Simon says . . .
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Dec 28, 2007, 00:16
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
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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