Addressing Al

I was writing a rant recently about a member of the ruling al-Assad family of Syria – the wife I think,  Marie-Antoinette or whatever her name is – the blind, dumb, deaf simian posing as a dictators wife but actually a morally-bereft product of the British privileged class. But I digress. Anyway, my fingers vacillated over the keyboard momentary as I typed her surname – they always do when I am typing an Arabic name. But this time I decided that I would make good on a former good intention to delve into Sumerian grammar and learn the correct usage of the word ‘al’ in order to prevent future interruptions to my train of thought as I strive to become a better blogger. I thought my findings worth sharing with anyone who notices the increasing occurrence of eastern matters in our western world and recognises the importance of protocol and polite communication with our fellow man.

In English grammar we have definite and indefinite articles but Arabic has only the definite ‘al’ in place of our ‘the’ – there is no corresponding indefinite article (their indefinite noun is indicated by declension). So the Arabic ‘al’ is a busy little character that appears all over the language performing different tasks in differing situations so I can forgive my brain for doing a double-take to decide whether I apply a lowercase or capital ‘a’ or hyphenise the word following.

In Arabic tagmemics ‘al’ is always a prefix of another word, its inclusion or omission decided by the context in which that other word is being used. Thus ‘al-walad’, the boy and ‘al-bent’, the girl is an easy concept to extrapolate but my confusion rested with people’s names.

If a person’s Arabic last name begins with ‘al’ it generally refers to the place their forebears are associated with – what in England would be the ‘family seat’.  My branch of the McGuire clan moved further south from their native Co. Fermanagh in 1601 (to participate in the Battle of Kinsale) but had the Moors invaded Ireland instead of the British, I would be Michael Al-Fermanagh today. With oil well and camel presumably. By further accident of history the world could have beheld an Osama McLaden. Therefore the wealthy businessman Mohamad Al-Fayed is so named because his surname is associated with the Egyptian city of Fayed near the southern end of the Suez Canal. In this case the ‘Al’ represents the definite article so he is ‘Mohamed the Fayad-ian’ or thereabouts. You get the idea.

In some cases ones job or skill can form a surname (akin to ‘Mr Carpenter’ in the western world). Barack al-Kharrāz is thereby a shoemaker. It can be carried further if you’re a megalomaniac: in the case of Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, he is ‘The Sword of the Arabs from Gaddafa’ – the ‘Gaddafa’ here representing a tribe because the Bedouin have no fixed place of origin.

As in English, there are subtle dialectical variations. For example in Iran an ‘i’ at the end of a surname does the job of the ‘al’ as stated above. The Ayatollah Khomeini is associated with the town of Khomein south-east of Teheran. My much esteemed fellow blogger Roxi St. Clair could actually be Roxi Clairi in another historical dimension, adding a rhyme scheme to the signature appended to her delightful poetry.

Critically (and fortunately for us) there is no blanket rule to cover the capitalisation of the ‘A’ in ‘al’ or its hyphenation (or lack thereof) with the noun that follows. When you read a newspaper that includes or omits either of these it is simply a ‘house style’ used for editorial conformity and as a convenience for their typographers.

Oral translations of languages are one thing and translations of the written word are a separate construction, but decoding in the case of two different alphabets is more a matter of invention than convention. All Arab appellations used in the west are expressed in Roman characters – which, if you think about it, is an oxymoron. So the people of the Arab world decide themselves how they want to spell their names for western use. And we as writers can do exactly the same. When the aforementioned Mohamad Al-Fayed needed to make his name legitimate on the contract he signed to buy Harrods he decided against a double ‘m’ in his prophetic forename and chose a capitalised ‘A’ to produce ‘Al’ before hyphenating his family seat. It would have been just as legal had he chosen a small ‘a’ or used no hyphen in his nomenclature – provided he used it consistently. Were you citing him in your writings you should imitate his chosen style but when you find yourself using Arabic names with vague or disparate precedents, there is no need to imitate what you read in The Times, a given book or a particular website – just adopt one style as your own but use it consistently.

As you move westerly along the Maghreb the ‘al’ changes to ‘el’ and means exactly the same thing. Further along you come to Spain where the ‘el’ blends into the Spanish language itself, a leftover from the Moors following their medieval occupation of much of the Iberian Peninsula. Such fusion is part of all living languages. The English word ‘alchemy’ for example is adopted from Arabic via a typically circuitous route: imitative of the French alchimie taken from the Latin alkimia brought from the Greek khemeioa that derived from the original Arabian al-kimiya (the chemical).

You have probably noticed Muammar Gaddafi’s name or the term ‘al-Queda’ spelt in at least 3 different ways. This is not a fiendish terrorist plot to bewilder bloggers. Apart from being a bit of a nuisance there is nothing wrong with it and similarly nobody should point to your Arabic cognomens with objection or accusation.

So Al and I get along much better now that I know that I can bend him to my will.

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