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Commentary Last Updated: Dec 28th, 2007 - 00:30:50

Simon says . . .
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Dec 28, 2007, 00:16

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Something is lost in translation, goes the well-known saying. Something is gained, as well, it may be added.

Take the word bored for instance; to the best of my knowledge, there is no Bengali equivalent for the word. Does that mean we are not bored unless we happen to have an English-medium education or at least acquire a smattering of English? One should think so. For, to acquire the concept of boredom, we have to learn the circumstances under which the word can be used. There must be a sufficiency of leisure, space (and time) for the individual, alternative sources of recreation competing for attention (and income). . . . In other words, a very Western lifestyle. In fact, it is to be doubted if the �boredom� that some of us feel is the same as that felt by our Western counterpart. In the middle of the extended family, with one�s roles very clearly delineated, time carefully allotted, with a dim consciousness of one�s time being one�s own -- in such a milieu, the concept of boredom can hardly arise.

According to anthropologist Yasmine Musharabash of the University of Western Australia in Crawley, Australia, for the Warlpiri Aboriginies at Yuemdumu, a settlement in the outback northwest of Alice Springs, the idea of boredom is strikingly different from the Western idea of ennui. For the Warlpiri, boredom has nothing to do with having nothing to do. Instead, being bored means there just aren�t enough people around to make life interesting.

In fact, Musharabash was surprised at how few situations were considered "boring" to the Warlpiri when not much was really happening at Yuemdumu. It turns out, the Aborigines never say, "I am bored," but they do feel a situation is boring when it lacks other people. A long car ride might not be boring if the car is full of people, but it would be terribly boring alone.

Above all, there's no Warlpiri word for boredom: the Aborigines at Yuemdumu have, therefore, appropriated the English word to complain about an event that lacks inter-personal interaction. Musharabash also feels that the Warlpiri are not always bored in situations that would bore Westerners crazy, because they are very much in the moment.

And the greater the scope the word has -- that is to say, the more of our collective experience it covers -- the greater will be the disjunction between meaning in the several languages. Take the word slave. The Chambers Twenty-first Century Dictionary gives the historical meaning of the word as �someone owned by and acting as servant to another, with no personal freedom.� Presumably, the description is meant to fit the Sumerian, the Greek, the Roman, the Jewish, the American and the Spanish slave, to take a few instances. In fact, there is no word for slave in the Sumerian or the Hebrew languages. The Greek word for slave was doulos -- the word erected a clear linguistic boundary between slaves and free men No such boundary existed in the East. In the Sumerian cuneiform sign for slave, the word means �a man from the mountains,� that is, a captive from an alien land. This vagueness infects the Egyptian word b�k. The Hebrew word ebed denotes anyone from �slave,� �servant of the lord� in the phrase ebed Jahwe to ebed al malek, the servant of the king.

There is as much history in the meaning of a word as there is culture. Contrast Justice Taney�s famous observation that Negroes had �no rights which any white man was bound to respect,� with the fact that the Iberian slave had access to the courts. The Anglo-Saxon slave was, as the Romans put it, a res, a thing, not a person. The Spanish slave was a person without liberty. The laws and customs relating to slavery were codified in centralised Portugal and Spain as early as 1263-5. The Las Siete Partidas del Roy Alfonso -- as the code is called - specifies the rights of a slave in detail. For instance: �If married slaves owned by separate masters could not live together because of distance, the church should persuade one or the other to sell his slave. If neither of the masters could be persuaded, the church was to buy one of them so that the married slaves could live together.� The word 'Mamluk' means a man of slave origin: the Muslim world was the only civilization where "slaves on horseback" (to borrow the title of a famous book) were the norm. Slaves had military power, and even went on to become kings, as the famous Slave Dynasty of Delhi illustrate!

What, then, of the antonym of slavery -- freedom? The meaning of this word too must be inextricably connected to the historical experience of the people. Thus, freedom and democracy mean little in the Iberian world -- Spain and Portugal were both dictatorships until the other day, and Latin America has the perpetual caudillo -- whereas some form of participatory government and the associated idea of liberty persisted throughout Greek, Republican Roman and Western European history as the reflex of slavery and exclusion. Centralised, absolutist states are more �free� than democratic, decentralised polities. Where you cannot lose your freedom, the concept cannot arise. And a strong, �despotic� state precludes slavery for it would entail loyalty of slaves to private persons, rather than to the �despot.� As we have seen, the Caliph's soldiers were paid, military slaves, not bondsmen owned by individuals.

As a teacher of English as a second language, I am well aware of the limitations of the classroom in increasing vocabulary. For instance, the game �Simon Says� greatly facilitates the learning of such terms as �touch,� �hold,� �put down� �shoulder,� �forehead.� . . .

�Simon says, �Touch your shoulder.��

All students touch their shoulders.

�Now, put your hands down.�

Those who obey the last command lose and leave the game. (Rule: only commands beginning with �Simon says� are to be obeyed.) Students, therefore, learn the meaning of words by using them, by learning the rules of the game, the rules that govern their use.

Now, how would a teacher go about teaching the meaning of such terms as democracy, vote, and so on? He or she might presumably organise a game, with two teams (the parties) and the rest of the class (the citizens). The latter would be given pieces of paper to nominate their favourite speaker and the former would be asked to choose leaders, and the one who makes the most popular speech would get the highest number of papers bearing his name. The party would then win. Even a box could be arranged for the �citizens� in which to put their paper. The teacher will then have reached the limits of her ability. She would have to proclaim, �This, students, is democracy.� (And we�re not dealing with children here; ESL teachers teach adults as much as children using game-techniques.)

And has the teacher achieved her goal? Is this democracy? And it is inconceivable that the teacher can do anything more. But, it might be argued, in the ampler auditorium of the nation, Western powers can play a more prolonged and realistic game of �Simon Says,� the true slavery. Yet, in the national coliseum (to vary the locale), the entirety of Western experience over the last 2,500 years from the Greeks to today would encounter the totality of oriental experience from today back to Mesopotamia and Egypt. And who would be the losers in this vicious game of �Simon Says�? The dead, dishonoured and disfigured young who have been sacrificed to the Moloch of a word.

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

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