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Antonyms in Arabic are a Strange Phenomenon

While one of the aims of the site Arabic Gems is to provide original content related to the Arabic language, they posted an extremely interesting article from The Daily Star by Tamim al-Barghouti that explored the deep multiple meanings of singular Arabic words.

Antonyms in Arabic are a strange phenomenon. There is a whole category of words that mean one thing as well as its opposite. For example, the word, "saleem," means the one who is cured as well as the one who has just been bit by a snake. The word baseer, means one with great sight and insight, but also means blind. Mawla means master and slave and wala means to follow and to lead, The word Umma, which is usually translated as nation, means the entity that is followed, or the guide, as well as the entity that follows and is guided.

Like many properties of Arabic, the reason for this is usually attributed to the Bedouin origin of the language – the desert is said to impose unity, homogeneity, and therefore equality on the all creatures. Sand is everywhere, and in the end everything turns into sand, the contradictory extremes of life seem to be the same in essence. But this traditional explanation, like many traditional explanations, does not explain much.

For Arabic is not a poor language, almost every creature, object or feeling has scores of names. A sense of continuity and unity of the universe might have been present in the desert community of Bedouin Arabs, but a sense of meaninglessness was not there. The way the ancient creators of the Arabic language celebrated the smallest details of their world is noteworthy: it is said that the great poet and linguist of the eleventh century, Abul-Ala al-Miary, who was blind, stumbled into one of the princes at the court of Saleh Ibn Mirdas, the autonomous ruler of Northern Syria. The noble guest lost his temper, especially because the poet was poor, and poor poets, are not supposed to stumble into rich nobility! So the guest called the poet an ignorant dog. Abul-Ala answered swiftly: "The dog among us is the one who does not know 70 names for the dog!" Of course the noble guest, the prince and half the linguists of the court could not come up with so many names.

Later on, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the preservation of the language became an obsession, all 70 names for the word "dog" were recorded. They were not quite synonymous, for they did not all simply mean dog. Rather, they were descriptions of a dog's conditions; an angry dog had a name different from a joyful one, the dog that had one ear pointing up and the other down had a name different from the one who had both ears up or both ears down. What is true of the dog is true of most other creatures. Up until this day the most famous seven names of the lion are taught to children in schools all over the Arab world: Laith, Sab, Asad, Qaswara, Ghadanfar, Dirgham and Usama.

"Love" has 77 names, each of which has a slight but crucial difference from the other. Hawa means light liking but also transfers an element of error, bias and irrationality. As the old pre-Islamic proverb goes: "Hawa is the downside of reason."

Then you have ishq, which comes from entanglement, like two pieces of wood and ivory in a work of arabesque, the two lovers are inseparable yet still independent and distinct. Then there is hayam, which comes from wondering thirsty in the desert, and fitna, which means love, infatuation, passionate desire, but also means civil war and illusion.

There is izaz, which is the kind of love that gives both lovers power and dignity, and sakan, which also means home and tranquility, the Quran uses this word to describe the relation between married couples. The highest stage of love is, paradoxically, fanaa, which means non-existence. This is the stage where the lovers lose their independent existences and actually become one another. This stage is usually used by Sufis in reference to divine love and the unity of existence.

With this wealth of words and meanings, the existence of the category of words that mean one thing and its opposite cannot be explained by desert born nihilism and lack of imagination. Taking a second look at those lists of antonyms, one can see that, with very few exceptions, most words relate to power and knowledge. The continuous fighting for water and means of livelihood among Arab tribes, the temporality of life and the cruel paradox of the desert coupling monotony and uncertainty, might have resulted in an instinctive position on power.

Power is temporary, and is in itself meaningless. Temporary power is therefore the same as weakness, master and slave will both die in the end, so would the seer and the blind, and the blind might be more of a seer than the one whose eyes are wide open. Those couples thus deserve the same names. Power and knowledge become meaningful only if they result is something that is not temporary. To Arabs, all physical objects will in the end vanish and turn to sand, but ideas, will remain. Thus power is necessary only to create legacies, memories, epics, legends and poetry. One could trace this idea well into the pre-Islamic era. After the advent of Islam, the concept of legacy was replaced with the concept of the afterlife.

The history of Arabic literature is full of anecdotes were antonyms and puns were used to mock unjust power and authority. After Haroun al-Rashid massacred his Persian ministers, one of their women told him "qarrat Aynok" which is an expression meaning "may god give you peace of mind," but the literal meaning of the words is "may your eye stand still" – in other words, "may you go blind." In the Arabian nights, Shahrazad continuously addresses the angry king Shariar, who kills a woman every day in revenge for his wife's betrayal, "Oh happy king, of wise judgment" in a context that means exactly the opposite.

Perhaps today we are in great need of such words (antonyms) in everything – from love to politics.

Posted July 13, 2004. 
Tamim al-Barghouti is a Palestinian poet who writes a weekly article for The Daily Star.

From {The Daily Star}
Image {Gulf Blog}

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