Friday, April 11, 2008

God vs. Allah: Using Language to Divide

Once, in my first year out of University, I had the chance to transfer to Hartford, CT with my company for six months. I jumped at the chance seeing as I've always loved travelling, any kind of travelling, even to Hartford in this case (at least I got to see plenty of nearby NYC and Boston....)

I also got my first chance to see real life Americans, in their natural habitat (as opposed to on TV) for the first time (I'd vacationed in Cape Cod for a few days once, which I'm not going to count since the only Americans I talked to were the store clerks).

It's an experience I'll forever be grateful for because the one thing that regrettably gets lost through all the media images of Americans and American culture the world is bombarded with every second of every day, is the genuine niceness and curiosity of the American people. The problem is that there is such a discrepancy between how much of the world they get to see in return, and the little they do see is distorted through media filters. Add to this the phenomenon of American credulity - that unshakable faith that what they are being spoon-fed through TV and politics and Hollywood movies is the truth - as opposed to the natural cynicism of the rest of the world, and you have the conditions for some really bizarre conversations.

Like say this one, with a fellow University student (I took a Spanish class at U of H while working in Hartford).

I can't remember what I was so adamant about, but I was adamant enough to say this to him at one point: "I swear to God, blah, blah, blah..."

At which point he interrupted me with "Wait a minute - you can't say that, you don't believe in God, you believe in Allah."

I think I just stared at him in disbelief for a few seconds, and then tried to explain that "Allah" was simply the Arabic word for "god" and that he believed in Allah too, and that all Arabic speaking people speak of "Allah" whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish (I won't comment on Buddhists or Hindus because I believe the Arabic word for polytheistic religions is different, but I honestly can't remember what it is right now - sorry). I’m not sure I convinced him.

I was reminded of this in a great article in The Los Angeles Times about the mutation of language, how new words are incorporated into language (especially English, as it’s always been receptive to foreign vocabulary), and how words can shed their meaning and acquire a new one, like one acquires a new coat, when they switch over to the other side.

But, the article says, one word that should not mutate is Allah, as people are accepting it means something different from the happy-go-lucky, forgiving God of the Bible. As if Allah were the Muslim version of Zeus, or Shiva or Thor.

He’s not. God is god. “Allah means” God, just like “r'abb" means “lord” and “sukkar” means “sugar”. That’s the honest to God truth. Or the honest to allah truth, if you prefer.

1 comment:

Marilyn Brant said...

Great post and fascinating article, Nadine--thanks for the link!

Aside from divisive words, especially when it comes to Arabic, I couldn't help but be reminded of words that are all but impossible to translate (like "nye-ee-mon"--when someone gets a haircut or takes a shower :). Never figured out how to explain that one without a paragraph of description and lots of gesturing...