Saturday, January 21, 2017

Semitic languages in two Arabic novels

I've been reading two novels in Arabic lately. Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmad Saadawi, reimagines Baghdad's descent into chaos in the mid-2000s, blending gritty realism with semi-allegorical horror. Samraweet, by Hajji Jaber, is an altogether gentler but still cutting narrative of the Eritrean diaspora, interleaving scenes from the narrator's life in Jeddah with ones from his first visit to Asmara as he gradually realizes the difficulty of being part of either place. Both turned out to share a feature I hadn't been expecting to find: dialogue in other Semitic languages.

In Frankenstein in Baghdad, one of the main characters is an elderly Assyrian woman, Elishawa "Umm Daniel". All her relatives have long since moved abroad, and keep begging her to come live with them where it's safe, so there are few occasions for her to speak anything but Arabic. However, the Assyrians of northern Iraq traditionally speak a variety of Neo-Aramaic, and when she meets her grandson from Melbourne, they have the following fairly elementary conversation (pp. 276-277), which I hope I've transcribed correctly:

"داخي إيوَت؟" (Dāx īwat?) "How are you?"
"سباي إيْوَن باسيما" (Spāy īwan basīmā) "I am fine, thanks."

The author of the book seems to be from southern Iraq, so I found it remarkable that he took the trouble to get some Neo-Aramaic dialogue - especially since the copula is appropriately put in the feminine form both times (in Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, even the 1st person singular copula agrees in gender). Probably he felt it would enhance her symbolic status as a reminder of what Iraq once was. Unfortunately, while Aramaic has been spoken in Iraq for almost three millennia, its prospects there are dim: after all these years of war and frequently persecution, most speakers live in Western cities, and unless they're exceptionally good at remaining a distinct, cohesive immigrant group, their descendants seem more likely to speak English or Swedish than Aramaic.

In Eritrea, unlike Iraq, most people have as their first language a Semitic language other than Arabic: Tigre in the north, Tigrinya in the south. So it was less surprising to find an Asmaran waiter on the first page saying "سنّي ما سيام" (?Senni mā syām), which I assume from context means something like "Good afternoon!" However, the occasional glimpses provided into Eritrean sociolinguistics were more eye-opening. The narrator and most of his friends are from a Tigre-speaking background and know how to speak it, but Tigre per se seems to play little part in their linguistic identity. They grew up not only speaking Arabic in the street, but feeling that Arabic is an Eritrean national language, and resenting the government's treatment of it as less central than Tigrinya. When an Eritrean in Jeddah speaks Tigre with him, the narrator assumes it's because he only arrived recently until he finds out, to his surprise, that this person simply "enjoys speaking it, even in Jeddah" (p. 76). It would be interesting to see how this compares to the attitudes of Tigre speakers living in Eritrea: between the prestige of Arabic and the status of Tigrinya, what are the long-term prospects for Tigre?

2 comments:

Musa said...

Growing up in Jerusalem in the fifties Qalam came in three versions: qalam rassas, qalam hibr, qalam hibr nashef. I always wondered why the language seemed so stingy !

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