Amin Maalouf Blogs About His Love of Words

Why didn’t you tell me that Amin Maalouf had a blog?

It was only after the Angry Arab News Service had this short, slightly absurdist snippet about the (celebrated) Arab Francophone author that I googled Maalouf and found it. (Unfortunately, Maalouf is reported as having health troubles, and the posts have—temporarily, I hope—ceased.)

The Angry Arab (alias As’ad AbuKhalil) reports that Maalouf’s command of Arabic is “excellent.” This is, as far as I know, a non sequitir—was someone insulting Maalouf’s Arabic? But apparently people have questioned his allegiances over the years. He wrote in 1999:

To those who ask, I explain with patience that I was born in Lebanon, lived there until the age of 27, that Arabic is my first language and I discovered Dickens, Dumas and “Gulliver’s Travels” in the Arabic translation, and I felt happy for the first time as a child in my village in the mountains, the village of my ancestors where I heard some of the stories that would help me later write my novels. How could I forget all of this? How could I untie myself from it? But on another side, I have lived on the French soil for 22 years, I drink its water and wine, my hands caress its old stones everyday, I write my books in French and France could never again be a foreign country.

Anyhow, his relationship with French stones concerns me very little. On his blog, his love of words is evident.

For translators, (and those who love words in translation), he turns up a wealth of interesting hazards, as with the Arabic-derived word hazard:

Speaking of similarity, it seems to me noteworthy that, while the French word hasard and its English nephew ‘hazard’ both bear a strong resemblance to their Spanish grandfather azar and to their Arabic ancestors, whatever these may be, they are far from identical. The French word hasard encompasses a sense of chance, and sometimes even of good fortune, and often has a positive connotation; some even consider that the word has become a sort of lay equivalent for what was once called Providence. The Spanish word azar retains this same notion of chance and uncertainty, but on occasion leans towards the unhappy side of life, for example in the expression los azares de la vida, which might by translated as the ‘vicissitudes of life’. As for the English word ‘hazard’, it no longer retains any positive sense at all and has become synonymous with danger or, at the very least, with risk.

A bit professorish, perhaps, but very interesting.

As for me, I’m particularly interested in words that take on different meanings in different Englishes. In Egyptian English, the word “elite” and “elites” is acceptable—and positive, perhaps meritorious—in a way it’s generally not in American English (unless attached to something, such as elite athletes, elite scholars). While the root is “chosen, select,” on its own, the word “elite” calls up snobbish, unearned, uncaring wealth: the enemy for a hearty middle-class American.

An Egyptian restaurant might advertise that it caters to “elites”; an American restaurant manager could feel that way, but she wouldn’t put it on a sign facing the street. If it’s really “elite,” I suppose it doesn’t have a sign. We can erase things we don’t like by getting rid of the word.

Odd, to me, that “exclusive” (excluding) has a better connotation for Americans than elite (chosen, select).

But you can disagree.

mlynxqualey

2 thoughts on “Amin Maalouf Blogs About His Love of Words

  1. A thought on the diverging connotations of exclusive/elite. People are elite; a place is exclusive. The former is a common on the value or perceived value of a person, while the latter is a description of a restaurant or school’s door policy. That is, getting into someplace exclusive has a meritorious implication–you are what you do, and you did well. But saying someone is elite doesn’t necessarily imply any sense of accomplishment on their part. Being excluded from someplace exclusive is something you can and should strive to rectify (we say, at least), but being elite is something you have to be born into. Hence, one word carries a positive connotation, but the other seems to go against what we tell ourselves about the possibility of social mobility in the US.

  2. Yes, indeed, I think the erasure of the word “elite” (except for “elite athletes” or something else that sounds straightforward and meritorious) in the U.S. definitely reflects on our ideas of social mobility and democracy…or rather, what we won’t think about. We wouldn’t want to think there is such a thing as “elite.” (Much less that we are a global elite, born into a wealthy nation.)

    “French-speaking elite” and “ruling elite,” two pairings mentioned by Merriam Webster, sound horrible. The first irredeemably snobbish and the second irredeemably undemocratic and cruel.

    “Intellectual elites” sounds bad, too (ivory tower), perhaps because of U.S. anti-intellectualism, perhaps just because of the taint of “elite.”

    I’d be interested to know how the word elite plays in Britain, the Philippines, India, Nigeria–among other English speakers.

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