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Mennan Salih

20 questions for: Mennan Salih (#33)

The verb عَسعَسَ (to become dark) is Mennan Salih’s favorite Arabic word. The author of the popular Arabic language blog “The Arabic Pages” recently began studying Akkadian, looking for similarities to Arabic. Learn more about her in episode #33 of the 9273-roots interview series.

Last updated: 5 months ago

Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493,934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…

Mennan Salih

منان صالح

The Arabic literary scholar who sets out in search of similarities to Akkadian

Mennan Salih Portrait
Mennan Salih Portrait
  • Date of birth: 13th November 1997
  • Place of birth: London, UK
  • Place of residence: London, UK

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you?

I'm originally from Cyprus, but I was born and mostly raised in London. I started teaching myself Arabic when I was 16 and then went on to study BA Arabic and Linguistics followed by MA Advanced Arabic at university. I'm currently working on my PhD in Arabic Literature and Psycholinguistic Theories of Metaphor whilst lecturing in Arabic part-time.

I love languages – both modern and ancient. I'm currently taking classes in Akkadian (an ancient Semitic language that has remarkable similarities to Arabic) and I'm also greatly interested in the links between modern Turkic languages and their ancient ancestor, Göktürk. I set up my blog, The Arabic Pages, around four years ago, and have been blogging ever since.

Did you know? The Göktürk language was written in runic script

Göktürk, also known as Old Turkic or Early Turkic, is an ancient language that was spoken by the Göktürk Khaganate, a powerful Turkic empire that existed in Central Asia during the 6th to 8th centuries. The Göktürk language played a significant role in the development of Turkic languages in general, including Modern Turkish. It is considered one of the earliest known Turkic languages and is closely related to other ancient Turkic languages such as Old Uyghur and Old Turkmen.

Göktürk is known for its runic script, known as the Göktürk alphabet or Orkhon script, which was used to write the language. This script, consisting of around 38 characters, is one of the oldest known alphabetic writing systems used by the Turkic peoples. The Göktürk language had a rich vocabulary and grammar, which included complex suffixes and verb conjugations. Its influence on the development of later Turkic languages, including Modern Turkish, can be seen in the shared vocabulary and grammatical structures.

What was your first Arabic grammar book?

A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic by Karin C. Ryding.

I only bought it at the time to show that I was serious about Arabic on my university application form! But I'm a huge grammar nerd and it's been a solid resource for me over the years.

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The Arabic Pages – a blog by Mennan Salih

Mennan Salih is also the author of The Arabic Pages, a fascinating blog she started in 2019, shortly after graduating from her bachelor's degree. She writes about Arabic grammar, interesting translations from literature, vocabulary she came across, and posts about Arabic-Akkadian lexical and grammatical similarities. And if you're looking for gifts that people who study or speak Arabic might like, check out her Etsy shop.

Screenshot Blog The Arabic Pages
Screenshot Blog The Arabic Pages

Etsy Shop The Arabic Pages
Etsy Shop The Arabic Pages

What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

It is موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال by الطيب صالح. It was the first Arabic novel I read.

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Season of Migration to the North (موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال) was published in 1966 and is considered one of the most important Arabic novels of the 20th century.

Mustafa Sa'eed, the main character in the book موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال, goes to London for his studies and work before returning to Sudan. Through the story, the author, Tayeb Salih, explores Mustafa's mysterious past and the ways his time in Western societies impacts him. The book also delves into themes like cultural identity, colonialism, and postcolonialism. It challenges stereotypes and delves into topics like desire, power dynamics, and complex relationships.

Tayeb Salih (الطيب صالح), born on July 12, 1929, in the northern region of Sudan, was a distinguished Sudanese writer. He grew up in a small village surrounded by a rich cultural and traditional heritage, which greatly influenced his writing style. Salih received his education in Khartoum and later pursued further studies in England at the University of London. This exposure to both Western and Sudanese cultures shaped his perspective and provided a unique blend of influences in his writing. Tayeb Salih passed away on February 18, 2009.

How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

“Mastery” is very subjective, and everyone's different. I'd say: don't worry about how long it takes, just enjoy the journey!
And, personally, I hope mastering Arabic takes nothing less than a lifetime. Otherwise, I'd miss the excitement of learning new things about it.

What is your favorite Arabic word?

This is a tough question because I find a new favourite every few weeks! But the first word I really loved was the reduplicated quadrilateral verb عَسعَسَ (to grow dark). I thought it sounded pretty cool.

Verbs based on four roots are quite rare, which is why conjugation errors tend to creep in. So let's take a quick look at how we conjugate such verbs in the present and past tense.

ProunounPast Tense
هما (m)عَسْعَسايُعَسْعِسانِ
هما (f)عَسْعَسَتاتُعَسْعِسانِ
Conjugation of an Arabic verb with four root letters: to become dark

Deep Dive: The verb عَسعَسَ in the Holy Qur'an

The verb عَسعَسَ is already featured in the Holy Qur'an. In Sura 81:17 (التكوير), we can read:

وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا عَسْعَسَ

This can be translated as by the night that descends (Abdul Haleem).

This short verse is based on an interesting grammatical construction. By looking at the case endings, the (“i”) of night, we can quickly see that the و here is used as a particle of (واو القسم) like in wallahi (واللهِ) which means really! or I swear. If we look at the context of this Sura, however, we can understand that some translators interpreted the و here as and as we have a sequence of calling.

Sura 81 is called The Folding Up (سورة التَكْوير), also The Overthrowing. The noun تَكْوير is the infinitive (مصدر) of the II-verb كَوَّرَ which means to make round or to coil (لَفَّ). Some have interpreted the name of the Sura as cloaking in darkness. How came they used such a dark translation? Well, the name of the Sura goes back to the passive form of the verb – كوِّرَتْ – in the first verse of the Sura:

إِذَا ٱلشَّمۡسُ كُوِّرَتۡ

The verb in this text represents “The Last Hour” symbolically, showing the resurrection of humanity. The first 14 verses provide information about the signs of the approaching judgment day (note that verse 8 is actually two verses).

  1. When the sun is shrouded in darkness,
  2. when the stars are dimmed,
  3. when the mountains are set in motion,
  4. when pregnant camels are abandoned,
  5. when wild beasts are herded together,
  6. when the seas boil over,
  7. when souls are sorted into classes,
  8. when the baby girl buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed,
  9. when the records of deeds are spread open,
  10. when the sky is stripped away,
  11. when Hell is made to blaze
  12. and Paradise brought near:
  13. then every soul will know what it has brought about.

In Islamic beliefs, there are more important signs like the Deceitful Messiah (الْمَسِيحُ الدَّجَّالُ) also known as Dajjal. Another significant event is the expected appearance of Gog and Magog (يأجوج ومأجوج) who are described in the Qur'an as causing great trouble on Earth. Currently, they are being held back by Dhu al-Qarnayn (ذُو الْقَرْنَيْن) which means the two-horned one. Dhu al-Qarnayn has built a barrier to keep them in check. People believe that during the end times, Allah will remove the barrier allowing Gog and Magog to cause mischief again.

Which Arabic word do you like least?

I can't think of an Arabic word I dislike, per se. But don't like hearing myself say the word حقيقة (truth, reality) because I feel like my pronunciation sounds odd. Starting off with that ح and then two intermediate ق sounds? That takes some work.

Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

Iraqi, hands down. It sounds like poetry to me.

iraq traffic

Iraqi Arabic: A Beginner's Guide

Ulric Shannon is currently studying and absorbing in Baghdad. In a long interview, the Ambassador of Canada, who is not only passionate but also impeccably knowledgeable of Arabic, tells us about the characteristics and specialities of Iraqi Arabic and gives some book recommendations.

What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

The Iraqi phrase لعبو بينا طوبه (literally: they played ball with us), meaning: they thrashed us!

What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

I discovered this one not too long ago:

أين الثرى من الثريا؟

The literal translation is Where is the ground with regards to the Pleiades? The proverb means: These are on two completely different levels.

Deep Dive: Why is this proverb a proverb? Because it's like a pun!

أيْنَ الثَّرَى مِنَ الثُّرَيَّا is used used to distinguish between two things that have a great difference in value. The idiom is a play on words:

  • The word ثَرًى – with the definite article الثَّرَى and in the plural أَثْراءٌ – means ground, soil that is moist, in a metaphorical senso also something good or pleasant . Perhaps this is one reason why many words from this root today mean rich or abundant, e.g., wealth, fortune, property: ثَرْوة. In the Holy Qur'an, الثَّرَى denotes the earth. You may also see ثَراء which usually means the same thing.
  • However, the word الثُّرَيَّا is the name of a star: The Pleiades (and, in old texts, chandeliers). It is actually a diminiutive form. Mind the first vowel! To put it simply, we can say: It is “u” for the star and “a” for anything related to moist or ground.

The Pleiades, often referred to as the Seven Sisters, are a cluster of stars found in the Taurus constellation. This name originates from Greek mythology, where the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas, a Titan, and Pleione, a sea nymph. The daughters were named Maia, Electra, Taygete, Alcyone, Celaeno, Sterope, and Merope.

There are various myths about how they became stars. One story tells that when Atlas was burdened with holding up the heavens, Orion began to chase the Pleiades. To save them, Zeus turned them into stars. Another version suggests that the Pleiades took their own lives after learning of their father's fate, and Zeus then immortalized them by transforming them into stars.

The Pleiades are visible to the naked eye and have been recognized and mythologized by various cultures throughout history. Despite the different names and stories associated with these stars across different civilizations, the term “Pleiades” has remained in use to this day especially in Western cultures.

The Arabs used to call the Pleiades by that name because they used to seek blessings from them and their rise, saying that the rain that occurs during their rise or set brings wealth. The Pleiades was the third mansion of the moon (the Arabs divided the areas where the moon passes in the sky into 28 equal distances, which they called the mansion of the moon, in Arabic: منازل القمر). They used to distinguish 6 of its stars with the naked eye and likened them to a bunch of grapes (عنقود عنب) for their proximity, and as a result, they called all of them together the star (النجم). If you want to describe what The Pleiades are, you can say عنقود نجمي which means star cluster.

 M45 - Pleiades (star cluster)
M45 – Pleiades (star cluster)” by jkymis72 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

That Arabic isn't as difficult to learn as people make it out to be.

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

To keep studying Arabic – from my teacher, during the final year of my undergraduate degree.

“My greatest fear? Wasting my life because I was too afraid to go after what I truly wanted.”

Mennan Salih

Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

I think I'd like to invite a native speaker of Akkadian, of Göktürk, and of Ancient Egyptian… though I'd need to learn how to cook well before I extend those invites, so at least we'd have something to “mmm” about if communication otherwise completely breaks down!

What was the last great meal you had?

Dolma with yoghurt.

Cypriot yalancı dolma
Cypriot yalancı dolma

Dolma, which is the Turkish word for “stuffed,” is a collection of delightful dishes derived from Ottoman cuisine. These dishes are traditionally prepared by filling various vegetables or leaves with a delectable mixture of rice, vegetables and minced meat, creating a harmonious blend of flavors. The stuffed vegetables are cooked with care until they reach a tender texture and are typically served with a luscious yogurt sauce, adding a creamy and tangy touch to the dish.

What is your favorite city?

Istanbul – I went there last autumn on a solo trip and (it's cliché, I know) fell in love.

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful novel set during the Nigerian-Biafran War. The story follows the lives of four individuals as they navigate love, politics, and the devastating consequences of war. Through their intertwined narratives, the author explores themes of identity, loyalty, and the human capacity for resilience in the face of unimaginable circumstances.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, born on September 15, 1977, in Nigeria, is a renowned Nigerian author whose work has garnered international acclaim. Known for her captivating storytelling and powerful social commentary, Adichie's writing delves into complex themes of identity, feminism, and cultural dynamics. Her other notable works include “Purple Hibiscus,” “Americanah,” and her TED Talk on feminism, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie continues to be a voice for social justice and equality through her literary work and public lectures.

What is your all-time favorite movie?

To be honest, I can't often sit through a film without getting bored. But I do occasionally make it through a full two-hour episode of my favourite series, Karadayı.

The name “Karadayı” is formed by combining the last name of the series' protagonist, Mahir Kara, and the Turkish word dayı, which translates to “uncle” in English, specifically referring to a mother's brother. Therefore, “Karadayı” can be understood as “Uncle Kara” in English. Additionally, it bears resemblance to the Turkish word “kabadayı,” which means “gangster.”

The Turkish television drama, which aired from 2012 to 2015, follows the life of Mahir Kara. After his father is wrongly convicted of a murder, Mahir becomes the leader of his family. Determined to uncover the truth, he embarks on a quest to find the real culprit, thrusting his respected family into a battle against the criminals responsible for the crime. Set in the captivating and enchanting city of Istanbul during the 1970s, the series showcases the unique charm and allure of the era. Kenan İmirzalıoğlu stars as the courageous Mahir Kara, while Bergüzar Korel portrays the character Feride Şadoğlu.

What music do you listen to?

Well, I recently fell down the rabbit hole of Tuvan throat singing videos on YouTube…

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When were you happiest?

This past year, as I've been travelling quite a bit. I'm always happiest where there's sun and sea!

What is your greatest fear?

Wasting my life because I was too afraid to go after what I truly wanted.

What is your life motto?

“It is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.”

Not in a romantic sense. But this quote reminds me to take risks and make the most of opportunities, so I don't have to wonder ‘what if?' later down the line. Who knows, I might discover something that becomes a passion of mine. And if things don't work out then, hey, I'll probably have an interesting story to tell or some inspiration for a poem.

Mennan Salih, thank you for your time.

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