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An Imaginary Journey Back to Spain's Arab History

posted on: Jun 15, 2016

An Imaginary Journey Back to Spain's Arab History

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer

To fully realize the extensive influence of Arabic on the Spanish language and culture let us relate an imaginary journey made to Andalusia, the name itself a pure symbol of this impact. The Arabic name for this part of the Iberian Peninsula is al-Andalus – a corruption of ‘the Vandals’, a Germanic tribe, who, before the Arab conquest, had occupied the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa.

Spain was the door through which the Arabic language and culture entered Europe. To give emphasis to this important event in history, let us take this imaginary journey.

Spanish words that I have used in this tale are both current and obsolete Spanish words of Arabic origin.

An Imaginary Journey

After our plane landed in an Andalusian city, we bade adieu to our azafata (airhostess, from the Arabic (al-saffat – the tray). When we shook her hand we noted how her beauty, was enhanced by a gold alfiler (broach – khilal) and a necklace of aljófares (pearls – al-jawhar). As we walked away she smiled saying: “Hasta la vista!” (“Until we meet again!” from the Arabic hatta – ‘until’ and the Spanish la vista). We answered: “Ojalá!” (If God wills! – insha’ Allah!), then hurried away.

In a few moments we were at the aduana (customs – al-diwan). Noting we were tourists, the aduanero (customs officer) asked us if we needed a turjimán (interpreter – turjuman), but being familiar with Spanish, we declined. Quickly we passed through customs, then rented an auto and departed for the home of our host.

We passed through colourful zocos (markets – suq) where we noticed alfareros (potters – al-fakhkhar) plying their trade. Our route took us by the alcaldía (mayor’s office) in front of which we saw the alcalde (mayor – al-qadi), his alguacil (constable – al-wazir), an albacea (executor of a will – al-wasiyah) and a magistrate formerly known as the zalmedina (lord of the city – sahib al-madinah) going for a stroll. Continuing onward, we passed by offices of an alarife (architect – al-carif), an albéitare (veterinarian – al-baytar), an alcaiceria (formerly the name of a silk market – al-qaysariyah), an hóndiga (grain exchange – al-funduq), an almacene (department store – al-makhazin), and a fonda (inn – funduqah) before entering a barrio (suburb – barri). We soon lost our way and stopped at an almoneda (auction sale – al-munadin) to ask directions.

Entering the front office, we saw an alamín (clerk who checks weights – al-amin) hanging a tarifa (price list – tacrifah) on the wall. Standing beside him was an almojarife (tax collector – al-mushrif ) talking to an almotacén (market inspector – al-muhtasib) and the chief inspector of weights and measures, formerly known as zabazoque (lord of the market – sahib al-suq) who ensures that no one is a zarracatin (profiteer – saqit). We asked for directions and the inspector informed us that our friends lived in a wealthy arrabal (suburb – al-rabad). However, before we parted he gave us a short history of auction sales in Andalusia in which he informed us that, in the past, the weights and measures used were: almud (al-mudd), arrelde (al-ratl), arroba (al-rubcah), azumbres (al-thumn), cantara (qantarah), celemi (thumni), fanega (faniqah) and quintal (qintar)all terms derived from Arabic.

Before returning to our auto, we strolled in the surrounding streets filled with outdoor cafés (cafe – qahwah). As we passed, patrons would invite us to join them with “Venga Usted a comer!” (Come, join us!), a habit they have kept from the Arabs. In the same fashion throughout the Arab world cafe patrons will invite passers-by with tafaddalu! (Welcome! or Join us!).

A few minutes’ drive brought us to the Moorish-type home of our host, a residence with an enclosed garden-courtyard with a fountain – a style inherited from the Arabs and found in all the Spanish-speaking countries. Noting the home had no number, I asked a fulano (chap – fulan) passing by, who appeared to be trafalmejas (empty headed – atraf al-nas), if the house was our host’s home. He smiled and nodded his head.

After striking the aldaba (door knocker – al-dabbah), our host appeared and greeted us saying: “Enter! We are delighted to see you, esta es su casa (this is your house) – a translation of the Arabic phrase hadha baytukum.

We entered through into the courtyard with its alberca (artificial pool – al-birkah) surrounded by azucenas (white lilies – al-susan) which covered some atanores (pipe – al-tannur). Nearby was an antique almarraja (sprinkling bottle for watering plants – al-mirashshah) and a redoma (flask – rudumah). The courtyard with its alfeizar (flared opening – al-fashah) and ajimez (arched – al-shams) windows, colourful azulejo (tile – al-zulayj) walls and fine baldosa (paving tile – balat) floor, charmed us. As we walked around surveying the scene, we noted that part of the house was made of adobe (sun-dried mud brick – al-tub) and an albaňil (mason – al-banna’) was on the azotea (roof – al-sutayhah) repairing the chimney.

In the attractive setting of the courtyard, we were greeted by the whole family before our host took us for a tour of his home. We walked through halls and rooms filled with rich alcatifas (tapestries – al-qatifah) and arambeles (wall hangings – al-hanbal) and floors covered with colourful alfombras (carpets – al-khamrah). As we moved to the upper stories, we observed attractive alcobas (alcoves – al-qubbah) covered with an aňil (violet-blue – al-nil) jaharro (plaster – hawarh). In the zaquizami (attic – saqf shami) our host proudly pointed out to us an alacena (cupboard – al-khazanah) in which there was an alcancia (money-box – al-kanziyah) containing old coins of maravidí (pertaining to Almoravid Dynasty – murabi) and meticales (an old Arab currency – mithqal).

Back in the sitting room with its taracea (to inlay – taraza) chairs and tabiques (thin walls – tashbib), we rested our weary bodies on sofas (low couches – al-suffah) strewn with almohades (cushions – al-mikhaddah). An anafre (a small stove – al-furn) took the chill out of the air while our host served us almíbar (a quince drink – al-maybah) accompanied by dishes of sweets containing arrope (boiled down fruit juice – al-rubb). We savoured these appetizers for an hour as we waited in anticipation for the coming meal.

The entrée was a tasty alboronía (al-buraniyah) a berenjena (eggplant) vegetable stew with side dishes of succulent vegetables cooked in aceite (oil – al-zayt), which was stored in alcuzas (olive oil cans – al-kuzah). Following the main course, our hostess brought out alajú (a honey sweet – al-hashu) and almojábana (cheese cake – al-mujabbanah) accompanied by tazas (cups – tasah) of café sweetened with azúcar (sugar – al-sukkar). After everyone was sated, fresh zafaris (sweet figs – safari) with a jarra (earthen jar – jarrah) of iced water were offered as a final touch. Truly our hostess had taken her tarea (task – tarihah) seriously.

When we had finished, the ama (mistress of the house – umm) arose, picked up a piece of bread which had fallen on the floor and in the Arab fashion said:“Es pan de Dios” (God’s bread – caysh Allah) before taking the women to show them her alcoba (bedroom – al-qubbah). As they entered, the guests noted that the room was full of objects and had a strong smell of algalia (civit oil – al-ghaliyah) and almizcle (musk – al-misk). On a table, near the jofaina (washbasin – jufaynah), were some ataujiadas (damascene – al-tawshiyah) brooches, an ajorca (anklet – al-sharkah) along with numerous other alhajas (jewels – al-hajah), and an albanega (hair net – al-baniqah).

The bedspread was made from fustal (coarse cloth – Fustat [the old name for Cairo]) material and the bed’s headboard was covered with guadamecil (embossed leather – Ghadamasi [from the city of Ghadamas, Libya]). Edging the bed, hanging on the walls and in the nearby closet, were all types of clothing, which included: an albornoz (bathing robe – al-burnus), an almalafa (woman’s robe – al-malhafah) made from aducar (coarse cloth – al-dukar), an azul (blue – al­-lazaward), an almejía (short coat – al-mahshiyah), some camisas (shirts – qamis) made from algod6n (cotton – al-qutn), a chupa (dress) and a jubón (men’s jacket) – both deriving from the Arabic jubbah, a marlota (outer skirt – mullatah or mallutah) made from aceituni (al-zaytunah) velvet fabric and a number of zaragüelles (breeches – sirwil).

On the floor of the closet was a pair of alcorques (overshoes – al-qurq), a carmesi (crimson – qirmizi) almofrej (travelling bag for bedding – al­mafrash), babuchas (slippers – babuj) and alpargatas (hemp sandals – al-barghat).

Impressed with the many ancient types of clothing, the women were upbeat when they returned to join us. After we chatted for a few minutes, our host informed us that he had prepared a traditional Andalusian zahora (party – sahrah) for our pleasure. In a few moments the musicians were playing their aldufe (tambourine – al-duff), añafil (trumpet – al-nafir), laúd (lute – al-‘ud), quitarra (guitar – qitarah), and tambor (drum – tanbur). As the evening progressed we took an azar (chance – al-zahr) and drank the homemade alquermes (alcoholic drinks – al-qirmiz).

Into this atmosphere of music and drink a flamenco troop (fallah manjah – derived from the Arabic “saved farmer”), entertained us with their dances and cante jondo – a type of singing of Arab origin. Soon we were shouting olé! (bravo! – wa-Allah!) as the dancers increased their speed before the finale. It was indeed a zahora to remember.

The next morning our host took us in his van for an outing through the countryside.   Leaving the city, we crossed fields of alcandia (sorghum – al-qatniyah), alcaucí (wild artichokes – al-qabsil) and alfalfa (alfalfal – al-fasfasah). Driving through these fields along a river we passed an aceňa (watermill – al-saniyah), acequias (irrigation ditches – al-saqiyah), alcantarillas (small bridges – al-qantarah), an aljibe (cistern – al-jubb), an almazara (oil mill – al-macsarah), almenara (channels for surplus water – al-manhar), an atarjea (small drain – tarhiyah), an azud (waterwheel: al-sudd), norias (irrigation wheels – al-na’urah) with their ancient arcaduzes (buckets – al-qadus).

Turning at a zubia (small channel – shucbah), we left the river road; then crossed an almunia (farm – al-munyah) full of azahares (orange and lemon blossoms – al-zahr); then stopped to talk to an arriero (muleteer – harr [an expression used by the Arabs to urge camels onward, leading a mule] which was carrying atramuz (lupine beans – al-turmus) in its alforias (saddle bags – al-khurj).

Not far from the field of azahares we passed an aduar (gypsy camp – adwar), then interrupted our journey to stop at an alquería (farmhouse – al-­qaryah) to visit a rabadan (head shepherd – rabb al-dacn). He greeted us with warmness – in the same fashion as his Arab ancestors. As we talked I could hear in the nearby josa (unfenced garden – hushshah) zorzales (starlings – zurzur) singing while in the distance we glimpsed his zagales (young shepherds – zughlul) attending their rehala (flocks of sheep of different owners – rahalah). Seemingly enhancing the chirping of the birds, we could hear the mournful tunes of the abogues (flutes –al-buq) being played by the zagales.

Our host, holding an argolla (iron ring for sheep – al-ghull) in one hand and alicates (pliers: al-laqqat) in the other, apparently wanted to begin work. However, still retaining the hospitality of the Arabs, he took us into his home and offered us, from a zaque (wineskin – zaqq) an alcoholic (al-kuhl) drink which he had distilled in his alambique (alembic – al-­inbiq) and alqitara (still – al-qattarah). We declined his kind offer and bade him adieu. Undaunted, he urged us to stay, repeating a half dozen times “Ya sabe que ha tomado posesión de su casa” (Please know that you have taken possession of this home – al-­bayt baytak – a pure Arab saying).

After leaving the rabadan’s home, we passed through a landscape saturated with álcalí (alkali – al-qili); then drove by a ruined Arab alcázar (castle – al-qasr) before we reached a shining white aldea (village – al-daycah). As we made our way through its narrow streets, we noted that there were many jayáns (husky persons – hayyan) who seemed to be gandul (loafing – ghandur). Near an arsenal (dar al-sinacah) at the end of town, we turned on an arrecife (stone paved road – al-rasif) through a field of daza (panic grass – duqsah) to begin on our return journey.

On the way back, we discussed with our host the Arabic contributions to the Spanish language. We talked about many of these loanwords but lingered when we came to álgebra (algebra – al-jabr), almanaque (calendar – al-manakh), alquimia (alchemy – al-kimiya’), cifra (zero – sifr), elixir (elixir – al-iksir), guarismo (numeral – Khuwarizmi) and ojiva (pointed arch – al-cawj) all Arabic words, which came into Spanish and, in one form or another, entered various other European tongues.

We were so absorbed with our conversation that we did not notice it had become dark.   Soon the stars aldebarán (al-dabbaran), algabar (al-jabbar), algol (al-ghul), betelgeuse (bayt al-jawza’) and mizar (mi’zar) shone brightly. Driving in the cool evening under these and innumerable other stars carrying Arabic names, we discussed the words auge (apogee – cawj), cenit or acimut (zenith – al-samt) and nadir (nadir – nazir) – terms relating to the heavens, and all derived from Arabic

The miles slipped by quickly. In no time we were resting in our host’s home and were being served wine from a garrafa (carafe – gharafah). It was a restful interlude before our host took us to a Spanish movie. We were all excited for the film we were to see related to one of the many Moorish-Spanish wars.

After a short walk we entered the cinema, built in mudéjar (Spanish Muslims living under Christian rule – mudajjan) style. Soon, we were watching the Moors in their alcazaha (fortress: al-qasabah). The alcaide (commander – al­-qa’id) was waiting to alarde (display – al-card) his soldiers who were fully armed with adargas (leather shields – al-daraqah), alfanjes (scimitars – al-khanjar) and azagayas (light spears – al-zaghayah). His alférez (lieutenant – al-faris) in the atalaya (watchtower – altalicah) had informed him that the Spanish navy with its many zabras (frigates – zawraq) and led by a well-known almirante (admiral – al-amir) was preparing a rebato (unexpected attack – ribat) to conquer their city.

The alcaide planned his strategy well. He appointed an adalid (leader – al-dalil) to pick a company of the best soldiers and conceal them in the surrounding mountains to await the Spanish attack. When he had deployed his men, he was to assemble a few almogávares (raiders – al-mughawir) from the Mozarabes (Christians living under Muslim rule – mustacrab) who formed the zaga (rear – saqah) of his force. He would then have them advance toward the enemy, creating an algarada (uproar – al-gharah) before they retreated back into the castle. When the Spaniards surrounded the castle with their algaras (raiding cavalry – al-gharah) and foot soldiers, the adalid’s force was to attack them from the rear while the castle defenders, hidden in adarves (paths behind the parapets – al-darb) would rain down arrows. All went according to plan and the Moors won the day. The film ended with a messenger standing in front of the califa (caliph: khalifah) in Cordoba proudly announcing: Albricias! (Good news!- al-bisharah).

The following morning before we bade our host farewell, we visited his sick sister in a nearby hospital. To reach her room we had to pass alferecía (epilepsy – al-falijiyah) and zaratán (breast cancer – saratan) wards. As we went by, our host greeted many of the sick with the translated Arabic phrase Dios le ayude (May God help you – Allah yactik). Many replied with: Vaya por Dios (It’s God’s Will – Hadha iradat Allah). When we reached his sister’s room we found that she was ready to leave. Her doctor had found she had only a zaqueca (headache – shaqiqah).

As we parted in front of the hospital our generous host asked us to visit him again. We all replied: Si Dios quiere! (If God wills! – a translation of Insha’ Allah!). With this Spanish saying of Arabic origin we ended our imaginary journey to Andalusia.

The vocabulary used in our journey of fantasy gives one an idea of the immense contribution made by the Arabs to the Spanish language and culture. It is a sample of how Spanish life is saturated with the legacy of the Arab/Muslim civilization in the Iberian Peninsula.

Besides those in our story, there are hundreds of other Arabic words, which have enriched the idiom of that former Arab land. Although some of these words are to some extent obsolete and have various modern synonyms, others have become entrenched in the language and are irreplaceable.

The long lexicon of words Arabic has contributed to Spanish includes, in addition to nouns, adjectives such as: baldio (untilled – batuli), garrido (elegant – ghari), horro (free –  hurr), jarifo (showy – sharif), mezquino (wretched – miskin), rahez (low or vile – rakhis) and zahareňo (wild – sahra’). Also, verbs such as: acicalar (to adorn – al-siqal), aleve (perfidious – al-cayb), halagar (flatter – jalaqa) and recamar (embroider – raqama).

Further, Spanish has numerous non-Arabic words that carry an Arabic meaning. Terms such as aceros which means both energy and strength, is a translation of the Arabic hiddah (sharpness and force), poridad which means both purity and friendship, from khalasa (to be pure), and vergüenza which means both shame and honour has the same meaning as the Arabic car.

These and other Arabisms indicate how the translated meaning of Arabic words have become an integral part of the Spanish language. However, they form only a small portion of the Arab inheritance. The Arabic words, themselves, in Spanish are the true measure of the Arabic contribution.


Note: This imaginary journey will appear in my forthcoming lexicon that has taken just over 15 years to complete entitled Arabic Contributions to the Spanish Language. The work is near completion and is a joint-effort between myself and my daughter Muna.