Archive for December, 2011

Ten Long Years

December 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Came home to a radio review of the year. They’re playing edited highlights of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Just makes me angry. I’m disgusted at the complete and utter failure of Western policy and Western governments – and in more than slight part, Western societies – since. It’s hard to imagine how they – we – could have got the ten intervening years more wrong. It’s not even worth talking about the years beforehand. Ten years in which it turned out the free world was in the hands of the people with the very least understanding of why the free world can be only the whole world or nothing at all. Ten years spent supporting the kinds of people we’ve spent this year watching get kicked out – or murdered in the street; ten years spent making ready the next batch, at home and abroad. Ten years in which governments and politicians and armies and diplomats have achieved not a single thing making good in any way at all upon all the lives that have been lost. I am disgusted to hear it recalled as though we were still living in that moment. No one lives in the past; everyone is dead there.

Categories: Opinion

The Mystery of Language: Numbers

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

So I’m in Osman’s Continental Supermarket and there’s an Arab couple in there looking for fish because they’ve got Christians coming for Christmas and they aren’t sure exactly what type of fish it is Christians eat at Christmas or something. (They should have asked me. I could have told them: turkey. Anyway, I thought it was Fridays that Christians eat fish? I digress…)

As I head towards the checkout I overhear the husband saying to his wife:

عشرة كيلو ارز 10.99.

(’ashar kilo aruzz, ten ninety-nine.)

I’ve written it that way because it’s exactly how he said it. Thing is, it translates as “Ten kilos of rice, £10.99.” So why is the ten of kilos in Arabic and the ten of pounds in English? It makes obvious sense, but then in other ways it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the casual speech of a true bilingual.

Anyway, more importantly, children, since you’re here and you’d like to know – these:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Arabic numbers, right? No! These are Arabic numbers:

٠‎ ١‎ ٢‎ ٣‎ ٤‎ ٥‎ ٦‎ ٧‎ ٨‎ ٩

So if those are real Arabic numbers, what do the Arabs call them? ‘Numbers’, presumably, in much the same we in Yorkshire call Yorkshire Tea ‘tea’ and the Germans get confused about measles. But, no, they call them ‘Indian Numbers’.

Alas, they appear to be just as confused as we are.

० १ २ ३ ४ ५ ६ ७ ८ ९

Yes, those are Indian numbers. What do the Indians call them? I don’t know. Let’s hope it’s just numbers.*

*(For the record, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests you can differentiate between the numbers as used in Europe, the US and elsewhere by using a lower case spelling of arabic – i.e. ‘arabic numerals’ – 1, 2, 3, etc. – as opposed to ‘Arabic numerals’ – ١,‎ ٢,‎ ٣, etc. I don’t know if there’s a name for this convention of de-capitalising adjectives otherwise derived from proper nouns, but it’s one I use generally: spartan  or byzantine rather than Spartan or Byzantine when not used literally: “The Byzantine emperor alone in a spartan room; a Spartan general, a byzantine plan.” No marks for historical accuracy, obviously.)

Banking on Democracy

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Paul Krugman directs readers to report highlighting declining support for democracy in parts of the old Eastern Bloc – specifically those parts comprising ‘New Europe’.

This should be no surprise. These are countries only a generation or so removed from outright tyranny and dictatorship. Democracy itself is still at the stage of needing to prove itself in those countries; it’s folly to presume that once a country shakes off the shackles of dictatorship democracy becomes an unquestionable part of its make-up. Freedom and repression are points on a sliding scale, and since no democracy is perfect – and a number of them very flawed indeed – democracy can exist at a range of points along that. The notion that the move from dictatorship to democracy is the crossing of some clearly demarcated line, and that no one would ever want to go back, is laughable; the concepts involved are simply too vague, people can go back without realising that’s what they’re doing.

Democracy is defined by the form in which it exists. Countries which have long been democratic often have a variety of examples from their own history to draw upon, and it’s easier to see improvements in the system of democracy as the solution to its failings. Where democracy is younger and newer, with perhaps a single example – that of the present and recent past – occupying the popular imagination, the danger of the baby going out with the bathwater is all the greater. Differentiating between flawed or failed forms of democracy and democracy itself as flawed and failed is not nearly so simple as we’d like to imagine. People’s beliefs and expectations are rightly shaped by their own experience; the experience for those in new democracies is different to that in ours, with a different set of past or collective experiences to contrast it with. It’s easy to assume that the more recent ghost of totalitarianism should be all the more incentive towards continued support for democracy, but of course mightn’t it equally be all the more reason to see its failures as the same?

The economic systems in most of the developed world are profoundly undemocratic; this is sustained variously by the contradictory myths that the free market is essentially cognate to democracy anyway, or that it can’t be, and that it must be left to obey the laws of its own nature: interference, even if democratic, will break it.

It’s all rubbish, of course, since the economic systems in questions are already hugely regulated in favour of existing, well-financed vested interests anyway. They’re just undemocratic, not non-democratic (which we might, of course, allow certain things to be – like individual choice, for instance). The financial services industry in Britain has itself a seeming monopoly over economic policy. The failure of democracy to prevent economic catastrophe understandably paints it in a very negative light for those affected. Some might attach blame to democracy, others might feel it revealed as hollow and illusory, and in both cases the strength and degree of the sentiment will, of course, vary from individual to individual, but it shouldn’t be any surprise negative sentiment manifests most strongly amongst those with the most disappointing experiences of democracy – not those with the least democracy (support for democracy is shown to be rising in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan), who have a perspective allowing them to perceive something of its ideals rather than its realities, but those it has let down the worst: Latvia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, where democracy has not brought with it what was promised. Which one do we want to be the first in modern Europe to fall out of the democratic club?

This is dangerous stuff. Economic circumstance had a huge role to play in the rise of Hitler; economic grievance motivated the Bolsheviks and communist revolutionaries elsewhere, even if the immediate economic circumstance might not have been quite as closely entwined with their rise as was the case in Germany with fascism.

The basic lack of democracy within our economic systems is manifesting even now in the argument that economic concerns must come first, that the views of the market should come first as the only way of fixing things. That’s a dangerous lie. Shadows rising in the east remind us that the needs of democracy – of peaceful, free and just societies – must come first. That means listening to the people, not the money. We’re told that ignoring the signals coming from the markets risks the recovery. But ignoring the signals coming from the people risks everything else.

Greek Tragedy & A Culture of (Self) Deceit

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Sacred rivers flow uphill:

Justice and all things are reversed.

It’s men who are the traitors now.

There’s no more faith in oaths sworn to the gods,

Our reputation will be turned to good,

We women shall have honour,

And ugly slander hold us down no more.


No more we’ll hear the age-old songs

Celebrating women’s faithlessness.

Till now Apollo, lord of song, has not bestowed

The gift of inspired lyric song

On women’s minds; or we’d have echoed back a hymn

Against the race of men. The length of time

Has many tales to tell of men as well as women.

Drama’s never really been my thing. The examples with which I was confronted as a youth typically demonstrated a writing style that didn’t really do very much for me either as a reader or a writer. I know there’s all that stuff about how plays were written to be performed, or the words written to be heard and, bla, bla, bla, and that’s all fine, but it still adds up to being something which I don’t really find all that engaging. I don’t think it’s missing the point to be put off a performance art by not liking the words – it’s just a personal tendency; with songs I tend to listen to the lyrics, with films I often find myself bored or perturbed if the film displays flaws that I imagine to stem from the writing, or tries to obscure them (or bypass the need of writing almost entirely) with a barrage of special effects and cheap tricks. For anyone who’s familiar with Games Workshop, I remember my old boss, Jervis Johnson, always saying how he was the only person he knew who would open a new game and go straight past the toy soldiers to look at the rules: I’m much the same with the written word in general.

I also resented the forced pre-eminence of Shakespeare at school. Shakespeare’s alright, but it’s just an inane intellectual fallacy to suppose for even a second that one writer could stand so head and shoulders above everybody else as to make their work virtually obligatory – that’s simply impossible; the judgement is subjective – or that it should somehow serve to represent better than anything else the vast and uncountable expanse of English literature as a whole. That’s just bollocks. Reading so much Shakespeare when there was time to read so little overall just seemed narrow-minded to me. I don’t know why we couldn’t have read the script to Chinatown or something.

Lately, though, as part of my rather varied studies with the Open University (Chinese, History, and Ancient Greek so far) I’ve been reading Euripides’s Medea. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically famous because it’s about a woman who murders her children. It also features Jason, as in Jason and the Argonauts. Medea is the wife he acquires at the end of his search for the Golden Fleece. I’ve really enjoyed it; so much so that I’m inclined to try reading more Greek drama.

The verses quoted above are sung by the chorus as the second ode, essentially recapping Medea’s frustrations with the male-dominated world she lives in and several of the play’s main themes. It’d be easy to make a very modern reading of the way this has been translated (and let’s not forget it has been translated) but apparently there’s evidence to support both the view of Euripides as some sort of proto-feminist, or of him as pretty much a misogynist. (I wonder myself if the ode above might not have been received, and perhaps even intended, contemptuously, so caution with any parallels to modern views of women’s plight in our more recent past.)

I’ve also recently been reading of a modern translation, or interpretation, of the One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh. The idea of women being particularly unfaithful or treacherous, as encapsulated in the excerpt from Medea above reminded me of a similar theme in One Thousand and One Nights. The Al-Shaykh (pronounced Ash-Shaykh) version is quite sexually graphic – some of this undoubtedly exists in the original, but I certainly think Al-Shaykh has emphasised it for the sake of the obvious discussion it provokes. For example:

Shahryar’s wife again called ‘Mas’ud, Mas’ud!’ and a solid, heavily built black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, saying, ‘What do you want, you slut? Allow me to present Sa’ad al-Din Mas’ud.’ He pointed to his prick and Shahryar’s wife giggled and fell on her back and opened her thighs, ready for him.


The porter kissed her on the mouth, bit her and pulled her towards him. Pointing between her thighs, she asked him, ‘What is this, my love?’

‘Your cunt,’ said the porter.

‘You have no shame, what is it?’ the shopper said, pulling his ears and slapping his neck.

‘Your womb, your clitoris, your hole, your well, your pussy, your slit, your egg factory.’

(It wasn’t. It was ‘the basil that grows on the bridges’, apparently.)

One Thousand and One Nights is basically built on an obsession with women’s apparent infidelity. Shahryar’s wife cheats on him, so he kills her, then takes a virgin every night, killing each one in the morning, until one, Shahrazad, prolongs her own life by the simple expedient of telling the king each night a new story with a cliffhanger ending so that he has to keep her alive until the next night. Women’s infidelity occurs a lot in the individual stories Shahrazad recounts, too. Apparently women are always at it, sometimes they’re caught, punished, invariably with death, often by being chopped into pieces (at least once mistakenly), and so on. It’s pretty grim. It’s obviously not something Al-Shaykh has inserted, so has to be assumed to echo attitudes common to the stories’ probably male authors – the same attitude, more or less, seemingly displayed by Greeks (and the audience for plays like Medea was almost certainly exclusively male; women were probably not permitted to attend the theatre) about 1,500 years earlier.

The thing is, cultures displaying those attitudes, seem to get rather a different treatment in the popular press, so to speak. You could take One Thousand and One Nights and its description of Shahryar hacking his unfaithful wife to pieces and you probably wouldn’t find too many who weren’t at least tempted to draw a parallel between this and the treatment of women in the Arab and Muslim worlds today. That’s fair enough, but then the Greeks, of course, are held up as a classical civilisation, a beacon of enlightenment whose example did much to inspire the free, democratic world of the modern day.

That’s obviously bollocks, isn’t it?

We’ve got a very incomplete knowledge of Greek literature. The loss of most of the corpus in ancient times means what we have left is a more or less random sample. It mightn’t necessarily be the best, though in quite a lot of cases we do have some idea of what the Greeks themselves thought of certain works in relation to contemporary pieces, and we might presume some kind of factor in favour of the most popular or most highly-valued being the most likely to survive (though careful with that), but either way it’s hugely incomplete. (That creates, incidentally, the same kind of lacuna in our knowledge we create unnecessarily in the study of English by focusing on Shakespeare to the exclusion of so much else.)

So we have only an incomplete knowledge of Greek culture and don’t necessarily have access to the best parts of it, and yet it comes labelled as classical, the presumed leading light of historical culture. Sounds a bit dodgy to me.

Obviously, we can still judge Greek literature and philosophy for ourselves: a lot of it holds up to analysis pretty well, and has done for people in many places and times. It’s just that the Greeks themselves were obviously very far from enlightened in lots of ways and we do ourselves a disservice if we overlook that. I really don’t think ‘classical’ is a very helpful label for anything at all; I’m going to stop using it as much possible. ‘Historical’ will do. It was a long time ago, there’s no merit or purpose in trying to judge the distant past or the people who lived in it but by the same token nothing good comes of uncritically attaching labels like classical to it. I rather suspect it lulls us into a bit of a false sense of security regarding our own sense of freedom, democracy, and enlightenment: we’re Europeans, so we must be good at it, it’s where it all comes from – only that where it came from, it went hand in hand with slavery, tyranny, and repression, of course.

That’s a different question from the one as to whether or not modern Islam happens to have more in common with its medieval counterpart than does, say, European society (and, thus, more in common than it should), but when European society, and European thought, and European democracy, offer their heritage as evidence of their righteousness, we do have to be a bit more critical. If democracy came from a place and a time when women weren’t even allowed to go to the theatre, should we assume our own version is everything it’s cracked up to be, or are they just unrelated phenomenon sharing the same name? There’s a lot of other similar questions that spring to mind when we start to wonder what is the reason for us thinking our culture is superior? (Or ‘superior in some ways’ if you baulk at that premise.) That’s not necessarily to say that it isn’t – I haven’t much time to the kind of cultural relativism that says no such thing is possible, and I don’t really have a problem with arguing that in several important ways we probably are ahead of the game – but we do need to be critical. That’s easily and frequently done in terms of politics, human rights (and particularly rights for specific groups), foreign policy, economics (and the question of wealth), but it needs to be done culturally, too, and that’s easily overlooked. It needs to be done for precisely that reason: the fact that so much of it seems to rest on a presumption of such a thing as classical culture, and that actually being worth something. I’m really not sure that it is.

Categories: Opinion

The Maltese Fact Hunt

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been to Malta twice. Once when Warner Bros. were paying (don’t ask) and once when Sheffield United were paying (don’t ask). Or possibly the Maltese government, I don’t know (don’t ask; I’m not really as exciting as these random snippets make me sound). On both occasions I spoke English. Defiantly so, in fact. Although what I was defying, I’m not really sure, since Malta is officially bilingual and the ling of those bies which isn’t Maltese is English.

Since I last went to Malta, in 2009, I have started learning Arabic. In fact, looking back at my old notebooks, it looks like I started learning Arabic only a month or so after returning from Malta, though the two weren’t connected.

Maltese is something of a curiosity. It’s a Semitic language, an offshoot of Arabic in much the way that English harks ultimately from an ancient German language, and French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on from Latin. The big difference with Maltese being that its ancestor, Classical Arabic – or something very much like it – is still spoken today. By about 300 million people.

The fact that Maltese is a descendant of Arabic tends to surprise even a lot of very knowledgeable, well-travelled folks, though does elicit knowing nods from those who’ve been there and witnessed its truly unpronounceable place names.

That’s not a prank. (For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx’.)

The oddity of Maltese is more than just a linguistic claim to fame, though. It reflects the islands’ importance out of all proportion to their size, and their central location at the crossroads of history: its people have been Christian since Roman times but speak a language derived from a form of Arabic that arrived centuries later; it’s a country where 98% of the population is Catholic but call their god Allah. Separating it, ultimately, from Arabic (or more accurately the other Arabic dialects) is the influence in the interim of the Normans, Italians and British.

Given that I’ve been to Malta (and, in fact, my late grandmother grew up there, and spoke Maltese in her youth) and that I’ve since reached a level of Arabic where not only can I butcher the language but where people will know I’m doing it, I was curious as to how similar the two actually remain. So, today, on a short soiree to the library to get out of the rain, I picked up a somewhat ancient copy of Teach Yourself Maltese. (Indeed, there is no less ancient copy; it was written in the 1960s and is long out of print – supply and demand and tiny island with unpronounceable place names and all that.) Since Sheffield Library recently installed self-service machines, and I can now take out books about languages without being asked inane questions about “Going there on holiday?” (it makes me very sad to have to avoid libraries for the same reason I avoid hairdressers, but such is the way of the world), I decided to borrow it and bring it home with me for a fuller analysis.

I already had a vague idea of how the letters of the Latin alphabet used to write Maltese might correspond to the Arabic script, and this proved to be more or less the case, with a few difficult to guess ones (like ‘x’, pronounced sh, apparently) finally explained (though a few inconsistent variations in equivalents seem to exist). I started flicking through the sample vocabulary and phrases, finding many similarities: Maltese baħar ‘sea’ (Bahrain means ‘two seas’, from the same root), daar ‘house’ (Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania means ‘House of Peace’), layl ‘night’ (origin of the name Layla; the 1,001 Arabian Nights are known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa-Layla; don’t know who Alf was or why there were two Laylas), and gżira ‘island’ (from the Arabic equivalent of which comes Al-Jazeera) all being essentially identical. I expected nouns to be similar, but even verbs – qara ‘he read’ (the name of the Qur’an just means ‘reading’ – it comes from exactly this word) – and short phrases proved similarly recognisable. Obviously, the longer the phrase, the more English and Italian loanwords crept in and the more my understanding declined accordingly (from the Italian, you swines, and the overall effect of the changed word balance – not from the English).

I daresay pronunciation varies a bit, so I’m not sure how much actual, live Maltese I’d be able to understand if attempting to communicate in person – certainly very little if attempted at anything like normal talking speed – but I still find it fascinating that Maltese still displays such similarity to a language from which it diverged much as English long ago split from the ancestors of German, Dutch, and Geordie. And look how distant and incomprehensible those languages have become to one another since.

I can’t say this exercise has achieved a great deal – other than, you know, providing me a bit more trivia in a life built around its pursuit – but I’ve tended to find the principle of ‘drinking from many wells’ is a worthwhile one, particularly when it comes to languages. Some concepts obscure or difficult to comprehend in one language – like when is it ‘I’ and when is it ‘me’ in English and why do they differ (answer: because of case) – are better illustrated and might be more easily understood in languages where they’re used more broadly – such as, in this case, Greek, Russian, or  Yankunytjatjara (yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that last one off Wikipedia) – and grasping the concept doesn’t always require learning the language in any comprehensive sense. Perhaps my afternoon spent taking the comparative approach to Semitic languages will do something to reinforce my vague understanding of Arabic.

As far as Maltese goes, though, I’m not really in a position to do much more than make the odd (fairly confident) guess at the meaning of a few basic words, and the odd (rather less confident) stab at pronunciation. To take our earlier example – Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx – I can now say confidently it’s probably something to do with the sunset, and rather less confidently that it’s probably pronounced something like: ترجقت انزل الشمش

Roughly speaking.