Archive for September, 2009

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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The door to my office will remain ajar

Un bureau mal rangéFriends have told me — both in writing and in conversation — that this blog ought to be more visible and “better referenced”. It certainly will be, eventually. But that isn’t what I’m after at the moment. I called the first article I posted ‘Blog — freedom and bondage’ because this wonderful instrument offers us both, as does everything that modernity brings us, and it is only by using it that one can find out on which path one is travelling.

Those who know me know that I write in an atmosphere of calm, solitude and serenity, and that I distance myself as much as I can from the hubbub of the world. Given this, I find blogging a paradoxical experience. If it were to invade my life and encroach upon the novel I am writing, I would have no choice but to run away. But I don’t plan to do that. One only has to see the pace at which I write my posts to realise that I enjoy the experience, and that I intend to keep at it.

I will continue because keeping a blog meets a need, a specific need that is increasingly clear to me: what I would like to do is leave ajar the door to my office so that any friends passing by may glance within and nod a quick greeting, perhaps let their eyes wander over a few pages that I’ve left out for them to see, then continue along their way with the promise of dropping by again later.

In short, I don’t want to keep my door tightly closed, nor do I want to want to put myself squarely in the public eye, with the doors and windows open to every gust of wind, my pages fluttering about everywhere.

Is this unrealistic? Doesn’t the Web have its own inherent logic from which no one can escape? I don’t think so. This blog will be what I make of it, and what my visitors help me make of it. I hope that it will be a space for thinking about literature, about languages and words, about the Obama years  — what I call “the Washington Spring” —, about the world in which we live, a world that is both fascinating and worrying. And I will undertake to make it exactly that.

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In Sherlock Holmes’ Day

first_edition_1887The Washington Spring — 4 —

I will begin today’s article with a brief literary reminiscence. It concerns Sherlock Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which the narrator, Doctor Watson, first meets the famous detective. Holmes is looking for a fellow lodger, and a mutual acquaintance brings them together.

“Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?”

Holmes merely chuckles, and not until the following day does he explain how he worked it out. After going through a long list of deductions, he reaches this ironclad conclusion:

“Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

In the novel’s first paragraph, Watson tells us that he went to the Indies in 1878 as an army surgeon, but just as he was about to join his regiment, “the second Afghan war had broken out.” He found himself safe and sound in Kandahar, But says that he would have “fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly…”

The book was published in 1887. I suppose that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers knew what he meant by the “second Afghan war.” Personally, I must confess that I’ve lost track. Even if I consider only those Afghan wars in my own lifetime, I’m no longer sure which one we’re up to. The fourth? The fifth?

All this to say that, when President Obama announced that he would withdraw his troops from Iraq but reinforce his contingent in Afghanistan, I wasn’t convinced his decision was a wise one. The US Army had to withdraw from Iraq, of course. They never should have gone there in the first place, and once they had occupied it, they certainly shouldn’t have acted the way they did. I am not sure that the situation will be properly fixed after the Americans leave definitively; but I am sure that their military’s prolonged presence there did nothing to help.

Having made that clear, I must make a remark that no historian of the Middle East can readily contest: the least one can say is that Iraq is not a guerrilla warfare country. It took the Americans’ accumulated mistakes, blunders and gaffes for them to end up with such a war on their hands, in such bleak physical and humanitarian circumstances.

Afghanistan is another kettle of fish. It is the quintessential land of endless guerrilla warfare, as the British, Soviets and various other foolhardy powers discovered to their cost. And even if the American president wants to lead his campaign differently, even if he asks his troops to listen to the local population and he promises to reform the prisons, it remains an extremely risky bet.

The historic reconciliation that Obama is pressing for must materialise and produce tangible results before the Afghans – and Muslim nations in general – will accept an American military operation on their land. That certainly isn’t the case today. We are only at the beginning of a long road full of pitfalls, and it is foolhardy to behave as though we have already reached safe haven.

(First published in French on July 21st).

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Paul Krugman’s doubts

obama-au-printemps-2009-photo-pete-souzaThe Washington Spring — 3 —

Those keen to follow closely America under Obama would do well to keep an eye on a number of warning lights. On the international front, there is the war in Afghanistan, the crisis in Iran, the peace efforts in the Near East and the policy towards Africa; on the domestic front, there is the economic recovery, health-care-system reform and so on. The list of indicators is long and I won’t cover all of it. On those matters I know a few things about, I will give my assessment every now and then,  and amend it when either the situation or my view of events changes. On the many matters about which I know little, I will avoid expressing personal opinions, though I may recommend something worth reading from time to time.

The economy is a case of the latter. I don’t feel qualified to disentangle its many threads. Yet, since it is such an important issue that affects all our lives; and since it is the focus of ongoing, worldwide trouble; and because it is a matter on which Barack Obama’s administration cannot allow itself to fail, it is only natural that the conscientious observer pay it close attention.

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and a leading authority on the subject, has expressed his qualms about the economy. Krugman is a ‘liberal’ in the American sense — which, as everyone knows, means the opposite of the French definition. He is in favour of allowing the public authorities to play a significant role in the economy in order to offset the market’s influence. His benchmark work is entitled The Conscience of a Liberal1. The book is essential reading and should inspire all those looking for a middle road between the failed policy of interventionism and that idolatrous faith in market rule, which has unquestionably shown its limitations.

In his book, Krugman brilliantly develops a number of appealing ideas. He writes, for instance, that the American reaction to the Great Depression of 1929 was the “Great Compression” — of income — a process that turned the nation into a vast middle class. It is this America, he says, which was able to burst into patriotic and ethical action during the Second World War, to defeat Nazism.

Krugman writes that under Reagan, the United States returned to a time of inequality. Little by little, he says, the country unravelled its social fabric, became demoralised, and distorted the meaning of patriotism. The United States under ultra-conservative rule has led dubious wars such as the one in Iraq, where the majority of troops were young immigrants whose only motive was to obtain citizenship a little more quickly, and where countless activities were sub-contracted to private businessmen whose only motive was to grow rich on the army’s back.

The author concludes that as much as the conservative Republicans try to outdo their rivals in patriotism and accuse their adversaries of being ‘un-American’, their posturing is belied by the facts, namely that the American right cannot win a war, while the America born of the bold New Deal set up by Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to do so, brilliantly.

Krugman turns all the arguments that American conservatives have developed over the last thirty years against them. He advocates a steadfastly social capitalism, not just out of ethical concern, but also because it allows both the economy and international relations to be managed more efficiently, and because it allows democratic institutions to run smoothly.

It is no surprise, then, that Krugman expressed his disapproval very soon after Barack Obama presented his economic recovery plan. He found the plan timid, fearful and insufficient. He felt that the new president hadn’t dared take on the establishment, or Wall Street.

That Obama revealed himself to be prudent – extremely prudent — and that he didn’t choose to follow the bolder road that Krugman advocates, is indisputable. But was he wrong to do so? Will he regret it one day, as Krugman implies in his articles? It is hard to say. On the one hand, one can understand that the newly elected president, immediately confronted by a major crisis, didn’t want to risk turning the system upside down. On the other, I think it makes sense to ask, as Krugman does, if we can really face a major crisis without making a real break with the practices that led to the disaster in the first place.

The debate is of capital importance and far from over. I will continue to follow it closely, and to comment on it in these posts.

(First published in French on July 18th).

  1. His blog, hosted on The New York Times website, bears the same name. []

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My Web of Words – 5 – Greek

I wrote in my last post that in the Levant, the words roumi and roum were sometimes synonymous with ‘Greek’. I had planned to make some further points, but then decided to save these for a separate post so as not to burden the article with overlong digressions.

While roum describes those Christians that adhere to the Greek rite and, in historical texts, the Byzantines, the everyday Arabic word used for Greece is al-Yunan, while its corresponding adjective is yunani. We find the word again in Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Mandarin; and we can find its cousins in the languages of many Asian countries, from Azerbaijan to Indonesia.

It’s generally accepted that the Arabs, and probably all those other Eastern nations mentioned above, followed the example of the Turks, who call Greece Yunanistan, literally ‘the land of the Ionians’.

Yet Ionia nowadays is not in Greece but in Turkey, on the shore of the Aegean Sea, with the city of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) at its centre. Ionia is the region of Asia Minor that remained ethnically Greek for the longest, so much so that at the end of the First World War, when it looked like the defeated Ottoman Empire was about to be carved up, Athens tried to annex Ionia. Ataturk took up arms against them, and the Greeks’ rash venture ended in tragedy: massacres, a massive exodus, and a huge fire that, in September 1922, ravaged Izmir, destroying the greater part of the city and, according to some sources, more than 100,000 people.

The name Yunanistan, and all those derived from it, could therefore be explained by the fact that Ionia was one of the principle Greek strongholds in Asia Minor, at a time when the Turkish population was becoming the majority1.  Whatever the case, the region was an important centre of civilisation and encompasses places that left their marks on history, places such as Ephesus, Phocaea, the island of Samos, the Meander River and Miletus, home of Thales, one of the ancient world’s great scholars2.

It should come as no surprise that the Turks, Arabs and other nations of the Orient have their own names for Greece and its people, given that the nations of the West don’t know that country by the name its inhabitants give it either. Greeks call their country Ellada or, in a historical context, Hellas, and call themselves Hellenes, whereas most European languages know that country as Greece and its people as Greeks, or by some variant of these.

In this, the Greeks are far from alone; many people are surprised, amused and at times horrified when they hear the name given to their country by people in other regions of the world.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yet the word could be even older, since the Bible knows Greece as Yavan, phonetically close to Yunan; if this is in fact the case, however, one would have to assume that the Greeks’ assimilation with the Ionians occurred long before the Turkic migrations, which brings to mind this article in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: At certain moments in history, the name ‘Ionia’ included what is now known as Greece, encompassing Athens, Attica and the northern Peloponnese. Yet it seems the ‘Ionian’ Islands such as Corfu, Ithaca, Kythira and Cephalonia had nothing to do with that Ionia — the two words are simply homonyms and are not written the same way in Greek. []

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