30 July 2009 0 Comments

Language textbooks and the crime writer

Here’s my latest post on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog:

You can tell a great deal about a people from the conversations in language textbooks. After all, they aim to teach you the words people speak, but also the character of those teaching them and what it might be like to live in their society.

I first cottoned to this when I learned Spanish. My textbook included a basic conversation between a woman and her boyfriend. It went like this:

Maria: I love you! Do you love me?

Pablo: What is love, anyway?

Maria: I hate you!

See? Passionate, fiery Latins.

The same was true of Middle East languages. My Hebrew textbook featured highly critical know-it-alls (“Do you like this actress?” “I’m not crazy about her.”…. “How is the ice-cream here?” “It’s okay, but I know a better place for ice-cream.”) Thirteen years on, I have a more nuanced view of Israelis, but these conversations are still a good basic tool for understanding their deep sense of insecurity and need to assert themselves.

And the Palestinians? My first textbook of Levant Arabic featured conversations in which a fabled character named Jouha, known to be stupid, would end up being so stupid he came full circle and turned out to be cunning:

Neighbor: Jouha, can I borrow your donkey?

Jouha: I don’t have a donkey.

(Donkey brays inside Jouha’s house.)

Neighbor: You do have a donkey. I can hear it.

Jouha: What’s this? You don’t believe me, but you believe my donkey?

If you follow the peace process in the newspapers, surely there’ve been times when you’ve wondered if the Palestinians were being so absurd in their negotiations that they must have some secret, cunning plan up their sleeves? But they were just being dumb.

It turns out Jouha’s stupid AND mean. Which would make him a pretty good member of the Palestinian negotiating team. Not that the Israeli negotiators don’t have more than a touch of Jouha in them…

In my Omar Yussef novels, I try to capture the rhythms of Arabic speech. I also translate directly a number of very formal Arabic phrases, rather than simply putting them in a transliterated italics as is often done with snatches of foreign dialogue. I believe it gives the flavor of speech, and also a sense of how people relate to each other in a traditional society.

For example, there’s nothing poetic about “Good morning,” and what’d be the point of just italicizing “Sabah al-kheyr”? But try this: “Morning of joy.” To which you respond: “Morning of light.” Now that’s beautiful. And it’s what Palestinians say to each other every day.

When my characters receive a cup of coffee—the ritual that accompanies every meeting in the Arab world—they say “May Allah bless your hands.” The person giving them the coffee responds, “Blessings.”

There are, of course, Arabic phrases like this for so many situations and they often convey something beyond the basic meaning of the phrase. For example, in THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET, my latest novel, a character tells a priest “Long life to you.” Omar and all the other characters present understand immediately that this means someone else has died. (The unspoken part of the phrase is, “…but eventually you’ll die like the guy whose death I’m going to tell you about.”)

How does this affect the plot or pacing of my books? Well, in some thrillers, a character can jump through a door and start berating everyone in sight, even beating them up. In Palestine, he has to—absolutely has to—wish them blessings from Allah and inquire after their health first.

If he didn’t, he’d be showing himself to be a really, really bad guy. And that would be giving away the ending.

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