National Geographic : 1942 Sep
Forty Years Among the Arabs BY JOHN VAN Ess LLAH, be He praised, gave me a sense of humor. More than once I have sat in the middle of the desert, shivering with fever and weak from dysentery, and laughed till the tears rolled down into the sand. The fun wasn't always as sidesplitting as that, for, like a baseball player or a ski jumper, you may be having lots of fun while your jaws are tightly clenched and your soul is filled with apprehension. My interest in the Arabs began when I started to study their language at Princeton. It has all the dignity of Latin, the variety of English, the beauty of Italian, the sonorous ness of German, the flexibility of Greek-and the bewilderment of Russian. Exploring the Wonders of Arabic Its underlying motif is the three-letter root which gives you the basic idea. This root, which you dig from an extensive root garden, you can modify, intensify, reciprocate, atten uate, dilute, step up, step down, and otherwise maul around, in any one of 15 so-called "meas ures." Each measure has its active, passive, indicative, subjunctive, and imperative, be sides energetic and jussive forms, by which time you feel you have had some action. But the noun then comes along to compli cate the action, for the noun has no regular plural, and, indeed, may have more than one plural. Add to all this the fact that there is really no tense but that an action is either complete or incomplete, and, further, that some of the sounds have been taken straight from the throat of the camel or the bulbul, and you are confronted with a project that will challenge your memory, ingenuity, patience, and even your religion. But he who learns Arabic gets an amazing vehicle for his thoughts. He can say blitz krieg, blackout, lease-lend, parachute troops, and all the rest, and not go into the red to any other language. How that amazing tongue was developed by a primitive people living in a barren land, and was embodied in a rich and varied litera ture, is one of the enigmas of history. With three years of Arabic grammar under my belt, with no binding family ties, and a fund of good health, I first reached Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1902.* About the first article I needed from my baggage was the aforementioned sense of humor. The Turk was then in power in that part of the world, and the Turk of those days could provide you with more annoyance to the square inch than anyone else I have ever known. I got to know him better as time passed and had many close friends among the Turks. I learned that his apparent perverse ness was only a cloak behind which he con cealed subtle cleverness and protected himself against aliens. It was in the days of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Abdul the Damned, as the fuming Euro pean diplomats called him. There were spies everywhere, and every book and paper you carried was subject to censorship. The story goes that a chemistry book was confiscated for containing the formula HO, which was sup posed to hint darkly that Hamid the Second was nothing. Some years later I imported some English primers for the school where I was teaching. The censor had in the dim past learned a little English, and as he opened a primer for inspec tion he gasped with horror. On page one was a picture of a dog and under it the caption, "This is My Dog; His Name is Turk." I was summoned into the office of the pasha who sat within. "A dog!" shrieked he. "Allah, what blas phemy! " "But, Pasha," I cooed, "listen and I will ex plain. In my country a dog is much thought of. Women carry dogs in their arms and lead them by silver chains. So we give such a precious animal a precious name." "Ah," said he. "Pardon, Monsieur, I was mistaken. Even I do not know everything. I thank you. Ahmed, bring Monsieur some sherbet." It had been a hefty hurdle, and I breathed again. The Hurdle of Jake and the Pasha A short time after that I came up against a real hurdle. Sultan Abdul Hamid, after a turbulent reign of 33 years, had been dethroned by the revolutionaries, and Mohammed Reshad had succeeded to the throne. The whole empire sighed with relief at the removal of that * John Van Ess has spent forty years in Iraq and the surrounding region, and has lived through five regimes: the old Turk, the new Turk, World War I, the Mandate, and Independence. Most of the time he has spent as a missionary-educator and has en joyed the confidence of both the British and the Arab Governments. He has written two standard Arabic grammars.