Blessings and curses of Judeo-Arabic

by Lyn Julius
When I was growing up as the daughter of Iraqi Jews, I used to think that the language my parents spoke consisted largely of curses. My mother would insult the object of her scorn with wakamazzalem ('May their luck run out'). Woudja ! was an expression of pain and Wi Abel ! (O mourning - from the Hebrew evel), an expression of dismay. An idiot would be called zmal ( a donkey) or booma (an owl - anything but wise). Later, I discovered that there was more to the Judeo-Arabic language. It had marvellously sonorous words like bezoona (cat), darboona (corridor) and teeteepampa (mattress fluffer - a trade now sadly extinct.)
The Jewish dialect is more ancient than the Arabic spoken by Muslim Iraqis, which was adulterated through the centuries by Beduin Arabic. The Jewish version is closer to the Arabic spoken in northern Iraq and has definite affinities with Aramaic.
As Churchill once said of English and American English, Jews and Muslims were divided by the same language. You will never hear a Muslim say 'abdalek' (Hebrew - kappara: 'I am your ransom').
My family has a running joke about the Judeo-Arabic expression 'esh lonek?' - meaning 'how are you?' (similar to the Hebrew 'Ma shlomkha'). My brother once asked a dark-skinned Sudanese gentleman, 'esh lonek?' He shot back, 'aswad' (black). In Muslim Arabic, my brother had asked: 'what colour are you?'
The first film to be made in Judeo-Arabic was The Dove Flyer, released in 2014, based on the book by Eli Amir. Over 100, 000 Israelis went to see the film and not a few must have tittered to hear actors bring to life their grandmothers' picturesque sayings, such as 'Jahrein bel fed al-bis' (Two bottoms in one pair of underpants), and Wutch Tisha'Bab (A sad face, such as one would sport on Tisha b'Ab, the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.)
Judeo-Arabic will die out with the last generation born in Arab countries, but interest in Jewish dialects seems to be undergoing a revival: more than 15,000 Israelis of Iraqi-descent subscribe to the Facebook page 'Preserving the Iraqi-Jewish language'.
There have been several attempts to write a dictionary of Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad (JAB). Violette Shamash's memoir Memories of Eden contains a glossary of Judeo-Arabic terms, compiled with the help of emeritus professor of the Hebrew University Shmuel Moreh.
An Ashkenazi Jew, Meir Lehrer, was forced to learn the language when he was courting his future wife Caroline. She lived with her grandparents, who knew no other tongue but Judeo-Arabic. He compiled a 55-page phrasebook, complete with conjugating verbs and declining nouns. For good measure Lehrer includes a curse or two: Thu-qut-I-un-uk: 'May your eyeball burst.'
Perhaps the most ambitious project to-date is the JAB Encyclopedia by William Y Elias. As a young music lecturer on Western Music Notation in Tel Aviv, Elias was asked in 1976 by his head of department to give a course on the music of the Near East. His research into Persian terms led Elias to begin collecting, with the help of a group of friends, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and words from another 10 languages which had infiltrated into modern Judeo-Arabic.
The project burgeoned into a venture spanning two decades. Instead of a simple dictionary, Elias found himself engaged in a massive work reflecting the behaviour, customs, education, religious beliefs and superstitions, even food, of Iraqi Jews.
In September 2014 William Elias published a booklet with excerpts of the JAB Encyclopedia. To give three examples:
The word Makan (place) originally referred to a list of places to which one could take a horse-drawn carriage until the mid-20th century. These mkanat included the Abbayana (the electric company off the central part of Rashid St), Agd an-Nasara (the land and quarters of the Christians), Alwiyya (a rather new area south of Bataween near the YMCA), etc.
Dassan - dessana leqmis: he wore a new suit.To use something new for the first time, akin to Dissen (Hebrew): he irrigated with oil, fertilised the land - the Biblical custom of pouring oil (an anointment) on the head of a future king.
The word qara (literally, what enables one to read) was the Friday evening lamp, a hemispheric bowl half full of water and covered in a layer of oil, with tiny niches for inserting wicks for lighting before the kiddus.
Elias's Encyclopedia took him 20 years, 24 advisers, amounts to 1, 500 pages and 15,000 entries and sub-entries.
Sadly, William Elias died in September 2015, before he could live to see his magnum opus in print.
The Elias family is seeking a sponsor to finance this major project. If you can help, please contact