Europe Speaks Arabic
Reviewed by U MUHAMMAD IQBAL
Title of the book: Europe Speaks Arabic
Author’s name : Dr V Abdur Rahim
Publishers : Institute of the Language of the Quran Inc.
3077 Weston Road, Suite# 1912
Toronto ON Canada M9M 3A1
Price : Rs. 150
Distributed by Goodword Books, New Delhi
Also available at : Islamic Foundation Trust (IFT), Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan once said that if Sir Isaac Newton had not discovered the theory of gravitation, somebody else would have discovered it sooner or later, and that if Columbus had not discovered America, the country was there to be reached one day or the other, but, if Shakespeare had not written Hamlet, nobody else could have produced the literary masterpiece and the world would have been all the poorer for it.
In my humble opinion, the book under review Europe speaks Arabic is as much a creative work of the highest quality as any one can think of. If Dr. V. Abdur Rahim had not written it, nobody else would have had the credit for producing it.
The title of the book is startling and is meant to startle. The impact of Arabic on European languages had been so vast, so wide-ranging and so enduring and yet subjected to such indifference and had been taken for granted so frustratingly that it needed a scholar of titanic proportions like Dr. V. Abdur Rahim to make the present-day Europeans realize how much they should be indebted to Arabic. In a sentence like, “Check the sugar in your coffee, Admiral”, all the nouns and the verb have Arabic origin. Eric, a character in the book, acknowledges that “These words are so many and so important that one may almost say that we in Europe speak Arabic.”
The title of the book echoes Eric’s observation and at the same time reflects a marketing strategy. On reading the title it will be difficult for the reader to not satisfy his curiosity. He will go all out to find out how the thesis is fully worked out. The title reflects a very important fact that Arabic, nay any language for that matter, is primarily a spoken medium. The verb in the title draws our attention to it. The title cover of the book carries a photograph of a bridge in London, suggesting that Arabic is a bridge between East and West. It is a bridge between this world and the Hereafter too if the Arabic Qur’ān is adopted as a manual of guidance.
Arabic is spoken as the first language by both Arab Muslims and Arab Christians and so the book avoids the religious overtones, as though in response to an explicit instruction of Eric, who says, “I do not want you to mention words like fatwa, intifada, jihad, sunnah, shia, sharia, fedayeen, etc.” I am amazed at Eric’s knowledge of the vocabulary associated with Islam and the Muslims! Ahmed, the protagonist of the book, the alter ego of the author, follows the instruction scrupulously and religiously throughout the book!
This ensures the non-controversial nature of the book and attracts a wider readership.
The author says, “Only words recognized by European linguists as borrowings from Arabic, and mentioned in reputed dictionaries, are included in this book.” This line of abundant caution makes the book authoritative and authentic. In India if someone says that a particular Tamil word has been borrowed from Sanskrit, the claim would be contested in a scholarly vein. Such a controversy is thoughtfully avoided by the author as he prefers to depend upon the verdict of the European linguists and the reputed dictionaries with regard to the Arabic origin of the words.
The words selected for this book pertain to Alchemy, Amenities, Amusement and Entertainment, Animal Kingdom, Astronomy, Clothing, Drinks, Fruit and Vegetables, History, Mathematics, Science, Seasonings, Sweets, Trade, Utensils, and Miscellaneous Items.
The genre of the book is history and etymology. The quality of the book can be summed up in two phrases taken from the book itself – concentrated erudition, (p.14) and excellent exposition (p.175). The standard of scholarship is such that the author finds fault with Oxford English Dictionary on pages 5, 14, 18, 43, 67, 108, 118, 129 and 161.
All European languages are mentioned but English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are given greater prominence in the book.
The strategy adopted to introduce Arabic words having a bearing upon the European life-style and habits is in the form of a dialogue. Plato’s Dialogues may have given the author the inspiration. Dr V. Abdur Rahim has made use of two characters. To champion the cause of Arabic, a character with an Arabic name is projected. Ahmed is suggestive because he praises Arabic. I don’t know why the name Eric has been selected. He is a Christian and is representatively European. The two characters are not wooden pieces. The author has lent them realism. They agree, and they disagree. One evinces interest, the other satisfies curiosity. One appreciates and encourages the other. Eric objects that Chaucer is being quoted often and complains. “You seem to assign all good things to Arabic.” (P. 78) This will be a typical reaction of a European reader whom Eric represents. Ahmed is surprised at Eric’s knowledge of ‘bastard’ and ‘saffron’ (p.88) Eric’s remark, ‘We might say ‘an apkin’ instead of ‘a napkin’, (P. 81) underpins his individuality. The following extracts make the characters vivid and real.
Eric : Scarlet is a colour.
Ahmed: It was a fabric before it was a colour. (p. 64)
Eric: Are there any more fabrics of Arabic origin?
Ahmed: Let me think. .. Yes, there is ‘atlas’ (P. 69)
These exchanges are lively and show that Eric triggers the memory of Ahmed to recall more and more Arabic words. Eric asserts vigorously at one time that Ahmed is wrong (p. 47) but Ahmed with his superior scholarship makes Eric eat the humble pie.
On p.52 Ahmed forgets about ‘tare’ and in this there is a touch of realism. The dialogue makes the transition from one topic to another smooth. Sometimes it is matter-of-fact like “What is your next word?” (p. 9) or ‘What next?’ (p. 10). Sometimes it is poetical. “We have been soaring high into the heavens for quite sometime. Shall we come down to earth now?” (p.16) “Shall we now move to another domain?” (p. 19) “Now let us get up from the quilted cushion and recline on a sofa.” (p. 22)
It is Eric who holds his head and suffers from headache (p.24). It is Eric who feels drowsy (p 101) and shows his love for Shakespeare by using his phrase ‘drowsy sleep’. The reader of the book will feel neither headache nor drowsiness because the book is so absorbing.
It is because Eric gets a cable and he has to leave, the book comes to a close.
The transition from chapter to chapter is well-managed through the device of the dialogue. Management of the dialogue, which lasts for two days, points to the potential of a playwright in the author. He presents a dictionary of a comparative vocabulary through the medium of a drama!
Some aspects of the book deserve special mention.
The first aspect is that it is a highly informative book. Some pieces of information culled from the book are presented hereunder:
a) Europe adopted the Arabic system of enumeration in the 9th century.
b) Jiva (Sanskrit) refers to the chord of an arc.
c) Greek has no /sh/a voiceless palato – alveolar fricative
d) Musa is the botanical name of the banana.
e) A cat with a striped coat is called a tabby cat.
f) Qahwa meant loss of appetite.
g) Fulano, zutano mangano are Spanish substitutes for Tom, Dick and Harry
h) Scarlet was a fabric first and then it became a colour.
i) Alcohol meant a powder first and then it stood for a liquid.
The second aspect of the book is that it contains profoundly philosophical observations on language per se.
A few observations are given below:
a) Languages play with words and their meanings. And history is their playmate. (p. 25)
b) Language is a powerful instrument of change; it can make and mar words, elevate or debase their meanings, turn them beautiful or ugly. (p.52)
c) Language is a faithful record of human civilization. (p. 109)
d) Words are not born with their meanings inscribed on their foreheads. They are in constant change i.e. their forms, their sounds, their meanings. (p.115)
The third aspect of the book is the quotations which are found scattered throughout the book. The vast erudition of the author is reflected in them. Their appropriateness is a matter of marvel. The diversity of the branches of learning from which passages are taken out for illustration leaves the reader awe-struck. The learned doctor has drawn on the books he read as a student of the Intermediate class and of the BA (Hons.) Degree course. There are certain books quoted which are centuries old. The quotations are given in their original spelling without modernising them. A reflection on the scale of hard work put into the collection of the extracts and the number of years spent in the collection overwhelms a grateful reader and he is obliged to exclaim: Here is God’s plenty. Perhaps this is the fruit of knowledge blessed with a rich yield.
The fourth aspect is that information furnished in the book is spiced with pun, witticism, and a sense of humour. In Arabic ‘ban’ is the name of a tree; Eric wants to ban the ban. With regard to the relationship between ‘check’ and ‘chess’ the comment is ‘we may call them ‘Arabic twins’ in line with ‘Siamese twins’ (P. 30) The English looked at the bright side of ‘check’. The French on the other hard looked at the dark side of ‘check’ (p.31) The richness of English lies in its diversity.” (p. 137) One cannot help smiling to oneself while reading a sentence like, ‘I am going to San Khose in Khumino and coming back in Khulio’ which means , ‘I am going to San Jose in June and coming back in July.’ (p. 101) Eric says about ‘alfisfisah’, “It has shrunk considerably on arrival in Europe.” Ahmed agrees: May be due to the cold weather. (p 147)
The fifth aspect is that, even though the author hides himself behind the two characters – Ahmed and Eric – he has created, he unmasks himself here and there. “Fickleness, thy name is language.” (P. 52) “French is the great trimmer of words.” (p. 53, 92) While discussing the colours azure and crimson, the author waxes eloquent and grows lyrical.
A surprising but pleasant element in the book is the discussion on the etymology of ‘assassinate’. The author convincingly questions the veracity of the widely held view that the verb is derived from ‘hashish’. (pp 178-180) I read somewhere that the verb is derived from asas (alif-seen-alif-seen) – going back to basics or fundamentals. A fundamentalist who has lost his sense of balance will resort to such a fatal violence.
According to the author, the word ‘hazard’ is from Arabic al-zahr meaning dice. It became ‘azar in Spanish where it means unfortunate card or throw at dice, unforeseen disaster, accident, disappointment. The following extract questions this etymology.
F. T. Wood says, “The verb to hazard takes us back to the beleaguering of the castle of Hasart in the late 13th century. To while away the time they spent waiting for the fortress to surrender, the besieging troops invented a new game of chance which they called after the place itself – hazard. By a natural and inevitable extension of meaning a hazard came to signify a risk, and later a verb was formed from the same root.” (An outline History of the English Language, 2nd edition, p. 87)
Correctness seems to be the ideal of the author. The book is free from errors by and large. However, a few inadvertent errors or omissions detected are given below:
a) ‘Beyond a shadow of a doubt’ p. 2. The second ‘a’ is unnecessary
b) Russian term for ‘checkmate’ is given (p. 32) but the Russian term for ‘chess’ is not given.(p. 29)
c) Reference to the use of abariq in the Qur’ān is given (p. 24) Reference to the use of qintar is not given.
d) A French sentence on p. 47 does not have English translation.
e) On p. 64 the use of the words ‘later’ and ‘and’ creates confusion. Burke (1729-1797) came before Keats (1795-1821) but Shakespeare (1564-1616) came before Burke. Shakespeare’s use of ‘scarlet’ seems to go against the contention of ‘Ahmed.’
f) On p. 158, Mecca is used with a small ‘m’. Should it not be a capital ‘M’?
This is just petty cavilling. The book is monumental. The possession of this book will speak volumes about the level of literacy and the quality of literary taste of any person or place. It is a book on the civilizing influence of Arabic which India and the world need to know.