Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Impossible worlds

This time last year I tried out an Arabic puzzle on Mithridates -- a puzzle I was thinking of using in Your Name Here. I wrote a couple of English sentences from a well-known writer in Arabic letters, to be deciphered. He wrote:


This took me almost 2 hours (is that too long?), so I have not had time to
check my findings thoroughly. I'm sorry, but I didn't color the letters in b/c
I would have had to go out to buy some and didn't have time for that either.
I know it's an important part of the exercise, so I apologize.

Below I have transcribed what I wrote above each word on the sheet. I've
written what I think is the name of each letter (I reverse the order below to
show how I came to my conclusions), the sound it makes (with hyphens to
indicate where I thought the letters were joined to form a single word), and finally
my guess at what the English word is supposed to be. I had a couple of
difficulties, having absolutely no knowledge of Arabic or its alphabet before
receiving your email. First, I couldn't figure out how the first line (if I I've
figured out what it is saying, of course) is grammatically connected to the
rest of the first sentence in lines 2 & 3. The same goes for the last line,
although that's easier to figure out (I assume it signals that the line is from
[ ]'s book?). But the circle that I thought was a period in line 3 doesn't
seem to serve the same function in line 9, where it appears _before_ the word
that I think is supposed to spell "wonderful." And then there was the
problem of figuring out which sound a letter such as waw makes--sometimes it seemed
to make the long o-sound, sometimes the w-sound, sometimes a short
u-sound--and ya', which seemed to make both a short i-sound and a long e-sound. The
biggest stretch to me seemed the use of ghain to imitate the v-sound in
"ever," if that's in fact what's going on. I could only figure that out by using
the context, but wondered why fa' wasn't used to approximate the "v" in "ever";
you use it in "of," which seems to my ear to make a sort of v-sound. I
suppose that that's what makes it puzzling, come to think of it, so don't listen
to me. And one last question: Does "lam" lose its little flag on its top
right-hand side when it is connected on the right side to another letter? at first
I thought the lam at the end of a word could have been alif plus another
letter simply because it didn't seem to have the little fin.

It was really enjoyable. I'd love to see how I did. If I did all right,
could you to teach me how to spell some real Arabic words? I'd love to know 10 of
the most beautiful words you know in Arabic.

I was worried that the puzzle was not well constructed -- I thought it would be helpful to have the Arabic in outline form to be coloured in, but perhaps this was just confusing. He wrote:

Wonderful! I'm so happy I could be of some use. I really think you should
KEEP the outline/color-in-the-letters format--although I really DID think that
fa' was ghain, but thanks for pointing out my error; I see it now. I was able
to figure the puzzle out, so it wasn't that big a problem. If I had colored
markers, I would have used them and it probably would have helped the letters
to stay more firmly put in my memory. I will try to color them in when I get
my hands on some markers or crayons. Maybe I'll teach my little nephew Kyle;
he'd really enjoy this. The outline format works. It makes the puzzle more
challenging without making it impossible. It forces you to RECOGNIZE the
letters - sort of like being able to recognize English among all the different
sorts of typefaces and handwritings. Also, the outlines look so GORGEOUS - why
lose that? Though I'm sure you could find other formats that are just as

I'm guessing that no one who has never tried to decipher the Arabic alphabet
before will assume that such a puzzle could take less than 2 hours. Leave it
in! Leave it in! Besides, it didn't feel like 2 hrs, perhaps because I'm
avoiding revising this Pater thing like the plague, but nevertheless.

I wondered whether I should change the font to have a ghain and fa' that were more easily distinguished. He thought not. He then wrote:

Good news (I hope). I gave your  puzzle to 3 friends and they all solved it.
I hope it was OK for me to give it to them and that I didn't overstep my
boundary. I told them about it while I was in the computer lab at school and they
asked to see it. I figured that if they could do it, then that would help to
bolster your confidence. It only occurred to me later that it's your puzzle
to hand out and that I should have asked you first. They each did it
separately and sent me the results a few hours later. None of them know the Arabic
alphabet. In fact, only one of them speaks a foreign language. They did agree
that the first line might benefit from being placed in quotation marks in
order to avoid confusing it with the Dahl quotation, for whatever that's worth.
But they all really enjoyed it and felt they profited from it. I thought this
would be welcome news. Do you mind if I let my mother and my nephew take a
crack at it? My nephew's 9 and very precocious and I think it would be great
for you if a 9-yr-old could figure it out. And if he can't, who cares? He's 9.

I then tried the puzzle with similar success on my friend Peter Weis and his son Henry. Good news.

The reason I had thought of having the puzzle in the book was that several years earlier I had introduced David to 10 letters of the Arabic alphabet over lunch in Covent Garden. (David had been traumatised as a child by being sent to Hebrew classes in which they were permitted only one letter a week; it was important not to re-enact this early trauma.) In this exercise too short English words were written in Arabic letters, an easy way to get the hang of the script. He got the hang of it in about 10 minutes and could not wait for lunch to be over so we could find a grammar in Foyle's (Cowan's Modern Literary Arabic, less overwhelmingly comprehensive than the Haywood-Nahmad of an earlier post). He returned to Leeds, got about halfway through Cowan (no small feat for an overworked Professor of Latin), managed to use Arabic to work out a problem in a text of Theophrastus --

Well, what can I say? People quite often tell me they read The Last Samurai and thought: I can learn Greek! I can learn Japanese! (This is one of the reasons Mithridates got started on Greek, long before I was sending him Arabic puzzles by e-mail.) Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if the public at large, rather than random individuals personally acquainted with me, could make the same thrilling discovery about Arabic? And instead, of course, I have simply thrown a boulder into Ilya Gridneff's literary career.

Because, sadly, everyone is not so susceptible.

I gave my former editor the very exercises I had given David -- the very thing to while away a few minutes on the plane, I thought -- and never heard about them again. A couple of years ago Steve Gaghan, director of Syriana, wanted to make a film of The Last Samurai; we agreed on terms, there were problems with his agency; a friend of mine offered to draft a contract, there were problems with my friend; I said I would draft the contract, and I thought I would also draft a press release including the sort of Arabic one might teach a small child. While I was drafting this press release there were more problems with my friend (I compress 9 years of Days of Our Lives to a handful of foam). Gaghan is c-c-c-c-crazy. DeWitt is c-c-c-c-crazy. Down the drain. But Gaghan had said he was a friend and a fan and would do anything to help; surely the director of Syriana would be only too happy to seduce the public at large to the joys of Arabic... I sent some great mass of e-mail attachments. Never heard from him again.

I am a leetle demoralised. I keep thinking if I had written some completely different sort of book -- something like Flashman, say, only with Arabic and Pashtu -- it could have come out years ago and possibly been of some use. The other day Kristof Hahn, a rock musician who has translated a biography of John Peel and would like to translate YNH into German, said he had read about 10 pages and thought: Hey! Arabic! You know, I could do this!

I may put some puzzles on my website.


M. Ramirez Talusan said...

you're making me desperately want to learn arabic, but i haven't even managed to start on greek yet and alas, thai is more applicable to my research interests so that may have to be first.

sd said...

i also thought i could learn grk when i read 'the last samurai.' then i realized i better learn how to write better in english first.

mm... and ideographs! a post on ideographic language systems, please!

Jenny Davidson said...

Someone else will have to write Flashman with Pashto, it is a good idea but it is perhaps a different mode than yours!

Ithaca said...

mrt: I think it would be better if readers had the chance to try out a sample text in each of a variety of languages -- it is a bit hard to have to tackle the whole of a language just to find out whether it is something one wants to pursue.

sd: I suppose if proper materials were provided one could think of languages using the analogy of music: it would be worth learning to play a single Prelude and Fugue by Bach, or a single sonata by Beethoven, even if one did not have the time to master the whole of the Well-Tempered Clavichord, or all Beethoven's sonatas. It would be very difficult to learn to play even one short piece on each of six or seven instruments, but it would not be nearly so hard to read a single passage of Greek, or a single passage of Arabic, or a single poem in Chinese -- again, assuming the materials were available. (I like the idea of a post on ideographic language systems.)

jd: one has that longing sometimes to take on somebody else's voice