Tamarod: A Linguistic Riddle

Linguist Yves Gonzalez-Quijano asks: Why does the name of Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest group roll so strangely off the Arabic tongue? The answer, he suggests, is that the name and the concept were imported from English; they ring like an advertising agency slogan. What language does Tamarod really speak?

It sure is hard to figure out what exactly is going on in Egypt! Especially since the media drowns out anything that doesn’t fit into the mainstream narrative. Worse, it doesn’t even try to grasp the situation, distorts the explanations it does present (out of ignorance, we can charitably hope).

It would be hard to imagine a world where most correspondents working in, say, Latin America could not understand a word of the languages spoken on the continent they ‘cover.’ But most commentators on the Arab world operate in complete linguistic ignorance, their deficiencies ‘covering’ the truth in a thick layer of prejudices, their work repeating the ‘success story’ of the moment.

Writers on the Arab world never seem to stop and think about the meaning of all of these terms they throw around on a daily basis. Start with the very tangible hijab, an object whose translation can be quite flexible, depending on the equivalent word a writer chooses for it: veil, head veil (!), kerchief, headscarf, Islamic outfit, chador, burqa… Or more complex notions – fatwa, jihad, salafi and the like – instead of showily dropping them in the original Arabic, they would do well to research and understand them in their actual context, which is not such a difficult exercise.

In the case of Egypt, there was a seemingly endless debate on the semantic subtleties of the word ‘coup’, but a remarkable casualness when it came to the words the ‘natives’ chose to describe themselves, even words at the fulcrum of the news. Take the case of the popular mobilization that was the cause (until proven otherwise) of Morsi’s downfall. A grassroots movement, as the Anglophone commentators like to tell us; the description is not neutral, implies a measure of political virtue. A leaderless coordinating body-there is another key notion-of citizens who have ‘taken charge’ – a phrasing that spares the question of how this transfer of authority happened- of collecting signatures to withdraw the ‘vote of confidence’ that the ballot boxes had given President Morsi, and demand early elections.

In Arabic, this movement picked a name for itself: Tamarrud (تمرد : spelled as Tamarod, Tamarood, and so on: who cares!). It’s a common word, a masdar in Arabic grammar: an action word, we might say, which dictionaries translate as ‘rebellion.’ In the non-Arabophone media, this action word transmutes into a description of people (the ‘Rebels’ movement) or becomes a command: ‘rebélate‘ has been a popular translation in the Spanish language press!

To those who might call this semantic quibbling, here is the point of all this: First, we can easily discern that the erroneous equivalents are actually traceable to the English language ‘translation’ chosen by the movement’s activists. As it happens, when they communicate in English, the activists systematically use the (people word) ‘rebel,’ rather than ‘rebellion.’ Their chosen English translation contaminates all the other foreign language interpretations: the original Arabic word Tamarrud is omnipresent, but its actual meaning is almost never taken into account.

At the risk of reading too much into these things, it might be interesting to return to a post I wrote long ago (in 2007); there I discussed a 2005 Lebanese public relations campaign ‘Independence05’ which was launched in the aftermath of Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination. Independence05 was not only written a l’anglaise (in this Arabian stronghold of La Francophonie!) but when it was rendered in Arabic, the graphic design was unorthodox, even irrational, for a language which flows from right to left.

In this graphic design blunder, we could easily make out the tracks of foreign communications consultants- among them, as we later learned, the experts from Saatchi and Saatchi. They were brought in to promote this concept/slogan, their success on display in the mobilizations at Martyrs’ Square that followed the campaign.

There is good reason to believe that the Tamarrud/Rebel campaign is another illustration of the same design flaw, a flaw which demonstrates the hierarchy of languages in the minds of its designers, and in a certain way their political priorities. Other linguistic clues likewise suggest that the designers began from a starting point of English, and not from Arabic (as logic would otherwise suggest, since we are talking about Egypt here).

First, in Arabic it is fairly rare to name a group or movement with an action word that is not made definite by prefixing the article ‘al-‘ or by some other grammatical method (particularly a word in Arabic’s so-called ‘fifth form’). Unlike in English, the word for a movement or a campaign cannot simply be the grammatical absolute indeterminative. Readers might well find counterexamples, but as a general rule, the word must be in the form of a definite noun, determined either by the genitive case or a definite article (al-).

Thus the natural tendency [when reading in Arabic]to (mis)read the term تمرد as a word in the imperative form. (The two words look identical on paper in Arabic. The only difference is in a vowel which is unmarked in Arabic but very present when it is transcribed in Latin letters; thus the misreading is impossible in translation). The translation as an imperative (which as noted previously is most common in Spanish) might be seen as the unconscious transposition of the weirdness of the movement’s Arabic name as a naked root word, while the reading as a verb (for a francophone at least) has obvious echoes of the [European ‘Occupy’] slogan ‘Indignez-Vous‘ [Get Outraged].

All of this shows that those (professional or otherwise) who ‘created’ this slogan reversed the normal scheme of things, starting out with a proven model (‘Indignez Vous‘/Los Indignados) and finding an equivalent in Arabic. Again, the logic of the language seems to support this intuition. Basically, Arabic usage limited the creators’ choices: revolution! (from the root TH-W-R/ثور) wouldn’t do: too politically loaded. Q-W-M (قوم), ‘resistance’ wouldn’t work either, since its automatic connotation of ‘armed resistance’ would have required adding the adjective ‘peaceful’; the resulting notion of passive resistance was not going to mobilize huge crowds. GH-DH-B (غضب) which was used to translate Stephane Hessel’s book [Bible of Europe’s Occupy/Indignado movement] into Arabic, or the similar S-KH-T(سخط) are just too angry sounding.

As it happens, Arabic has a nice equivalent for the outpouring of outrage that the imperative ‘Indignez-Vous‘ suggests. The root 3-S-M (عصم) in its eighth grammatical form, i’tisâmî, ‘the protestor,’ sounds more resolute, suggests a clearer goal, than the common ihtijâjî (from the root H-J-J : حجج). The Protestors of Tahrir (i3tisâmî Tahrîr) has a nice ring to it, as does the masdar: i3tisâm. Except that this word is already taken, since to Arab ears it rings with the cadences of the Quran; the word is already taken up by religious parties seeking to secure the bonds of religion, following the Quranic admonition to “hold you fast to God’s bond, together, and do not scatter.”

Exit, thus I’tisam, and enter Tamarrud, a good deal less evocative and even a little bit strange.

But the story does not end here. The excellent linguist Louis-Jean Calvet points out that Egypt’s ideological confrontation became a semiological confrontation when Asem Abd al-Majid – a Muslim Brotherhood figure with some rather heavy political baggage since he was implicated in the Sadat assassination- came up with a poetic rejoinder, both clever and practical. An identical grammatical derivation as the one that produced Tamarrud, a rhymed word: a counteroffensive launched in the beginning of May, just a few days after the Tamarrud campaign began, but mobilizing Morsi’s supporters around the slogan Tajarrud (Tagarrud as the Egyptians pronounce it).

In spite of Tagarrud’s 26 million signatures (all just as unverifiable as those on the rival list), its online petition has been largely ignored by the media (revealingly it obtains a few thousand Google results, compared to the more than 750,000 for the most common spelling of its rival ‘Tamarod.’)

It seems that the lack of convenient subtitles befuddled commentators who might have wanted to explain the word chosen by Morsi’s partisans (one Italian article even tried to translate it as ‘good Muslim behavior’). We must put aside the absolutely literal meaning- to denude, perhaps by removing one’s clothes, thus a possible translation as ‘strip-tease.’ So we are obliged to look for a figurative meaning, something in the range of renunciation, selflessness: notions suggested by Calvet and an Arabist colleague he consulted. We flip through some of the writings of the theoreticians of political Islam-not very engrossing reading, admittedly-and discover that the founder of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Banna himself, made ‘Tajarrud’ one of the pillars of loyalty to the movement: ‘renunciation’ here meaning indifference to any other cause but this one.

In reality, Tagarrud was a nice turn of phrase, but it did not necessarily turn out to be a huge coup – if you’ll excuse the pun – in political campaign terms. And all of this was of course back when both sides were merely jousting with words, before the partisans of Tamarrud asked for a little coup… de main [helping hand]from the military, those paragons of obedience to the rules of linguistics/democracy.

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano