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Volume 22, Number 4July/August 1971

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Ho! Boatman!

Or a phrase-book revisited

Written by John Anthony
Illustrated by Don Thompson

Browsing at a bookstall in the Beirut airport the other day, I picked up a small, blue, buckram-bound English-Arabic "conversational dictionary" containing, so it said, "a representative selection of phrases most in use." Just what I needed for a two-week air trip I was about to make to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. In the departure lounge I opened it to the chapter called "Arrivals and Departures" and was struck by the opening sentence:

Ho there! you! boatman! put me ashore

Transfixed by all those exclamation points, I read on:

Have you luggage, Sir?

Yes, I have three portmanteaus, two travelling bags, and some small luggage

What do you want for putting me ashore?

I shall want half a pound

That is far too much Anyone else would take me for a franc, at the utmost two francs

That is too little, Sir

Well, I will give you 2½ francs, but mind you take no other people but me in the boat ...

As you will. Sir.

Boatman? Portmanteaus? Francs? Were these "representative" phrases? I examined the book more closely. My small volume was first printed in 1909 and although it contained an updated supplement it dealt mostly with the vocabulary and manners—bad manners, it appeared—of 1909. I read on:

Is this the portmanteau. Sir?*

(* A portmanteau, you'll be pleased to learn is a steamer trunk .)

Yes, carry (plur.) it quickly down together with these two traveling bags.

Take (plur.) also this bundle of sticks, and the umbrella, and this wool rug Take (plur.) care that nothing is broken.

Fear nothing, Sir.

Please, Sir, step into the boat ...

Give me your hand that I may descend.

Bring the boat nearer.

Go on, pull (plur.), we shall see.

I decided that I would see too. Rude, suspicious creature that he was, my 1909 phrase-maker had me intrigued. So, with portmanteaus, sticks (hockey? polo?) umbrella, and wool rug stowed away, I joined him and his boatman as they pulled (plur.) for shore.

It seems the sea runs high

The wind is boisterous

I am giddy

I am going to be sick


There is a big wave coming

Take (plur.) care we are not drowned

Use (plur.) the oars more

Mind (plur.) the boat is not thrown on the rocks

Are we still far from land?

We have arrived at the customs-house

In customs, thank goodness, nothing untoward occurs, though a footnote advises that a gratuity is usually given to the customs inspector. (Try that on a modern customs officer and see what happens.) But a moment later we're warring with a band of cunning porters, one of whom has the gall to stand up to us:

I pay only sixty paras*

Nobody carries a portmanteau from here to the hotel for this pay

I procure a porter for thirty paras

I carry them, Sir, and pay me what you will

Have done, carry them for a piastre*

(* There were 40 paras in a Turkish piastre, 100 piastres in a pound; our man was not what you call extragant .)

At the hotel he proves to be as overbearing with the proprietor as he is with boatmen, customs inspectors, and porters:

I wish to speak to the proprietor of the hotel ...

Bring the luggage into the room

The sheets are not clean

Wipe this chest of drawers, it is quite dusty

Hurry up with the arranging of the room; we are tired, we want to sleep

Bring water and towels

Bring cold water to drink

I will wash my feet; warm water and bring it to me in a bowl

Rather guiltily, I remembered the air-conditioned room and private bath in the hotel I had just left in Beirut. You have to hand it to tourists of 1909—they put up with the rigors of foreign travel bravely.

After taking in the sights ("Consulate, Post-Office, Doctor, etc.") our bad-mannered but indomitable friend decides to rent rooms in a house and bombards the owner with contradictory orders and complaints:

This apartment is damp; its air is heavy

This apartment is much exposed to the sun ...

I shall not give you a para of the rent until everything is repaired

The walls, too, must be whitewashed before I move into the house

And he engages a servant:

Every morning you will sweep the house and the rooms, and dust the furniture

Every Saturday you will scrub (scour) the house ...

Every morning you will shake the clothes and brush them In the forenoon you will go to the market and buy all that is necessary for the house

The supper must be ready every day at six o'clock

What wages would you like?

What you will. Sir

Another round won. But the servant, though he dresses, shaves, and apparently bathes the master, mends, makes the beds, raises and lowers the mosquito net, buys the food, cooks, serves at table, lights the fire, the candle, the lamp, cleans the boots, puts the master to bed, orders a carriage, bridles the horse, fetches the brush, the slippers, the book, the purse, minds the house ("Woe to you if you go out of the house during my absence"), and waters the garden, is evidently unsatisfactory, for the section ends:

You must obey me instantly (without hesitation)

Why do you not do what I tell you?

If you continue with this laziness (if this laziness continues) I shall deduct something from your wages

Proceeding in a straight line, always in the right and brooking no contradiction, our phrase-maker triumphs over laundresses ("You will darn the torn socks and sew on the missing buttons ... Whatever is missing (of the things) will be charged its full price"), bath attendants ("Hold me that I may not fall; I am not accustomed to walking in wooden shoes"), barbers ("This soap has a dreadful smell ... You have cut me! I am bleeding"), café keepers ("Let us go into this cafe. Capital! I am all in a heat ... Bring us a bottle of English beer ... This nargileh is no good. Uff! At the first draught my head swims"), money changers ("Have you a pair of scales? ... It weighs three grains short. Have you a touch-stone? Rub it on the touch-stone. Give it here, we will test it with aqua-fortis") watch-makers, shoe-makers, tailors ("I do not like haggling"), dealers in oriental objects, horse dealers ("He drops his head. He is lame ... This is a stallion, no mare")—egged on by footnotes urging "the greatest precaution" when dealing with "the craftiest of crafty orientals" interested only "in draining the tourist's purse."

At that point my plane was called and I went on board. But as I looked down on the rugged terrain of Syria after takeoff I found myself wondering how my 1909 counterpart had coped with the peaks and valleys of Mount Lebanon. I turned to the section "Travelling in the Interior."

But hold! (The style is catching.) From the first phrases a new note creeps in. Not that our phrase-maker's manners improve any, but we begin to glimpse the tell-tale signs, the hesitations, the little contretemps that warn all is not well, to see the erosion of self-assurance, the birth of doubt, the approach of Nemesis. More than one Anglo-Saxon, phrase-book in hand, has sought to master the Mysterious East. But Fate, that "craftiest of crafty orientals," intervenes. The litany of phrases recounts a classic story.

How is the road from here .. ?

How many beasts do I want for the journey?

A horse for yourself, another horse for your servant, and two mules for the luggage

Will one mule for the luggage not do?

Yes, if you take no tent with you ...

Are the houses in the village clean?

Not always, Sir

It is then necessary to take a tent with us ...

Is the road safe?

Yes, Sir, this road is much frequented

No, Sir, there is fear of thieves (of Bedouins) ...

Take care of the little box; there are things in it that break, and perish, and would spoil the others

There are fine instruments in it, as a thermometer, and drawing (painting) materials, and oil colors

There are medicine bottles and phials in it

Did I not tell you to look to the horse half an hour before sunrise?

This is not the horse which they showed me yesterday

Take this horse back to his master and tell him that 1 will only accept the horse which I tried yesterday ...

This saddle is no good at all; riding on it is bad; it is hard, besides being old and torn

The girths are rotten ...

The stirrups are too short, make them longer

The stirrups are too long, make them shorter ...

Hold the stirrups that I may mount ...

We will wait for you (plur.) at the spring

Go on! Do not stop (plur.)!

Go (plur.) on before us to the village .. and pitch the tents for our arrival

Our man is clearly out of his element. That seeking of advice, that inability to make up his mind, even the hint of an apology—these are new facets to his character. The very first evening he changes his mind about using a tent:

Ho there, people of the house!

Who (is there)?

Where is there a place at which we can spend the night?

Please (step in) to us

But he disdains this hospitable invitation:

Take us to the house of the priest

Good evening, father!

A footnote warns: "These people, especially the monks, rank almost always very low; they are dirty and amazingly ignorant." But our man pays no heed. Completely taken in, he converses with the priest on the climate and fertility of the region, the prevalence of disease, the fitness of the water. Except for a slight sniff at the refreshments he is moderately polite. That is, until bedtime.

Abdallah, prepare the bed

Do you sleep on the floor?

I cannot sleep on the floor; it is summer, I am afraid of the fleas ...

It is winter (the rainy season); I fear the damp

Spread the oil-cloth (waterproof) under the mattress

Are the sheets clean?

This cover is soiled ...

It is cold; bring me the woolen blanket...

Bring yet another coverlet

Bring me the travelling rug ...

Put out the light

The strain is clearly beginning to tell. After his night on the floor, our man is apparently not even speaking to his host, for next the following passage occurs:

How are you this morning, Sir (how did you enter the morning today)?

1 hope you have rested well

Load up!

There is the usual flurry of misunderstandings and lost temper over departure, but at last they are "On the March." If our man has had his troubles before, he is about to see just how treacherous Fate can be.

We have started early; it is still cold

I forgot to thicken my garment (i.e., to dress myself more warmly)

The weather has become warm 

I feel the heat

I will take off my cloak

Take it, strap it to the saddle behind you

The weather has changed

It will rain

Quick, give me the waterproof

It is spitting with rain ...

It seems we have come to a descending place (i.e., to a descent)...

Hold the horse that I may dismount ...

This river is large...

Where may one cross the river?

Has it a ford or a bridge?

The ford is deep and long

It seems this river is rapid

One is afraid of the current

I dare not pass through the water

We had better pass over the bridge

Sir, the bridge is far; we must make a great turn in order to come to it

Why expose oneself to danger? ...

Heavens ! what a mountain!

The horses will suffocate in the heat

Tighten the girths that the saddle does not slide down

Why is this horse lashing out?

It is going to throw me

Look, the mooker has fallen off the mule

Poor (boy), he has sprained his wrist

The bone is dislocated

His foot too is wounded

Bandage it for him

Why expose oneself to danger, indeed! Plagued by cold, heat, rain, steep places, bogs, raging torrents, unruly horses, and wounded mookers, our hero is beginning to sound a little plaintive.

We are tired; we will take a little rest

We dismount at the spring which is in the middle of the meadow ...

We are hungry; give here (or bring here, come here) let us see what we have to eat

Go to that herdsman; perhaps he will give us some milk ...

I want to sleep a little

Bring the carpet and the cushion and cover me with a rug

Chase away the flies from me

Mind no snake or scorpion creeps on us

But even this brief respite is part of Fate's plan.

The time has passed (i.e., it is late); we can no longer reach the village by daylight ...

The weather is not safe

The wind has got up

Look at the dust

That is a storm, and we are in the open field ...

The weather has cleared up; but one can no longer walk for the mud ...

I feel unwell

My head is giddy

No wonder! The tempo of events moves swiftly toward the denouement: "Night's Quarters in a Tent."

Do you alight at a house or shall we pitch the tent?

Pitch (plur.) the tent; I have more freedom ...

This place is low; one cannot sleep here

The ground is damp, there is miasma in it; the air is foul

Nobody sleeps here and keeps well

Find (plur.) us a high place, some hill

Level the ground properly

Sweep it...

My health is not yet (settled) restored...

A headache oppresses me

My stomach is out of order

I feel a shivering cold as if I should get a fever

Put the kettle on the fire and heat me some water

Give me the medicine chest...

Cover me well that I may perspire

A sudorific remedy

In perspiration; I am in perspiration

Let no one come in to me

Sir, will you eat nothing ?

I cannot eat anything now

Tell the cook to make me up some soup only

Let him bring me the soup

I am better

I have recovered

Call (plur.) me tomorrow morning early

Tomorrow early I hope we shall reach

Baalbek, thence to the Cedars,

and by the next steamer we shall start from Tripoli

In perspiration myself, I turned the page, only to find the start of a glossary. So here the story ends, with our hero, defeated in spite of his portmanteaus and sticks, his thermometer and sudorific remedy, his deplorable manners and all-embracing distrust, steaming out of Tripoli for, presumably, the safer shores of home.

Fortified by an excellent lunch, I fastened my seat belt as the plane circled, then landed at Dhahran. I managed to clear through customs without mishap, but my phrase-maker's style was dangerously catching. As I emerged from the terminal it was all I could do to keep from shouting:

Ho there! you! porter! fetch me a cab!

And mind that portmanteau and bundle of sticks!

John Anthony has lived in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 20 years and is the author of the book About Tunisia.

This article appeared on pages 16-21 of the July/August 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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