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From “My Web of Words”

1-Alcohol. 2-Turkey. 3-Orange. 4-Roumi. 5-Greek.  6-Egypt. 7-Franc. 8-Mattress. 9-Baghdad. 10-Table.  11- Punch. 12-Rose. 13-Apricot. 14-Hazard


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My Web of Words – 14 – Hazard

The adventure of words reads like a series: each episode leads to another and then yet another and so on forever, unconstrained by the borders that divide nations, disciplines and eras.

Writing about ‘mattress’ made me think of that other piece of furniture, ‘table’, and then of tabula and of the game of tawleh; this, in turn, reminded me of the words that tawleh players in Lebanon mutter when they call the roll of the dice, a memory that then led me to the Indo-Persian word banj and its colonial offspring ‘punch’. As you might expect, the dice themselves now lead me to that classic example of an itinerant word, ‘hazard’, since a die is called az-zahr in Arabic. Several etymological dictionaries say that English took ‘hazard’, and French hasard, from Arabic, through the Spanish go-between azar.

While the case for this affiliation is both compelling and logical, not everyone agrees with it. The contention is not whether ‘hazard’ is taken from Arabic, which appears clearly established, but whether it is derived from az-zahr in particular. For while az-zahr does indeed mean ‘die’ in spoken Arabic, this sense of the word isn’t found in Classical Arabic, which instead calls dice nard or nardasheer, words with a Persian ring to them. The term zahr does have a number of meanings, including ‘flower’, but its usage to denote ‘die’ seems to be recent, and perhaps ensues from the custom - not completely vanished - of decorating the face of the die representing ’1′ with a picture of a flower.

So where does ‘hazard’ come from? Perhaps, as some linguists propose, from the verb yasara, which means ‘to roll the dice’. Indeed, when the Koran condemns games of chance, it refers to them as maysir, a noun derived from the same Arabic root as the verb yasara, namely y.s.r.1 This stem-word evokes a sense of ease, of abundance or of fluency. The name ‘Yasser’, made well known by the Palestinian leader Arafat, means ‘accessible’, or ‘agreeable company’; in Classical Arabic, the word can denote a dice-player, but the word is rarely used in this sense nowadays.

Such homonyms are not infrequent in Arabic. If we start with a stem-word like y.s.r, which carries many shades of meaning, we can reach the most surprising results. The idea of ‘ease’ carries not only positive connotations but negative ones too, as is evident in the notions of looking for easy answers, of a lack of intellectual rigor or of a want of rectitude. This may be why the Arabic word for ‘left’ (as opposed to ‘right’) in both the directional and political sense is yasaar, a word derived from the same root; moreover, in Classical Arabic, yasaar also means ‘wealth’… all of which to say that, while the link between ‘hazard’ and az-zahr remains plausible, the hypothesis that draws ‘hazard’ from yasara is itself reasonably credible.

Speaking of similarity, it seems to me noteworthy that, while the French word hasard and its English nephew ‘hazard’ both bear a strong resemblance to their Spanish grandfather azar and to their Arabic ancestors, whatever these may be, they are far from identical. The French word hasard encompasses a sense of chance, and sometimes even of good fortune, and often has a positive connotation; some even consider that the word has become a sort of lay equivalent for what was once called Providence. The Spanish word azar retains this same notion of chance and uncertainty, but on occasion leans towards the unhappy side of life, for example in the expression los azares de la vida, which might by translated as the ‘vicissitudes of life’. As for the English word ‘hazard’, it no longer retains any positive sense at all and has become synonymous with danger or, at the very least, with risk.

This last word also deserves a moment of our attention. According to some sources, the various forms of the word ‘risk’ that we find in European languages – risque, risiko, riesgo, rischio, etc. – might all stem from the same Arabic word rizq, which means ‘fortune’. The linguistic transaction took place through Mediterranean merchants and shipowners at the end of the Middle Ages, and it long retained a maritime connotation. In Lebanon, the word is sometimes used in the sense of property, but is most commonly used in reference to emigrants who have left in search of fortune. The Semitic root r.z.q is found in many words, including the two Divine epithets ar-razaq and ar-razzaq, which both mean ‘He who lavishes fortune’, though with some variance in nuance.

So it is quite plausible that the word ‘risk’ came from Arabic. However, one could just as well argue that it comes from the Latin resecum, ‘that which cuts’, a term used to describe reefs2; or from the Greek risikon, a word found in the Odyssey, and which is linked to the idea of ‘root’, but which was sometimes used during the Byzantine era to mean ‘chance’.

Mediterranean relations are difficult to untangle, and it strikes me as prudent to admit that, until proven otherwise, we cannot be certain of any one explanation.

  1. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The romanisation of Arabic presents numerous problems, and no fully accurate system exists. In this post, the author has romanised Arabic to match French phonetics; I have retained his spellings wherever there is a correspondence between English and French phonetics. When the two diverge, however, I have attempted to re-create the French sound with the English alphabet. For example, the author has romanised the stem of yasara (yaçara in French) as y.ç.r. Since c-cedilla doesn’t exist in English, and since some readers might mistake it for the orthographically identical IPA symbol assigned to another sound entirely, I have translated it as ‘s’: y.s.r []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française puts forward another theory, attributed to Pierre Guiraud, that links the word ‘risk’ to the Latin verb rixare, ‘to quarrel’, which also gave French the word rixe, meaning a ‘brawl’ or ‘scuffle’. []

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My Web of Words – 13 – Apricot

Though, like many people, I take a keen interest in Arab words adopted into European languages, this linguistic crossover alone isn’t enough to quench my thirst for knowledge. Sometimes it even runs counter to the point I’m trying to make. For Arab civilisation is more than just one of Western civilisation’s wellsprings; it is not just a way-point, still less a mere conduit; Arab civilisation, first and foremost, is daughter to the same ancestors as the West, and is much inspired by Greece and Rome. Furthermore, she has borrowed plentifully from the Persians, Indians, Turks, Arameans and Hebrews, as well as from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. And she has given abundantly in return to all of these, or to their heirs.

That is why I am only too pleased to debunk the myths surrounding words whenever I have the chance. I like to either reveal the eastern origins of words when these aren’t immediately obvious – as is the case, for instance, with the words ‘mattress’, ‘punch’ and ‘rose’ – or, conversely, to flush out the more complicated etymological roads taken by words that at first blush appear to have obvious oriental origins, as I showed with ‘alcohol’. The word ‘apricot’ is very much of the same kind.

The names for the apricot in various European languages – abricot, aprikose, albicocca, albaricoque, albricoque, albercoc, etc. – come from the old Arabic name for this fruit, al-barqouq. Oddly, this word no longer means the same thing in the Arab world. In those countries where it is still used, it generally refers to the plum rather than to the apricot; more generally in agronomic publications, it denotes all the species that belong to the genus prunus, which includes plums, apricots, cherries, peaches and almonds. The apricot itself is commonly known as meshmesh in the Egyptian pronunciation or meshmosh in the Lebanese.

I don’t know the origin of this last word, and the paucity of Arabic etymological data doesn’t encourage me to go digging for it, at least not for the moment. The source of the word al-barqouq, on the other hand, is well established. The Arabs borrowed it from the Byzantines – the Roum – who called this fruit a praikokion, which comes from the Latin word praecoquum, meaning ‘precocious’ – a name doubtlessly given to the apricot because it fruits earlier than others.

But this name is relatively recent. In the ancient world, the Romans called the apricot armeniaca because they discovered it through Armenia. In some Latin American countries – Argentina or Chile, for example – the fruit is called damasco, no doubt because Syrian immigrants brought with them particularly popular varieties of it. Indeed, one Damascus specialty is an apricot paste known as qamareddin – literally, ‘the moon of religion’, a funny expression that originally denoted a type of apricot.

But back to the Romans: their word for apricot, armeniaca, had a counterpart in the word persica, their name for another fruit, this one supposedly from Persia. This word gave Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, German pfirsich, Italian pesca, French pêche and English ‘peach’. But that will be the subject of another post.

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My Web of Words – 12 – Rose

What is fascinating about the adventure of words is that there is never any real beginning. However far back you follow the thread, however carefully you work through each mutation and identify every borrowing and every drift or twist in meaning, there is always a nebulous, obscure and elusive ‘before’. One could almost call this the dawn of words, the dawn of languages, in the same way that we speak about the dawn of time.

Of course, you can be content with the minimum. The word ‘rose’, for example, clearly comes from the Latin rosa, and it’s quite acceptable to stop there. But if your nature or fervour pushes you on, then be prepared for a long trip.

For the Romans must have found the word rosa somewhere, and it’s with no surprise that we learn that it comes from the Greek rhodon – the same root that gave us ‘rhododendron’, which means ‘rose tree’. But we learn also that in the ancient world – about two and a half thousand years ago - the Greeks said not rhodon but wrodon, a word very probably borrowed from the ancient Indo-Iranian wurdi, warda, ward or vrda.

In Arabic, a rose is called wardah, while in Hebrew it’s vered. While both languages are Semitic, they clearly drank from the same stream as the Greek. The word warda also existed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Aramaic was one of Antiquity’s great languages and perhaps the first that could claim to be international in scope, given that several empires – including the Assyrian, then the Persian – adopted it as their official language. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the Indo-Iranian word for ‘rose’ passed into the Semitic languages through Aramaic.1

And before this, ask the insatiably curious? Some linguists have an answer, or rather a theory, ready for them. They claim that the source for all the different words for ‘rose’ lies in the mother language of all Indo-Europeans2 in which the word wrdho meant ‘thorn’ or ‘bramble’. Thus, the original name for ‘rose’ was probably linked to its capacity to be a nuisance rather than to its beauty.

This brings to mind a subtle variant of the classic line about seeing a glass as half empty or half full: the optimist never sees the thorns; the pessimist never sees the rose. No doubt both will agree, however, with the Chinese proverb that says, ‘the rose has thorns only for those who would gather it’.

  1. The Modern Persian word for rose is gul. Though it seems improbable, linguists think that this word (adopted by the Turks as gül) is nonetheless from the same source, though of course it’s been through a number of mutations. I’m not going to linger on it here; I’m just pointing it out. []
  2. As I mentioned in my preceding article on the word ‘punch’, linguists have reconstructed this language – called proto-Indo-European or sometimes simply Indo-European – from various languages that belong to the same family. Their starting point is the idea that there had to have been an original group of people who spoke the language from which arose Greek, Latin, French, English, Russian, Persian, Hindi and hundreds of other languages, living or dead. There are various hypotheses about both the era and the area when this initial people lived. []

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My Web of Words – 11 – Punch

While making the connections in my last article between the words ‘table’, tabula and the game of tawleh, I remembered the custom in Lebanon and other countries of the Levant of calling the outcome of the dice in a ritualised language particular to the game.

Each player throws two small, ivory-coloured dice in turn. If these come up five and two, the players say banj dou; for six and one, they say shesh yek. This is Persian – a language which, in the main, players don’t speak and which they use only when playing tawleh. No one is supposed to depart from this tradition; if anyone in the village where I grew up had had the bad idea of calling the numbers in Arabic, French or English, he would have found himself the object of much jocosity; and purists - my uncles, for example – would have simply refused to play with him.

Everyone sticks to this ritual, which goes back at least to the time of the Ottomans, perhaps even earlier. Players call most numbers in Persian. In certain cases, you can switch between Persian and Turkish – a roll of five-four can be called either banj-johar (Persian) or besh-dort (Turkish); two-one can be either dou-yek or iki-bir. Only one roll – six-five – can be called in a mix of both languages, shesh-besh, the first word being Persian, the second Turkish. The two words were probably coupled because they share the same ending. In some countries – Tunisia and Israel, for example – the game of tawleh is actually known as shesh-besh.

I should point out that I have transcribed the numbers – the word banj in particular – in the Lebanese pronunciation1. Persian-speakers pronounce their word for ‘five’ as pandj, which is the source of the word ‘punch’, a cocktail made from five ingredients – usually water, alcohol, lemon, sugar and spices, though there are many variants.

From the Commedia dell’arte to the Afghan wars

Over the past three centuries, the word ‘punch’ has spread across the world thanks in part to its likeness to other English words that, though derived from entirely different sources, are written and pronounced the same way. The meanings of all these ‘punches’ have, in a way, closed ranks. There is the verb ‘to punch’, for example, and its noun, ‘punch’; there is the expression ‘punch line’, referring to the comic drop of an article or joke. These ‘punches’ come from the old French ponchon, which gave modern French its word for awl, poinçon. ‘Punch’ is also the short form of Punchinello, the English name for the iconic character from the Commedia dell’arte known in Italian as Pulcinella and in French, Polichinelle. The famous satirical magazine Punch, founded in 1841, was named after him.

I’m giving all these homonyms because they all helped the word ‘punch’ flourish. Just like humans, words are born, die, make fortunes or go broke; they change their appearance or vocation according to circumstance; they emigrate to distant lands and sometimes return so transformed that they’re hardly recognisable - which is what I find so delightful about them.

Regarding the drink itself, its name could well come from the Hindi word panch, or else directly from the Persian, since Hindi and Persian are close relatives. Whatever the case, the words for the numeral ’5′ in most Indo-European languages are derived from the same source. The kinship of some of these with pandj is easy to see, for example the Greek pente, which led to composites such as ‘pentagon’. In others, the link is much less obvious, for example the French cinq, English ‘five’, or the Scandinavians’ fem. Linguists, however, tell us that the original name for the numeral in the hypothetical Indo-European mother language – supposedly spoken some six or seven thousand years ago - was pengke, and that each ethnic group transformed this in its own way, the Celts into pemp, the Germanic tribes into fimf, the Latins into quinque, etc.

Going back to the Indo-Iranian word for this numeral, we find it not only in the name of the cocktail, but in several toponyms as well. The Punjab, for example, a territory divided between India and Pakistan, is a contraction of panch-ab, meaning ‘five waters’ – a concise way of saying ‘the land of five rivers’. In the same part of Asia is located the Panjshir valley,  where Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated on the 9th of September 2001. The name pandj-shir means ‘five lions’ in Persian. This etymology explains, at least in part, why the famous Afghan commander was dubbed ‘the lion of Panjshir’.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Because the Persian consonant ‘p’ doesn’t exist in Arabic, it is generally transformed into ‘b’. []

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My Web of Words – 10 – Table

One of the most popular games in Lebanon is tawleh, which in French is called trictrac or jacquet, and which, these days, is known throughout the world as backgammon. Tawleh is the everyday word for ‘table’; in literary Arabic, it is written as tawilah, a word that most likely comes from Latin, given its obvious similarity to tabula.

The Latin word, from which we get ‘table’ and various related terms in many languages, didn’t always denote the four-legged piece of furniture that we know today; the Romans actually called this mensa, which led to the Spanish word mesa and the rarely used French and English word commensal, used to describe someone eating and drinking at the same table as another. The Arabic equivalent to commensal is nadim, also rarely used as a common noun, but widely used as a proper name.

In classical Latin, tabula denoted a plank of wood used for inscriptions or games. The former meaning is picked up in the French phrase les Tables de la loi [the Tables of the law] and the latter in the word tablier, denoting any flat surface used for games – chess, backgammon and the like. During the Roman Empire, the most popular of these games, and the one to which Emperor Claudius might have dedicated a treatise - now lost – was called tabula. When this word was uttered in Ancient Rome, therefore, it brought to mind the game, not the piece of furniture. Nero is said to have won fortunes at it; I imagine his courtiers would have been taking grave risks had they obliged him to lose.

The evidence strongly suggests that this game was played in Antiquity and the Middle Ages just as it is nowadays. A 13th Century Spanish treatise, the Libro de los juegos, contains an illustration of a game called todas tablas. The pieces are laid out exactly as they are in modern tawleh. (See the illustration above).

We know that the game proved immensely popular in England, to the degree that Richard the Lionheart wanted to forbid it to people not of noble birth; and to the degree that, in 1526, Cardinal Wolsey ordered all gaming tables to be destroyed, and those who indulged in this “vice” to be punished. According to one widely held legend, it was thanks to this persecution that fixed-leg gaming tables were replaced by portable tables with folding legs, which could be carried off and hidden at any sign of danger. And no doubt this is why such an “object of perdition” appears in Bruegel the Elder’s 1562 painting The Triumph of Death. (See below, bottom right of the frame).

Nobody called it ‘backgammon’ back then. That word didn’t appear until the middle of the 17th Century, until which time the English knew the game by the same name as the rest of the world: ‘tables’.

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My Web of Words – 9 – Baghdad

I intended to devote this post to ‘baldachin’, a word that originated in Baghdad. But I changed my mind because it is the city itself – and its name – that interests me. That name, so familiar to us today, has a long history that goes well beyond that of a rarely used word such as ‘baldachin’.

This last word is a vestige of a bygone time, a touching literary relic. It survives in a number of languages – baldaquin in French, baldachin in German, baldaquino in Spanish and Portuguese, baldakin in Swedish, baldakiini in Finnish and so on. All these forms have the same ancestor, the Italian word baldacchino, once used to describe the silk imported from Baldacco, that is to say Baghdad.

This old pronunciation of the city’s name doesn’t much surprise me, as an Arab. I have in my library a 13th Century work entitled Mo’jam al-bildan, ‘The Dictionary of Countries’, a geographical encyclopaedia that a scholar named Yaqut1 completed in 1223, 35 years prior to the fall of Baghdad to the Mongol leader Hulagu.

Under the heading for ‘Baghdad’, Yaqut’s ‘Dictionary’ gives no less than seven different pronunciations for the city’s name. One of these triggered in me a memory from childhood. My father had a remarkable command of classical Arabic poetry, and one day he recited a verse singing the praises of the beauty of Boghdan. He then explained that this was a literary name for Baghdad, that there were others, too, and that the reason for this was that, since the word wasn’t originally an Arabic one, everyone pronounced it their own way.

Yaqut confirms that the city’s name is originally Persian. This is an established fact, though its exact etymology is still debated, as all etymologies inevitably are, ipso facto. The most plausible hypothesis, however, is that bagh or bogh is a root word meaning ‘god’; and that dad comes from a verb meaning ‘to give’. The name of the Iraqi capital, therefore, means ‘gift of God’.

Persian is an Indo-European language, so one shouldn’t be surprised by the similarity between ‘Baghdad’ and Slavic names such as Bogdan, which has a similar meaning. Moreover, this idea of ‘gift of God’ can be found in a number of proper names derived from Latin, such as Déodat, Donnedieu or Dieudonné in French; or from Greek, such as ‘Theodore’ and, for a woman, ‘Dorothy’. The Arabic equivalent is Atallah, while in Hebrew it’s ‘Jonathan’.

Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Assyrians

Returning to the Iraqi metropolis, the once-prevalent variations of both the pronunciation and spelling of its name could also be explained by the fact that ‘Baghdad’ was simply the word used in everyday language, and that the city’s official name was something else. When Caliph al-Mansur founded the city in the 8th Century, intending it to be the capital of the Abbasid Empire, he called it Madinat as-Salaam, ‘City of Peace’. It was also called Madinat al-Mansur in his honour; and, because of its rounded layout, al-Zaoura, ‘the Oblique’.

Moreover, the Caliph didn’t found his capital in a place unknown to history, and all these names were simply added to others already extant. A number of renowned cities already existed on or near the site, and though their names are forgotten today, they all had their moments of glory, and their memories survive sometimes in odd ways. There was, notably, Seleucia, a Greek city founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and her sister city Ctesiphon, a Persian city that the Sassanid shahs made their capital until the Arab conquest in the 7th Century.

Those two names have remained linked, and the great Mesopotamian metropolis of Seleucia-Ctesiphon is frequently mentioned in ancient texts. The Assyrian Church, one of Christianity’s oldest, was founded here. It was long known as the Nestorian church, after the bishop Nestorius, whom Rome condemned as a heretic.

The Church still exists, and History continues to give it a rough ride. It is still torn between East and West, still persecuted, still little known. Its patriarchate long ago had to abandon its original residence on the banks of the Tigris, but its ecclesiastical texts still carry the hyphenated name of the twin cities.

It is touching to come across the following in a modern text: “Drafted on the 15 August, 1997 in Seleucia-Ctesiphon”. The toponym is purely symbolic, of course, since the city that this ancient name refers to, the city where the patriarchate of the Assyrian Church is now based, is none other than … Chicago.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: His biography specifies that his name was Yaqut al-Hamawi al-Rumi al-Baghdadi – meaning that he came from the Syrian city of Hama, from the land of the Greeks and from Baghdad. []

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My Web of Words – 8 – Mattress

This word was borrowed from Arabic due to a slight misunderstanding. The old French word was materas, taken from the Italian materasso, the same word that gave English ‘mattress’, German matratze, Polish materac and so on. All these words come originally from the Arabic matrah, derived from the verb taraha, which means ‘to throw down’1.

I say a slight misunderstanding because matrah didn’t originally denote a mattress or, for that matter, any piece of furniture at all, but rather a place. Humble folk used to live in one-room houses. The room served as a living room by day and a bedroom by night. They kept thin mattresses hidden away in a niche, and when it was time to go to sleep, everyone threw these down on the ground, rolled them out and stretched out in their respective spots.

In spoken Lebanese Arabic, this portable ‘bed’ was called a farsheh. In some cases, it was no more than a mat, in which case it was known as a hassireh. But since Arabic in both its spoken and literary forms is, like many other languages, a precise instrument, the word matrah specifically denoted the spot where each family member laid down his or her bedding. One Egyptian song by the famous singer Muhammad Abdel Wahhab puts it this way: “In the spot were slumber comes to my eyes, I sleep with a serene spirit.” The word ‘spot’ here is, in the original Arabic, matrah.

The word’s meaning gradually grew broader. In Lebanon and various other Arab countries, matrah no longer denotes only the place where one sleeps. Arabic speakers use the word matrah in expressions such as ‘the place where I’m going’, ‘the spot where it hurts’ and ‘the spot where I’m parking’. They also use it to refer to specific passages in a book or film.

In French, the word went in another direction. It came to mean not a place, but a quilted or padded [matelassé in French] object. It can mean a thick wad of folding money, a stuffed wallet, a fortune. Moreover, French speakers say that a protective layer ‘acts as a mattress’ [fait matelas] – referring, for example, to the layer of fat that protects a bear from the polar cold. This idea of protection can be found in other European languages, too. In English, for instance, the word ‘mattress’ is used to denote the traditional mat used to shore up a dyke and slow erosion of its surface.

For myself, I remain partial to the first meaning, and I try to imagine the moment when, around the time of the crusades, Europeans first discovered the pleasure of sleeping comfortably on a soft mattress, Arab-style. Why else would they have needed to borrow the word?

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The literal translation of taraha is ‘he threw’ rather than ‘to throw’, but since this form in Arabic verbs is the equivalent of the infinitive, I felt it was more appropriate to translate it here as ‘to throw’. []

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My Web of Words — 7 – Franc

The word ‘franc’ carries so many different meanings that I must clarify at the outset that this article addresses its pecuniary sense only; and in fact, to narrow it down even further, it is about the franc I knew in my childhood, a coin long gone now, and for which I feel a certain nostalgia. I am not talking about the French franc or Belgian franc, both of which I discovered at the age of 15 during my first trip to Europe, and for which I felt little regret when they made way for the Euro. No, the coin for which I feel wistful was a little known, clandestine franc that disappeared without fanfare: the Lebanese franc.

What we called a ‘franc’ in Lebanon was actually a five-piastre coin, the smallest unit of currency in circulation during my childhood. Why ‘franc’? Because the Lebanese pound, the national currency created during the French Mandate in Lebanon and Syria, was pegged at 20 French francs; since the pound was divided into 100 piastres, the five-piastre coin was therefore worth one French franc. We never called the coin anything other than a ‘franc’ for the whole time it was in circulation. People in some parts of the country went even further, calling the 10-piastre coin ‘two francs’ and the 25-piastre piece ‘five francs’.

These coins no longer had anything to do with the French franc, of course. Calling them ‘francs’ was pure colloquialism. The coins were inscribed in two languages, neither of which used the word ‘francs’. In French, the value was given in piastres, and in Arabic in qurush or gurush, a currency name that brings to mind the German groschen, from the Italian grosso [fat] — plural grossi — once used to describe thick coins.

The meaning had shifted over the centuries. The ‘fat one’ shrank until it became the smallest of small change. The one I knew was grey and weighed little, as though it were made of tin. And then one day, it just disappeared. Not because of some fiscal reform, but because its value collapsed.

For a long time, the Lebanese pound remained stable. In my youth, it hovered at around 30 US cents, which meant that a Lebanese ‘franc’ was worth around 1.5 cents, sometimes rising to close to two cents. But in the middle of the 1980s, the national currency collapsed. The Lebanese pound did eventually stabilise after its dizzying fall, but at a much lower rate. If our ill-fated ‘franc’ were still around, you would need more than 300 of them to buy one cent bearing Abraham Lincoln’s effigy. ‘Francs’ and piastres are no longer legal tender in Lebanon. The smallest unit of currency I have handled these last few years was worth 250 pounds, or 5000 ‘francs’.

So was our ‘franc’ a victim of the war? Not really. The currency’s slide had begun well before the conflict started. When I was at primary school in the late 1950s, I sometimes stopped at the local grocer, where a one-franc coin bought me chewing gum “made in the USA” or milk chocolate “made in Lebanon”. My father used to tell me that when he was a student in the mid-1930s, a Lebanese franc was a respectable sum — he could buy the newspaper for a piastre, have his hair cut for another, and eat lunch in his usual restaurant with the remaining three.

When I began working in the early 1970s, a five-piastre coin was only useful when you needed exact change; you could no longer actually buy anything with it. People mentioned it only to make a metaphorical point, for instance in the idiom ‘ma byesswa franc’, ‘it’s not worth a franc’ – scornfully applied sometimes to things, sometimes to people.

The phrase will most likely live on long after those of us who bought their first confectionary with the late lamented franc have gone.

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My Web of Words — 6 — Egypt

Whereas most of the world knows this country by some derivative of the Greek word Aigyptos, Egyptians themselves call it something else entirely: Misr, often pronounced Masr.

The corresponding adjective is masri — a patronymic widely used in the Arab world. Slight variations of the toponym Misr exist in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, Azeri, Swahili, Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. It is found also in the Hebrew word Mitsrayim, mentioned in Genesis and most likely the oldest Semitic name for that country. Translated literally, Mitsrayim means “the two straits” — perhaps in reference to the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.

As for the Arabic word misr, it is also used as a common noun meaning a land or region, but with a nuance of remoteness. In the Egyptian dialect, Masr refers not only to that nation but also to its capital; “from Cairo to Alexandria” is said “min Masr lil-Iskandariyah“; the city’s official name, al-Qahira, is used only in writing or in formal contexts.

Red land, black land

Inhabitants of Pharaonic Egypt called their country Kemet, ‘Black Land’, meaning fertile land. The name survived in the Coptic word Kimi, which we find again in the earliest Greek texts as Khemia. Moreover, this very ancient Greek name for Egypt may be the source of another travelling word, ‘alchemy’, which made a remarkable detour through the Arab world. I’ll come back to it. Meanwhile, in the language of the pharaohs, the word kemet stood in contrast with the word deshret, literally ‘red land’, denoting the desert1.

The Greeks gave the country its most well-known name, Aigyptos, which countless languages later borrowed. The word itself could well have originated from Hi-ku-Ptah, the name of a temple devoted to the god Ptah in the city of Memphis, one of Ancient Egypt’s most important cities, the ruins of which lie on the outskirts of Cairo. Thus, the name of the temple came to denote the city and, eventually, the entire country.

The names for Egypt have spawned many derivatives, some of them justified — for example ‘copt’  and ‘coptic’ — others not, for instance ‘gypsy’ in English, ‘gitan’ in French and ‘gitano’ in Spanish, all used to describe the Roms, who were mistakenly thought to have come from the banks of the Nile.

In Lebanon, the word misriye (used almost exclusively in its plural forms, either massari or misriyet) is used colloquially for money — in the sense of wealth or currency. This usage appears to have originated in the 19th Century, when the viceroy of Egypt’s troops briefly occupied Lebanon. During the occupation, Egyptian coins were put into circulation. Why it is that, of all the currencies we, Lebanese, have known throughout our history, we remember only these ‘Egyptians’, I have no explanation yet.

In Egypt itself, the word used to describe this same idea of money is flouss, plural of fels, a small unit of currency. This colloquial use of flouss is found in various other Arab countries – and sometimes in France, in the slang word flouze, imported from North Africa during the colonial era.

  1. Some suggest that Latin might have borrowed desertum from the Ancient Egyptian word deshret. I merely flag this here for you to consider, even though I have yet to see any convincing argument for it. []

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How can one not be worried?

inside-the-obama-white-house-ngepress.comThe Washington Spring — 7 —

Everything I’ve read in recent weeks, and everything I’ve heard from my friends who work in banking, points the same way: we have returned to the same practices, the same follies and abuses that led to the current crisis. Companies are distributing the same extravagant bonuses and making the same absurd deals, and they’re doing it with the same greed, the same contempt for the public good and the same indecent attitude to money as before.

One can’t help but wonder, with Paul Krugman, whether the new American administration — who is supposed to set the tone – hasn’t failed to deliver the right message. Dealers were wary for a while, watching to see if they could resume their business practices as before. It seems they are now confident that nothing is going to change, and that they can carry on with impunity. They are confident because all the same faces are playing the game — on Wall Street, in the Senate and in the administration — and no one seems to want, or to be able, to put a stop to it.

In a sense, it’s understandable. America’s corporate giants wield enormous influence, and it’s quite understandable why no administration can ignore them. And I understand, too, how tremendously difficult it is for one politician, even if he is President of the United States, to antagonise Wall Street and risk breaking the cogs of the world’s leading economic power.

But understanding all this doesn’t put my mind at rest; rather, it makes me even more apprehensive. I understand Obama’s dilemma; but I am only more worried about his chance of success for it1.

I’ve said it before and I say it again — he must succeed. He must succeed on domestic issues such as reform of the banking sector and health insurance. And he must succeed in foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, where it is critical that he bring peace to the Palestinians and Israelis and, more broadly, to the relationship between the West and the Muslim world, which is in danger of being swept away in the deadly reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. And then, of course, he must succeed in halting – or, at least, in significantly slowing – global warming.

I know it is very early days, still much too early to start talking about being disappointed. But it isn’t too early to articulate a few misgivings — about a certain lack of vision on some issues; and, on some other issues, a certain lack of determination.

(First published in French on August 7th).

  1. For those who want to deepen their understanding of the matter, I recommend the long article by the economist James K. Galbraith entitled ‘No Return to Normal’; his argument, well researched and brilliantly expounded as it is, is particularly worrying. []

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Is Obama’s initiative still alive?

The Washington Spring — 6 —

The United States has been on a diplomatic merry-go-round in the Middle East over the past few weeks. In an effort to understand what’s really happening, I’ve been following it closely, listening to the many statements and reading the op-ed pieces.

Are the Americans pursuing the solution that President Obama sketched out in his speech at the University of Cairo on June 4? Are they trying to establish a ‘comprehensive’ regional peace, one that reckons in all countries and peoples and takes into account all their claims and concerns, and of which the keystone would be the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

Or else are they falling back on the usual way of dealing with the conflict? Are they returning to a long process of negotiation, inviting the various players to come together and patiently build mutual trust, while Washington merely plays the role of intermediary or facilitator?

As I see it, only the first path can lead to peace, and I am convinced that if it were to be followed through, it would benefit all the peoples in the region. If the first path were to be taken, everybody — including many of the hardliners in Israel, Palestine and the entire Arab world— will one day have reason to be pleased. The second path, on the other hand, has never led to anything but disillusionment, a hardening on every side, and renewed violence.

Having unambiguously stated my position, I hasten to add that as I write these lines, I cannot yet say which way American diplomacy is heading. Both hypotheses are plausible, and I don’t yet know which will be borne out. Sometimes I tell myself that Obama’s initiative is at a standstill; at other times, I think it might be taking shape.

The logic of a blog

If I weren’t keeping this online journal, I would wait to be sure before expressing an opinion. But the point of keeping a blog is precisely to allow myself, as a concerned observer, to articulate my feelings at every step, to reveal my way of thinking, of inquiring into things, of analysing and reflecting upon them. The point is to articulate all this to others, of course, but also to myself, because when I make myself write and put thoughts into sentences, I become aware of certain things that otherwise would remain muddled.

Now that I’ve opened this parenthetical statement, I will take it a little further to say that, whenever I inquire into something and try to understand it, I keep two golden rules in mind. The first is that we live in the communication age, which means that statements made by political leaders should be taken not at face value but as formulations of what they’ve chosen to convey. The second is that we live also, paradoxically – and happily! — in the age of transparency, which means that anything we want to know, and anything that some would keep hidden, is accessible somewhere on the Web. You simply have to know how to look, and above all how to assess what you find — how to sort between those statements that bring the truth to light, and those that blur it, whether deliberately or not.

But I close the parenthesis now to return to my opening question — does the American diplomatic activity in the Middle East signify that Obama’s initiative is being carefully put into place, or else is it already being reconsidered, not to say abandoned?

What seems to support the first hypothesis is that the American officials going to the region are the very men and women whose contribution to a peace treaty would be essential. Such a treaty should include the creation of a Palestinian state on territory from which Israel would retreat; security measures to ensure the Israelis don’t perceive such a retreat as a threat to their safety; a normalisation of relations between Israel and its neighbours; and, most certainly, the establishment of a substantial development and compensation fund — financed by the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese and also by the oil-producing nations — to encourage the Palestinians as well as the Israelis to be steadfastly committed to the path of peace.

Importantly, the American officials who visited the region in the last few weeks have the authority to give assurances on the military and security aspects of any eventual peace accord. The visitors included Secretary of Defence Robert Gates; General James L. Jones, National Security Advisor to President Obama; Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has ultimate control of the Middle East in the National Security Council; and former senator George Mitchell, the president’s Special Envoy to the region, who is charged with managing the dialogue with the various players.

This is encouraging, up to a point. To my eyes, however, it isn’t yet enough to dismiss the second hypothesis — that the process is at a virtual standstill and might still be derailed. I am convinced that things cannot move forward unless Israel is reassured. And it is critical that any measures taken to reassure Israel do not make the peace treaty unacceptable to Palestinian leaders or indeed, the rest of the Arab world.

Let me be more precise: everything to do with the balance of military power doesn’t worry me. That the future Palestine will have no army will no doubt shock Arab opinion. But when you think about it, only international safeguards can provide the future Palestine any real protection; and rather than embark on a ruinous arms race, it would be well advised to follow the example of post-war Japan and pursue economic success behind the shelter of its internationally guaranteed borders.

On the other hand, if the Al-Aqsa mosque, for instance, remains under Israeli control, no peace treaty will be worth signing, since extremist movements will continue to muster support all over the Muslim world, from North Africa to Indonesia, over the issue, for hundred of years.

In other words, everything genuinely to do with security has a place in any treaty; anything to do with territory and symbols must be handled with great care.

I don’t yet know what the proposed peace treaty will look like once the current negotiations have finished. Frankly, I won’t allow myself to put words into anyone’s mouth. I will simply keep my eyes, ears and mind open. I continue to hope, but I remain cautious.

(First published in French on July 29th).

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I’ll admit I’m slightly impatient

The Washington Spring — 5 —

When I listened to President Obama’s speech in Cairo on the 4th of June, it struck me as a seminal statement, one intended to found a lasting solution in the Middle East and an historic reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world. The two outcomes go hand in hand. That is what I wrote at the time, and I stand by it. However, I admit to a degree of impatience on the matter. I don’t see a new approach to peace taking shape; rather, it seems to me as though we’re returning to the usual diplomatic practices, which thus far have helped only to perpetuate the conflict.

Of course, some will retort that a conflict that has been going on for decades cannot be settled in a few weeks. This is true, on the surface — but only on the surface. Equally, some argue that by taking small steps, the belligerents can only draw closer to peace. Both arguments seem obvious and logical; but, in my opinion, they are misleading.

In a conflict of this nature, where the populations live in deep, mutual distrust, any proposed solution must be comprehensive, so that each party knows exactly where it will be standing at the end of the process; otherwise, one paves the way for escalation and brinkmanship, which plays into the hands of hardliners. This is exactly what has happened in the Middle East over the past few decades. We have seen a proliferation of initiatives, meetings, plans and roadmaps; as a result, the most intransigent factions on both sides gained the upper hand.

In his speech at the University of Cairo, Obama showed that he was aware of this reality, and that he wasn’t going to be drawn into the quagmire. He made it clear that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the role of an intermediary or facilitator. “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence describes the voluntarist line that the president had in mind. He wasn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? Everyone knows what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to on the side. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

His envoy George Mitchell flew to the Middle East bearing the same message: an all-encompassing plan is imminent, and Washington expects everyone to embrace it. The rumour in Washington was that the plan’s broad outlines would be made public as early as the 15th of June. But in the ensuing weeks, we started hearing proposals that sounded hopelessly familiar, such as the idea that Israel should temporarily suspend settlements and, in return, the Arab nations should give El-Al overflight rights. In Washington jargon, these are known as ‘confidence-building measures’, but I think they should be called ‘momentum-breaking measures’ instead. And I do get the feeling that the momentum has slowed down significantly.

I hope it’s my impatience talking. I hope that, il the near future, I will have reasons to publish on this blog a humble and fervent mea culpa. I hope I will get the chance to say that this slowdown was due to events in Iran, or to the need to draw up an appropriate peace plan, or to other factors, but that the new administration remains clearly committed to ending a conflict which, though it looks local, has in fact become a global one, and one of the most toxic.

(First published in French on July 26th).

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