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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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  1. #1 by Seta Manoukian on November 30th, 2011

    Thank you Amin Maalouf,beautiful writing.Wish you good health.

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