Arabic for beginners

At Odessa Airport, a multilingual greeting welcomes the traveler: Peace with you. In most of the languages featuring here, this greeting is not colloquial, so probably this is the same situation as in the previous post: that in Odessa, “foreigner” means “Israeli”, and their שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם shālôm ʻalêḵem is translated into the other languages.

In most languages this is fine, at least on the level of raw translation. Except for Arabic. Here, the eye accustomed to Arabic writing sees a startling mishmash instead of the correct السلام عليكم as-salāmu ʻalaikum. If you start to spell it, you will soon find out what happened: someone typed the letters of the greeting one by one, and they did not join together in the usual cursive writing. Each letter displays the “stand-alone” form from the four possible (initial, medial, final, stand-alone). And what is even worse: it all is from left to right.

It is likely that someone typed the greeting in an Arabic word processor, and the file was then read in Odessa in a graphic editor of European language, which isolated the letters, and turned the text from left to right. That no one ever bothered to check it, is the shame of the airport.

And it’s a great luck that the greeting was translated from Hebrew and not Yiddish, because in this case it would have rendered Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich in all languages :) Imagine this in Arabic, left to right, with isolated letters…

In another city of Ukraine, in Lemberg, the large café on Ruska Street has the word “coffee” written in a different language above each window. The Yiddish version – קאַווע kāve – was written with the same mistake: not only was it written in reverse, but the patah, the small line under alef, indicating the vowel “a”, was typed as a separate letter. Probably due to a similar word processor incompatibility error. By now, someone has alerted them, so the word figures now right-to-left and with the patah under alef, but the sunlit traces of the old mistake are well visible on the frame of the window.

The actuality of the problem is illustrated by a very current cartoon. Here, Erdoğan, dressed in ISIS uniform, who has marched into northern Syria to commit genocide, is about to cut the throat of a female figure symbolizing the Kurdish people, whose face is borrowed from the Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, executed two days ago by the pro-Turkish militia. Meanwhile, Putin is washing his hands, Trump turns away, and the EU puts its head in the sand. The smallest problem with this constellation is that the name of the region represented by the Kurdish figure is written on her chest in the same mistaken way, with isolated letters, and moreover incorrectly, as Kudristan, instead of the correct form, which is


Postscript. As the Lumen blog pointed out, Erdoğan has personally requested the deletion of this post at Google, apparently due to the above cartoon. That’s all he got from it. Google did not comply with the request – and we live in times where I could not add “of course” in this sentence. So I have to be grateful to both Google for their exceptional courage and Erdoğan for the unsolicited publicity. It is amazing how much nothing escapes the dictators’ attention. Of course, in Turkey this is a tradition.

And, while we are at the Turks, let me enrich the collection of fucked-up Arabic inscriptions with this one, which I harvested from the side of an Istanbul kiosk (köşk). It is amazing that it has not yet leapt to the eye of any Turk, who should, in principle, read the Qurʿan in Arabic.

Bath Number Four

Kazimir Malevich: In the bath, 1911-1912

The Повѣсть времѧньныхъ лѣтъ, “Chronicle of Bygone Times”, composed in Kiev in 1113, in which its author, the monk Nestor, summarizes the history of the Eastern Slavs from the Tower of Babel to his own time, states that the apostle Andrew, during his missionary journeys, also visited the Eastern Slavs, from the later Kiev to the later Novgorod. Here he saw, among many other miracles, that pecular institution of the Slavs, the bath.

“Wondrous to relate, what I saw in the land of the Slavs. … I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.”

The art of Slavic self-torture has not changed much since Saint Andrew, or at least Nestor. In the hot chamber of the bath, water is poured on the heated stones, and in the intense steam they lash themselves with veniks, thin branches cut from birch, oak, or, more recently, eucalyptus tree, to stimulate blood circulation. When they sweat well, they bathe in cold water – in a lake, river or in the cold chamber of the bath – or roll in the snow. Then they take a break until the next sweat-lashing, spent over tea, beer, conversation or chess. The traditional bath is one of the most important scenes of Russian social life.

Boris Kustodiev: Russian Venus, 1925

Zinaida Serebriakova: Bath, 1913

Tamara De Lempicka: Women in the bath, 1929

However, the palaces for this traditional art have largely disappeared during the past century. On the one hand, the Soviet system tried to restrict these centers of uncontrolled social life, and on the other, they were replaced by the bathrooms that had appeared in most apartments. In Odessa, where at the turn of the 20th century there were more than 400 community baths, now there is but one traditional bath still active, and since 1861: Bath Number Four at the edge of Moldavanka, at 6 Astashkin Street.

At the end of a courtyard overgrown with grapes, beneath the stairs leading up to the bath, young men are standing and chatting. “Shalom”, they greet us: apparently, foreigners here automatically means a former compatriot coming back from Israel. We reply in Russian, and social life immediately starts. They draw our attention to the black marble plaque on the courtyard wall. This commemorates “Karabas”, the local mafia boss shot in 1997 here, “on the stairs, as he was coming down from the bath”, they point out. “He was like Mishka Yaponchik”, they say with reverence, although they were not personally directed by him, they only heard of him from their older colleagues. Mishka Yaponchik, the Jewish gangster boss of the early 20th century, who was the model for Isaak Babel’s Benya Krik, the “King” of Moldavanka, in his Odessa Tales, lives so fresh in the memory of the posterity of Moldavanka, to an extent that we, readers of Odessa Tales, would never think.

“On 21 April 1997, here was treacherously killed Viktor Pavlovich Kulivar. Your memory remains bright in eternity, Karabas. From your friends and associates. – Consecrated to V. P. Kulivar, our neighbor in Old Slaughterhouse (Kuibishev) Street, on the memorial day of his death.”

The courtyard wall of the bath is made of glass brick to provide light inside, and the top row’s first glass brick has been knocked out, so you can see who’s out there. The botched equipment of the downstairs boiler room, by which the bath is heated, evokes the golden years of socialism. Pushed among the hot surfaces, oak branches are being dried. In the courtyard, an elderly man is tying the branches for the bath. “Jó napot”, good day, he greets us in Hungarian. After so many previous similar cases, I ask him straight: “Did you serve in Hungary?” “Yes.” “Where?” “In Tamási, between 1962 and 1964.” “What was it like?” He lifts his eyes in nostalgic reverie to the vine tendrils covering the courtyards. “Heaven.” I should interview the Soviet soldiers who served in our land, while they are still alive.

Scene from the bath. From Dmitry Khavin’s documentary “Quiet in Odessa”