Friday, November 11, 2005

Fun with the Roman Script - and - some Thoughts on Cultures

One of my favorite pastimes here is collecting things written in the Roman script that make me laugh. It's not hard to do, since although you still see Arabic script most of the time here, Roman script -- in particular, English -- is widespread and very cool. Widespread, yes, but not widespread enough for there not to be a huge number of misspellings, mistakes, or just awkward usage. They make me laugh, so I want to share some examples I've seen or heard about from others.

-- First of all, you have your basic misspellings. Thanks to irregular spelling in English, you can trace how someone took an English word written in Arabic script, transliterated it back into English and came out with the wrong letter combination. One popular place for English words is on car windshield stickers, where I saw "Kees Me", a pretty standard example of how this double mis-transliteration happens.

-- My friend Martin saw "Go To Hill" written on a windshield. "What," he thought at first, "is this some slogan of a mountaineering club?" As I'm sure you can figure out, it's not, though I think that might be a good use for it.

-- For those who know Arabic script, it is clear how they came up with "Habbi Trafel" written on the side of a bus -- there is no P or V in Arabic.

-- One of my favorites is a plastic bag that I found. On it there is printed a flower of vague anatomy, above which are the words: "lust For You". It's not actually an L that starts it off, but a capital I -- they somehow got the I and the J confused. To add to the awesomeness, below is written: "Tha nks for gour visit". This is a truly fine specimen.

-- Another more predictable category of mistakes you see are not accidental -- imitation brand name clothing -- but still fun. I've seen "NO FAER" and "FUESS JEANS", while "Adibas", "Abidas", or "Abibas" are consistently popular. I wonder why some manufacturers take the trouble to misspell these names while most others have no qualms about pirating the logos and spelling them correctly.

-- What is even better than misspellings is when words are spelled correctly but used in a way that's just not quite right. In huge letters on the central Damascus post office is written "GENERAL ESTABLISHMENT OF POSTS". Not wrong, per se, but something's just a little funny about it, especially written up on a government building.

-- When my friend Josh was visiting last week, he joined me in my search, sighting this one printed on the backpack of a school-kid: "I'm the Friend!" Say it in the right voice and it's funny.

-- This morning I saw a new fancy restaurant with a faux-Italian name that I forget -- in its windows were banners printed with the phrase, "Soft Opening". I don't even know what to say about that one.

-- Last week Josh and I were sitting in the Ummayad Mosque courtyard (a great place to sit) and watching the little kids run around us (a great thing to do). On the back of a smiley little fellow we saw a fake leather jacket that said in big letters:


-- Another type of item always plastered with English words are the school notebooks that are ubiquitous here. They are fairly standard: spiral bound, with plastic covers (the cover is key) decorated in a very "flashy", "cool" way. This usually means a photo collage, adorned with a few words in English that may or may not make sense. They are often very sentimental, like my friend Joachim's that says "You are My Lonely Rose", with a picture of a rose floating over some quaint-looking village scene. (I think they meant Lovely).

-- I just bought one that is decorated with an orange orb magically floating above a hand -- inside the orb is the @ symbol, and around it are flying a number of electron-type balls of light. It says:

is the language of this period

My friend Josh (taking this way too seriously) pointed out the theoretical implications of this one: According to this notebook, technology is not the language of the future, it's the language of this period only, one day to be replaced by some other language. I love it.

-- My most favorite notebook phrase is this: (Imagine the O to be the full size of the notebook and filled with sports photos)
Would you Have the Challenge?

And now for some other examples:

-- "Whatever", written in snazzy yellow letters on a pink shirt, worn by one very tough-looking tough-guy, babe on his arm, missing the essential cultural context that comes with that word.

-- "For Kids", written on the shirt of one of my middle-school-age Syrian pals. He showed it to me proudly, emphasizing that it was from America -- not realizing that a shirt that says "For Kids" would definitely be "not cool" for any middle-schooler.

-- You know that type of sassy shirt that is popular with some girls in the states? The shirts that say stuff like "Princess" or "Sexy" or "Stop Looking at my Chest"? Well, in the middle of the pre-`Eid shopping spree, I saw one of these shirts on a model in a store window -- I classify it as "one of these" because of its style and the way the text was printed. But this is what it said, straight out of the dictionary: "They Hold Me in High Regard"

-- Someone had managed to squeeze this entire sentence onto his car windshield: "Do Not Look At The Girl Sitting Next To Me Because She Is My Girlfriend". Wow.

-- Another favorite, spotted by Joachim, printed on the back of a sweatshirt some guy was wearing.

Do You Like This Move?
[Below that, a stylized picture of guy slam-dunking]
Your Girl Does.

Oh, what I would pay for a sweatshirt like this.

Well, I started out writing this post to merely share some funny things I like to laugh about, but I think there's more to be said. First of all, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to poke fun at people for not having mastered the English language, especially since you can find merchandise pasted with equally ridiculous slogans all over the states. What's funny are the instances of confusion and error.

More importantly, I think all this begs the big question: what makes Western culture (and especially American culture) seem so cool here? What makes my little middle-school friend show me his American shirt with pride, and what makes his friends assume that United Colors of Bennetton is an American company just because it's the height of style here? I don't know, but I do think the result is not as terrible as some people think. This is not because I am an advocate for spreading Western culture around the globe -- on the contrary, it seems to me that the parts of Western culture that are exported are usually the worst. The reason it's not so bad in my eyes (and rather interesting in fact) is that never do the adopted aspects of foreign culture ever wipe out what is here -- there is always some sort of mixing or adaptation.

One place to see this is in pizza. Besides a few restaurants that sell it the way Americans know it, most pizza here is essentially an entirely different food. They are little round bits of dough no wider than 6 inches in diameter, on which is usually just one ingredient: tomato, lamb, chicken, or other options -- each one costs about 10 cents, so you buy a whole pile if you want a meal. The cheese pizzas (no sauce, just cheese and spices) are shaped like boats to keep in the cheese -- so now the appearance and ingredients are totally distinct from the original imported form, yet it's still a "pizza".

More evidence is found in music. I have heard at least a few other expats here lamenting the state of Arabic Pop, saying that all it does is ape the Western styles. Now, at some level they're right: the huge amount of imitation (as opposed to innovation) going on in the music seems regrettable, and yet, when you listen to the radio here, you could never mistake one of the songs for a Western Pop song -- something distinctly Arabic remains, to a greater or lesser degree. (Except, of course, when they are playing Brian Adams or Celine Dion, whom I heard described by one expat wit as the "national singers of Syria.") Another thing to keep in mind is that incorporating from Western music is not something new to the music of this area -- in the seminar I took last year on Middle Eastern Music one of the "overarching themes" drilled into my head was the continual willingness of musicians here over history to borrow instruments and styles from other cultures.

I got a chance to think about all this when about a month ago I saw a Lebanese rap group in concert. The whole thing was somewhat laughable: in terms of their clothing and body language, the 4 members of the group seemed to be copying exactly from the look of American Hip-hop. Gold chains were all over the place; the tall guy had dreds; the short guy was wearing Fubu pants. I was especially disappointed with the beats they used, which were the most canned, formulaic, and uninteresting hip-hop beats you've ever heard. Although I didn't understand much more than the choruses of each song, I was also not impressed with the apparent quality of their lyrics. Nevertheless, I felt a glimmer of hope for these guys and for the genre of Arab Rap. No matter how the form and surface may be a carbon-copy of the imported genre, the words they were saying are all their own -- and that is the real substance. So maybe give all the Arab rappers a decade or two or three and I'm sure something will come of it that's more their own.

I think it's important to not ignore the aspects of culture that are borrowing from here and there, even when it makes that culture come closer to resembling whatever may disgust us of Western culture. Under the surface, beyond the marketing and commercialism, I sense there's something new there, even if we can't quite yet understand it.


Blogger upyernoz said...

my favorite english words i saw in syria:

(1) "Cod bless our home"

(it was on a sign they were selling in a shop in the christian quarter of damascus, somewhere along straight street)

(2) in tartus there was an english language menu with the following offerings:

beer with cahol
beer without cahol

you know, items on the menu are supposed to be indefinite, so they dropped the "al"

(3) in palmyra there was a sign that said:

"Palmyra Restaurant and Buffet Touristy"

apparently they tried to make a nisba adjective out of the noun "tourist", but instead the english has a slightly different connotation

there's a whole web site that collects pictures of bad english from around the world called sometimes their stuff strikes me as funny, but sometimes it also seems a little cruel. i am sure i make some pretty pathetic mistakes when i try to speak arabic

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an awesome blog, I got to it through the "Syria comment blog", which is no less great than yours.
I hope you write more, I'm now a constant visitor to your blog. The way you present Syria, my country, is very balanced and artful.
Keep the good work and good luck in your stay.
I hope you enjoy the Syrian hospitality, tasty food, and all the incomprehensible parts of our culture:)

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richy made me laugh out loud in the brother saw a very old old little japanese lady in Tokyo wearing a shirt that in very bold letters read "BITCH"..hmm not that different from getting a suspect symbol tatooed on your arm. But honestly, sounds like you're having an amazing time, and I love reading your blog..and no it's not like stalking! Oh and by the way ugly..happy birthday!
annie xx

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this nice blog. You give a clear picture of my country, with negative and the positive. Keep up the good work.
I have a remark; you don’t consider every thing made of dough and topping pizza! What you call cheese pizza, are called cheese pies (fataer).

7:19 PM  
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