Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Nəskibən: "You don't appear any more"

"Nə-s-k-ibən" (2SG-NEG-anymore-appear) "You don't appear any more!"

I heard this sentence several times during my fieldwork in the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala. Parsing it was easy enough, but making sense of it took more flexibility: at first I thought I must have misheard. I've never heard anyone in England or America or France say anything like "You don't appear any more!"; yet there it turned out to be a stock phrase.

It makes sense once you unpack the presuppositions. A man should appear in public regularly - in town, at the market, at the mosque, en route to other places. But, in that slow-paced small town, doing so is an act of socializing, not just a stage in an errand: you don't just pass someone you know by without at least stopping a minute to say hi and share news. Not appearing in public for some time is an event noteworthy in itself, and people can and will criticize you for it if you don't have a valid excuse like illness.

That's not really how it works in Paris or London. You might be obliged to "appear" at your office, but not for strictly social reasons. They might notice your absence at your regular pub or your clubhouse or something, but certainly not on the street. Even in such cities, though, we normally spend much of our day before the gaze of others - if not exchanging greetings and gossip, at least seeing and being seen.

But now things have changed. On Facebook, a friend in Tabelbala recently made a post to urge social distancing, translating the message "Stay at home!" into Korandje: gwạ nən gạ ka! The first response was chaffing from a more frivolous friend, telling him that he's been social distancing so much that "nə-s-k-ibən"!

I imagine the lockdown in Tabelbala is less rigidly enforced than it could be - surrounded by 100 km or more of empty desert in every direction, it is impressively isolated without it. But otherwise, we're all in the same boat now: we don't appear any more. Except online.

What kind of expectations and presuppositions will that create, over weeks that may stretch into months? When we all emerge from our hideouts, will we find it worthy of comment if people don't appear in their usual social media sites or chat forums?


ibarrere said...

Slightly off topic, but what is the ethnic composition of Tabelbala? From what I know, the Songhay people are black sub Saharans, do the people of Tabelbala look like that too?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

This recent Twitter thread kind of addresses that:


nycguy said...

The social context is different of course, but i've heard hosts in the US say to departing visitors: "DOn't be such a stranger", meaning that they want to see more of each other.

Adam said...

In Libya you can say معاش تبان or معاش بنت "you don't appear anymore / you didn't appear anymore" — your comments on social roles of course apply here too.

Unknown said...

It is quite common to remark to an acquaintance in Kabyle Berber with the expression 'ur-teţvint-ara ussan ayyi' (you don't appear these days) or 'ur-teţvint-ara tagara ayyi' (you don't appear lately) in the sense of 'where have you been these days/lately?'

Unknown said...

That was Kader Chaou

David Marjanović said...

I do have to admire a language where "anymore" is just /k/.

Anonymous said...

The social expectation sounds rather familiar from my German perspective.
The associated phrase would be
"Man sieht ihn (sie) gar nicht mehr." - He (She) is not not seen any more.
(Yes, usually, in the 3rd person.)
As you might expect, this may be used in a rural context where you automatically cross each other's paths regularly, but it may also occur in an urban setting where the speaker and the topic person meet frequently, but still somewhat coincidentally and not on a scheduled basis
(e.g. in a cafe, or in one or several different series of cultural events).
[The specifically German aspect might be that rural and urban sphere blur into each other - perhaps a bit more than elsewhere.]

The sentence can express either criticism (of being unsocial, or lazy / lacking engagement),
or it might be an observation provoking an explanation if known: Sick? Moved away? In love with a stranger? Or just sunk into some online game?

Once all questions are settled, and we are squarely in the field of criticisms,
you can also use the phrase
"Du machst dich rar" - "You make yourself rare/far-in-between"!
Yes, now 2nd person is as fine as backbiting in 3rd person. ;-)