All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Small Victories

Due to my line of research I spend a lot of time listening to Arabic love songs.  I really enjoy this aspect of my work but truth be told I only understand about 30-50% of the songs, usually.  Fortunately it didn’t take me long to realise that love songs in all languages are basically the same, they come in four themes: 

1) I love you (him, her) so much it’s making me crazy, but you love me too so it’s okay

2) I love you (him, her) so much it’s making me crazy, and you (he, she) don’t (doesn’t) love me, which is making me crazier

3) I love you (him, her) so much  it’s making me crazy and you love me too but something else is keeping us apart (family intervention, death, the Punic wars) and this is really making me crazy

4) I used to love you (him, her) so much that it made me crazy, but then you (he, she) betrayed me, and now I’m beyond crazy.  

I hasten to point out that there are also Arabic songs that are not about love – there are songs about food and rivers and cities and horses and all kinds of things.  But mostly, dancing songs are about love.

Basically I can pick out a few key words in an Arabic love song and tell you what it’s probably about: so-and-so sees so-and-so in a doorway, they are overcome by romance; so-and-so works from morning to evening and is so happy to finish and see his beloved; so-and-so knows (or understands) the nighttime and this somehow leads to the haya gameela (beautiful life); somebody will wait for somebody (or they say they will, anyway.) 

The other day I was listening to a song I’ve had for a while called Ana fil Gharam (I’m in Love).    This one is pretty self-explanatory, but as I was listening this time, I was able to make out a couple words that had previously eluded me:

ya ma fil gharam,

we l’Aish we al-laban

Basically this means, “Being in love is my bread and my milk.”  Though she could also be saying lubna, cheese.  Or I could just be entirely making up what I want to hear.  (Note to Arabic scholars: yes, I’m aware it doesn’t specifically say “it’s MY bread and MY milk, but that fits the meter of the song.  You want a literal translation, go get A. J. Arberry.)

This is the first time I’ve been able to distinguish those two little words – ‘aish and laban – from the whole song, even though I’ve listened to it probably twenty or thirty times.  I’ve known those two words since I first started studying Arabic almost eight years ago (not that I’ve been studying consistently since then.)  Still, it was a major revelation to be able to really hear them and understand the song a little more.  Only two little words, but I felt like I’d glimpsed the gleam on an apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

On a side note, there’s a more commonly used word for “love” in
Arabic (hub; habibi/habibti means “beloved one”), so I’m not sure of the distinction between that and the phrase gharam.  But I’ve lost my Arabic-English dictionary, and when I tried
Google translate it told me that this word means “to fine” or “to
forfeit”.  I guess that kind of makes sense.

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