Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Update from Siwa

Hi everybody! I'm in Siwa, and things are going well. The oasis is so much bigger and more prosperous than Tabelbala it seems almost decadent by comparison; its lakes and its expanses of groves suggest some idea of what Tabelbala's environment might have been like at its peak. The language is in no immediate danger; while some words are disappearing due to the great change in lifestyle, not only do children all seem to speak Siwi as a first language, but a substantial portion of the Shihaybat Bedouin settled in the western edge of Siwa learn it as a second one. However, the declining popularity of music at weddings may to some degree be threatening the vigorous local tradition of Siwi-language poetry. As Vycichl noted, Siwi has grammatically conditioned stress; in fact, you could argue that case is marked in Siwi by stress shifts. Siwi is definitely not mutually comprehensible with Kabyle, by the way - I've now tested this in both directions - nor with any Moroccan variety, according to local watchers of Moroccan satellite channels. Gara is also an interesting place - a much poorer, smaller oasis a hundred-odd km off, inhabited by mainly black people speaking Siwi. I've been there, but unfortunately security regulations more or less preclude spending the night.

The Bedouin Arabic of western Egypt is also of some interest. It is remarkably conservative, though not as much so as the dialects of Najd - it has a fully productive dual, distinguishes masculine and feminine plurals (both for verbal and adjectival agreement), and still has most short vowels. Technically, it shares some of the defining innovations of Maghrebi Arabic, in particular the 1st person plural n-...-uu; but it sounds scarcely closer to Algerian than even Cairene Arabic. They write a lot of poetry, some of it rather good. Inconveniently but interestingly, it appears that most Arabic influence on Siwi derives neither from their dialect nor from Cairene.

On a final note, anyone interested in medieval Berber history (there must be someone...) will recall the rather large Huwwara tribe (from which Houari Boumedienne ultimately got his nom de guerre). It turns out they're still very much around in the western Delta and even Upper Egypt, although they all speak Arabic now, as they had already begun to do in Ibn Khaldun's time; I met a Huwwari just the other day.


bulbul said...

Finally! Welcome back, it's great to hear you're doing well :)

Inconveniently but interestingly, it appears that most Arabic influence on Siwi derives neither from their dialect nor from Cairene.
So where does it come from? A substrate, perhaps?

mark (the ideophone) said...

Finally indeed! Good to hear that you're still around!

the declining popularity of music at weddings
Siwi music, not any music at all I'd think? In Kawu, Ghana, there is a similar problem of the beautiful indigenous compositions being replaced by run-of-the-mill hiphop and highlife on all sorts of occasions, from weddings to funeral wakekeepings.

khawaji said...

oh oh I'm so jealous - always wanted to go to Siwa. I will be in Egypt in a month or so, maybe I can retrace your steps and pick up some Siwi poetry... I am very interested in the Huwwara, and how they got to be where they are, as I followed this from Corippus' Iohannis through Ibn Khaldun. But not past there... where was the Huwwari you met from, and what do they say in their oral histories about their origins?

Also when you say "distinguishes masculine and feminine plurals" do you mean in pronouns as well. It has always struck me as one of the funniest features of Hassaniya that they have a feminine first person plural pronoun 'nahnati.'

Shaden said...

The Bedouin Arabic of western Egypt is also of some interest.

Is this the same variety Abu-Lughod worked on? It always struck me as having a distinctly a West/Maghrebi character, so I'm not sure how conservative that would make it (no, it's not mutually intelligible with Egyptian).

Lameen Souag said...

Great to hear from y'all!

Bulbul: still working on that problem! Need more reference books to tackle it properly.

Mark: Both, actually. All music is less popular at weddings, due to the widespread idea that it's un-Islamic; and where music is present it is more and more likely to involve Libyan pop. But there is a band that plays Siwi stuff for tourists too...

Khawaji: The Huwwari I met was from Alexandria, and didn't know a whole lot about his origins; he said there are vague reports of Arab ancestry, which they had also started claiming in Ibn Khaldun's time. I also found them mentioned briefly in a local genealogy book, as "murabitin" (here, allies/honorary members) of some subgroup of the Awlad Ali.) They distinguish humma from hinna, and intum from intun - but they haven't come up with any 1st person gender distinctions.

Shaden: my impression is that it's pretty darn conservative (far more so than Cairene, for a start.) After Libyan (which is basically the same), the dialect they seem to find most comprehensible is actually Khaliji, more so than Algerian or Moroccan.

Language said...

Welcome from me as well! And it's nice to hear about a small language community that's doing well for a change. Keep us posted!

Alex said...

welcome to Egypt! i live in Cairo and ive always wanted to go up to Siwa and write a grammar on Siwi. I study ancient Egyptian. Ive been reading ur blog for ages if you come down to Cairo ill take u out for a beer at 7orreya (best bar in the city) and ful at el ma7ros (best ful). While ur here u should look into the gypsies in the delta see if they are still speaking their language and u could always look into nobian. Also if you want some cool books written in the Cairo dialect pick up "shaklaha bazet", "taxi" or "ana 3awza aggawwez". cheers mate.

Anonymous said...

Feminine first person plural pronoun is also characteristic of Kabyle:'nahnati' = 'nekkenti'