Beth of Cassandra Pages has been doing a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about her father-in-law, born in 1911 in Ottoman Syria and now in a retirement home in Montreal Vermont. The whole series is remarkable, humane and honest and deeply moving, but I want to call your attention to the latest post, which begins and ends with the teaching of Arabic (I’m quoting about half the entry):

“I may have a new Arabic student,” my father-in-law told us, after dinner. “It’s a woman. She called up other day and said she had heard that I teach. She’s coming next week.” He has one regular student who studies with him each Wednesday, and another student who is “on leave”: he’s a minister who is currently in the Sudan doing relief work.
“Grandpa, how would you explain to someone how to pronounce an ‘ayn’?” M. asked. “Is it different than a glottal stop in Hebrew?
“Oh yes,” he said, “In Arabic you have to open your throat and…” he demonstrated, and asked her to repeat; he demonstrated again, a little smugly; he loves being able to do things that are difficult for us…

…“How do you begin teaching Arabic to someone?” M. asked. She has studied more of the language than any of us, and readily testifies to how difficult it is.
“I begin by trying to explain the ambience of the words,” he said. We all looked perplexed. “You see,” he said, “every word in Arabic is surrounded by meaning; it refers to a whole constellation of experiences that are particular to that world, to that way of life…All of that is contained within the language.”
“Take the word ‘happiness’,” M. said.
“What is happiness to an Arab?” he countered. “That is where you have to start. You have to see the desert, smell the bougainvillea…” He shut his eyes and began to recite two couplets in Arabic; it was beautiful.
“al Moutanabbi,” he said, opening his eyes. He raised his hand and punctuated each noun in the air as he translated:
Horses, and nights, and the desert know me –
and the sword, the spear, paper, and the pen
“Wonderful!” He shook his head, smiling with pleasure. “He was quite the fellow. A great poet, and a warrior too. His caravan was attacked by bandits and he was going to flee, but one of his companions reminded him of these lines he had written, and challenged him.” He growled, shaking the words like a rabbit in the jaws of a wolf: “‘Aren’t you also a fighter who praised the sword and the spear?’ So he rode into the battle – and was killed.” He grinned, and shrugged: c’est la vie.
He shut his eyes and recited the Arabic again. I watched the bones of his thinning face move as he spoke; his voice was a strong as ever, and his silken white hair curled at the back of his neck. The three of us exchanged astonished glances. For us, the remarkable moment was becoming fixed in time and space and memory – but he was flying, gone somewhere we’d never been.

I wish I had the privilege of knowing this man; I’m glad I have the privilege of knowing Beth.
Incidentally, the poem by al-Mutanabbi provides the title for Night & Horses & the Desert, An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature by Robert Irwin, author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, a wonderful book; the anthology too sounds well worth having.


  1. It’s good of you to bring this excellent narrative to a wider audience.
    Beth’s writing (and being) is a treasure.

  2. Jonathan Wright says

    It may seem churlish to find fault with this delightful gentleman’s explanation of the pronunciation of the ain, but I hope he explains to his students that it is a fricative, quite unlike the plosive glottal stop, and hence can be sustained as long as your breath lasts. In my experience, beginners in Arabic almost universally assume it’s a plosive, which holds up their progress for months. The strange thing about the ain is that it’s almost inaudible to European ears, in the sense that they don’t recognise it as a phoneme. Teaching them to HEAR it is most of the battle. Good luck to those who try.

  3. Jonathan Wright, that is a rather sad view of things. With all the grace on offer, you quibble at the absence of the word “fricative”?
    Pedantry, toi?

  4. I wonder what ambience the word bougainnvillea posess in Arab mind. Apparently, tropics or desert makes no difference…

  5. Richard F. Burton used the same al-Mutanabbi couplet as a sort of personal signature; it’s quoted at the beginning of volume 1 of his famous 16-volume translation of the Nights. Of course Burton gave it his own style; he would never use a ten-cent word when a five-dollar one would do:

    Dark and the Desert and Destriers me ken
    And the Glaive and the Joust, and Paper and Pen.

  6. Jonathan, his “explanation of the pronunciation of the ain” is not given — only his firm denial that it’s like “a glottal stop in Hebrew” and his repeated demonstration. On that basis, I’m not sure what your concern stems from. Since he’s been explaining such things for years, he’s probably got a handle on it.

  7. dungbeattle says

    ‘Tis a great thing that he doth do , he can still pass on his knowledge, unlike moi and the other 20 million ancients, i am but an awl that has very little that is needed to help the generations of the future, I be no acorn of knowledge that can provide another shade from the blaring blasts of mankind, except that i can and do rite on blog sheets. thanks.

  8. Dungbeattle, after reading that post I can only say that you underestimate yourself.

  9. Nuts. The al-Mutanabbi couplet turns up missing at the front of the Nights. So I must have seen it in the beginning of Personal narrative of a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which, alas, I cannot put my hands on. I couldn’t have made up that flowery Burtonic English. Sword and spear would have been better than glaive and joust, I think. Maybe decades of associating with Egyptians made Burton think that g and j were alliterative.

  10. Yup, I just checked my copy of Personal narrative, and there it is at the end of the table of contents. But if you couldn’t find your copy of the book, how did you quote it so exactly, capital letters and all? (And I think “Sword and spear” would have been far too pedestrian for Sir Richard.)

  11. I’d love to claim credit for such a perfect memory. But no. Google “dark and the desert and destriers”, and “I’m feeling lucky” takes you to an online edition of Personal narrative. Which leaves open the question of why, just after having done so, I misassigned it to Nights.
    Senility, dear boy. Senility.

  12. LH, thank you so much for sending your readers my way and for quoting my story here. In answer to Jonathan, I’m not a linguist or an Arabic speaker at all, but I think that difference is exactly what my father-in-law was trying to get across to his granddaughter. I can affirm that none of us were able to reproduce it, and in fact, that exactly what he was doing was very difficult to hear.

  13. I’m finally collecting and editing these posts about my father-in-law for a book, entitled “The Fig and the Orchid,” which I hope will be ready to publish in 2018. Reading old blog entries led me back to this post of yours, and the rather wonderful exchange in the comment thread, where I was amused to see our friend “elck.” Thank you!

  14. Excellent! Do let us know when it comes out.

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