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From Aden to Trafalgar: Arabic leaves its mark on world's languages

The survival of Aden’s Indo-Yemeni community reflects the historic strength of bonds shared between Arabic and Hindi culture
A Muslim walks past Arabic characters at the Jama Masjid mosque in Ahmedabad, in India's western state of Gujarat (AFP)

CRATER, Yemen - In Reema Anwer Noor’s house in Crater, a district of Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, her elderly mother is still mourning the loss of her father, who died last year during fighting in the country’s ongoing conflict.

Noor’s father was killed last October as brutal fighting gripped the city and death and disease began to spread like wildfire. While an invasion by Houthi rebels on Aden was pushed back, the smell of war lingers in its streets and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group are trying to expand their influence.

Historic buildings lie in ruins, rubbish is piled in corridors and orphaned children walk in a daze past destroyed homes.

But amid the chaos and brutality, Noor’s mother - a member of Aden’s Indo-Yemeni community – finds rare solace when talking about her Hindi heritage and how she adapted to life in Aden.

“Of course, if you know Hindi, Arabic is not too difficult,” Noor’s 70-something mother, who did not want her name to be used, said.

When Noor’s mother married her father in Aden 40 years ago, she knew no Arabic whatsoever.

“Of course, there are grammatical differences, and the languages use different alphabets, but Hindi and Arabic vocabulary are quite similar,” she adds.

A historical mingling of words and cultures

The close historical links between Arabic and Hindi are evident in the similarity of many words used to describe objects and time.

It was widely believed that the Indo-Yemeni communities in Aden are a legacy of the British administration, which ruled the city from 1839 to 1967.

More than 2,000 Indian soldiers were stationed in Aden, along with engineers, office administrators and civil servants. Underlining the Indian influence on the city’s history, M Visvesvaraya, an award-winning Indian engineer, was sent there by the British in 1906 to design the drinking water and underground drainage works.

But the Arabic influence on Hindi goes back much further than this.

Prior to the British Empire, Yemen and India shared an inextricable cultural and historic relationship going back to the 1st century when, what is now, India began trading with the Roman Empire.

Then, Yemen’s traders worked ships that disembarked from India and would sail to Egypt and beyond.  

According to Francesca Orsini of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the relationship blossomed further in the 7th century as trade began to grow. The mid-7th century to the mid-13th century is hailed as a golden age of Islamic civilisation which saw Arab rulers establish one of the largest empires in history.

However, the similarities between Hindi and Arabic are also due to the spread of Persian, which also has many similar words to Arabic.

The Parsis, as Persians in India are known, began to flee from Greater Iran to northern India in the 8th and 10th centuries to escape persecution after the Muslim conquest of Persia.

By the 11th century, some scholars suggest that it was seen as distasteful to write Persian without a mixture of Arabic and by the 12th century Persian become the court language of the Delhi and other North Indian sultans.

It then slowly started to filter down through the Indian subcontinent becoming the main language of the Indian courts and nobility until the British conquest of India in 1858.

Although long in decline, the strong presence of Parsi culture in South Mumbai is seen in the thriving businesses dotted across the city, many of which have been there since the 19th century.

Sassanian Boulangerie, a 100-year-old Iranian cafe in Mumbai's Marine Lines waterfront area is steeped in vintage signboards, chandeliers and wooden chairs, and remains a popular stop for Iranian delicacies.

“The Mughals continued and expanded the use of Persian, which has a large Arabic vocabulary, into the lower and local levels of the administration. This is why, even now, the legal and tax vocabulary in north India is still largely Arabic,” said Orsini.

“Nine centuries of language contact is a very long time. We can see that Persian was the carrier of Arabic words because of the pronunciation of Arabic letters, which follows Persian use.”

Budding Hindu community

Today, Arabic is the main language in Yemen, but there are also at least 250,000 Hindi speakers in the country.

Noor says verbal conventions and family bonds have had an unlikely ally in keeping the Hindi culture alive among the Indo-Yemeni youth: Bollywood films.

This becomes clear on a visit to Sanaa’s Old City, a historic part of the capital where six-year-old Mallika Ahmed lives.

Mallika loves dancing to the hit Bollywood song Dhoom Machale (Go Crazy).

She does not understand most of the lyrics, but her emotions and expressions accurately reflect the song’s mood.

Her mother, Maysa Ahmed, an Indo-Yemeni housewife from Aden, is stunned by her daughter’s aptitude for learning Hindi, and quips about finding her work in Bollywood. But many believe that Bollywood’s ability to appeal to Yemenis and other Arab-speakers is due to the fact that many song lyrics are filled with words of Arabic origin like “masha’ Allah” (expressing wonder and praise), “intezar” (waiting) and “habibti”(my love).

Parasi Faramarzi is originally from Iran but married in Mumbai in early 2000. While Farsi is her mother tongue, she has been learning Hindi and says she is pleasantly surprised by the similarities.

“I have not formally studied the Hindi language, but I enjoyed Hindi movies in Iran,” she said.

Her husband, Zubin Faramarzi, who owns restaurants in Mumbai, says that his father and grandfather moved to India for better prospects and still have quite a few relatives who live in Iran.

The pair is keen that their kids learn both Hindi and Persian so they can keep in touch with relatives.

Yet for all the similarities, key differences remain. While Persian belongs to the Indo-European family, Arabic is Semitic. In terms of script, Arabic and Persian are similar, but Hindi follows the Devanagari script and belongs to the Indo-European and Indo-Aryan family.

Orsini says that these visual disparities can make differences seem more extreme than they really are.

“We should not think of languages as intrinsically linked to scripts,” she said. “Scripts are linked to education and profession, and the same language is often written in more than one script. Think of Turkish or Vietnamese in modern times.”

Arabic's influence in Europe

Arabic has also influenced Latin languages that have a totally different script.

As Arabic was becoming dominant in the East, it was also spreading westwards through the invading Berbers and the Umayyad Caliphate, which occupied the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily in the 8th and 9thcenturies, ruling there for generations.

During this time, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Sicilian culture, literature and language were all significantly influenced by the arrival of the Muslim forces.

In 712, the city of Cordoba became the capital of the Muslim territory in Spain while the language spoken in Sicily became known as Siculo-Arabic.

Abdelkader Boutaleb, a linguist and Arabic professor at the University of Glasgow explains that the Arabic culture brought by the newcomers became so widespread that by the mid-9th century, native Christians adopted Arabic language and customs.

Paulo Alvaro of Cordoba, a Christian scholar, writing to fellow ecclesiastics while living under Muslim rule in 850 AD, vocally complained that Arabic language and religion were spreading quickly and that local Christian youth had begun adopting Arabic dress and language while falling behind in their Biblical studies.

“My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Muslim theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on the Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas!“

Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian scholars sometimes ventured to far-flung corners of the East to study the advanced learning available in the madrasas, also known as Islamic schools.

These institutions were cauldrons of ideas from the Persian, Greek, Turkish, Indian, Chinese and other influences, and were dedicated to teaching multiple disciplines including sciences, theology, religion, geography, archaeology and art.

Lost Arabic origins

The Arabic influence remains visible to this day and some of the places named after Berber and Arab conquerors include Tarifa, Gibraltar and Granada.

The name Tarifa is derived from the name of the Berber warrior, Tarif ibn Malik. Similarly, Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, is the Spanish derivation of the original Arabic name Jabal Ṭariq, meaning Mountain of Tariq. Granada, conquered in the same era, was named Garnata al-yahud or Granada of the Jews.

Even the name Trafalgar has its origins in tarf al-gharb, meaning cape of the west.

These examples highlight how local post-Latin dialects rapidly absorbed loan words of Arabic origin. It is estimated that there are over 4,000 Arabic loan words in the Spanish language.

The majority of words that begin with the article al - such as algebra and alchemy - denote an Arabic origin. Nor is the influence of Arabic restricted to Mediterranean languages as it can also be seen in contemporary English.

“I think that most Arabic loan words came to English through French and Spanish, rather than English being directly influenced from Arabic,“ said Boutaleb.

Examples include: giraffe, gazelle, coffee, sugar, divan, magazine, arsenal, calibre, cipher, logarithm, alcohol, alcove, admiral, sorbet, mafia, amber, muslin and many more.

Over the centuries, these connections have been lost and forgotten. As the Islamic empire began to decline, Christian rulers started to crack down on Moriscos, as Spanish Muslims who had converted to Christianity were known.

Under the rule of Spain’s King Philip II in 1567, Moriscos were forced to give up their Arabic names and speaking Arabic was banned. The restrictions placed on Muslims prompted a series of uprisings that in turn sparked further repression. Arabic manuscripts and books were burnt and in the end many Moriscos were exiled.

But back in Aden, Noor’s mother says that thinking of the links between her native and adopted tongue gives her comfort even in the most difficult of times. She hopes future generations will discover the linguistic similarities just like she has.