Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sweetness and life after death


There are some phrases in Arabic that sound a little silly when translated literally.

Our relentlessly positive tour guide in Wadi Rum last weekend, Muhammad, had a knack for including many of these phrases in one comment.

Muhammad enjoying the wind that was so nice it made him crazy

Interactions would usually go something like:

Ya Muhammad, can you see a lot of stars at night?

Wulla mumkin shoof kul anujoom, helwa katheer. Wulla helwa katheer. Wulla almanthar bajanan. (By god it is possible to see all of the stars, it is very sweet. By god it is very sweet. By god, the view is so good that it makes me crazy. )

For those of you keeping score at home, that's three "by god's," two "very sweet's," and one "so good that it makes me crazy."

Muhammad used these words for nearly everything. I suspected that he might even describe the squat toilet at the Bedouin camp as "so good that it makes him crazy," but I never asked.

Indeed, about the only thing neither "very sweet" nor "so good that it makes one crazy" was Muhammad's description of treatments for camel illnesses or, as the Bedouin say, tiredness. Bedouins in Egypt had told Keegan that they treated tiredness by burying the camel in the ground and feeding it a soup made from foxes. Muhammad didn't subscribe to this method, though he didn't laugh at it either, instead advocating a combination of burying the camel in the ground and using fire. I didn't exactly follow, but it was either that or take it to the camel doctor. If I were Joe Camel, I might opt for the camel doctor.

Of course, one can avoid some of the ambiguities and difficult translations by dispensing with words altogether.

Yesterday I ventured to the mid size city of Salt, the former Ottoman administrative center of the area.

Minarets and church steeples pepper the skyline of Salt.

I was on the trail of school textbooks from the 1950s for some of my thesis research and after several fruitless trips to the public library in Salt ("Hi, I'm looking for school history textbooks from the 1950s." "Here's a history book." Repeat.), they finally sent me to the Museum of School Books half way up a hill overlooking Salt. While waiting for copies to be made of some of the books, I sat with the museum director for several hours underneath a tree outside of the building discussing politics and religion.

Jamal had a magisterial gentleness about him and a level of stress commensurate with a position that seemed to mostly consist of sitting outside and drinking tea (he said I was the first person to visit in about a week). He didn't go so far as to describe it as being "so good it made him crazy" nor did he use these phrases as frequently as Muhammad in general. But the lack of sweetness didn't detract from his message. His wan smile concealed a powerful directness.

As I absolutely butchered Arabic grammar in my attempt to express the similarity of all religions, Jamal smiled and picked a piece of paper off the ground. He proceeded to light it aflame, dropping it onto the ground as the flames engulfed it.

Jamal avoids self immolation...
...and shows my prospects for life after death

By this point, my elaboration on the oneness of humanity had given way to the oneness of an open mouth. In the smoke crazy culture of the Middle East, was this some new method for getting lung cancer? Jamal smiled. "If you don't become a Muslim, this will happen to you after death."

Okay. Point taken. Fire and brimstone, quite literally. My reaction (after closing my mouth and, well, taking a picture) wasn't quite as combative as Kellen Winslow, Jr. but I pushed Jamal a little and he moderated his position slightly, allowing that the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) might be okay in the end too. But really, he wasn't very different than literalists anywhere in the world, more of whom, interestingly, I feel like I've met sitting in the Pit at UNC than in all of my time in the Middle East.

But I've got to give Jamal points for presentation and spontaneity. Degree of difficulty could have been better - I would have appreciated some sort of ring of fire, fire ball, really any sphere involving fire, and GOB's "Final Countdown" music would have been a nice touch.

Although I suppose on the bright side - given Jamal's penchant for direct examples - it's good that I didn't ask about treatments for camel tiredness, at least for the sake of any nearby camels.


Matt said...

Bravo aleik! Great writing.

Marium said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marium said...

aha i love the "this is wat will happen to u if you're not muslim"

and then yaani, if ure ahoud or mesaheen, you might get lucky...wala it drives me crazy :p

salma said...

i cant decide whats better--the story or the fact that you took pictures of the metaphor for your soul burning in hell.