New essay: “Shin is for Saracen” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour –

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Shin is for Saracen” –


Shîn is distinguished from Sîn by a triangle of dots over the teeth (as with Tha or Z͎ha). To my ear it makes sense that the Sh sound would be represented like an S with something added. Shîn sounds heavier, thicker, as if it utilized more of the voice-making apparatus. Arabic adds the three dots to Sin (as we add the letter H next to the letter S). 

In manuscripts of sufficient age you will also see the clearer sibilant Sîn carrying the same three-dot load, but underneath, i.e., ڛ, (no doubt to make the difference between Sîn and Shîn unmistakable). In contemporary Turkish (in Roman letters), the SH sound is represented by ş, an S with a cedilla, as in şaşmak, to be surprised, or şişlemek, to pierce to stab, or şiş, a skewer, as in şişkebap


The great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived in Alexandria. He knew enough Arabic to entitle one of his early poems (1890s), «Σαμ ελ Νεσíμ» (Sam el Nesîm), the name of an Egyptian spring festival. Or almost the name, since the festival is properly speaking Shamm al-nasîm, with a Shîn. You cannot blame him, as there is no SH sound in Greek.

Shamma in Arabic means to sniff or breathe in. Shamm al-Nasim means “inhaling the air,” “enjoying the air,” to greet the coming of spring. It can be traced back, before Arabic, to a word with a similar sound, in ancient Egyptian, a proper noun Shemu, the season between May and September. Shamm al-Nasîm is observed by both Christians and Muslims according to the Coptic calendar, the day after Coptic Easter. Edward Lane, writing in 1834, translates shamm al-nasim “smelling of the Z͎ephyr”: “the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northwards to take the air… The greater number dine in the country or on the river” (Lane, 483). It is, Lane adds, a festival observed with persistence: “This year (1834) they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.” 

Cavafy didn’t keep “Sam el Nesîm” in his complete works, perhaps because the premise is too simple. (It’s a poem which says this is a time of celebration, but down deep we know we’ll return to our usual grim lives soon enough. Or, more personally, “it’s their celebration, not mine.”) There are many ways to describe the grain of daily life in a culture other than ours; you can’t help but suspect that even in the most neutral descriptions there is something suspicious or demeaning. If Cavafy knew the etymology, as is likely enough, it would have been possible to make more use of the fact that the contemporary festivals traced back pre-Islamic sources. Poets (شعراء, shu‘râ’) love that.