Friday, August 04, 2006

Europe's Arab heritage

Now that is something you wouldn't hear everyday. Indeed one would think that Europe and the Arab world lie at complete ends of a cultural, social, religious and philosophical spectrum. That may be true for some people, but reality is always a fuzzy interconnection of ideas and culture going back and forth. Culture always flows both ways, note how the Jordanians had taken an immense liking to Scottish bagpipes and used it to produce a hauntingly Bedouin style which I and many others like myself have always admired. Historically, the key points where this flowing occurred were in the parts of Europe that were at varying times Arab up till about 500 years ago, most notably Sicily, Malta and obviously Spain.

In particular, the case of Malta surprised me immensely. Here was an island which to all extents and purposes had been in the European fold for over a thousand years, yet it's inhabitants used a language that was directly Arab in origin. It's inhabitants have a saying "Tkellem bil-malti jekk tridni nifhmek" (Speak in Malti if you want us to understand you.) A phrase that one finds to be entirely Arabic, except for the word jekk, the origin of which I'm unsure of.

Interestingly when I read the phrases they reminded me more of the North African dialect than the Middle Eastern one. I'd read somewhere else that as early as 300 years ago there were still edicts and laws passed in Spain banning the use of Arabic and the practice of Islam amongst the peasantry. Even in our present day, I meet Spaniards who use words of an Arabic origin in everyday expressions, particularly near the south of the country. When I speak to many non-Arabic speakers, it is difficult to convey the rich variety of words and meanings that a speaker can convey in this language and I guess that is partly why it has had such a tenacious connection to those places in Europe. Places where the Arab world and the culture it produced had long since ebbed away.

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