Note: this glossary includes words from all the areas I have written about – not just Yemen, where the the current stories are set.
Ab: (Farsi) – Water
Ab Duq: (Farsi) – a side dish consisting of yoghurt (maast), mint (n’na) and cucumber.
Ab Gusht: (Farsi) – Literally ‘water of meat’ – or ‘broth’ – but, in fact, a nasty meat and spinach soup the consistency of snot.
Ab-i-Jo: (Farsi) – Beer (literally ‘water of rye’).
Abu: (Arabic) – Father.
Adhan: (Arabic) – Evening prayers.
Afghani: (Pashtu) – The unit of Afghan currency. The official exchange rate was 52 Afghanis to US$1.00.
Aftabeh: (Farsi and Arabic) – A curious water pot used when washing one’s bottom after defecation (Persians and Arabs wash their bottoms rather than wiping them). It is extraordinarily difficult to get water to the affected part of the body while squatting. The aftabeh was designed especially to overcome this difficulty. Using one is something of an art.
Ahlan wa sahlan: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – ‘Welcome’.
Ahsante/Ahsante Sana: (Swahili) – Thank you/thank you very much.
Ain: (Arabic) – Spring (see also ‘Chah’, ‘Bahar’
Al Ahram: (Arabic) – ‘The Pyramids’ (a major Cairo newspaper. ‘Ahram’ (pyramids’) is the plural form of ‘Haram’ (pyramid).
Al Akhbar: (Arabic) – ‘The News’ (an influential Egyptian newspaper.
Al Goumhourriya: (Arabic) – ‘The Republic’ (an influential Egyptian newspaper.
Al Ittihad: (Arabic) – Union City (Medinat=city: Ittihad=union) putative – but never quite finished – capital of the Federation of South Arabia.
Alf Layla wa Layla: (Arabic) – ‘A thousand and one nights’ (literally,’One thousand nights and a night’).
Alhamdullilah: (Arabic Farsi, Urdu, Hindi) – “Thanks be to God”.
Alf /Alef: (Arabic) – One thousand
Allah: (Arabic), Farsi, Urdu) – God.
Allahu Akbar: (Arabic) – Literally ‘God is Great’. But often used in the sense ‘God damn it!’
Amri: (Arabic) – a member of the tribe of Awamir.
Anar: (Farsi) – Pomegranates
Anarak: (Farsi) – A small mining town in central Iran. The name translates as “Your pomegranate”.
Angrezi: (Farsi) – Englishman.
Anna: (Hindi) – Middle-size unit of Indian currency. See under ‘Rupee’)
Aqaba: (Arabic) – Pass (as a mountain pass)
Arak: One of several forms of Middle Eastern Vodka. Arak was usually made from potatoes.
Arrian: Greek philosopher and military historian who lived from about 92 to 176 AD. He wrote the famous “Anabasis” (March up Country) of Alexander” – the most complete history of the conquests of Alexander the Great known to exist.
Asakir: (Arabic) – Soldiers – plural form of ‘Askari’ (‘soldier).
Ashlar masonry: The strongest and most suitable stonework for monumental architecture is ashlar masonry, which consists of regularly cut blocks (usually rectangular).
Askari: (Arabic) – Soldier. See also ‘Asakir’.
Atesh Kadeh: (Farsi) – Zoroastrian fire temple.
Awamir: One of several friendly bedouin tribes resident in South Arabia.
Ayatollah: (Farsi) – High-ranking theological official – usually restricted to the twelve highest ranking clerics in the country. Those who carry the title are experts in Islamic studies, such as jurisprudence, ethics and philosophy.
Ayyubid: Descriptive of the dynasty founded in 1171 By Salah ed-din al-Ayyubi (known to the West as ‘Saladin’).
Bab: (Arabic) – Gate.
Baba: (Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi) – Slang for ‘grandfather’.
Babur: Also known as ‘Babur the Tiger’. The founder and first ruler of the Moghul Empire. He was born in 1517 in the Ferghana Valley in what is now Uzbekistan in central Asia. He became king in 1530 at the age of 13 and ruled until 1556. He was a direct descendant of both Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane. Humayun (at whose tomb this document begins) was his son.
Ba’daz Ruzeh: (Farsi) – the evening meal breaking the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Badgir: (Farsi) – Wind tower – tall chimney-like towers with louvres on all four sides to capture the wind and funnel it down into the living chambers for cooling.
Bagh: (Hindi, Farsi) – Garden.
Bahar: (Farsi) – Spring (as in ‘spring follows winter’) – see also ‘Ain’, ‘Chah’.
Bahasa: (Indonesian) – The language of Indonesia is called ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ – which literally means ‘the language of Indonesia’, but colloquially everyone calls it just ‘Bahasa’ (‘the language’).
Bait (or Beit): (Arabic) – House.
Bakhsheesh: (Arabic, Farsi, Hindi) – Alms.
Bakhsdar: (Farsi) – District Governor. Above a Kadkhoda (mayor) but below a Farmandar (county governor).
Bala: (Farsi, Pashto) – Upper or High
Bala Hissar: (Farsi, Pashto) – Upper (or high) fortress
Bala Khaneh: (Farsi) – Balcony (literally, ‘Upper room”). Our word ‘balcony’ and the French ‘balcone’ are direct derivates.
Baladi: (Egyptian Arabic) – Literally ‘of the country’ – used to describe either the traditional way of life or the quarters in which it is lived. Implied in the word are the traditions of rural Egypt – a rustic way of life.
Baluchistan: (Farsi) – The southeasternmost province of Iran. The name means ‘home of the Baluchis’.
Bandar: (Arabic, Farsi) Port.
Baniyas: (Hindi) – Merchants, shopkeepers
Barasti: (Farsi) – Beehive-shaped huts of wattle and daub.
Barf: (Farsi) – Snow
Barron: (Farsi) – Rain
Bazaar: (Farsi, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi) – ‘Market place’ usually covered. See also ‘Souk’.
Bebakhsheed: (Farsi) – Pardon me.
Beit: (Arabic) – literally ‘house’, but in this usage ‘tribe’ as in ‘Beit Zabinat’ (the ‘house’ or ‘tribe’ of Zabinaat’)
Bemaristan: (Farsi) – Hospital. See also ‘Maristan’.
Bidi: (Hindi) – Cheap Indian cigarette made from tobacco dust wrapped in a leaf. About the size of a cigarette and the colour of a cigar, they were powerfully strong and tasted absolutely vile.
Bir: (Arabic) – Well (See also ‘Bur’).
Birket: (Egyptian Arabic) – Lake.
Bismillah: (Farsi, Urdu) – Let’s go!. Literally, ‘In the name of Allah the mighty and compassionate, let us depart’.
Bukra: (Arabic) – Tomorrow.
Bulbul: (Arabic) – Nightingale.
Bur: (Arabic)- – Well (See also ‘Bir’)
Bwana: (Swahili) – Boss.
Cantonment: Section of an Indian city laid out by the British for the use of senior British military and political personnel. Mostly they have wide, tree-shaded streets with spacious bungalows set back in huge gardens.
Caravanserai: (Arabic, Farsi) – a sort of prehistoric motel – a place where caravans could overnight in comfort and safety. Usually a caravanserai consisted of a large fortified hollow square with space for a caravan’s goods and animals on the ground floor and for the caravanseers on the upper floors. A very large caravanserai might be a hundred yards square.
Chador: (Farsi) – Women’s outer garment – a half-circle of light material worn covering the entire body, including the head.
Chah: (Farsi) – Spring (as a spring of fresh water). See also ‘Bahar’, ‘Ain’
Chai: (Arabic, Farsi, Hindi) Tea
Chalwar: (Urdu) – Trousers. Usually very baggy and caught in at the ankles. Normally worn with a Kamise (a calf-length shirt worn over the chalwar). The ‘Kamise’ is related – both linguistically and functionally – to our word ‘chemise”
Charpoy: (Hindi) – a wooden cot with a mesh woven of jute fibres or rope to support the sleeper.
Chatrange: (Farsi) – Chess. The game was invented in Iran and some of the words used today reflect its origins. ‘Rook’ = ‘Rukh’ (castle): ‘Check’ = ‘shah-ak’ (‘your king’): ‘checkmate’ = ‘shah-ak maat’ (‘your king is dead’).
Chehar: (Farsi) – Four
Chehar Bagh: (Farsi) – Four gardens
Chello Kebab: (Farsi) – Although the name actually means only rice (chello) with meat (kebab), it is virtually the national dish of Iran. The kebab, taken from a fat-tailed sheep, was always lean and tender and was marinated in a sauce that tasted of ambrosia. About half-a-pound of butter was melted inside a steaming mound of rice and a raw egg broken over it and stirred in, cooking in the heat of the rice. A dash of sumac powder on top and you had a dish fit for a king. Chello Kebab is one of my all-time favourite ethnic dishes.
Chowk: (Hindi, Urdu) – another word for ‘bazaar/market – as in ‘Chandni Chowk’ in Delhi
Chowkidar: (Hindi, Arabic) – Watchman.
Dash: (Nigerian slang) – To give somebody ‘Dash’ is to reward them for services, whether deserved or not. Thus ‘dash’ can mean ‘tip’, ‘baksheesh’ (alms) or some sort of ‘bribe’
Deodar: Himalayan cedar – a very large tree, with a pronounced ‘weeping’ habit. It is much used in construction.
Dhurri: (Urdu) – Largish, hand-knotted tribal rug made of cotton – usually with simple geometric designs
Deir: (Egyptian Arabic) – Monastery.
Dhobi: (Hindi, Urdu) – Laundry worker.
Dik dik: A small, southern African antelope, less than two feet high.
Diwan: (Hindi, Arabic, Urdu) – an informal meeting between the ruler and the ruled. Absolutely expected of an Arab ruler, it was where any citizen could have his say without fear of prosecution. The word, its meaning considerably changed, has come down to us as ‘divan’ (sofa) to describe the bench and pillows on which the ruler sat during his ‘diwan’.
Diwan-i-Am: (Hindi, Arabic, Urdu) – Hall of public audience.
Diwan-i-Kas: (Hindi, Urdu) – Hall of private audience.
Donga: (Swahili, Hindi) – Small gully, ditch
Doonga: (Kashmiri) – The basic mode of transport on the lakes, rivers and canals of Kashmir. A doonga is about thirty feet long with a beam of ten or so feet and a draught of less than a foot. Bow and stern are identical. The amidships portion contains a wooden cabin, usually with a thatched roof. A shikar has the hull of a ‘doonga’, but is without the superstructure.
Duka: (Swahili) – country shop – sort of a small general store.
EAS: East African Shilling – unit of common used in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Arabia. One EAS = 1 English shilling.
Edjazeh Hast?: (Farsi) – ‘Have I your permission?’ In Iran it is regarded as impolite if a younger person (or one of inferior status) does not request permission of an older (or superior) person when joining him/her.
EGPC: Acronym for ‘Egyptian General Petroleum Company’, the national oil company and chief regulatory body of the oil industry in Egypt.
Eid-ul-Fitr: (Arabic, Farsi) – The holiday that falls at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Families gather, feasts are held and gifts are exchanged. It is, in many ways, analogous to Christmas. See also ‘Ramadan’.
Eqal and Kuffiyeh: (Arabic) – The eqal and kuffiyeh together comprise the classical Arab headdress worn by (for instance) Saudi princes. The kuffiyeh is the cotton cloth that covers the head and extends downward beyond the shoulders. The Eqal is the complex ornamented headband that keeps the kuffiyeh in place.
Fain?: (Arabic) – Where?
Farda: (Farsi) – Tomorrow.
Farman: (Farsi) – county
Farmandar: (Farsi) – County governor.
Farmandari: (Farsi) – County office – seat of a county governor.
Farsakh: (Farsi) – Persian unit of distance measurement. One farsakh = six kilometres or about 3.6 miles.
Farsi: The language of Iran
Ferang, Ferangi: (Arabic, Urdu, Farsi) – Foreigner – derived from the Arabic word for Frenchman (Frank).
Fesh fesh: (Arabic) – The bottom of large wadis were mostly covered in a very fine-grained deposit known as loess. Whenever the loess was subjected to vibrations – as by convoys of trucks – a substance called feshfesh formed. Feshfesh was beige dust finer in consistency than talcum powder. It literally flowed like water so that what seemed to be a smooth, drivable surface, might cover a deeper surface of significant relief. It was a very real threat to driving in large parts of South Arabia.
Fellah: (Arabic) – Egyptian peasant. Plural is ‘fellahin’.
Felucca: (Arabic) – as used here, ‘sailboat’. There are many sorts of sailboats on the Nile. Although they were collectively known to foreigners as ‘feluccas’, they had, in fact, more than a dozen different names.
Flash-Bang: Basically very large firecrackers that make a big flash and a lot of noise, but are essentially harmless. SWAT squads in America – and the British SAS – use something similar when bursting into a room full of terrorists/bandits.
Floos: (Arabic) – Money.
Foq: (Arabic) – ‘Up’
Futah: (Hadhrami Arabic) – Item of male dress. Two or three yards of material worn as a sarong-like wraparound kilt. (See also ‘Longi’).
Gallabiya: (Arabic) – Traditional male dress – a long, loose, flowing nightgown-like robe with long sleeves and a button-up neck. Usually worn over a vest and enormous under-drawers.
Gamoosa: (Hindi, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – Water buffalo.
Gard-o-Khak: (Farsi) – small whirlwind, a dust-devil.
Gezira: (Egyptian Arabic) – ‘island. Plural ‘Gezirat’. In classical Arabic the word for island is ‘Jazira” – as in the TV station in Bahrain, called ‘al Jazira’ (the Island) .
Gharry: A two-wheeled horse-drawn conveyance used as taxis, especially in southern Egypt.
Ghee: (Hindi, Urdu) – clarified butter, much used in Indian cooking.
Gibna: (Arabic) – ‘Cheese’.
Gibna Beidha: (Arabic) – Goat cheese (literally ‘white cheese’).
Gibna Romi: (Arabic) – Cheese made from cows’ milk (literally ‘Roman cheese’.)
Gulab Jamun: (Hindi) -Deep-fried balls of khoya (reduced milk) soaked in rose-flavoured syrup.
Goondas: (Hindi) – Bandits, thugs. I wonder if this old Urdu word could be the precursor of the English word ‘goons’.
Gurdwara: (Hindi) – Sikh temple.
Hadhramaut Bedouin Legion: see HBL
Hadhrami: (Arabic) – a resident of the Wadi Hadhramaut and immediately surroundings.
Hakim: (Hindi) – Doctor – especially one who practices ‘traditional’ medicine.
Haj: (Arabic) – The traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, which each good Muslim was expected to make (or at least attempt) once in his/her lifetime. Once the pilgrimage had been completed, the pilgrim could claim the title ‘Haj’ to be appended to the front of his name for the rest of his or her life.
Halal: (Arabic, Farsi) – ‘Halal’ is the exact equivalent of the Jewish word ‘Kosher’. It describes the only sort of food that may be eaten by a Muslim. Food not ‘halal’ – meat, for instance, not slain in accordance with Muslim religious law is forbidden, and to eat it very sinful.
Hammam: (Farsi, Urdu, Arabic, Hindi) – Public bath-house.
Harmatan: (Hausa, Fulani) – A dry wind that blows from the Sahara to the sea during the winter months. A West African equivalent to the Egyptian ‘Khamsin’ or the East African ‘Southwest Monsoon’.
Hatari: (Swahili) – Danger.
HBL: Hadhramaut Bedouin Legion. A body of young Bedouin troops recruited by the British from friendly tribes throughout the East and West Aden protectorates and used to maintain law and order throughout British South Arabia. Originally there were about 1500 jundies (local word for trooper) in the HBL. With our arrival on the scene – and with use of our more-than-ample funds – a further 1000 troops were raised specifically to protect 0ur white asses whenever we were out in the field.
Hendovaneh: (Farsi, Urdu, Pashto) – Watermelon
Hookah: Another word for ‘water pipe’, also called ‘Qalion’, ‘Hubble-bubble’,
HPS: Acronym for Hadhramaut Pump Scheme – a British initiative for the drilling of thousands of shallow wells, the installation and maintenance of the thousands of pumps throughout the Wadi Hadhramaut.
Hukuma: (South Arabian Arabic) – Government. The word comes from the Turkish ‘Hukm” (edict).
Humayun: The second great Moghul emperor (reigned 1530-1556). His was the first of a series of splendid imperial tombs – a series culminating in the Taj Mahal.
Husn: (Arabic) – Fort.
Ibeje: (Yoruba) Twins are regarded as an evil omen in Yoruba custom. As a rule one of them is slain and a small wooden replica of the child is given to its mother, who is supposed to treat it as though it were alive. The statuette is called an “Ibeje”.
Iftar: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – The first meal after a day of fasting during the fasting month of Ramadan. It occurs at twilight – ‘when it is possible to tell a white thread from a black thread at arm’s length.
Imam: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi) – Quite senior Muslim religious leader – roughly the equivalent of ‘bishop’.
INS: Acronym for the ‘Immigration and Naturalization Service’ of the US government.
Islam: The official name of the religion practiced by Muslims. The word means ‘submission’ in Arabic.
Iwan: (Farsi, Arabic) – Literally ‘porch’, but usually used to describe the space under the arches flanking the sahns in mosques.
Jalan: (Bahasa Indonesia) – Street.
Jambier: Arabic) – Curved tribal dagger widely worn in South Arabia. Many had silver scabbards and handles of rhino horn.
Jamia: (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi) – Friday. Also ‘Jama’, ‘Jomeh’
Jamia Masjid: (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi) – ‘Friday Mosque. See also ‘Masjid-e-Jomeh’.
Jebel: (Arabic) – Mount, Mountain
Jazira: (Classical Arabic) – ‘Island’. This word also refers to the land area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Here, also, it means ‘the Island’.
Jenebali: (Farsi) – ‘Excellency’ – a much over-used honorific often used to address anyone deemed superior to the speaker.
Jihad: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – Holy war.
Jube: (Farsi) – irrigation ditch
Kadkhoda: (Farsi) – Mayor. Literally ‘the hand of God’.
Katoy: (Thai) – transvestite
Kavir: (Farsi) – Desert
Kamise: (Urdu) – a long shirt, normally worn outside baggy trousers (see ‘Chalwars’). The word is directly related to the English ‘chemise’
Kebab: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – a piece of meat roasted on a skewer over a bed of charcoal.
Kethir: (Arabic) – ‘A lot’ or ‘too much’, depending upon the context.
Khak: (Farsi) – Dust. (Also the colour of dust, i.e. tan). The English word ‘khaki’ (beige or tan), comes from the Farsi ‘khak’.
Khal: (Arabic) – Vinegar.
Khamseen: (Arabic) – A hot southwesterly wind coming from the Sahara. It is so-called because it blows for fifty days between April and June. ‘Khamseen’ is the Arabic word for ‘fifty’.
Khan: (Arabic) – An urban version of a caravanserai. See also ‘Wakalet’.
Khar: (Farsi) – Donkey, Ass
Khawaga: (Egyptian Arabic) – Technically ‘Copts’ (ie members of the Coptic Church), but in practice also applied to foreigners – especially those liked or admired by the Egyptians.
Khayam: (Farsi) – Testicles
Khiaban: (Farsi) – Avenue
Khiaban-i-Chehar Bagh: (Farsi) – Avenue of the four gardens.
Khoda: (Farsi, Urdu) – God – see also ‘Allah’
Khoda hafez: (Farsi. Urdu) – Goodbye (Literally ‘God keep you’)
Kikoi: (Maa) – Common dress for Masai warriors. A kikoi is something like a single bed-sheet with two opposite corners knotted together and worn thrown over one shoulder. As a rule they hang barely far enough down to cover what my mother would have called ‘possible’ (as in ‘wash down as far as possible, then up as far as possible, then wash possible’).
Klong: (Thai) – Canal.
Kofta: (Arabic) – Mincemeat cooked on a skewer over charcoal.
Kopje: (Afrikaans) – any abrupt outcrop of granitic rock rising above the grassy plains of southern Africa.
Koran: (Arabic) – the Muslim version of the Holy Bible, purportedly dictated by the prophet Mohammed.
Koshari: (Arabic) – A popular Egyptian fast food. It is a vegetarian dish, consisting of pasta, rice, lentils and chickpeas (with or without sauce).
Kuh: (Farsi).Mount, mountain
Kunying: (Thai) – A title bestowed by the King – roughly the equivalent of the title of ‘Lady’ in England.
Kurseh: (Farsi) – a combination of charcoal heater and low table used for heating in the Iranian winters.
Kuruj: (Baluchi Farsi) – Dates.
Kuttab: (Turkish, but used in Egypt) – School. Usually built as an act of charity by wealthy citizens and often connected to a Sabil (fountain)’
Kwaheri: (Swahili) – Goodbye
Kwalimang: (Hausa, Fulani) – Baobab tree
Layla: (Arabic) – Night.
Laksana passpor: (Bahasa Indonesia) – Temporary passport used for a single, one-way flight from Indonesia to any other country. Every Indonesian child adopted by foreigners left the country on a Laksana Passpor.
LE: Livre Egyptienne (Egyptian Pound) The unit of Egyptian currency. Nominally worth 21 English shillings – and hence often called ‘guinea’ – but actually worth only about seven shillings.
Longi: (South Arabian Arabic) – item of male dress. Two or three yards of material worn as a sarong-like wraparound kilt. (See also ‘Futah’).
Ma’at: (Arabic, Farsi) – ‘Dead.’
Madrasseh: (Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi) – Religious school – usually attached to a mosque.
Ma’adi: (Arabic) – Ferry.
Mafraj: (Yemeni Arabic) – A reception room in Yemeni houses especially for the social chewing of Qat.
Mahri: An inhabitant of the Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra.
Maidan: (Farsi, Arabic) – Town square.
Maidan-i-Shah: (Farsi) – Emperor’s Square
Maji Moto: (Swahili) – Hot Water (usually used to mean ‘hot springs’.)
Ma’lish: (Arabic) – ‘Never mind’
Masjid: (Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi) – Mosque.
Mamnoo’ah: (Pashtu, Arabic) – Forbidden.
Manahil: One of several friendly Bedouin tribes living in the East Aden Protectorate.
Manyata: (Maa) – Masai village
Mard: (Farsi) – Man.
Maristan: (Arabic) – Hospital. See also ‘Bemaristan’.
Masbout: (Arabic) – Perfect, just right
Masjid-i-Jomeh: (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi) Friday Mosque (See also ‘Jamia Masjid’)
Mazar: (Pashto, Farsi) – tomb
Mazar-i-Sharif: (Pashto, Farsi) – Afghan city – the name means ‘Tomb of the Sharif’
Mehmankhaneh: (Farsi) – Guesthouse. (‘Mehman’=’travel, traveller’: ‘khaneh’=‘house’).
Mohandes: (Arabic, Farsi) – “Engineer” – one with a university degree. Also widely used as an honorific.
Melli: (Farsi) – National
Milh: (Arabic) – Salt.
Minbar: (Arabic) – A niche in the centre of the qibla wall of a mosque – often intensely decorated – to show the direction for prayer
Moharram: (Farsi,) – Sh’ia month of penance when masses of Iranians stream down streets, flagellating themselves with chains, barbed wire or whips.
Moiya: (Arabic) – water.
Moiya Wallah: (Arabic) – Anyone who works with water.
Moran: (Maa) – Masai warrior – usually one who has proven his bravery by killing a lion with a spear,
Mosheen: (Farsi) – A generic Farsi word describing any sort of motor vehicle – cars, trucks, etc. Its etymology – from the English ‘machine’ – is obvious.
Mostarah: (Urdu, Pashto, Farsi) – Toilet – often of the outdoor variety.
Mudir: (Farsi) – Boss.
Muezzin: (Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu) – Muezzins call the faithful to prayers five times each day from the minarets of the mosques. The call is chanted in haunting minor keys, and the keening of muezzins, especially at dusk, is one of my loveliest memories of the Middle East. Unfortunately, more and more mosques are ‘going modern’ – playing recordings – usually scratchy and distorted – of the call to prayer.
Mugama’a: (Arabic) Central government offices in Cairo. Home of the dreaded secret service.
Mullah: (Arabic) – Religious leaders – roughly ‘pastors’. They were subordinate to Imams.
Muqqadam: (Mahri) – Warlord.
Muqqani: (Arabic and Farsi) – Well-digger, or someone who repairs qanats.
Murgh: (Farsi) – Chicken.
Murram: (Swahili) – Soil, earth. Laterally much used in English to describe the surface of dirt roads in East Africa, where the volcanic soil is a peculiar deep rusty colour.
Musa’a: (Arabic) – musa’a is the Arabic name of Moussaka – a Greek dish made from eggplant, mince and cheese.
Na’am: (Arabic) – untranslatable but used as an informal indication of assent – something like the English ‘yeah’.
Nan: Any of several sorts of unleavened bread eaten in the Middle East. Each variety has its own name.
Nar: (Farsi) – Baked clay collar inserted into underground qanat channels to support the sides and roof. They come in many sizes.
Nargileh: (Farsi) – another word for the ubiquitous water pipes.
Nasr: (Arabic) – Victory.
Nasrani: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi) – ‘Christian’. It is related to ‘Nazarene’ – somebody from Nazareth.
Neem: (Arabic, Hindi) – A middle-sized shrub that grows in the South Arabian desert. It has stiff, straight branches, sparse grey foliage and a lot of thorns. Segments cut from its branches are peeled, and when the fibrous interior softened with saliva, they make excellent toothbrushes. Neem bushes are a favourite of camels who love them, but they give them violent diarrhoea.
N’na: (Arabic) – Mint.
Nemidonam: (Farsi) –‘I don’t know’.
Now Ruz: (Farsi) – New Years Day (literally ‘New Day’) .It falls on March 21. Pronounced “NO rooz”.
Paradaisa: (Farsi) – A walled enclosure filled with plants (a garden). It is the root of the English word ‘paradise’.
Paise/Pice: (Hindi) – The smallest unit of Indian currency. See under ‘Rupee’.
Parsee: (Farsi, Hindi) – Present day name for practitioners of the ancient Zoroastrian religion. Once the national religion of Iran, the religion is slowly dying out. Only a few Parsees remain in Iran. Their largest community now is in India – in Bombay. Curiously, the word ‘Parsee’ is Hindi for ‘Persian’.
Pashtu: One of several languages spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan. An amalgam of the two principal tongues – Farsi and Urdu – it was probably the most useful single language for a traveller to know.
Passpor: (Bahasa Indonesia) – Passport.
Pedar: (Farsi) – Father
Pedar Sag: (Farsi swearword) – It translates as ‘son-of-a-bitch’ but its literal meaning is ‘your father was a dog’.
Pesi pesi: (Swahili) – Quickly, quickly.
Pietra Dura: Marble inlay (as best seen in the Taj Mahal)
Pilaf: (Arabic, Farsi) – Technically, any rice dish is a pilaf (pronounced ‘pilau’). However, the word is usually reserved for elaborate rice dishes containing meat or fruit and nuts. In general, these were the only Arab dishes I ever grew to like. See also ‘Pilau’.
Pilau: (Farsi) – Persian for ‘Pilaf’.
Pir: (Farsi) – Old.
Pir-i-mard: (Farsi) – Old man.
Pisteh: (Farsi) – Pistachio nuts.
Potouri: (Hausa, Fulani) – White Man
Pukhtunwali: (Pashtu) – ‘the Way of the Pukhtuns’. It is an inflexible ethical code by which all true Pathans traditionally abide. Pukhtunwali requires that every insult be avenged and, conversely, every guest protected.
Pukka Sahib: (Hindi) – ‘proper master’ – ie a white man behaving very well.
Puncak: (Bahasa Indonesia) – Pass, as a pass through the mountains.
Punjab: (Hindi, Urdu) – the name of a pair of provinces lying along the India-Pakistan border. The name means ‘five rivers’ (the ‘panj ab’) which flow from north to south across both provinces. The rivers are the Indus, the Sutlej, the Beas, the Ravi and the Chenab. The English drink ‘punch’ also derives from Punjab. When made correctly, it contains five ingredients;
Punjabi: The language of the Punjab. Also a person native to the Punjab.
Punkah: (Hindi, Urdu) – Ceiling fans.
Purdah: The custom of wearing a veil concealing Muslim women’s faces from anyone outside their immediate families. In Aden most Arab women still voluntarily wore purdah, but there were, of course, several thousand young British women in the colony.
QAC: Acronym for the ‘Qa’iti Armed Constabulary’ – the household guard of the Sultan of Qa’iti.
Qadi: (Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi) – Mayor
Qajars: Members of the dynasty that ruled Iran until 1925 when Sergeant Reza Pahlevi overthrew them and crowned himself Reza Shah I. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, became shah when the allies removed Reza Shah from his throne for pro-Nazi sentiments during World War II.
Qalion: (Arabic) – Another word for water pipes. See also ‘narghila’, ‘hubble-bubble’, and ‘hookah’.
Qanat: (Farsi) – underground channel for irrigation.
Qasr: (Arabic, Farsi) – Castle
Qaweh: (Farsi) – Coffee
Qaweh Khaneh: ( Farsi) – Coffee house – rustic cafes that sold light meals and tea (usually no coffee).
Qaweh Turkiya: (Arabic) -Turkish coffee. Served in tiny cups containing many coffee grains, it was very strong. It came with no sugar (‘sa’ada’), moderately sweet (‘masboot’) or very sweet (‘ziada’).
Qibla: Arabic) – the correct direction to face while praying – toward the holy city of Mecca.
Qiddis: (Arabic) – Saint
Qubba: (Arabic) – Tomb, especially of a saint
Rah Ohan: (Farsi) – Railway (literally ‘road of iron’).
Rais: (Arabic) – Boss.
Ramadan: (Arabic, Farsi) – Ninth – and holiest – month of the Islamic calendar. During this month good Muslims are expected to fast from sunup to sunset, and to pray. The festival at the end of Ramadan – Eid-ul Fitr – is the highlight of the Muslim year – a day of feasting and celebration. Gifts are exchanged and new clothing purchased – especially for children.
Raml: (Arabic) – sand (plural – ‘ramlat’ – means ‘sands’)
Ras: (Arabic) – Headland, promontory, peninsula
Rashidi: (Mahri) – Any member of the bedouin tribe of Rawashid.
Red Sea Kit: Variant of Western formal attire for men that was very popular in Aden. It consisted of tuxedo trousers and cummerbund, a short-sleeved white shirt and black bow tie. It was much cooler than the standard tuxedo.
Rondavel: (Afrikaans) – a building in the shape and style of a native house. Literally ‘round house’.
Rub: (Arabic) – pronounced ‘roob’ – a quarter – as in Rub-al-Khali (the ‘Empty Quarter’). Also ‘quatrain’ – as in the ‘Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam’. ‘Rubiyat’ is the plural form.
Rud: (Farsi) – River
Rupee: The largest unit of Indian currency. In those days, if memory serves, there were about five rupees to each US dollar. The rupee was divided into 16 annas, each anna into four pice (singular paise). India has since gone decimal. Today the rupee is divided into 100 paise – actually ‘naya paise’ (new pice).
Sa’ada: (Arabic) – Without.
Sa’adi: Sa’adi (1184-1279), like Ferdowsi, was a famous Persian poet. ‘Sa’adi’ was only his ‘nom de plume’. His real name was Muslih-ud Din Mushrif ibn Abdulla.
Sabil: (Turkish, Arabic) – Public fountain.
Sabil-Khuttab: (Turkish) – A small public building containing a fountain and a school.
Safari: (Swahili) – Travel, trip.
Sahib: (Hindi) – As generally used, any white man.
Sahn: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi) – An open courtyard, especially of a mosque.
Sahra: (Arabic) – Desert. The English word ‘Sahara’ is a perversion of Sahra. Hence it is incorrect to refer to the ‘Sahara Desert’ (desert desert’)
Sahra as-Shumal: (Arabic) – Northern Desert – the area between the Northern Jol in South Arabia and the Rub-al-Khali in Saudi Arabia.
Salaam: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – ‘Peace’.
Salaam Aleikum: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – ‘Hello’, Good day’ – a greeting (‘Peace be with you’). The proper response is ‘Wa Aleikum as-Salaam’ (‘And unto you, peace.
Samosa: Triangular pastry envelope filled with spicy meat and/or vegetables, and deep-fried.
Saqqiyeh: (Arabic, Urdu) – cisterns. Usually consisting of a pair of large cogged wheels, the largest horizontal to which oxen, trudging around a circular path were attached. This wheel drove the smaller vertical wheel, which pulled strings of clay pots up from the well and dumped their contents into a drinking trough.
SAVAK: An acronym – the Shah’s much-feared secret police. Its full name was ‘Sazman-e-Amniyat Va Ettelaat Keshvar” (Organization of National Security and Intelligence).
Sebkha: Salt flat.
Selatan: (Bahasa Indonesia) – South.
Shah: (Farsi) – King
Shahanshah: (Farsi) – Emperor (literally ‘King of Kings’)
Shahbanu: (Farsi) – Empress.
Shalwar: (Punjabi, Hindi) – Trousers
Shalwar Kamise: (Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi) – Trousers and shirt (the national costume of Pakistan – a knee-length shirt worn over long baggy trousers gathered at the ankles.
Sham-i-Nessim: (Egyptian Arabic) – ‘Smell the Breezes’. It is Egyptian New Year and falls on March 21.
Shamba: (Swahili) – Vegetable gardens, small-holdings.
Sharia Law: (Arabic) – Religious law as set out in the holy Quran.
Sharif: (Farsi, Pashto, Arabic) – a high government official; sometimes the ruler of a state.
Shashlik: (Arabic, Farsi) – the real name of what we call ‘Shish Kebab’.
Shawarma: (Arabic) – a Middle eastern fast food consisting of horizontal layers of lamb, beef or chicken roasted on a vertical axis, and shaved off as needed and inserted into a slab of pita bread. This dish is known as ‘Doner Kebab’ in Greece.
Sherkat Naft: (Arabic, Farsi) – Oil company – from ‘Sherkat’ (company) and ‘Naft’ (oil).
Shikar: (Hindi) – a Kashmiri water-taxi. It has the same hull as a ‘doonga’ but no superstructure.
Shikar: (Arabic) – Hunting.
Shikari: (Kashmiri) – Boatman – operator of a shikar. A shikari is to a shikar what a gondolier is to a gondola.
Shikari: (Arabic) – Hunter.
Shish Mahal: (Hindi) – Palace of Mirrors
Shukran: (Arabic) – ‘Thank you’.
Shumal: (Arabic) – North.
Simba: (Swahili) – Lion.
Sit: (Arabic) – Lady or Woman depending in exact context.
Soi: (Thai) – Alley or lane.
Somali: A native of Somalia.
Souk: (Arabic) – Market (see also ‘Suq’ and ‘Bazaar’)
Stupa: Stupa’ (from Sanskrit) literally means ‘heap’. A ‘stupa’ is a mound-like structure – usually hemispherical and often with a spire on top – containing Buddhist relics–typically, the remains of a Buddha or saint. Most are about 50 feet high, but some of the larger stupas – like the Shwe Dagon in Rangoon – are more than 300 feet high.
Sudani: (Yemeni and Egyptian Arabic) – Peanuts (so-called because they were imported from Sudan).
Souk-al-Attarin: (Arabic) – Spice Market
Sura: (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu) – a verse from the holy Quran – like a book of the Bible.
Suq: (Arabic) – market (see also ‘Souk’, and ‘Bazaar’)
Takht-e-Jamshid: (Farsi) – King’s throne.
Takht-e-Suleiman: (Farsi, Urdu, Kashmiri, Doghri) – Solomon’s throne.
Tamasha: (Arabic, Farsi) – Any sort of major upset – a fight, a riot, a scene of chaos.
Tamsir: (Arabic) – Egyptianisation – replacing foreign workers with Egyptians.
Tandoor: (Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic) – a mud oven. Chicken Tandoori is so-called because it is baked in a tandoor.
Tang: (Farsi) – Canyon.
Tank: (Hindi, Urdu) – an artificial water reservoir – usually a rectangular, stone-lined depression the size of a swimming pool (sometimes larger) where the village’s water supply is stored.
Tel: A mound of earth formed by successive layers of building debris (usually mud) formed by centuries of building and re-building on the same site.
Tfadl: (Arabic) – literally ‘please’, but used, when accompanied by suitable gestures, as ‘sit’, ‘eat’, etc.
Thibbet: (Arabic) – Bedouin game (played on a board scratched in the sand) almost exactly like the modern board game ‘Nine Men’s Morris’. It was also played in ancient Egypt.
Toman: (Farsi) – A ‘toman’ – like the English ‘guinea’ – is an imaginary amount of money. In this case 1 toman equals 10 riyals – the Iranian unit of currency. The largest bill in circulation in 1960 was 100 tomans – US$13.33. Thus ten tomans was US$1.33.
Tonga: (Hindi, Urdu, etc) – A two-wheeled horse-drawn conveyance used widely through India and Pakistan as taxis.
Trik-Trak: (Farsi) – Backgammon.
Uhuru: (Swahili) – Freedom
Urdu: (Pakistan) – The national language of Pakistan, but the mother tongue of only a small proportion of the population. A mixture of Farsi, Arabic and various local languages, it is similar to Hindi, but is written in Arabic script. Like Swahili, it is a language deliberately constructed for a specific purpose – in this case, to enable soldiers to communicate with each other (its name means ‘Camp’). Since Urdu was spoken by the Muslim nobility of many Indian states, its use spread throughout the sub-continent. Today it lingers in India much as French (once spoken by the conquering Norman upper class in England) lingers in England –as a sort of upper-class patois.
Ustan: (Farsi) – Province. An ‘ustandar’ is the provincial governor and an ‘ustandari’ is his office.
Utara: (Bahasa Indonesia) – North.
Vizier: (Arabic) – usually translated as ‘prime minister’, but really only an advisor –often a personal friend – appointed to advise the Sultan.
Wafd: (Arabic) – a leftist political party in Egypt.
Wafdist: (Arabic) – a member of the Wafd party.
Waqf: (Arabic) – Literally ‘bequest’, but in this sense, a foundation or fund to pay for the upkeep of a mosque, tomb or madrasseh. Often in the form of a commercial building, the income from which is applied to the upkeep of the mosque, etc.
Wakelet: (Arabic) – another word for ‘Khan’.
Walid/Waled – (Arabic) – boy. Plural is ‘Ouled’.
Wallahi: (Arabic) – in the name of God.
Wat: (Thai) – Temple.
Ya Sidi: (Arabic) – ‘Oh, excellent one’ – a common Arabic honorific.
Yayasan: (Bahasa Indonesia) – Abbreviation for ‘Yayasan Sayap Abu’ (‘Mother Wing Organization’) – a non-profit charity that ran an orphanage and often assisted foreigners to adopt Indonesian children.
Yemen/Yemeen: (Egyptian colloquial Arabic) – ‘Right’ (as in ‘right hand’) and ‘South’ (because when praying to Mecca, the country of Yemen is on the south side (at on the right hand) of the person praying.
Yemeni: A native of Yemen.
Youngman: (Arabic English) – a word describing an unmarried male between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five.
Za’abalin: (Arabic) – a very poor Christian tribe that lived in the rubbish dump in Cairo, living entirely on what they were able to scrounge from it. They also raised pigs.
Zamindar: (Farsi, Urdu) – Land owner. The word comes from the Persian ‘zamin’ plus‘dar’ (‘earth’ or ‘soil’ plus ‘door’ or ’gate’). In Iran, my profession (geologist) was known as ‘zamin shonast’ (‘he who knows the earth’).
Ziad: (Arabic) – a lot, very much
Zift: (Egyptian Arabic) – One of the strongest swearwords in the language. Its literal meaning is ‘Asphalt’. I have no idea how it became such an opprobrious word.
Zig-zig: (Arabic) – Scatological term for sexual intercourse.