Arabic virtual bookstore

One of my usual cheap weekend entertainments is hitting the used book venues. But what do you do when you suddenly can’t walk? Not to worry.

The other day I discovered downloadable books at The Internet Archive ( and indulged in a Sax Rohmer reading marathon. When I moved to Jordan I had to discard two-thirds of my books.  When I got back, the only one I missed was  Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series from the 1920’s. It’s hard to find those titles any more.

Then I stated thinking about dictionaries, and how heavy they can be to carry around. In particular, what about Hans Wehr’s classical Arabic dictionary? Maybe it was old enough to be out of copyright and I could install it in my laptop. Sure enough, The Internet Archive has it.

Here it is, and more.  The best is last:
A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic Wehr, Hans, 1976
Dictionnaire chaouia-kabyle-arabe-français French, Arabic, Kabyle (Berber)
Arabic proverbs; or, The manners and customs of the modern Egyptians, Burckhardt, John Lewis (1875)
A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic, Karin C. Ryding, 2005
Al-Mawrid Arabic-English lexicon 1995
Wortabet’s Arabic-English Dictionary, 1984.
Syriac Arabic Dictionary, Bishop Eugene Manna(1867-1928) (medieval and liturgical Aramaic)
A Compendious Syriac Dictionary [based on R. Payne Smith] – (1903) Oxford Vol 01 Vol 02 (medieval and liturgical Aramaic)

Arabian Wisdom, John Wortabet, 1907  (Proverbs)

Wright’s Grammar”- A Grammar of the Arabic Language V1 and V2
Translated from the German of Caspari , 1896.  (Classic grammar.) From Amazon reader reviews:

First, anyone considering this book needs to understand that this is a reference grammar, not a textbook for learning Arabic. The material is arranged by parts of speech and by grammatical concepts, not as a series of lessons going from simple to more complicated. There are no exercises and no excerpts for reading practice (although all discussions of grammar and semantics are illustrated by examples). The level of the book is not for beginners….I find it hard to recommend the Syntax section of the book, which has pages upon pages of such explanations. But many other parts (such as the discussion of the forms of the verb) are lucid and helpful, probably because there aren’t any English parallels to get in the way.
Wright has been the standard reference grammar of Classical Arabic for over a hundred years, and is still the most comprehensive generally available for the Classical language. Wright’s knowledge of Arabic and his use of Arab grammarians was vast, and he’s worth persevering with. The traditional Western terminology is a positive advantage to anyone who’s used to it,… However, Wright introduces the Arabic terminology almost everywhere, which is a great boon – modern writers tend to ignore Arabic terminology, which is rather pig-headed as it leaves the student unable to discuss language with Arabic speakers, and at a disadvantage when trying to understand books in Arabic on language.

Fischer’s “A Grammar of Classical Arabic” is much more accessible to those unused to traditional Western grammar, even if it is rather less complete in its coverage. In particular, it has nothing on Arabic verse, for which you still neeed to use Wright.

Arabic Idioms-idioms, proverbs, polite, religious and Islamic expressions (Proverbs)
Saudi colloquial audio archive. (Arabic course)

From other sources:

Lane’s Lexicon“–Edward William Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon (Dictionary)

Media Arabic essential vocabulary.

Sudan Arabic vocabulary.

Sudan Juba dialect vocabulary.

Lists of inks for Arabic historical, etymological, medical, and military dictionaries, regional dialect language courses.
Mo3jam, a user-generated dictionary of colloquial Arabic (mostly in Arabic), like Urban Dictionary, but clean (I think).
*Various sundry downloads. An astonishing collection of 44 pages of links and downloads for the student of Arabic language and culture.  Bibliophiles might try a search for Arabic Manuscripts, a Vademecum for Readers (yummy illustrations, look at “bookbinding”) or Proximity and Distance, Medieval Hebrew and Arabic Poetry.

Posted in Adventures, Arabic, Books. Comments Off on Arabic virtual bookstore

Arabic alphabet cheatsheet

(I’m supposed to trace the alphabet with my toes to start rehabilitating my foot.)

(They didn’t say which alphabet.)

(This chart has videos to go with it, and a page for initital, medial, and final forms.)

[image credits: alphabet table (U of Alabama), picture alphabet, Stanford Alphabet Chart –click on a letter and see how to write it, audio and video]

Posted in Arabic. 2 Comments »

Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s Romanization

Here is how my copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation of the Koran looks.  English on the left, transliteration in the middle, Arabic on the right. (clickable)

For the record, this is the 1991 edition, printed in Lahore, Pakistan.  It was a gift from a friend in Amman who was alarmed about my spiritual health.  A quick browse though reviews of this translation in Google Books shows some reviewers complaining about the lack of transliteration–apparently some versions were printed with only the Arabic on one side and English on the other–and I thought the transliteration had been discontinued. But a look at this 2007 edition show the transliterations are still alive and well.  Okay, alive then.  Because the transliterations don’t make much sense to me.

What is interesting about this 2007 edition is not only that transliterations are back in the book, but also that the writer of the “Roman” script, M.A.H. Eliyasee, is credited. You can also see a “Key to Transliteration“, the same one as in my 1991 edition.

Writing Arabic sounds in English is not exactly standardized. Wikipedia lists some sixteen different ways of representing the sounds of Arabic in English. (See Romanization of Arabic) “Romanization”?  Whatever.

For example, take the first line of the first verse of the Koran “Fatiha” (Opening).  Most verses of the Koran start with the line “In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate.”  The Fatiha is no exception.  In Arabic, it looks like this:   بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Literally:  in-name/Allah/the-merciful/the-compassionate

Or sometimes like this:

I also had a fancy version of this that someone made for me and posted on the outside of my classroom door in Amman.

Looking at the transliteration, you can see they write it “Bismillaahir – Rahmannir – Rahiim.”

But if you have ever been to any public meeting in an Arab country, they always start a speech by saying,  “Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem”.  That’s quite a bit different from the transliteration–and for a very common everyday phrase, at that.  How far off is the rest of the Koran?

If they are so careful to preserve the Koran in original form, why are they not careful with representations of the pronunciation?

See for yourself.  The Koran is  “recited” in different “tonal keys” (maqams) and “variant readings” (qira’at), but as I understand it, the pronunciation is always the same.  To listen to Koran with a variety of voices, check out Open Quran (click the “Quran Viewer” icon  at the top, then make sure the “Show Quran Reciter”  box is checked).

I guarantee you will hear “Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Raheem” in all of them.

Fishing in unclear water

I learned a new expression in Arabic today: يصطاد في الماء العكر pronounced “yastahd fee al-mah al-aker”, meaning “fishing in unclear water.”

Say your boss is giving you a hard time. Then, say someone who doesn’t like your boss gets promoted above her. Now your boss is reporting to someone who won’t listen to her, who won’t take her seriously or be on her side. Now you are in a position to push back on your boss because she can’t go and complain to her own boss and get action. If things were “clear” between them you would be fishing in clear water and you would not have any leverage, but because of the conflict between them, you are “fishing in unclear water” and have influence you would not have otherwise, and can more easily enforce expectations of professional behavior.

Posted in Arabic. 1 Comment »

Arabish: A cure for every aliment but tedium

Abu Huraira reported that he heard Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: Nigella seed is a remedy for every disease except death. This hadith has been narrated through another chain of transmitters but with a slight variation of wording.
–From the hadiths of Sahih Muslim, Book 26, Number 5489


A few weeks ago I decided to stop drinking black seed tea and go straight for the (more potent?) oil, taken on a spoon with a little honey poured over it to mask the strong flavor.  The black seed (nigella sativa) is a well known Arab cure-all recommended by The Prophet (see this post).

I can’t find the Arabic text for Sahih Muslim’s hadith about black seed anywhere, but apparently this Egyptian firm is working from it directly.  The English portion says it is “a cure for every aliment” (من كل داء ) .

As if dealing with the slippery ways of English wasn’t enough, the firm’s website seems to have suffered even further from the labyrinthine ways of the western internet. The website listed on the box has been taken over by squatters demanding ransom, and not giving in to blackmail, the site’s guardians have moved it a different location, where we find the startling claim that the oil of the Blessed Seed is good for everything except “tedium”.

I beg to differ. With package inserts like this to puzzle over, I’m not going to be bored to death anytime soon.

How is it going for me so far with the black seed oil? Although I’m taking this to see if it will improve my breathing (I’m an ex-smoker), I seem to be losing weight, plus I find I’m not taking quite so much stomach medication.  As with many dietary supplements (like glucosamine, which nobody is quite sure works, but when they stop taking it, they seem to feel worse) the results are hard to judge.


For anyone who wants to try to follow the Koranic scholarship, here is a website in Arabic (via Google translate) that I found by googling من كل داء, the phrase on the box. Discussions of hadith in Arabic usually give the chain of transmission as well, which is how “strong” and “weak” hadiths are determined.  This website cites seven different sources for the hadith about the black seed.

Abu Hurayrah [narrated by Imam Muslim from Abu Hurayrah in a book of peace door medication pill black number (2215) (but they’ve got the hadith number wrong, that one’s in Book 5)-Nij] may Allah be pleased with him that he heard the Messenger of Allah peace be upon him says: «in black bean cure for every disease but poison». Ibn Shihab said: The toxic death, and black bean Alhuniz.

The  Arabic:

عن أبي هريرة رضي الله عنه أنه سمع رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم يقول: «في الحَبَّةِ السوْدَاءِ شِفَاءٌ من كل دَاءٍ إلاَّ السَّام». قال ابن شهاب: والسام الموت، والحبة السوداء الشونيز.

What  Al-huniz الشونيز (shouldn’t it be al-shunez?) might be I can’t guess, but it must be related to both death and boredom.

Near and far

Yes, the languagehat blog is still dark.  Languagehat reports that  “Discussions with Gandi (the hosting service) are ongoing.”  In commiseration with suffering LHians, including the 149,649 other subscribers who like me read it on google reader, today again I’m writing something about language.

I usually work Friday night, but this week is spring break, so last Friday I took a train downtown for a Good Friday church service.  To read on the train, I brought Bernard Lewis’s The Political Language of Islam.  I’m not sure what I expected, maybe something about political rhetoric, but Lewis does actually talk about language–words. Interesting, interesting stuff–and you have to wonder how many misunderstandings and missed opportunities there have been when the East and the West do not understand each others’ usage of concepts that seem like they should be similar but are not.

In the chapter about metaphor and allusion, Lewis talks about how the meaning of metaphors can be buried.

When we use the English word “government” few of us think of its origins in an ancient Greek word meaning “rudder” and an ancient Greek verb meaning “to steer”; but when we–that is, the verbally less gifted or fastidious among us–speak of the man [sic] at the helm steering the ship of state, there is still some faint awareness of a maritime metaphor contained in these words.

The east and in the west spacial metaphors–denoting position and direction in space–are common but have a different meaning in the east.

But while Western language, from the earliest time, makes extensive use of up-down and front-back imagery to indicate domination and subordination, early Arabic political language makes very little use of these images.  Where they do occur, they are often specific allusions rather than metaphors.  thus, the common use of verbs from the roots qdm and ‘mm, both with a root meaning “in front of” or “before,” to  indicate precedence or authority, derive from leadership in battle or in prayer. In ancient, in contrast to modern times, both kinds of leadership were necessarily exercised from the front, not from the rear, and the use of these terms thus represented facts on the ground, not metaphors in the mind….

Power relationships are more commonly indicated in Islamic usage by the imagery of near and far, in and out, or, to borrow a social science expression, center and periphery, and of course, movement in either direction. Thus, according to an early text, the caliph ‘Umar explained his refusal to employ Christians in positions of power in these words: “I will not honor them when God has degraded them;  I will not glorify them when God has humiliated them;  I will not bring them near when God has set them far.” A Western speaker or writer would almost certainly have expressed this idea by saying that he would not raise them up when God had  cast them down….

Clearly the centrality of the ruler, and the importance of nearness and access to him, is reflected in this language….

One of the roots most frequently used to connote power and authority, the treliteral wly, whence come such familiar terms as vali and vilâyet from Turkey, mollah from Iran, and maulvi and maulana from India, has the primary meaning of “to be near.”….

Changes in power relationships are indicated by the same metaphors.  In Western language contenders for power may rise or fall.  If they rise, it may be as climbers or as rebels, engaged in an uprising.  In Islam, verbs meaning “to rise” are commonly used to convey religious, especially mystical, experience, but rarely political ascent.  Ambitious Muslims move inward rather than upward; rebellious Muslims secede from, rather than rise against, the existing order.  The earliest–indeed the paradigmatic–movement of rebellion against the existing order was that of the Khawārij, “those who go out.”  Significantly, their movement was expressed as horizontal, not vertical; even more remarkably, it was outward, not inward.  The same concept is expressed in the extensive social and political use of the two verbs jama’a, “to gather or join,” and faraqa, “to separate or divide.”  Gathering is good–hence the jamā‘a, “the community,” ruled by ijmā, “consensus.” Separation is bad, and gives rise to firqa, “sect,” and other forms of disunity.

Posted in Arabic, language, Middle East. Comments Off on Near and far

Conquering the Middle East in antiquity

“You are King Xerxes, King of the mighty Persian Empire, and you are about to embark on one of the greatest military campaigns in history.”

An interactive map, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities, shows the march of Xerxes’ army. If you get stuck and can’t answer a question correctly, you are redirected to a page where you can review the history.

There is also an extensive index of interactive maps, and as a bonus for Arabicphiles, a lesson plan for writing a ghazal, a bedouin form of poetry.

Posted in Arabic. Comments Off on Conquering the Middle East in antiquity

Is the Al-Kitaab Arabic language textbook anti-Israel?

A book I once used for Arabic language study, Al-Kitaab, is in the midst of a political controversy.

Matthew Iglesias over at the Atlantic has been following the issues surrounding the Washington Post‘s op-ed about the Arabic language textbook. I found out about it through ArabLing, which I found on the blogroll of Jabal al-Lughat, which I found a link to in a post about some esoteric point in Koranic Arabic from LanguageHat, which I keep meaning to take off of my feedreader since I always end up getting engrossed in it and spend too much time following the links. Apparently someone was offended because the maps in the textbook didn’t identify Israel as an “Arabic speaking” country.

Well, one picture is worth a thousand words, so I offer here some pictures of the maps and pages in question. Israel and Palestine are both all over the maps in question. The images here have been resized for faster page loading, but if anyone really wants to do a save to examine them closer, they should all be in a resolution large enough to read. (1) The first group of images is from the second edition of Al-Kitaab Part One published in 2004. (2) The next group is from an older version of the same text, the first edition of Al-Kitaab Part One published in 1995 and the companion workbook for the alphabet, Alif Baa, from the same year. As you will see, they changed the maps a little bit. Both versions list Israel in their glossary, and I throw that in too. Then I throw in a page from (3) Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, a text completely without illustrations which was the standard Arabic language text before the publication of Al-Kitaab. Oh, and the before and after picture of the “old” and “new” (4) Maha, since she has somehow gotten in the middle of the controversy for alleged whining.


1. The latest edition of Al-Kitaab:

2) First edition of Al-Kitaab and the companion wordbook Alif Baa:

3) Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, the previous standard Arabic text:

4) The old Maha; the new Maha with laptop:

Okay, what do I see?

First of all I consider monitoring textbooks for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias to be a valid exercise. Monitoring for anti-Arab bias as well. I have seen translations of textbooks that shocked, but did not surprise me. In particular, it does not strike me as particularly honest to claim some other group is thinking something bad or wanting something bad or has evil motivations. The only way you can know someone’s motivations is by what they do and what they say. I also think the standard for, say a sixth grade text is different from the standard for a university text, which Al-Kitaab is, and has more leeway for political viewpoints instead of bare facts.

While the old Al-Kitaab textbook lists only Palestinian as a nationality, the old workbook shows Palestine/Israel together geographically. This is continued in the new textbook. Both old and new versions list Israel in the glossary. If the book was one of those “Israel-does-not-exist” advocates, which is pretty rare anymore, they would not print the name “Israel” in the text as an exercise and in the glossary. I would like to see the nationality “Israeli” written in Arabic. The Arabs I know refer to Israelis as “Yahood”–Jews–which I don’t think is either accurate or promoting the values I would like to see promoted. It would be nice to have an alternative word to inject into conversation.

Teaching about culture is a valid and necessary part of any language instruction.  When we come to the “How old are you?” lesson in my English classes, I always talk about “good questions” and “bad questions,” and when it is appropriate to ask someone’s age.  Students need to know that.  In many parts of the Arab world it is not wise to say the word “Israel” in public.  In my opinion the book does not go far enough in explaining these cultural cues, but I suppose like language, culture is also in flux and it will depend on who you ask.

The Al-Kitaab series is far, far better than the old chestnut Elementary Modern Standard Arabic. The one pictured here was published in 1999, but has been in continuous copyright since 1968.  It doesn’t have so much as one picture.  The page shown above is a story about a tourist trip to Lebanon. Those days are long gone.

As far as Maha, a lot of language texts use a Dick, Jane, and Sally character to try to generate interest for the language.  The Jordanian Petra English language series has a “TV Presenter” (yes, it was written by a Brit) and also a boy named Marwin who whines a lot about food he doesn’t like.  Marwin is quite useful for learning negatives. I didn’t connect with either Maha. The second Maha reminds me of some urban Arabs I once worked with who we nicknamed Gucci and Channel, for the range of their interests and professional capabilities. At least she covers her arms down to the wrist.  The first Maha seems to be showing a lot of skin from the elbow to the wrist. In my experience this is maybe marginally okay in the city when the temperature is over 100, but definitely not okay in the country.

My real beef with the series, and with Arabic language textbooks in general, is that they only teach Modern Standard Arabic–“foos-ha”.  No one in the world actually speaks Modern Standard Arabic.  It is an artificial language–a construct.  Probably someone was hoping for some Arab Unity, but of course they got some Arab nationalism instead. Now the language has snob appeal and some countries will only print newspapers in that language, forbidding even common words like yalla (“let’s go”) from being printed in advertisements. If someone would print a serious textbook in Colloquial Levantine Arabic, which is what they speak from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Palestine to Iraq, I would buy it. Unfortunately the Arab concept of language acquisition consists of presenting charts of those awful conjugations and what they call “vocabs”–lists of out-of-context words with unfathomable meanings.


Note: This post has been sitting in my “drafts” since last summer. I’m only dusting it off now because my beloved LanguageHat blog is currently experiencing technical difficulties and I have not had my Linguistics Chew Toy fix for today. I will have it even if I have to write it myself.

Since in the post I also complain about the lack of colloquial Arabic resources, let me also reprint a subsequent comment from LH himself after a similar lament on a thread there. So any LHers who might also peek in here from time to time can get one of the Hat’s past Oracles as well:

There’s an excellent Reference Grammar of Syrian Arabic by Mark W. Cowell if you can find it (I got it at the French & Spanish Book Shop in Rockefeller Center in 1991, but it was published in 1964), and an equally excellent Dictionary of Syrian Arabic: English-Arabic by Karl Stowasser and Moukhtar Ani; Routledge has a short but useful Colloquial Arabic (Levantine).

UPDATE 12/9/09: For some unknown reason, the textbook images here have become unclickable. I have now made the first one (of the textbook cover) clickable (linked to it’s original file) again.  It’s a somewhat time consuming, but if anyone is interested in seeing a closer view of certain images, leave a comment and I’ll start re-editing the images. UPDATE: images are now clickable.

Blessed Hands

hand-right-iv-darkSome things in the Arabic language are counterintuitive. In English, if someone offers you tea, “thank you” means “yes, I’ll have some, thank you for bringing it.” In Arabic,  shokrahn is a polite refusal: “thanks, but no thanks.”  The correct affirmative response in Arabic would be izlamoo idayk (masculine) or izlamoo idaykee (feminine), meaning “Allah bless your hands”. In other words, may Allah bless your hands so you can continue to offer tea with them–the ability to be generous is a gift from Allah.

While you’re sitting around drinking tea, one thing you might do is compare hands with your companions. Some people are said to have a mark of the “ninety-nine names of God” on their palms.  On one hand is written the Arabic symbols for the numbers eight and one (the sum being nine):  ۸۱ with the reverse pattern written on the other hand:۱۸. So the numbers add up to nine on each hand; reading both hands side by side gives the number ninety-nine.

hand-left-500px hand-right-500px

Posted in Arab culture, Arabic. Tags: , . Comments Off on Blessed Hands


ipa-buttonThe International Phonetic System is a system of phonetic notation used to represent sounds in spoken language. Since I don’t have these memorized, and I’m tired of googling it, I hereby create a new sidebar button to the wikipedia article that seems most useful for looking them up.

This page has sounds you can listen to if you have your computer set up to play files with the .ogg extension.

Posted in Arabic, ESL, language. Comments Off on IPA