Archive for August, 2009

My Web of Words – 4 – Roumi

This word has travelled far, both in the trail of the Roman legions and beyond. I should properly say these words, for though in Arabic roum is the plural of roumi, the two words have not evolved the same way at all.

The word roum is among those I heard continually in Lebanon, whereas the word “roumi” was unknown to me until I saw it used – in French – to describe Tintin during his adventure in the Land of Black Gold (unless it was in the Cigars of the Pharaoh). It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the great 13th-Century mystic poet who bears the same name: Jalal ad-Din Rumi.1

As you might expect, the origin of this word takes us back to the Romans. But to which Romans, exactly? The Roman Empire known to the Arabs and Turks wasn’t that of Rome, which disappeared in 476, but of Constantinople, which survived another millennium, until 1453. Nowadays we call the latter the Byzantine Empire, but this is a recent designation, unknown before modern times. The Eastern emperors always proclaimed themselves to be Romans, and that is what their neighbours called them.

Yet they were actually Greeks, which explains why, in Arabic and other oriental languages, calling them ‘Roman’ eventually came to mean ‘Greek’. I remember once reading a headline in a Beirut newspaper announcing the marriage of Constantine, the former King of Greece; he was described as the King of the Roum. I smiled, because it was a quaint turn of phrase that no one used anymore. In Lebanon, the word roum is now applied only to two Christian religious communities: roum orthodox, meaning Greek Orthodox, and roum catholik, meaning Greek Catholics. Use the word roum on its own and it is understood to mean the former. Note, however, that the singular is never used in this context; asked to which faith he adheres, a Greek Orthodox will say that he is roum, not roumi. The latter hasn’t followed the same route.

Mysticism and comic books

The peoples of the Maghreb knew all about the Western Roman Empire and, more recently, French colonisation; what’s more, the region has never had local communities adhering to the Greek Rite, and here the word roumi is used to describe a European Christian. In French military slang, it used to denote a young recruit newly arrived in the city2. To my mind, Hergé drew inspiration from this term when he had the Egyptian Arabs or those from the ‘land of black gold’ call the tufted young reporter a ‘roumi’.

In fact, the inhabitants of the Levant and of the Arab peninsula would actually have called him a franji — meaning ‘Frank’, the word commonly used to describe a European. When the word roumi is used in these parts, it is to describe someone as a ‘Greek’ or sometimes, paradoxically, a ‘Turk’. And is it indeed in this latter sense that we should understand the name of the mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi.

This shift in meaning is explained by the fact that the region known today as Turkey was long part of the Eastern Roman Empire. In Arabic, it was call bilad er-roum, meaning ‘the land of the Roum’, and its inhabitants were therefore known as roum, singular roumi or rumi. When the Turkic migrations to Asia Minor began around the year 1000, the historian ibn al-Athir tells us that they came from China, by which he means what is now the province of Xinjiang — still sometimes called Chinese Turkistan — and that those who settled in Anatolia, within the Eastern Roman Empire, were called roum. Given that vast numbers of Turkic peoples migrated to this region, the word roum eventually came to be synonymous with ‘Turk’ in Persia as well as in certain parts of India3.

The mystic poet Rumi himself was not a Turk. Born in 1207 in Balkh, in the north of what is now Afghanistan, into a family of educated Persians, he fled with his people from Genghis Khan’s hordes and settled in the ‘land of the Roum’, in the city of Konya, which is in the centre of what is now Turkey. Here he would remain until his death in 1273, and it is here that he would study, write and teach, winning in his lifetime an immense prestige that remains undiminished to this day.

Now as then, people sing his poetry, meditate on his wisdom and, more than anything, venerate the incomparable generosity of his spirit, a generosity that drove him to write:

Come, come to us, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come, even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come to us, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

  1. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Roumi in French. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: As we are reminded by the website of the Centre National des Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, which I often visit. []
  3. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The illustration used in this article comes from the Historical Museum of Textiles in Lyon. I found it on this site, to which I am profoundly grateful. []
  4. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Translation cited in Malak, Amin, Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, p. 151. []

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My Web of Words – 3 – Orange

It is in the chronicles of old that I discovered the name the Arabs once gave to this fruit: al-naranj. The word illustrates better than any other how their civilization played the role of cultural go-between. It came to Arabic from Persian, which itself borrowed it from Sanskrit. It originally denoted the bitter orange, introduced to Europe around the 11th Century.

When 15th-Century Portuguese navigators brought back from Asia the sweet varieties such as the ones we eat today, the Arabs called the new fruit bortuqal, ‘Portugal’; we find the same name given in Turkish, Georgian and Bulgarian as well as a number of other languages, including, apparently, Persian. Certain sources say that the common name for this fruit in Iran is now portoghal, but my old French-Persian ‘Dictionnaire Khayyam’, published fifty or so years ago, gives only narang. Possibly both terms co-exist in Iran as they do in Greece, where the sweet orange is called portokali and the bitter variety nerantzi.

Naranja, laranja, taronja, arancia

Most European languages have kept the old word, but in different forms. Some have done away with the initial ‘n’; others have maintained it; yet others have switched the consonant with another.

In French, the old word was norenge. Since it was often preceded by the indefinite article une — which ends with a silent e — the two words were therefore pronounced ‘unnorenge‘. One of the two n’s became superfluous and eventually disappeared. Some think that this progression was smoothed by the fact that the new word began with or, French for ‘gold’, a syllable made all the more apt given that the colour of the ripened fruit is a little like that of the precious metal. A similar evolution occurred in Italian, in which the word began as narancia and became arancia. As for the English word, it appears to have been taken as is from French.1

On the Iberian Peninsula, Spanish has retained the initial n. In una naranja, the two ‘na’ syllables were distinct and have never joined. The Portuguese say laranja, as do the Basques; Galicians say laranxa — the initial ‘l’ in these three languages probably a trace of the definite article in Arabic in al-naranj. The Catalans, however, say taronja.

Elsewhere in Europe, the name of the orange has followed a different route. The Germanic languages refer to the fruit’s country of origin, calling it a ‘China apple’ — the Germans have apfelsin, the Dutch sinaasappel, the Swedes apelsin, and so on.2  Russian has taken the same route, with apelsin.3

Before it was used to denote a particular fruit, the words ‘apple’, ‘pomme’ and ‘apfel’ were generic terms used to denote all fruit apart from berries. In French, we still say pommes de terre4 for potatoes, and pommes de pin5 for pine cones; French speakers once called the tomato a pomme d’or6, an idea that persists in the Italian word pomodoro. Both terms exist in Arabic; Arabic-speakers in certain countries, such as Lebanon, still talk about a ‘golden apple’ in the term banadoura; in others, notably Egypt, the tomato is known as a tamatem
But I’ll revisit some of these words in a future post.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: For more on this point and many others, see the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary, a goldmine that I have just discovered. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: We find this provenance again in the fruit’s scientific name, citrus sinicus. []
  3. AUTHOR’S NOTE: In spoken Algerian, the orange is called a tchina, which also seems to evoke its Chinese origin. We see the same root in the name for another variety of citrus fruit — the mandarin. []
  4. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘earth apple’, but really a ‘potato’. []
  5. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘pine (tree) apple’, but really a ‘pinecone’. []
  6. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Literally, ‘gold(en) apple’, but really a ‘tomato’. []

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Shame on them all

Something eludes me in the story of al-Megrahi, the Libyan official who has just been released in Scotland.

If he is guilty of a crime as dreadful as the Lockerbie bombing – that is, of using a bomb to destroy an airliner and cause the deaths of 270 people -, why has he been released after just ten years in prison?

If he is innocent, then why were some people surprised to see him greeted with flowers upon his return home?

I won’t speculate on his guilt or innocence. One thing, however, is absolutely certain: if this man did indeed commit the abominable act of which he is accused, he did it not for his own account, but for that of his superiors. This is a patent, incontestable fact. Yet no one seems embarrassed to receive these same superiors with all the usual fanfare, or to accommodate their every whim. No one thinks twice before being photographed at their sides, or before signing lucrative contracts with them. Yet when al-Megrahi’s masters pose in photographs alongside the underling who paid for their crimes, we are supposed to be outraged.

Many of those familiar with the affair – notably, some of the victims’ parents – are convinced that the trial was shamefully rigged, that the Libyan official wasn’t guilty at all but rather served as a scapegoat to protect the real perpetrators, whether Libyan or not. Indeed, the Scottish Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, implied as much when he decided to free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Because even if the man suffers from an incurable disease that leaves him little time to live, he could have been conscientiously treated in a British hospital. Certainly, he should never have been allowed to return home – not unless there are serious doubts about his culpability.

Everything leads us to believe that certain people have struck a sordid bargain for oil, or for commercial or political gain. Plenty of clues point this way. If this is indeed the case, then there are some who have no business lording it as though from some great ethical height. By dint of compromising values in the name of ‘realism’, by dint of interpreting principles according to what’s currently convenient, the West will eventually lose all moral credibility; as for her adversaries/partners across the Mediterranean, they never had much moral cradibility to begin with.

I don’t know whether, one day, the truth about the Lockerbie bombing will come completely to light; whatever that truth might be, however, one thing is certain: the affair exposes the moral failure that marks our times, a failure in which no leader – not in the West and not in the Arab world – hasn’t played a part. It is a failure from which no one can walk with head held high.

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My Web of Words – 2 – Turkey

For me, studying the origin of words is above all a conversation. We tell stories, we argue, we converse with and teach one another, and we get to know one another better. I am talking here as much about languages, nations and cultures as I am about individuals.

Certainly, the field has its men of learning, its specialists and scholars. I am not among them. My ambition is only to be an enlightened amateur. I have fun, I learn and I pass on what I learn the way men of letters once did — except that I do it with today’s tools, which allow me to receive in my study not one or two friends who happen to be passing by, but hundreds of people from all over.

The domesticated animal I wish to discuss today is known in various languages by the name of a country. In French, we call it “dinde”, – originally “d’Inde”, i.e. “from India”. In English, the same animal is known as a turkey; in Lebanon and some other arab countries, the male turkey is called “dik habash”, meaning Abyssinian — that is to say Ethiopian — cock; but the Egyptians called it “dik roumi”, which literally translates as Roman rooster but by which they really mean a Greek one1 .  The Greeks themselves know the turkey as a “gallopoula”, which means French hen. As for the Turks, they simply call the turkey a “hindi”2.

Yet this fowl fares not from India, nor Turkey, nor yet Ethiopia, but from America, from where Christopher Columbus brought the first specimens back to Europe. In Portuguese, the animal is called a ‘Peru.’ And it is understood among French-speakers that the French word for turkey refers to the wrongly identified ‘India’. The explorer’s mistake — he thought he had reached India from the west — has never been completely rectified, since we continue to talk about American ‘Indians’ 500 years later.

It’s true that the word ‘America’ itself results from a misunderstanding. But that will be the theme of another post.

  1. How did the word “rumi” and its plural “rum” come to mean “Greek” instead of the literal meaning of “Roman”? This is a very unusual story to which I’ll be coming back very soon. []
  2. For further examples of the names given to this bird, see the  dedicated page in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []

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He must succeed

The Washington Spring – 8

If, with the passing weeks, I have expressed concerns and inchoate disappointment, it is only because Barack Obama’s election filled me with hope, because I wish above all that he succeed, and because it would be a disaster should he fail. I am still fairly confident, even if there are more and more sceptics around me – which, in the internet age, means the entire planet.

I regularly hear one objection that seems to me to some extent warranted (but also, therefore, in some measure unwarranted), and which can be expressed thus: the United States behaved the way it did on the international stage during recent years (decades, even) not because of calculated choices made by any one president, but because national interests dictated their deeds.

The proof of this, we’re told, is that successive American leaders adopted more-or-less similar positions on a range of issues. There is, therefore, a sort of determinism preventing any president – no matter how well intentioned – from breaking away from the line imposed by his country’s strategic interests. In the Arab world, you hear this opinion on every street corner. And you hear it in Latin America and in other regions of the world, too.

In my opinion, there is certainly some truth to it. If the American giant has found itself mired in so many conflicts throughout the world in recent years, it is not only because presidents Bush Snr., Clinton and then Bush Jr. deemed them worthwhile. It is also because the United States no longer felt it could play a leading role in the planet’s affairs or protect its own interests without constantly resorting to its military might.

Might Americans now change their attitude? In all sincerity, the most one can say – if one takes into account the objective facts without getting stuck in determinism – is that that remains to be seen. An American president’s margin for manoeuvre is neither negligible nor limitless. For example, should a president want to significantly reduce the US military presence throughout the world, he would meet with obstacles difficult to overcome; conversely, had a president decided it was wrong to invade Iraq, he could very well have avoided that war.

This applies to most of the troublesome matters that Barack Obama found on his desk when he moved into the White House last January – the economy, health care, global warming, and various international questions such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Burma, Africa, the Middle East and so on. In his speeches, first as candidate and then president, and in his earlier writings, Obama has shown an in-depth understanding of these matters. One gets the feeling that he’s thought them through, that he’s sought solutions.

Being a symbol isn’t enough

I freely admit that I hoped Obama would win. At first, my hope was founded on the symbolic value that the election of a person of mixed origins, who comes from five continents at once, to the leadership of the world’s leading superpower represented; but as I heard him speak, as I read what he had written and heard what those who knew him well said of him, I was quickly seduced by his intelligence and moral integrity.

Quite frankly, America hasn’t exactly spoiled us with the presidents she has chosen over the past 40 years; the intelligent and cultivated ones turned out to be cynics or of dubious morals, and the entire world suffered the consequences. Obama’s election filled me with enthusiasm, then, and I still think that, on the symbolic level, it constitutes an historic event of global reach. But I shall be disappointed should History remember this presidency for its symbolism alone.

Disappointment is too faint, too personal a word. The troubled world we live in needs urgent and audacious answers if we are to avoid sinking even deeper into violence, hatred and widespread cynicism. And it would be a disaster if the man who raised ‘the audacity of hope’ into doctrine, who made it a rallying cry, lacked audacity and dashed our hope.

It is too soon to say if this will be the case. For the time being, then, I listen, pay attention, weigh up and consider events. Sometimes I rejoice, sometimes I grow impatient, and sometimes I worry. Without going into the details of any matter in particular, I would like to note here two or three general causes for concern, linked to the character of this administration and to that of the president himself.

Obama is a consensus man, which is both a quality and a liability. It’s a quality if one understands ‘consensus’ to mean that all political views should be taken into account, and that all people of good will should be brought into the fold. But if one gives the right of veto over one’s actions to too many people, including to one’s own opponents, one condemns oneself to paralysis and conformism. Big ideas are watered down until they are vapid and inconsequential.

I have just read a highly illuminating book, one to which Obama consented, and which – despite its ambiguous title, Renegade[i] - is very favourable to him, by the British journalist Richard Wolffe. In it, Wolffe recounts a conversation he had last year with the future president on the manner in which the latter intended to govern. Obama told him, in essence, that if “the ship” were entrusted to him, then his first concern would be to prevent it being wrecked.

It’s an understandable and worthy attitude, but paradoxically also a little risky – ‘risky’ in the sense of excessively prudent. Because from the moment certain people, both within the United States and outside it, realise that Obama is reluctant to use force for fear of upsetting the ship, they will no longer want to let him continue. Not on health, not on the economy, not on the Middle East, not on Afghanistan, not on any portfolio whatsoever.

There are so many people who have not accepted his election, whether for political, racial or other reasons, and who above all want to see him fail. He must prove them wrong. For the United States as much as for the rest of the world, it is vital that Obama succeed.

(First published in French on August 19th).

[i] AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘Renegade’ was the code word given to candidate Obama by the secret service agents assigned to protect him during the election campaign.


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My Web of Words – 1 – Alcohol

alcools-photo-ziad-maaloufI have a long-standing passion for the origins of words, especially those that cross the borders between languages and cultures, the travelling words, which I call “My Web of Words.”
There are of course those words that the West has borrowed from Eastern languages — Arabic, Persian, Turkish, the Indian languages and others still; then there are those Western words that the Arabs, Turks or Japanese have adopted; but the ones in which I’m most interested are those that have gone both ways.

Such has been the lot of the word ‘alcohol’, for instance. No one will be surprised to learn that, in the Arab world, alcoholic drinks are called al-kuhul. Quite naturally, you would be tempted to think that this word gave French alcool and English ‘alcohol’. You would be wrong; the evidence strongly suggests that it is in fact Arabic that very recently borrowed al-kuhul from European languages. Indeed, you won’t find the word in classic Arabic literature. The ancient poets enjoyed drink as much as the modern ones do, and often wrote of it in rapturous terms. But they never called it al-kuhul. That which Islam advises against or forbids — and promises to those who enter Paradise — is khamr, a word that denotes wine specifically and alcoholic drinks more generally, and which is still commonly used.

Having said that, the word ‘alcohol’ does, in fact, come from Arabic — but it came with quite another meaning, and in a much more roundabout way. Al-kuhl originally described the powdered antimony used as make up, a meaning it has retained in current Arabic usage and which some Western languages have borrowed, as in the French words khôl, kohl or kohol, and the English ‘kohl’. When physicians subjected this antimony to high heat, it produced a cloud of fine powder. The direct transformation of a substance from solid to gas without passing through a liquid state is called sublimation. The gas produced by this method was called ‘alcohol’, a word that became synonymous with ‘spirit’, in the sense of ‘spirits-of-wine’ or ‘spirituous’. Little by little, around the 11th Century, the word came to describe all distilled drinks, and finally all alcoholic drinks; and it is this meaning — which no longer has anything to do with ‘kohl’ – that the word took back to Arabic, most probably around the 19th Century, certainly no earlier.

This is just the first example of the to-and-fro that travelling words undergo. I plan to bring up more in future posts.

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