In Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo (If this is a man), he writes about the “muselmanns” of the camp, the prisoners who were resigned to death:

Chi non sa diventare un Organisator, Kombinator, Prominent (truce eloquenza dei termini!) finisce in breve mussulmano. Una terza via esiste nella vita, dove è anzi la norma; non esiste in campo di concentramento. Soccombere è la cosa più semplice: basta eseguire tutti gli ordini che si ricevono, non mangiare che la razione, attenersi alla disciplina del lavoro e del campo. L’esperienza ha dimostrato che solo eccezionalmente si può in questo modo durare più di tre mesi. Tutti i mussulmani che vanno in gas hanno la stessa storia, o, per meglio dire, non hanno storia; hanno seguito il pendio fino al fondo, naturalmente, come i ruscelli che vanno al mare. Entrati in campo, per loro essenziale incapacità, o per sventura, o per un qualsiasi banale incidente, sono stati sopraffatti prima di aver potuto adeguarsi; sono battuti sul tempo, non cominciano a imparare il tedesco e a discernere qualcosa nell’infernale groviglio di leggi e di divieti, che quando il loro corpo è già in sfacelo, e nulla li potrebbe più salvare dalla selezione o dalla morte per deperimento. La loro vita è breve ma il loro numero è sterminato; sono loro i Muselmänner, i sommersi, il nerbo del campo; loro la massa anonima, continuamente rinnovata e sempre identica, dei non-uomini che marciano e faticano in silenzio, spenta in loro la scintilla divina, già troppo vuoti per soffrire veramente. Si esita a chiamarli vivi: si esita a chiamar morte la loro morte, davanti a cui essi non temono perché sono troppo stanchi per comprenderla.

Whosoever does not know how to become an ‘Organisator’, ‘Kombinator’, ‘Prominent’ (the savage eloquence of these words!) soon becomes a ‘musselman’. In life, a third way exists, and is in fact the rule; it does not exist in the concentration camp. To sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp. Experience showed that only exceptionally could one survive more than three months in this way. All the musselmans who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea. On their entry into the camp, through basic incapacity, or by misfortune, or through some banal incident, they are overcome before they can adapt themselves; they are beaten by time, they do not begin to learn German, to disentangle the infernal knot of laws and prohibitions until their body is already in decay, and nothing can save them from selections or from death by exhaustion. Their life is short, but their number is endless; they, the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always identical, of non-men who march and labour in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to really suffer. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand. (translation by Stuart Woolf)

Muselmann / musselman / mussulmano is obviously a term meaning “Muslim”, but there is no agreement as to how it came to be used in the camps in this way. There are various theories:

Sofsky thought the association of apathetic concentration camp victims with Muslims came from their uncontrolled body movements; their “swaying motions” reminded onlookers of “Islamic rituals.” Two Polish scholars of the Holocaust, Zdzislaw Ryn and Stanislaw Kodzinski, second this explanation. The “Muselmen,” they say in an article on Auschwitz, “became indifferent to everything happening around them. They excluded themselves from all relations to their environment. If they could still move around, they did so in slow motion, without bending their knees. They shivered, since their body temperature usually fell below 98.7 degrees. Seeing them from afar, one had the impression of seeing Arabs praying. The Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, attributes the term not to motion, but to motionlessness, i.e., to the Muselmann’s “typical posture of ‘staying crouched on the ground, legs bent in the Oriental fashion, faces rigid as masks.’” Others have thought that “Musulman” must have originally referred to mental rather than physical characteristics. For instance, in his “Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive,” Italian writer Giorgio Agamben has theorized that “the most likely explanation of the term can be found in the literal meaning of the Arabic word muslim: the one who submits unconditionally to the will of God.” It was “Islam’s supposed fatalism,” Agamben writes, that led concentration camp inmates to turn it into a metaphor for the utter resignation that the “Musulman” exhibited. Holocaust survivor and French philosopher Jean Amery, in his “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” explained the word differently. It came, he thought, from the dismissive attitude of Europeans toward Muslims, since “the so-called Mussulman, as the camp language termed the prisoner who was giving up and was given up by his comrades, no longer had room in his consciousness for the contrasts of good or bad, noble or base, intellectual or unintellectual. He was a staggering corpse, a bundle of physical functions in its last convulsions.”

By Walter Spitzer. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

By Walter Spitzer. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

In an interview about his book The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy, Gil Anidjar talks about the history of the Muselmann:

I started working on the Muselmann (a term I translate as ‘Muslim’ since that is what the German was taken to mean, according to countless testimonies) when I wrote the introduction to Derrida’s Acts of Religion although at the time I was not quite sure where it was taking me. By the time I read Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, which had just come out in French (the English translation had not yet appeared), I was really taken with the book, and thought that I would have nothing to add. Agamben is after all the first to take Levi seriously on the crucial importance of the Muslim, and to dedicate an entire book to a figure that, though well known in circles familiar with Holocaust literature, has hardly attracted attention, or indeed, any serious reflection. I subsequently came to suspect that there might be something to add after all, and this for two reasons. The first is that Agamben reinscribes the historical obscurity of the term, ‘Muslim’, its opacity and its strangeness. I do not by any means wish to diminish the strangeness, quite the contrary. I just want to say that this strangeness is even more extensive because of a combination of visibility and invisibility. What I am arguing is that the use of the term in the context of the camp, has a history that can be read on the very surface of major philosophical texts. This all-too visible history is however also marked by its invisibility. The second reason I thought I may have something to add by way of a footnote, really, to Agamben, is that as complex as Agamben’s argument is – touching as it does on numerous issues and dimensions of language, of ethics, of politics, and of law – it has in this particular context very little to say about religion or about theology. This is particularly surprising to me since it is Agamben, who, after Derrida, alerted me to the importance of the theologico-political (think only of Homo Sacer, of his analyses of Schmitt and Benjamin, and so forth). So there were these two factors: the invisible visibility of the term, ‘Muslim’, and of its history, the alleged obscurity of its origins, and the absence of religion and theology in the discussion of the term and the phenomenon in Agamben. Agamben suggests, quite tentatively, that maybe the use of ‘Muslim’ relied on a medieval stereotype. Primo Levi, on the other hand, said the term might have come into common usage because of the way in which people imagined Muslims praying, or because of bandages around the head. Like Levi, I have found none of the explanations I encountered convincing. So I wanted to explore this double-absence, and from then on, it seemed as though I only encountered symptoms as well as potential, if partial, explanations for this absence everywhere.

Anidjar continues:

I presented this material at a conference in France after which a kind woman, whose name I unfortunately forget, approached me. She told me that she was French but her mother was German and had grown up and gone to school in Germany in the 1930s. This woman had called her mother after having heard my talk and, in response, her mother had read out to her the words of a song that reads roughly as follows:

trink nicht so viel Kaffee!
Nicht für Kinder ist der Türkentrank
schwächt die Nerven, macht dich blaß und krank.
Sei doch kein Muselmann,
der ihn nicht lassen kann!

Don’t drink so much coffee!
The Turk’s drink is not for children,
It weakens the nerves and makes you pale and sick.
Don’t be a Muslim
Who can’t help it!

This is like a comptine pour enfants; a children’s song that people still learn, as it turns out. I have since met young German people who know that song and I am told it also appears in an opera. The figure of the powerless, of extreme weakness and subjection, is not shrouded in mystery: coffee will make you weak, it will make you into a Muslim, a Muselmann. Here the image of Islam in the West is both that it is a political threat and a feminizing threat, a weakness. They are weak, and they make us weak. Coffee was one of the sites of that Christian anxiety, dating at least from the attempts by the Ottoman Empire (“the Turk”) to invade Venice, Vienna, Europe, in short. At some point, though, Christian Europe realizes that the threat may not be as large as initially anticipated. Historians will know this better than I, but if I recall, the battle of Lepanto, and the failure of the Ottoman fleet to invade Venice signals this turn downward in the fear of “the Turk.” Here, by the way, is another instance of a strange phrase concerning which I looked but could not find a history. The Ottoman Empire will, in the nineteenth century, be referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” This profoundly disturbing and evocative figure, said to emerge after the War of Crimea, seems to me to resonate profoundly with the Muslim, for what is he if not the sick man of Europe? You can do a Google search on the sick man of Europe and find enormous amounts of material. It is simply everywhere. Every Ottoman specialist knows it.

There are thus numerous traces, all of which can be found and followed, read and interpreted, that suggest possible venues for a genealogy of the Muslims of Auschwitz. These traces are both visible and invisible on the surface of the modern philosophical tradition, in children’s song, and in nineteenth and twentieth century popular culture. Nothing here diminishes the mystery which the Muslim is, its dreadful paradigmatic dimension. Yet, its genealogy, essentially related to Jews and Arabs as they appear at crucial moments of its articulation in and by Europe, is, it seems to me, less obscure. The sick man of Europe is like the Muslim: there is no one who knows anything about Holocaust literature or about Holocaust history who does not know about the Muslim. That is the horrifying beauty of it all. It is the most manifest, and yet also the most invisible. Almost everybody I talked to tells me, “I have always wondered why the term Muselmann was used…”. It is just everywhere, and yet there has been no explanation for it. It is, as I said, quite horrifying.

In the book I also write about how in Hebrew the term ‘Muslim’ is not translated but rather transliterated (something which could be rendered as muzelmann, quite distinct therefore from muslemi, i.e. ‘Muslim’, in modern Hebrew). I do not mention the following anecdote in the book but I had an Israeli student with whom I went over this material in a class on Holocaust literature. After I spoke to her about the Muslims of Auschwitz, she recognized the term and said to her grandfather, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, “Grandfather, you have always spoken with me about the Muselmann, but you never told me that the word Muselmann means Muslim.” She later told me that her grandfather flew into a rage such that she had never seen him in before. He adamantly insisted that this was not the case, that it is not what the word meant, that it never meant that. It is both tragic and even comic, that one could claim that a word is not a word, not that word. Even in English one finds antiquated spellings of ‘Mussulman’ or ‘Musselman’ for the word ‘Muslim’. But I am not making an etymological argument. I am merely saying that the way the term functioned followed from previous usage, in very different yet related contexts. In Auschwitz, it functioned repeatedly by way of pointing to a similarity between certain peoples in the camp and Arabs praying. But how was this “recognition” possible? And why the popularity, the massive dissemination of the term after the end of the war? When Primo Levi says that ‘Muslim’ is another term like ‘Canada’ or ‘Mexico’ (names given to certain buildings in the camp) which has absolutely no recognizable referential value, or that its connotations have nothing to do with its usage in other contexts, it is simply striking, and to my mind, mistaken. Of course words function outside of their context but the fact is that something of the common usage remains or is reinscribed. So that when people say ‘Canada,’ it may be a singular name but it is also overdetermined, culturally and discursively, if you will. The building where all the belongings of the dead were gathered and where it was actually (if only relatively) better to work has nothing to do with Canada, per se, and yet it was Canada that was thereby imagined as a place of plenty, toward which one could dream and, if one survived, escape after the war. And people did. And comparable things can be said of ‘Mexico’, which is where they stored blankets that had stripes such that reminded people of the traditional cloth of Mexico.

This is the culture of stereotypes. If one says to a little boy, “You throw like a girl”, the question is: what enables the “recognition” of a “girl” in this boy? What are the conditions that make possible such a slur? It is not because a girl “really” throws like a girl; it is because people think that they can recognize in a bad throw a girlish throw. This is all I am asking: How did that term – even if that is not what it meant to people – come to function? How did that recognition become possible? How could people say, “This looks to me like a Muslim.” When you have a song that says that a Muslim is weak and pale and submissive and can’t help it, and this understanding is ubiquitous in the whole discourse of modern Western philosophy, it becomes no less surprising, but perhaps less opaque.

In a paper by Rudi Matthee called Between Venice and Surat: The Trade in Gold in Safavid Iran, I came across a mention of the etymology of “sequin”:

The minted form in which gold showed up in Iran was almost exclusively that of the ducat – zecchino in Italian, from which the ‘sequin’ in contemporaneous English sources is derived – in either its original Venetian form or in various European, or Ottoman imitations.

I hadn’t realised that “sequin” was originally the name of a coin. Exploring further, I found out that the word actually has its roots in Arabic. According to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:

SEQUIN (the French form of Ital. zecchino, zecchino d’oro), the name of a Venetian gold coin, first minted about 1280, and in use until the fall of the Venetian Republic. It was worth about nine shillings. It bore on the obverse a figure of St Mark blessing the banner of the republic, held by a kneeling doge, and on the reverse a figure of Christ. Milan and Genoa also issued gold sequins. The word in Italian was formed from zecca, Span. zeta, a mint, an adaptation of Arabic sikka, a die for coins.

(The term دار السكة is still used in Morocco for the state mint.)

In 1838, J. G. Pfister wrote of the zecchino:

The coin is, however, too well known to require any description, having never changed its types. Like the gold florin it became renowned in the West; as the zecchino in the East for its purity and fine type. It has been in such request, that travellers have found the old Venetian Sequin beyond the Ganges and on the coast of Malabar, and from the Mediterranean to China; the Asiatics scarcely know any other gold coin. Bruce relates that the Arabs asked him, if the Venetians alone, of all the Europeans, possessed mines of gold.

Not only the coin, but the name travelled. The Britannica entry goes on to mention the “sicca rupee”:

In the sense of “newly-coined,” the Hindi or Persian sikka, anglicised sicca, was specifically used of a rupee, containing more silver than the East India Company’s rupee, coined in 1793 by the Bengal government. The “sicca-rupee” ceased to be circulated after 1836.

And the sicca rupee went on its own journey:

I’ve just watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible The Act of Killing (the director’s cut).

In the course of the film various people state that “gangster” comes from the English “free man” – which means gangsters are a good thing. In one scene Jusuf Kalla, vice president of Indonesia, goes as far to claim that Indonesia needs gangsters, because they get things done:

In an interview with Joshua Oppenheimer, Matt Goldberg asked him about “preman”, the word translated as “gangster”:

MG: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is in the film they repeatedly say that “gangster” comes from the word “freeman,” and in English it doesn’t.

JO: No.

MG: So I was curious about the etymology of the English word versus the Indonesian etymology of the word “gangster.”

JO: I’m not exactly sure what the English etymology is.

MG: It really just comes from “gang,” which means “grouping.” So that’s sort of the English etymology.

JO: In Indonesian, the word isn’t translating as “gangster.” It’s “preman”, which comes from the Dutch “préman”, which of course the thing that’s “freeman” in English. The Dutch is part of the way of legitimizing the colonial role, which was inherently exploitative and lawless, in a way. It was a way to get the near lawful men to work for a lawless regime. They used gangsters and they used thugs to do their dirty work, and they recruited people without the same social and family ties that other people have – and they were known as “préman.” After the Dutch left Indonesia, after the Indonesians got loose in 1945, the freemen were not as widely used, but then they went through a real Renaissance where military dictatorship took over. And they were recruited from the children of the préman who had served the Dutch. So they were anti-independence, they were right-wing. They were counter-revolutionary in a sort of way, and they were used to do the government’s dirty work just as the Dutch had used them, and that went on for a long time. In a sense, the word “préman” has been used as an accident in etymology in a way – well, it’s not really an accident – it’s been used to legitimate, to euthanize the existence of a lawless, parallel power structure. It means doing the dirty work for the government, and it means anybody who’s street-tough, who’s unemployed, hanging around on streets, who are very, very oft in an organized crime syndicate, and one word that I thought sort of captured all of that whole sense in English is gangster. “Thug” would sound too low level. “Mafia boss” would sound too high level. So often it’s translated as gangster.

In fact the Dutch word that “preman” originates from is “vrijman” (which I’m sure was just transcribed incorrectly in Oppenheimer’s interview). In his paper Pemuda Pancasila: The Last Loyalist Free Men of Suharto’s Order?, Loren Ryter looks at the changing usage of “preman”:

Before the 1990s, preman more commonly referred to a policeman or a soldier who was not on duty, or to his civilian dress: berpakaian preman or baju preman, in his civvies. Often it also meant an undercover cop. It could even refer to something in private possession, not owned by the state, such as a private car (mobil preman). […] The ambiguity of the term is best understood by thinking of preman as a kind of privateer, an interpretation true to the colonial roots of the term vrijman, or free man. In fact, the lineages of preman can be understood in terms of its connotations in seventeenth-century Batavia and early twentieth-century Deli. To gain a perspective on preman in colonial Deli, it is useful first to briefly consider its folk etymology in North Sumatra today. By all accounts, the newly popularized meaning of preman as borderline-criminal marginal youths first circulated in post-colonial Medan, though some Batak today would like to see the term cleansed of its criminal associations. Sociologist Usman Pelly explained that the term preman “derives from youths who don’t want to be bound to any dependencies, including a job or a contract.” In a similar vein, Mangara Siahaan has written that preman in Medan were just youths whose “hobby it was to hang out, wear cool clothes, and look for a wife or girlfriend. If they find a wife, they relinquish their preman status.” To be preman is a matter of pride, they point out, because a vrijman was a freed plantation slave.

Ryter gives a more detailed explanation of the term’s history:

Early twentieth-century usage in Deli, however, indicates that a vrijman was not a freed slave, but rather a non-contract overseer or a coolie day-laborer, thus still in the employ of the company though not bound to it. One 1926 criminal case involving the torture of insubordinate coolies referred to one of the plantation overseers (mandor), who forced coolies to eat human and horse feces, as a vrijman. (The judge exonerated him, ruling he was only following orders of the chief mandor, a Japanese national, who was sentenced.) A Kompas article drawing on this case and other contemporary sources suggests that vrijman were involved in physical clashes between agents of plantation owners and Javanese and Chinese contract coolies. Although the article concludes that vrijman defended contract coolies against plantation thugs, the actual evidence quoted is ambiguous, stating only that they often “caused trouble.” A vrijman of early seventeenth-century Batavia was similarly semi-employed. Vrijman meant someone “who is not in the service of the [Dutch] East India Company [VOC, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie], but has permission to be in the Indies and carries out trade for the sake of the [VOC].” In other words, he was a trader not listed on the company payrolls. A vrijman was literally a free agent, with one stipulation: that his agency was directed toward the requirements of VOC commerce. Not incidentally, in order to go about his business he required a permit from the company, to whose jurisdiction he therefore deferred. In Batavia, the vrijman was neither exactly a company man nor precisely not a company man.

Ryter then quotes the head of the Pancasila Youth (Pemuda Pancasila), the paramilitary group we see in The Act of Killing. His quote sheds light on why we hear again and again in the film that gangsters are simply “free men”:

The logic of this notion of freedom is nicely expressed by Pemuda Pancasila head Yapto Soerjosoemarno, who as the Jakarta head of an organization that first truly prospered in Medan, is well-placed to bridge the Batavia-Deli divide:

Preman means a free person, exactly free-man, I am one of these. A preman is a person who is free, not tied by any knot, free to determine his own life and death, as long as he fulfills the requirements and the laws of this country. But I am free to choose, to carry out the permitted or the not permitted, with all of its risks. For example, if you’re a thief, you take the risks of being a thief, meaning if you’re caught, you’re finished. If you aren’t caught, you’re no thief right? Legally that’s the way it is; we hold to the principle of the presumption of innocence.

Yapto is bound by the very limitations he establishes, expressing a thematic ambivalence to the law. On the one hand, the law establishes the outer limits of freedom, as the trade permit did for the VOC vrijman, but with more complicated stipulations and a wider territorially reach. Yet the law is such a strict creature of orthodoxy that, ironically, one of its tenets (the presumption of innocence) provides the possibility of freedom from law itself. In a legal system where the proof (bukti) required to pronounce guilt is itself a commodity or an object easily wished into absence by those close to power such as Yapto, the presumption of innocence provides a gateway beyond the law. Freedom lies precisely in the ability to violate the law undemonstrably.

For a while now I’ve been wondering about the origins of the term “fulan”, used in Arabic to refer to an unnamed person – like “so-and-so” in English.


It’s also found in other languages. In Spanish and Portuguese it’s “fulano”; the Spanish equivalent of “Tom, Dick and Harry” is “Fulano, Zutano y Mengano”, and in Portuguese it’s “Fulano, Beltrano e Sicrano”. It shows up as “filano” in the Italian “ogni Tizio, Caio, Sempronio, Mevio, Filano, e Calpurnio” (although only the first three names are commonly used).

There’s general agreement that the Spanish “fulano” comes from the Arabic, and other languages such as Persian, Turkish and Albanian have borrowed the term from Arabic too. However one source I read suggested that it entered Spanish via Hebrew:


Hebrew also has the term ploni almoni, which was used in the Bible:


Cognates of “fulan” are also found in Aramaic and Syriac:


As for where the Semitic root f-l-n or p-l-n originated, one suggestion is that it came from Egyptian “pw rn”, meaning “this man”:


And what happens if a reader doesn’t know that “fulan” means an unspecified person? I came across this in a 1925 paper called Clues for the Arabian Influence on European Musical Theory:


The author added a note:


In two texts I was reading this week I came across the name Callixtus/Callixte. I was already familiar with the name, but encountering it twice in such different environments made me wonder about its origins.

The first reference, in a book about the Protestant Reformation, was to Pope Callixtus III. (Callixtus III was Alfons de Borja, the first of the Borgia popes. If you’re interested in a scholarly look at the infamous Borgia family, I recommend this podcast.)

The second was in the introduction to Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers, in which a man called Callixte was quoted.

The name has various forms: Callixtus, Callistus, Calixtus, Callixte/Calixte (in French), Calixto and Calisto (in Spanish and Portuguese), Callisto (in Italian). It derives, via Latin, from the Greek name Kallistos (Κάλλιστος), meaning “most beautiful”. (In Greek mythology, Callisto (Καλλιστώ) was a beautiful nymph, a favourite of of Artemis.)

The variants may have been influenced by the Latin calix, “cup” (from which we get the word “chalice” in English), as argued here:

There were three popes called Callixtus or Callistus, the first in the third century, the other two in the Middle Ages. It is highly likely that the first of these was originally Callistus, from Gr. kallistos, “most beautiful”, a common name during the Roman Empire among Greeks, former slaves and their descendants. Either by accident or deliberately, some monk in the centuries after the third century decided to alter Callistus to Callixtus, to make it look as if it derived from calix, “goblet” or “chalice” – a reference to the cup used at the Last Supper (i.e. the “Holy Grail”).

I’m not sure that’s what actually happened, but I like the idea of changing history with one letter.

From A Gujarati Map and Pilot Book of the Indian Ocean, c.1750 by Samira Sheikh.

The recent rediscovery of a remarkable eighteenth-century Gujarati manual containing a map of the coast of the Gulf of Cambay, a set of sailing directions, and a list of Indian Ocean ports frequented by Gujarati sailors is a welcome addition to the still scanty resources available for reconstructing the history of South Asian cartography and seafaring. In 2001 Dr Emilie Savage-Smith found the manuscript stitched into a scrapbook labelled ‘Addition of Curiosities to Vol. III’, now in St John’s College, Oxford. The manuscript had been bequeathed to the College in 1754 by John Pointer (1668–1754), an Oxford clergyman, who had listed it inaccurately in his compilation Oxoniensis Academia, calling it ‘a China MS. and Map’.

On inspection, the St John’s manuscript proved to be a pilot’s manual, functionally akin to the portolan charts used by medieval Mediterranean sailors or, more specifically, to the rutters, or books of sailing directions, used by Breton and English sailors in the fifteenth and sixteenth century before charts were made for use in the seas of northwestern Europe. In Gujarati it would be called a rahmānī (pilot’s manual) or mālam / mu’allim-nī pothī (captain’s book). The undated manual is consistent in appearance with an early eighteenth century origin. It shows no staining or signs of wear that would indicate shipboard use.

Gujarati map of the Gulf of Cambay, India. North is at the top. The stitching used to bind it into the scrapbook where it is now found runs down the middle along the fold. (St John’s College, Oxford.)

Gujarati map of the Gulf of Cambay, India. North is at the top. The stitching used to bind it into the scrapbook where it is now found runs down the middle along the fold. (St John’s College, Oxford.)

The text is in both Gujarati and Arabic. Most unusually for a Gujarati manuscript, the sequence of pages runs from right to left following Arabic, not Gujarati, convention, so that the manuscript starts on folio 25a and ends on folio 35b.

The text of the pilot’s manual contains four kinds of information: talismanic diagrams with ritual instructions; sailing directions for navigating the waters near the ports of Surat and Jiddah; a list of about ninety Indian Ocean ports; and the stellar altitudes for those ports. All text is in Gujarati except for the talismanic diagrams, which contain Arabic letters and are accompanied by a list of the numerical values of the letters forming the Arabic alphabet in the abjad system. The writing on the map is also in Gujarati, with the exception of some Arabic letters in the margin, whose meaning is unclear.

This manual, and in particular the map that it contains, offers evidence that pre-colonial South Asian sailors did not, as is often believed, sail exclusively by land- and sea-marks and according to seafaring lore but employed maps and written sailing directions. Furthermore, the manual differs significantly from other seafaring manuals of the same period, which suggests that South Asian sailors in the Indian Ocean in the eighteenth century were drawing on a variety of direction-finding techniques, including some derived from Arab and European sources. Although nothing suggests that this pilot book was ever used in practical navigation, its very existence casts doubt on the assumption that South Asian sailors were inherently conservative and resistant to technological influence. Along with other surviving Gujarati pilot manuals, the St John’s manual represents significant evidence for the interchange of maritime and cartographic knowledge among the seafarers of the Indian Ocean.

Gujarati pilot’s manual. Folio 25b, on the right, includes the Arabic alphabet with abjad numerical values, two diagrams for talismanic tablets, and instructions on making a protective talisman to attach to a vessel. Folio 26a, on the left, gives instructions for sailing to Surat. The diagram below the text gives the depth soundings for the approach into Surat. (St John’s College, Oxford.)

Gujarati pilot’s manual. Folio 25b, on the right, includes the Arabic alphabet with abjad numerical values, two diagrams for talismanic tablets, and instructions on making a protective talisman to attach to a vessel. Folio 26a on the left, gives instructions for sailing to Surat. The diagram below the text gives the depth soundings for the approach into Surat. (St John’s College, Oxford.)

The pilot book opens with the Arabic alphabet written out in an assured, literate hand (folio 25b). The numerical value of each letter according to the abjad system, written in Gujarati-Devanagari numerals, is given below it. Below these letters and numbers and separated from them by a double line in ink are two diagrams in which permutations of the same set of seven Arabic characters are arranged in inked frames, although this time the writing is in a different and less assured hand.

Since abjad values are often used to indicate the date, it might be hoped that the combination of the numerical values of the seven letters would yield the date of the pilot book. However, the abjad value of the letters is 1328, which does not correspond to a likely date for the book. According to the Islamic Hijri reckoning, this would work out to 1910 CE, a date ruled out by the year of the bequest to St. John’s (1754). According to the Vikram Samvat calendar widely used in India, the date would work out to 1278 CE, and according to the much less common Śaka Śālivāhana calendar (more widely used in South India), it corresponds to 1406–1407 CE, but both these dates are too early for the text and inconsistent with the information given in the manuscript.

What seems more likely is that the letters and their numerical values represent a verse from the Qur’an or the notation of constellations invoked to protect the vessel. The latter inference is borne out by the instructions written below the diagrams on folio 25b in Gujarati in the Devanagari script:

After making it into one board, [we] write that constellation upon it and tie it swinging to the back of the vessel – tied close enough that it keeps floating, then Alā Taālā (Allah on High) [will] give [fulfil] desires. Do this on Friday night and day [and] on the day of Monday. Right and true is the one Alā (Allah).

Evidently, then, the diagrams had a ritual purpose, that of safeguarding the vessel. Such diagrams functioned as talismans, and similar ones made up of the initial letters of a Qur’anic verse, or some numerical values thereof, are still common in South Asia.

The instructions, however, refer to a nakshatra, or ‘constellation’, so it may be possible that the Arabic letters are a mnemonic for a set of stars or astral combinations required for navigation. Such mnemonics were common among Arab sailors from the fifteenth century and may have been adopted by Gujarati sailors too. The text that follows does not use Arabic names for the stars or asterisms (star clusters), only Gujarati ones. If the Arabic letters make up a mnemonic of astral names, this still does not explain why their abjad values are listed.

The invocation of Allah indicates that the pilot book was for, and possibly compiled by, Muslim sailors whose language was Gujarati but who had a basic knowledge of Arabic. No direct information is given, however, as to where in Gujarat the text might have originated. Several communities of Muslim seafarers have been established along the coast of the modern Indian state of Gujarat since the eighth century. The St John’s pilot book has distinct similarities to other known nautical manuals from Kachchh (Kutch), a district in northwestern Gujarat that has a long tradition of seafaring.

I’ve just started reading Raymond Queneau’s novel Zazie dans le métro, which is quite a challenge for me as it’s in very colloquial French. Not only is there a lot of slang, but parts are written phonetically, exactly the way people speak (or spoke in 1959). For example, the first lines are:

Doukipudonktan, se demanda Gabriel excédé. Pas possible, ils se nettoient jamais.

Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated. Ts incredible, they never clean themselves. (translation by Barbara Wright)

(“Doukipudonktan” is a rendering of “D’où qu’ils puent donc tant ?”. In Louis Malle’s 1960 film of the book, the English subtitle for “Doukipudonktan” reads “Holifart whatastink!”)

On the second page of the book I read this line:

Le ptit type examina le gabarit de Gabriel et se dit c’est un malabar, mais les malabars c’est toujours bon, ça profite jamais de leur force, ça serait lâche de leur part.

The little chap examined Gabriel’s dimensions and said to himself he’s a Tarzan, but Tarzans are always goodnatured, never take advantage of their strength, that’d be a coward’s trick. (translation by Barbara Wright)

I hadn’t come across the French word “malabar” before and immediately wondered if it had something to do with India’s Malabar coast or region.

Barbara Wright (whose translations of Queneau have been called “miraculous”) used “Tarzan” for “malabar”. Various French-English dictionaries offer “muscleman”, “bruiser”, or “hooligan”.

Wiktionnaire gives the definition “personnage costaud” (someone who’s sturdy or burly), and suggests it could derive from the Malbars, people of South Indian origin on the island of Réunion whose ancestors were brought as indentured labourers in the nineteenth century and worked as dockers and “coolies”. (“Malbar” is also the term used for Hindus in Mauritius.)

A French blogger writes:

In French, the word malabar is used to designate a man who is physically strong and well built, a muscle man, so to speak. This word has been transmitted to us French through the sailors, because in its primary meaning, a malabar is a docker, whom the western sailors have come across in the Eastern harbours and who originates from the Malabar coast in India.

Elsewhere it is suggested that “malabar” in the sense of “large” or “strong” originates in African prisons – though the site doesn’t explain further, except that it might derive from “mâle” (male, manly). It also cites a second meaning and origin for “malabar” of “malin” (cunning), possibly from a type of trader found in the free ports of the time.

There’s a French chewing gum called Malabar whose logo was until recently Monsieur Malabar, a robust-looking and very blond gentleman:

All in all, I’m not much clearer as to the etymology of “malabar” in French. If any French speakers or linguists can shed light on its origin or current use, please do!

Somehow it’s taken me until now to realise that Puccini’s opera Turandot is based on Turandokht, a story found in Nezami’s Haft paykar:

In Haft paykar (The seven images), the life-story of Bahrām Gōr (421-39) is told as the paragon of ideal kingship. Like Laylī o Majnūn, this poem was based on a corpus of disconnected anecdotes about Bahrām’s adventures as a fabulous hunter and a lover. In this instance, one of the devices Neẓāmī resorted to was the application of an astrological design. The poem centers on a set of seven fairy tales told to Bahrām by seven princesses from the seven parts of the world. Each day of the week he visits one of the princesses, for whom he has built a pavilion decorated in the color of the planet governing that day as well as the part of the world from which she comes. In this construction all the correspondences recognized by the medieval Persian world-view are woven together with exquisite artistry. The seven tales are also remarkable for the use of folkloristic material. They include the story of Tūrāndoḵt, or Turandot, which inspired Western works of literature and music such as plays by Carlo Gozzi and Friedrich Schiller and the opera Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.

Set design for Puccini’s Turandot by Galileo Chini. Image from Library of Congress.

Set design for Puccini’s Turandot by Galileo Chini. Image from Library of Congress.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Puccini’s opera is set in China and based on a Persian story transmitted through various European versions, there is a longstanding debate about the pronunciation of Turandot – whether the final “t” is pronounced or not.

It might seem obvious that the “t” should be pronounced as the name comes from Turandokht (“daughter of Turan”), but many argue that Puccini intended the pronunciation to be “Turan-do”.

Rosa Raisa, the first ever Turandot, stated in a 1962 interview that both Puccini and Toscanini (the opera’s first conductor) pronounced the name without a final “t”. This was confirmed by the soprano Eva Turner, who was at the first performance in 1926, and went on to perform the title role many times:

The same argument is made by Puccini scholar Patrick Vincent Casali in a detailed essay called The Pronunciation of Turandot: Puccini’s Last Enigma (summarised here).

However, despite this evidence, Turandot is still widely pronounced with a final “t”.

Fritz Meier outlined the history of the Turandot story in a 1941 essay called Turandot in Persien, and noted the spelling of the name in a collection of stories by the French orientalist François Pétis de la Croix called Les Mille et un jours (The Thousand and One Days):

Turandot ist die italianisierte Form des bei Pétis de la Croix erscheinenden Tourandocte; der Franzose hat alle persischen ch mit c wiedergegeben, so Can statt Chân, Tourandocte statt Tûrândocht.

Turandot is the Italianised form of Tourandocte which appears in the Pétis de la Croix version; the Frenchman rendered the Persian ch as c, so Chân became Can, and Tûrândocht became Tourandocte.

Puccini’s version of the story is based on a play by Carlo Gozzi, who was inspired by the story in the Pétis de la Croix collection. Gozzi spelt the name Turandot, but it has been argued that as a Venetian, he intended it to have a hard “t” – “Turandott” in the Venetian dialect being the equivalent of Italian “Turandotta”.

Even though it’s clear that Puccini wanted it to be “Turan-do”, now that I know the name comes from Turandokht, Turandot with a final “t” sounds right to me. And it seems the debate amongst opera aficionados will continue for some time yet.

I’ll leave you with Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Turandot – with Persian subtitles:

I’ve decided to make this blog a bit more focused. I’ve deleted most of the previous posts (not that there were many), and from now on I’ll be using this space predominantly to share my etymological and language-related explorations.

Polyglot editions of the Bible were flagships of sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanist scholarship. Erudite works grounded on the collection, collation, and publication of manuscript texts of scripture in an increasingly ambitious and bewildering array of languages, they promised to provide the materials for an eventual reconstruction of the original, pure text of the Bible, as it had been dictated by the Holy Ghost, based on the comparison of the variant readings preserved in the different languages through which the tradition had been transmitted in antiquity.

Bishop Walton’s London Polyglot (1654-1657) contained Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Persian, Samaritan and Syriac versions of parts of the Bible, with sometimes eight variants of the same passage presented.

I chanced upon this short article by E.F.F. Bishop in The Bible Translator journal in 1951, which commented on a mistake in the Arabic translation. It seems Beroea (modern-day Veria) had been confused with Aleppo (once known as Beroea):

A Patriotic Mistranslation in the Arabic of the London Polyglott