A Labyrinth of Gaddafi, Kaddafi, Qadhafi...Friday, March 04, 2011
A special headache for anyone writing about the Middle East is the transliteration of Arabic words into English. For example, the name of the Libyan leader is variously spelled “Gaddafi” (Time), “Kaddafi” (Newsweek), “Qadhafi” (Wall Street Journal); “el-Qaddafi” (New York Times); “Kadafi” (Los Angeles Times); “Khadafy” (NBC News); or “Qaddafi” (ABC News). That fact is that English orthography is not readily adaptable to Arabic phonetics. Written Arabic, like Hebrew, has no vowel signs.
Passionate Pilgrims – English Travelers to the World of the Desert Arabs, James C. Simmons, William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1987
|Scanned , from the bottom, b+w negative with a white paper on top, then reversed |
With all the events happening in the Middle East I have been re-reading the book mentioned above and another wonderful written earlier (1979) by Jonathan Raban, Arabia – A Journey Through the Labyrinth. The latter book was my introduction to the wonders of Raban’s previous and subsequent books of non-fiction and a few novels, too.
What is interesting is that James C. Simmons quotes Raban in his book and the quote is most revealing:
To live in Arabic is to live in a labyrinth of false turns and double meanings. No sentence means quite what it says. Every word is potentially a talisman, conjuring the ghosts of the entire family of words from which it comes. The devious complexity of Arabic grammar is legendary. It is the language which is perfectly constructed for saying nothing with enormous eloquence; a language of pure manners in which there are hardly any literal meanings at all and in which the symbolic gesture is everything… Even to peer through a chink in the wall of the language is enough to glimpse the depth and darkness of that forest of ambiguity. No wonder the Koran is so notoriously untranslatable.
Arabia – A Journey Through The Labyrinth, Jonathan Raban.
For me Arabia and things Arabic are not as much of a mystery as they would be for a North American. Being Argentine and of Spanish heritage I know something about the Moorish occupation of Spain and through my Filipino relatives about the Muslim presence in Mindanao. My grandmother told me stories about "los moros de Mindanao" and "los moros de España" from the moment I started remembering anything. It was my abuelita Lolita who told me that one of the most beautiful words in Spanish, ojalá (I hope) came from the Arabic and it is condensation of if Allah wills.
Spanish is loaded with beautiful words from Arabic as is alcaucil (artichoke) and these others just some of the ones that begin with a: ataúd (coffin), atún (tuna), azotea (roof), azul (blue), azúcar (sugar). A favourite word of mine is the sweet sounding jarabe which means syrup. Another of my favourites, and it begins with a z is zagúan which is a long passageway that may lead into the interior of house from the street. The walled houses of Spain and Mexico (that hide what could be a beautiful garden inside) is purely of Arabic origin.
As a young man I read Octavio Paz’s seminal book on what makes the Mexican man tick. The book is called El Laberinto de la Soledad. When I read it, not feeling entirely Mexican I realized that the book was about the machismo of all Latin males. And in this age of globalization where I am most likely to meet and learn more about people in other countries I came to the realization that the Mexican was no different from the Italian or the Arab. And if I really started looking with some more detail it seem that we all men are the same. Once I realized that, I came to know that Arabs are no different from me!
My grandmother used to often ask for a particular dish that was one of my favourites. Mexicans call it Arroz a La Cubana. It is ground meat with raisins and olives and pimentos. This is served with little mounds of white rice (cups or glasses are used as molds). On the plate with the rice and meat you also have a couple of fried eggs and fried plantain (called plátano macho!). My grandmother, the Spaniard that she was, called the dish Moros y Cristianos. The Moors were the dark ground meat and the Christians the angelic white rice!
There are many expressions in Spanish that are based on the protracted war that the Spaniards had to get rid of the Moors from their country. If you are in a situation where you want to make sure nobody is watching you may ask, “¿Hay moros en la costa?” or “Are there any Moors on the horizon?” equivalent to “is the coast clear?”
As I look at the crowds of protesters in Al Jazeera the men (they seem to be all men) look very much like the crowds in Mexico. They look familiar and not alien at all.
|Judah & Tamar by Emile Jean Horace Vernet|
It was in Passionate Pilgrims that I found out:
In 1902 the American historian A. T. Mahan coined the phrase Middle East to distinguish the region of the eastern end of the Mediterranean from the Far East.