When we hear about an IOU (abbreviated form of “I owe you”), we usually think of monetary debts or loans. Other forms of debt, such as cultural debts, often go forgotten.
It’s easy to think of the Middle East as a distant land in both culture and identity. And, so it is. It has a foreign language, foreign food, foreign styles of dress, and a foreign mentality. A glance at the English language, however, shows us that the Arab world might not be as distant as we think, and that interchange took place long before the modern era of global communication. The many words in English that originated from the Arabic language not only testify to this interchange, but also give clues about different elements of Middle Eastern life and culture, and show how much the West owes the East.
Alchemy (al-kīmiyā or الكيمياء), algebra (al-jabr or الجبر), algorism (al-khwārizmī or الخوارزمي) alkali (qalā or قلى): The Middle East is a land of culture and learning. Much advancement in math and science originated in the Middle East, and later spread to the west. Things we take for granted, like the basic algebraic concepts, roots, and use of the decimal point, as well as many concepts of chemistry have been borrowed from the Arab world. The Arab thinkers also lent us astronomy, seen in the use of “zenith” (samt al-rā’s or سمت الرأس), and “nadir” (naẓīr or نظير) for example, and other scientific concepts, such as “caliber” (qālib or قالب) and units of measurement like carats of gold (qirat or قيراط) or reams of paper (rizmah or رزمة).
“Coffee” comes from the Arabic word qahwa (قهوة) and “mocha” from the city in Yemen where it originated (al-Mukhā or المخا). Sugar (sukkar or سكّر) and syrup (sharāb or شراب), saffron (zaʿfarān or زعفران ) and cumin (kammun or كمون), alcohol (al-kohl or الكحل), apricot (al-birqūq or البرقوق), artichoke (al-kharshūf or الخرشوف) and lemon (laymun or ليمون) are all English words derived from Arabic, sometimes by route of Greek or Latin. Every time you sip your morning mug or enjoy a spiced meal, stop for a moment, and think how impoverished our diet would be without the bounty and variety of the east.
Tariff (taʿrīf or تعريف) and tabby (attabiya or طبية), sequin (sikka or صكّة | سكّة) and sash (shāsh or شاش), sofa (soffa or صفّة) and carafe (gharf or غرف), jar (jarra or جرّة) and alcove (al-qobba or القبّة), crimson (qirmizī or قرمزي) and scarlet (saqirlāṭ or سقيرلاط ), magazine (makhāzin or مخازن) and admiral (amīr al- or أمير)… The list goes on. The west has benefited greatly from the cultures of the east; the least we can do is realize and appreciate all they have given us, and at times, take a moment to learn about our common roots.
Going even further back, both Arabic and English owe a common debt to the ancient Phoenician language and culture. While modern-day Arabic script and English script seem completely different, they both descended from the same alphabet, which branched off in one direction to form Greek, Latin, and later English, and in another, to form the group of Semitic languages, like Aramaic and, later, Arabic as we know it today.
The Phoenician “letters” that gave rise to our modern alphabets were originally symbols representing essential words that pertained to life, such as “hunt” ( or sade), “eye” ( or ain) “hand” ( or yod), and “ox” ( or alf). A few words in Arabic and English still reflect the common debt they owe to ancient Phoenician. The English word “camel” and the Arabic word, “jamal” for example, are both derivatives of the ancient Phoenician letter for the same animal: (gaml).
As we continue marching into the future, we should be careful not to forget the past. As the world spends its time and energy on improving the economy, and mitigating global debt, let us remember the other debts we owe as well, whether personal or collective, cultural, intellectual or spiritual. Even if we are never able to pay these debts, or don’t need to, may our many IOUs be a constant cause for gratitude, and a reminder to freely share the riches we have with others as well.
“Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”