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

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour – http://alifbatourguide.com/

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Shin is for Saracen” – http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/shin/

excerpt:

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

Spring

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.

 

shin4

Cows

As I did a post on camels – Camels and Camel-Owners  – I have to give equal time to cows. If Dhofaris have herd animals, it is usually either camels OR cows, not often does a family have both. Although it is common to own goats either alone or with camels or cows. None of the three types of animals like to be in the same area at the same time. In khareef  (the monsoon season which is ending now), camels are taken out of areas which get rain as their flat feet can’t get traction on slippery ground.  Cows are usually kept indoors during the day because of the swarms of mosquitos. With the start of fall weather (sunny and dry), camels will soon be herded back to the regular grazing grounds in the mountains and cows will be let out during the day; but the two types of animals usually keep to separate areas. Goats are almost always let out of pens with a herder, who will steer them away from the larger animals. 

 

cows

a mountain cow pen (photo used with permission)

 

IMG_3577

mountains in khareef

cows in mountain

cows in khareef

cows on beach

cows on the beach

You Have Nothing to Fear from Sheep’s Eyes but Beware the Carrot Sweet: Researching Foodways in Southern Oman

During over a decade of picnics with men from southern Oman, I have never been offered the eyes, brain, tongue or tail of any animal. The cliché of guests being offered the ‘unloved’ parts of an animal doesn’t hold here in the Dhofar region. And it’s not that large platter of rice and meat that will cause you problems. Men will encourage you to eat, but if you gather up a few grains of rice in your hand and lift it towards your mouth, the host’s attention will move on.

If you are given a fish, you can turn the head away from you and start to eat from tail up, scattering by chance a few shreds of lettuce over the eyes. Then you declare yourself full before you need to deal with the stomach area, much less digging into the skull for the fish cheeks.

What you should fear is ladies’ parties with lots of very generous, caring, strong-arming women.

Men usually have dinner with friends on the beach or in a scenic place in the mountain. It’s dark, eating is done quickly and men come and go freely; there is little policing of who eats what. Although the cook might toss special pieces of meat or fish towards you, if you don’t want to eat them, simply leave them alone.

But women parties are usually indoors, with lots of light and everyone sits in their places for several hours so you are constantly under observation.

I love wedding parties because the air is full of beautiful perfumes and everyone is in gorgeous, comfortable, multi-color thobes (the loose, traditional Dhofari dress). And the food is delicious, but you cannot escape it. Either waitresses or relatives of the groom will bring around trays of drinks and sweets and everyone, not just the hostess, but all the other guests, will encourage you to partake.

You have had four cups of super-leaded, espresso-strength, cardamom-spiced Omani qahwa (coffee)? The generous women would like you to have a fifth cup! “You didn’t drink anything! Do you not like the coffee? Do you want tea! BRING TEA, SHE WANTS TEA!”  they call.

You protest but, alas, give up. The tsunami of kindness is coming for you. Take up the tea cup and drink. And as soon as you set down the cup, here come someone with juice, soda, instant coffee, chai ahmar (“red tea,” black tea with only sugar added), chai haleeb (“milk tea,” black tea with milk and sugar), or karak (loose tea with spices and milk).

Then come the sweets accompanied by women benevolently asking you to take another spoonful of halwa, the traditional Omani dessert. And like a swan-dive into a bowl of whipped cream, you submit to your fate: a small plate of carrot sweet, a bowl of crème caramel, a slice of cake, a bowl of ice cream, fruit salad, luqaymat/ loqeemat (sweet fried dough with a sugar syrup), basbousa, and wrapped chocolates.

And now, just as you give up any thought of ever moving again, dinner is served. A generous woman hands you a plate heaped high with a selection of appetizers (hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread) and qabooli (a dish with spices, rice and meat). Then, of course, dessert is served.

There have been weekends in which I have inhabited both worlds. One night was spent wearing loose cotton trousers and a tunic top with a plain blue headscarf and sitting on a plastic mat on a beach out of sight from any man-made lights. Dinner was fresh-caught fish cooked over a fire. The men in my research group and I ate with our hands, drank Dew, looked at the stars, listened to the sea and talked until 1am. The next night I wore a decorated velvet thobe with full make-up, my meager supply of gold jewelry and a lot of duty-free perfume, in a room full of air-conditioning, bright lights, and delightful women who wanted to stuff me until I burst.

Omani people are very open-hearted and open-handed and doing research on foodways is a lot of fun, but it is not for the meek or the small of stomach.

Reflections on Ethnographic Research: (Not) Asking Questions

“What is your favorite fruit?”

I stared in surprise at the younger relative who had just asked me that. There are a group of us eating breakfast and chatting; the question seemed odd to me, but I answered. Then I realized that I should ask “back.” So I asked her what her favorite fruit is.

Thinking about that exchange, I decided that I am out of practice for being asked questions. With my friends in Dhofar, I usually follow their pattern which is “if you want someone to know something, tell them.” Direct questions are rare, especially questions about expressing a preference.

At a friend’s house a few weeks later, I was talking to her son about of interest of his and ran into the opposite problem. I recognized afterwards that I should have asked what “his favorite” was – I had missed a good chance to hear his opinions.

Remembering those two moments in which I felt out of tune with American conversational tactics made me consider how I use and don’t use questions while doing research. Part of my hesitation about asking Dhofaris about their ideas and lives comes from trying to find a balance between a good friend and a good researcher. It’s not necessarily a tension, but it means (as Dhofaris say) “holding myself,” trying to think before speaking and choosing the right time and reason for asking for information.

As one example, a few years ago I asked one of the research guys (X) if he was free to have a picnic with the group on a Thursday night. He told me that his sister was getting married. I read that statement as a way of shutting down, not opening up, further conversation. If he had simply said, “I am busy” I probably would have asked if he wanted to meet with the group on Friday. I interpreted him telling me about the wedding, as if he was saying, “I and the people who you know in my family and extended family will all be busy all weekend” given that weddings are usually held on Friday or Saturday nights and in the days before, all members of the household are getting ready.

Dhofaris usually only talk about relatives when there is a specific need and usually only ask if there is a specific reason, such as asking after someone who you were told was sick or going to travel. Hearing that his sister was getting married made me want to ask a lot of questions; with Americans, asking about a sibling’s wedding is a positive sign of interest in your friend. But I couldn’t justify asking him. In my opinion, there was no need for me to know details. Even though I wanted to know, I felt that I had to accept Dhofari standards so I replied with the conventional statements about how I wished the couple well and hoped everything would be well. The next time I saw him I asked about “the wedding” in general terms. He affirmed that everything went well and that was the end of the topic.

Later, the situation changed. I was writing the section of my Houseways book about how Dhofaris move rooms (or don’t) when they get married or divorced. One facet that came out in interviews was whether a married woman would spend the night in her family’s home with her husband. I had information from a few women, but I wanted to get a man’s perspective.

So during a picnic, I told X that, if it was ok, I wanted to ask a few questions about where couples stayed after they were married. He agreed.

The next time I saw him, I pulled out my notebook and, even though I had done other interviews with him about topics related to houses, I started again at the beginning by explaining the Houseways project, then about my current focus about how people moved between houses. I said I wanted to ask some questions on that topic and that I would not write his name, tribe or any details that would allow readers to identify him or any family members.

When he agreed, I picked up my pen, opened my book and started in. I asked him about which houses he had spent the night in as a child and after he was married. Then I said, “Is it ok if I ask about your sister?” When he agreed, I asked a whole series of questions: How often does your sister come to visit your family house (where she was raised)? When your sister comes to visit, does she spend the night? How often? Does her husband stay the night with her? etc.

Then I moved on to general questions (do you know of any examples of married women who spend the night in their family’s house with their husband?) and hypotheticals. Then I paged back to a previous interview. I told him that I had asked a woman (Y) from Z group of tribes about this issue, I was going to read what she said and could he please give his opinion on her attitude.

I wrote up the interviews, tried to figure out the variables of the decision tree of who stays where in which house, then discussed what I had written with X, Y and other informants. At the end, I had a few paragraphs which I think accurately sum up the issue.

In the general context of talking between friends, asking X about his sister was not OK. But in the specific context of me trying to figure out how married Dhofari women maneuver through various houses, asking X questions directly related to my research was acceptable. He was helping me understand a world-view, i.e. what choices people perceived they had and how those choices were decided.

(picture is part of a photo from social media – yes Dhofar is very green now and, gentle reminder, please pick up your trash after picnicking!) 

Foodways: Cultures, Food Selfishness and “Could I Have a Little Bite?”

“May I have a sip?” asks a much-loved older relative.

I stifle a sigh and hand over my coffee cup.

Three minutes later, “Can I have another sip?”

With a small sigh, I hand over the cup.

Two minutes later, “Can I…” and I hand the cup over while biting my lip.

I don’t want to share. That cup of caramel/ Brazil nut/ vanilla-flavored coffee is my first flavored filter coffee in 11 months and, since I probably won’t be back to that store again this summer, it’s the last of that kind for another year. And I want to savor every drop of it.

And cherished older relative could have bought their own, heck I would have paid for their own. But no, my relatives want “just a sip” and “just a bite.”

This might have turned me into a person happy to share, but it did not. I turned into a person who hates handing over my coffee cup, doing it only under duress and after chiding myself about the importance of generosity.

Then I moved to Oman and learned a whole new system of dealing of food. There is no “mine” and no “yours” when eating with my Dhofari friends. There is “ours” and everyone attempts to be the person who is fastest to pass the freshly poured cup of tea or the newly opened box of cookies to someone else.

When I am with female friends at restaurants; food is automatically pushed towards the center of the table. We cut off pieces of whatever we ordered and place it on each other’s plates, even if that person is protesting that they don’t want any. We unconsciously put some French fries on a plate in the middle of the table or turn our plates so it’s easy for someone to take some.

On picnics, the food is set out communally on a platter. No one takes anything out of the coolbox without asking each person what they want first. At the end of the night, you try as hard as possible to give the leftovers to someone else. Several times I have pushed others to take food (halwa or qibqab, a thin, plain cracker-like bread) that I really wanted to bring home.

I do this instinctively in Oman but when I am staying with family, my food protection systems engage, the remnant of years of fending off “just a bite” and “you should share.”

Seeing food (taco salad! cinnamon-raisin bread! potato salad! cranberry muffins!) that I haven’t had for almost a year, I get selfish. When I open a small (one person!) bag of Old Bay-spiced potato chips and a relative hovers and dives in, I fight my instinct to hold the bag out of reach.

When people ask for “just a sip,” I am still cranky but I envision my Omani friends’ horror at the thought of my behaving badly. I remember all the meals shared and all the French fries I have stolen as I hand over the coffee cup.

“It’s just pie, people are more important than pie,” I say to myself as a foreign fork appears at the side of my plate. I push my plate towards the fork, saying “go ahead” with a cheery tone. Ethnographic work changes you. For the better.

 

 

 

New essay: “Sîn is for Zenith” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour – http://alifbatourguide.com/

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Sîn is for Zenith” – http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/sin/

excerpt:

The sound of Sîn (pronounced “scene”) is the clear sibilant we represent with our letter S. The S we know is all curves. Sîn is usually more angular, a little closer to the W shape of its Phoenician ancestor. Greek Sigma comes from the same source, the W shape tipped up 90 degrees clockwise.There was a Nabatean predecessor of Sîn in the form of a bowl shape with an upright growing out of it, something like Hebrew Shin. The shape of Sîn grows out of it: two miniature half-circles resting side by side. What strikes the eye are those three short uprights, referred to as “teeth” (Sîn word sinân in Arabic, the plural of sinn). It is not my job to say what is beautiful and what isn’t, but what I’m taken by in the most elegant handwritten Sîn is a slight asymmetry: the space between the first two teeth (reading right to left) is slightly narrower than the space between the second and third.

In terminal form Sîn ends with a rounded clockwise sweep, a shape which fledgling calligraphers struggle over, the clockwise descent and return, thickening along the bottom, tapering to a point as it rises on the left. The same curve reappears in Shin, Ṣad & Ḍad.

Sîn went through a period in its evolution when it had a triangle of dots suspended below the line, to distinguish it from the letter Shîn, the next in sequence, which has three dots above. (Shîn kept them. Present-day Sîn goes commando.) A streamlined variant of Sîn, still used, was developed in interests of efficiency: it can take the form, perhaps as a visual representation of the smooth prolonged sound of sibilance, of a straight unrippled line, often descending slightly, throwing the base line down a notch and continuing at a lower level. Easiest letter ever. In the initial or medial position the line simply continues on for a bit with nothing else happening.

The source of sinn, “tooth,” is the Arabic stem S–N–N, which, as a verb, means to sharpen, mold, shape. In one form, sunna, it means, in Hans Wehr’s definition, “habitual practice, customary procedure or action, norm, usage sanctioned by tradition; al-sunna or sunnat al-nabîy, the Sunna of the Prophet (nabîy), i.e. his sayings and doings, later established as legally binding precedents…” In other words, the ahl-al-sunna are the follows of the sunna, in English “Sunnis.” It’s an admirable definition, if only because Wehr defines the etymological stream of meanings without getting excited, or lost in detail. A history book, once it has said “Sunni,” has to go into teacher’s mode, including the actors and the theology, plus the alternative, Shiism, and to describe how Shiism ended up breaking away from “Sunnism.” Today everyone knows it, or can look it up, and the history hardly seems necessary. Hans Wehr defines shî‘a, the other major branch, as “followers, adherents, disciples, faction, party, sect”; al-shî‘a, the faction of Ali, the Shiah, the Shiites (that branch of the Muslims who recognize Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, as the rightful successor.)” It’s all the definition you need. They’re just words, ordinary words. Neither sunna nor shî‘a occur in the Qur’ân.