Sunday, 27 October 2013

Why do Arabs say "what's the news”?

Wilfred Thesiger in Abu Dhabi, 1948. 2004.130.17291.1

A common greeting in Arabic is ما أخبارك؟ or the colloquial version شو أخبارك؟ meaning ‘what’s your news?’. This is not particularly unusual- it’s the same as saying ‘what’s new?’ in English or ‘quoi de neuf?’ in French. In Arabic though it is much more common. Recently while re-reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Across the Empty Quarter I noticed several times where the author notes how pressingly the Bedouin would ask for ‘the news’, and how they would go to great lengths to obtain it.

“Meanwhile the old man had made coffee and set out dates for us to eat. Hamad said, ‘He is the Christian.’ The old man asked, ‘Is he the Christian who travelled last year with bin al Kamam and the Rashid to the Hadhramaut?’ and after Hamad had assented he turned wo me and said, ‘A thousand welcomes.’ It had not taken long for this news to arrive, although here we wear near the Persian Gulf, far from the Hadhramaut; but I was not surprised. I knew how interested Bedu always were in ‘the news’, how concerned to get the latest information about their kinsmin, about raids and tribal movements and grazing. I knew from experience how far they would go out of their way to ask for news. I had realised that it was the chance of getting this as much as the craving for milk that had tantalized my companions during the past days when we had seen and avoided distant tents. The hated traveling through inhabited country without knowing exactly what was happening around them.
What is “the news”?’ It is the question which follows every encounter in the desert even between strangers. Given a chance the bedu will gossip for hours, as they had done last night, and nothing is too trivial for them to recount. There is no reticence in the desert. If a man distinguishes himself he knows that his fame will be widespread; if he disgraces himself he knows that the story of his shame will inevitably be heard in every encampment. It is this fear of public opinion which enforces at all times the rigid conventions of the desert."

When traversing through the inhospitable desert the traveller did not only have to contend with the harsh climatic conditions and sparse sources of food and water. Often tribes had varying loyalties and travelers could be killed if they came across a groups from an enemy tribe. in such cases a rabee’a was necessary to ensure safety. This would be a member of a tribe on favorable terms with potentially unfriendly tribes of the area, and in whose presence fellow travelers’ safety was guaranteed. The importance of ‘the news’ becomes paramount because not only does the traveler need to know the state of local vegetation and water sources, but also which routes to take to avoid enemy tribes that may be passing through or grazing in the area. 

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