abda,

But now my eyes ache so

I cannot mend

the sound-rent sky

to see the day.

Um. If I were better at literary criticism, I am sure that I would have something interesting to say in response. I remember 2006 skies broken by above-the-sound-barrier fighter jets and bunker buster-i bombs, but I missed the boat, clearly, on wanting to mend them.

In any case, I’m interested to see what she has to say, although I’d like also to put in a plug here for a series of poems about how ordinary life in Beirut is most days. And I’m still cheap: the book is $12.95 on Amazon. I can wait for a used copy :).

Posted in Beirut, books, women, words | 1 Comment »

hair, water, and taxis: Syrian triggers in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 15, 2009

This morning, an article in The National by Rasha Elass caught my eye – and brought back memories. Rasha writes about her reception at a posh Beirut hair salon, when the stylist learns that she is Syrian.

Having lived in Damascus for some time before moving to Beirut, I too learned about the perils of my accent. Unlike Rasha, however, my learning was generally ex post facto. Hence in summer 2005 I was booted from a Beirut service for saying something too shami; and when I moved to Beirut, I avoided saying “water” for months after seeing the looks on waiters’ and shopkeepers’ faces when I asked for “moy” rather than “mai”. And I only learned to stop saying “lissa” one evening when the person to whom I had been speaking drew back from me as if I were diseased.

Ahh, memories.

In any case, my experiences were those of an outsider: someone who had committed the offense of learning Arabic like a Syrian, rather than a Lebanese – and not someone who had committed the evidently graver offense of being Syrian, like Rasha.

Here is her article – enjoy!

The Lebanese hairdresser had a sleight of hand typical to his profession, alternating quickly between his left and right hand as he cut, razored, pulled and tugged the strands of my hair. He came highly recommended by a friend, so I wasn’t worried about the way my hair was going to look when he was done.

But I was worried about him picking up on my Syrian accent, given that I was in an area of Beirut where many hold strong anti-Syrian sentiments.

And then came the inevitable.

“Are you Lebanese?” he asked.

Sometimes I purposely don’t speak Arabic when I venture into anti-Syrian areas in Lebanon. During a road trip to Batroun, a charming small town with a staunchly anti-Syrian community, my Lebanese friend made me promise not to say a single word in Arabic.

“They’ll pick up you’re Syrian from the minute you open your mouth,” she warned.

Though her concern was exaggerated – violence motivated by hatred is extremely rare since the end of the civil war in Lebanon – times were tense, and people might have been rude or snooty towards us if they had found out that I was Syrian.

Your accent in the Arab world is like an identity card. Even the unfamiliar ear can place you in a region, be it the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt or North Africa. The familiar ear can even figure out if you’re an urban or rural Syrian, a Damascene or from Aleppo, a Kurd from northern Iraq or a Shiite from the south, an Algerian or a Moroccan, and whether you grew up locally or abroad.

Accents also often are the butt of political jokes, like the popular favourite for Lebanese and Syrians taking political jabs at each other.

It pokes fun of the words moo and ma, Syrian and Lebanese slang for “right”, as in: “You’re coming to dinner, moo?”

“‘Moo’? What are we? Cows?” goes the joke.

“Better than ‘ma’,” it continues. “‘Ma’ is for sheep.”

Given my propensity to say moo, I couldn’t lie to the hairdresser, so I confessed that I was Syrian.

“Emm,” he muttered, his face visibly annoyed. I briefly worried he might purposely ruin my hair, which would be a disaster given I was to attend a posh Syrio-Lebanese wedding later and needed it to be flawless.

“You’re Syrian from both parents?” he asked.

Here, I thought, could be my way out. I could lie and end the conversation amicably, guaranteeing a good haircut. Or I could keep playing cat and mouse and see where the game took us.

“Umm, no. My mother is American,” I lied.

“Aaah, OK,” he said, looking relieved, as if everything about me finally made sense to him.

The most striking thing when travelling from Syria to Lebanon is how politicised everything is in Lebanon. While Syrians are bashful about discussing domestic politics, the Lebanese think nothing of asking you where you stand on their domestic political spectrum the minute they meet you.

“Are you with or against?” is probably the most common question in Lebanon after “what’s your name?”

I was still at the hairdresser’s watching my transformation in the mirror when I was asked this question.

“Are you with or against the Americans?” the hairdresser said.

Before I could answer, a customer in her mid fifties walked in frazzled, her short blonde-dyed hair brittle and uncombed. According to my friend, this hairdresser is known to the stars and the wives of politicians.

“Je suis en retard,” she announced to the hairdresser, her head appearing in my mirror. She spoke the French typical of Sodeco, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

How their conversation moved from “I’m running late” to comparing political affiliation is beyond me. But after exchanging the usual “ça va” and “walaw”, the latter being colloquial for no worries, they vented politics at each other.

“I know you’re a supporter of Aoun,” she told the hairdresser. “But I’m not,” she announced, her head’s reflection still floating in my mirror.

“And that’s why you were late,” he said in French, laughing.

The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and the woman sat herself down in a chair for a shampoo.

Turning his attention back to me, he made a reference to one pro and one anti-Syrian Lebanese politician and asked:

“Are you with or against Aoun? Or do you prefer Geagea?”

I mumbled something about not caring a whole lot for internal politics in Lebanon.

“Ah, mais vous êtes Syrienne. Vous aimez Hariri,” he concluded, half testing if I understood French, another telltale political sign for some Lebanese.

Fortunately, he got distracted and forgot to wait for an answer. When he finished my hair, I paid in US dollars, then thanked him in French. I walked out into the street, and my hair looked fabulous.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, vanity, women, words | 6 Comments »