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.

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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.

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