(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Notes from the North

A couple people have inquired after me, seeing as I haven't posted in a while and things have been getting a little weird here.  I can tell you that I am perfectly fine, and as far as I've seen, nothing's been going on up here in the north of the country.  I'll be traveling this coming week to a monastery in the middle of the country, where I'll do whatever needs doing-- dish washing to shepherding-- for a week to earn my keep.  I'm sure there will be lots of stories on that come April, so stay tuned.  In the mean time, I'm being very smart and not going anyplace or doing anything that would make me look like anything less than the apolitical angel I am.  So you probably already know this, but please no political discussions here or on my Facebook page!

For now, I thought I'd give you guys some helpful Arabic words.
1) "a3dii" (the "3" is transliteration for the "ayn" or glottal stop in Arabic, which the the sound in the middle of a cockney pronunciation of "bottle")
  As far as I can tell, this literally means "normal" or "everyday."  In usage, however, it tends to mean anything but.  Or maybe this is just a dealing-with-foreigners thing.  Anyway, I've heard "a3dii" at least once a day from arrival onward.  For instance, when trying to explain Syrian social norms to the Americans, some of the hallmates told us that it is "a3dii" for men and women to text each other and to hang out together.  In another example, a friend here managed to trip over her own feet and sprawl undignified on the kitchen floor.  The kind-hearted Syrians said this was "a3dii" too.  However, when we spent the weekend driving around a calm suburb, windows open, blasting trashy American dance music, the Syrians driving with us said this, too, was "a3dii."  As was our off-key singing, as were our clumsy translation efforts (have you ever tried translating dance songs?), as was our game of hallway soccer using a shoe as ball.  So, yes: "a3dii" now also means "not a3dii."

2) "shoo"
   "Shoo" is a uniquely Syrian colloquial word, meaning "what" (The Modern Standard Arabic equivalent is "ma" or "matha."  Told you MSA and colloquial are very different).  The great thing about "shoo", though, is how much it lends itself to a tone of injured confusion or utter bewilderment.  Try it.  Look in the mirror, make a sad puppy-dog face, and ask yourself, "Shoo?"  Before I was comfortable at all with speaking Arabic here, I used "shoo" to within an inch of its life, and continue to make extensive use of it now.  It's going to be hard to lose the "shoo" when I'm supposed to be using MSA in formal settings, such as classroom study.

3) "insha'allah"
   This is an Arabic phrase, but one found in use by non-Arabophone Muslim communities as well.  Literally, it means "if God wishes."  Here, you tack it onto any event you discuss which will take place in the future.  For example, I will be getting back to the US in May, insha'allah.  I always thought this was just an incredibly pious thing to do, and I suppose it is, but also, I've come to see the need for "insha'allah" more clearly.  Things rarely happen as you expect: a random holiday may be declared, there may be no hot water for that long shower you were lusting after, you may not receive the exit visa you were promised last month.  You just have to be flexible.  "Insha'allah" isn't a total abdication of personal responsibility, although it can seem that way when you're looking for a definitely yes or no.  It's more along the lines of "I'll do all I can and then the rest is in God's hands."

Class dismissed for today, masalaama wa ila liqaa, allah m3ak, and insha'allah I'll speak to you all again soon!


  1. I just wrote the world's longest, most detailed comment and had it deleted cause I wasn't signed into Wordpress. Lame.

  2. Ok. So here was the gist:

    Woohoo! I can learn shaami from you!
    Some thoughts:

    1. a3dii: We don't have a synonym in Egyptian, but we have 'ma3lesh' - the world's most useful word. I'm sorry - ma3lesh. I bumped into someone - ma3lesh. My friend's relative dies and I want to console them - ma3lesh. I was late for an appointment - ma3lesh. I was the one stuck waiting by a late friend for an appointment - ma3lesh. It's no big deal - ma3lesh. I'm not worried - ma3lesh. SO USEFUL. And the hardest part of transitioning home is wishing you could express yourself through these words, but having no way to say them in English. For months you will want to say 'a3dii' when it's the best choice and your own native tongue fails you...

    2. shoo: in Egyptian, we have "nam?" which becomes highly confusing in the classroom or when talking to people from the ma3'reb, because in classical fuss7a, "nam" means yes!

    3. ayn: Be careful not to think of this as a glottal stop. It is actually pretty different. In "Frank Arabic", where numbers are used to transliterate Arabic phonemes nonexistent in English, 2 denotes a veritable glottal stop. For example: la2, the word for no. English speakers often transliterate this as "la'a", but that sort of suggests unnecessary phonation after the glottal stop, and really the sound should stop and then the breath be released with no extra 'a' sound at the end.

    The Ayn, 3, however, is indeed glottal but absolutely must maintain duration of sound though the soft palate has blocked the back of the throat. For those reading this unfamiliar with Arabic, you can try to imagine this by humming with your mouth open in an overly nasal manner. Now try an open sound, a hummed sound, an open sound - all with your mouth open, going back and forth between the two. The soft palate lifts and blocks off the throat but the sound does not cease... this is the best explanation for how to create an ayn. It's extremely difficult to throw into words and must be overemphasized until it is comfortable in the non-Arabic speaker's muscle-memory.

    As for the other Frank Arabic numbers, Elise I'm sure you know them but they are:
    2 - glottal stop
    3 - ayn as described above
    3' - ghayn, a glottal roll akin to how Edith Piaf sings her "r"s, or to how Germans from Frankfurt often begin words with r. Like purring, or gargling, or imitating a hookah bubbling, and is easiest when you have lots of phlegm. When spoken quickly, sound much like a soft, more nasal French r.
    5 - khhh, like a German "ach-laut," or the way highland Scots shout, "Ach!" Strongly associated with Yiddish and other Eastern European languages. My mom makes this sound when she has an itch to scratch in the back of her throat.
    7 - a hard, aspirated h. This is simply an UNVOICED aspirated h sound, which many Arabic teachers claim does not exist in English. It is simply not recognized by English speakers as its own sound, but Americans having the brassy accent that we do, we create it a lot when we're emphasizing words that begin with h. Shout, "how could you!" You'll hear the supported, breathy h sound at the very beginning.