Dictionary of another sort

I have just got hold of „Dictionary of the Khazars” (no, it’s not really a dictionary, but a very strange novel ) in an electronic copy. This is one of the books I remember best (usually I don’t remember books well, I only remember my impressions about them) and those who read my earliest website (hosted at geocities) already know that it had impressed me a great deal.

So now, around ten years later, I can re-read it in a different language (I had read it in Polish, what I have now is English translation – btw, do you know where can I buy it in Serbian?), a different format, a different place, and, most importantly, as a different man. It is a bit dream-like and whimsical, the way I remember it, a piece of Balkan magical realism if you will, and it’s been a very long time since I have become much more down-to-earth and matter-of-fact than I used to be. In other words, I am not sure if I would like the book that much now, but if you are a pretentious little brat (and love your Marquez, Borges, Eco , O’Brien and stuff) that I was, have a bite at it.


I’ve just browsed it and it has awakened two or three recollections and my favourite bits (Avram Branković entry) were still there where I had expected to find them. I like the language and I like the imagery more than I had thought I would. So perhaps at thirty I am still walking in circles and haven’t changed that much?

Don’t think so, because, even in this cursory reading, a discovery I remembered has given way to recollection. It’s not ‘eye-openingly new and great’ anymore, but ‘familiar and pleasant’. A different kind of pleasure. And this, I think, is a general trend – less things are new and future just isn’t what it used to be, to borrow Yogi Berra’s expression.

Seriously now, and away from self-centered sentimentality: it is a good book, one that could make you think in new ways, if you can get past the whimsical style and overdone and sometimes pretentious metaphors – they are not there for empty effect and the whole book can be read at many different levels.

And if it inspires you to do a little research on Khazars, the better.

کتاب ماه – فرهنگ توصیفی گونه‌های زبانی ایران

فرهنگ توصیفی گونه‌های زبانی ایران

این کتاب, که به کوشش دکتر ایران کلباسی از بزگواران زبانشناسی ایرانی نوشته شده, یک جواهر بی‌نظیری است. به نظرشخصی من دسترسی به آن برای همه علاقمندان گویش‌شناسی ضروری است.

کتاب شامل ترجمه یک گفتار کوتاهی به بیش از دویست گونه‌های زبانی ایران, از لهجه‌های محلی فارسی معیار گرفته تا سایر گویش‌ها و زبان‌های ایرانی (و گاهی حتی غیر ایرانی) می‌باشد. به این صورت شباهت‌ها  و تفاوت‌های آوائی و ساختاری زبان‌ها و گویش‎های ایرانی به راحتی مورد مشاهده قرار می‌گیرند.

تنها عیبی که به این کتاب پر ارزش وارد گردیده, اشتباه‌های حروف‌چینی است که دلیل شد در بعضی موارد علامت‌های آوانویسی به کار نرفته و باعث ابهامات راجع به تلفظ دقیقی کلمات شده است.

Books for Irish

As you know I’m trying to teach myself Irish these days. My main sources are two books: Learning Irish by Micheal O’Siadhail and a three-volume set of Buntús Cainte which is, I think, an interesting and effective combination. I don’t want to fully review either of them but let me just say how their philosophies compliment each other.

“Learning Irish” is very demanding and grammar-heavy. The explanations are succint and you really have to pay attention or you’ll miss a footnote with an essential point. It progresses in a very systematic manner, one  which aims at giving the learner a sound understanding of the inner workings of the language and not at getting him to speak as soon as possible. As a result, there are no chatty dialogues and for one-third of the book you know just one verb – to be.  If you are patient, by the time you reach the end of the book, you’ll have achieved a solid competence in Irish, be sure of that. There are many exercises (and the key!) and all the reading passages are translated. The variety being taught is Cois Fharraige dialect, a variety of Connamara (ie. western) Irish, which again contrasts “Learning Irish” with “Buntús Cainte” because the latter teaches  Standard Irish (but SI is sort of close to Connamara, so that’s not a big problem).

If “Learning Irish” is serious then “Buntús Cainte” is above all fun. It gives no dull explanations, has lots of  cute and  funny pictures and teaches conversation right from the start. The point is, going by it alone, you would never get the idea that there are two genders in Irish and thus you wouldn’t be able to predict eg. if a new noun is lenited after an or not. If you learn your grammar elsewhere, “Buntús Cainte” serves as an excellent source of conversation patterns.

In short – I recommend them both, but only in tandem.

The books I read and a book I haven’t read yet

A long time ago I would bore my readership (all five people of them, no jokes) telling unwanted stories about whose book I like the most and why. It seems that a good part of ‘my’ authors are taken care of by the modern word [1) it looks like it is an excellent website, so you should check it both on my account [to read about my tastes] and on your account as well [to read something really good]; 2) I’m linking to its Flann O’Brien’s page, because the homepage doesn’t work].

Now, not all of the people listed there I know, and from those whom I know, not all I do like, but the number of those I do know and like is high enough to make  coincindence impossible and the whole thing interesting. And if it is so, then there is a solid fat chance that I would have liked the other listed writers were I acquainted with them, wouldn’t you think?

Flann O’Brien, the guy from the page I linked to, is the first on my list. For one, I love and enjoy the kind of imagination and humour which stands behind this:

In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time.

More importantly, there’s his Irish masterpiece, “An Béal Bocht” which seems like the best thing the Irish literature has on offer for me. Once I learn the darn language well enough, that is.

Dictionary fun

A short, chatty, senseless post:

Since a couple of days ago I now enjoy having a decent, up-to-date Persian-Persian dictionary. I’ve just bought فرهنگ سخن and frankly speaking I am quite amazed by my stupidity in assuming previously that nothing has changed on the Iranian dictionary market since 2000 and that I have to rely forever on the good but outdated Dehkhoda.

Second point is I have found out about Nairi, an Armenian publishing house located in Persian. A couple of years ago they had published a trilingual English – Armenian – Persian dictionary, which I am considering to buy.

An Introduction to Islamic Revolution

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Sadeq Zibakalam‘s مقدمهائی بر انقلاب اسلامی [moghaddame-i bar enqelāb-e eslāmi]. I can recommend it as a very good read (and good for my Persian, too) and a solid refutation of all kinds of conspiracy theories and popular myths being circulated about the policies of the Pahlavi regime and rootcauses of the Iranian Revolution. I only wish its second volume was published.

Have an eye on its author as well. His takes of the current situation, both international and internal, can be very profound and instructive.

This post is just a pretext for saying: if you want to learn about Iran, you have to use inside sources (including those sympathetic to the government). Don’t limit yourself to what’s written by Westerners or emigre Iranians. I’m not saying that insiders “know better” or are impartial – it’s just that everybody has a particular perspective and a particular bias, and if you want to understand an issue you have to look at it from as many different viewpoints as possible.  Again, I’m not saying every account is equally true (or false)…

Black swans, study trips and predictions

I’ve recently finished yet another book from Schiphol – ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A very funny and witty book it is, it makes you think a lot about the world we live in, and, if you’re me – helps you bring to surface and organise some half-conscious intuitions and ideas you’ve had had long before reading it. Go read it, really – I won’t do it for you.

For the purpose of this text let me just mention that the book is about our (= mankind’s)  inability make correct predictions coupled with insistance of making predictions anyway (and acting on them!). A lot of what we do is made of inpredictable stuff (like nobody predicted the existence of ‘black swans’ before stumbling upon them in Australia), yet many times we collectively behave as if weather, markets and societies were completely predictable. And for the umpteenth time we believe ‘the experts’ whose only ability lies in explaining why what has already happened was really inevitable and why is that that despite their previous predictions having been proven dead wrong we should firmly trust their new ones.

This made me mentally go back to my student times. You see, my university would encourage us to go on ‘study trips’ during the summer. You’d have to find 3 or 4 people interested in the same place as you, then write a research plan and voila – the uni pays for your plane tickets to Iran (or any other place).  There would be no real supervision either during your trip or afterwards. The only obstacle would be to get your research plan accepted, but as the students are usually extremely lazy, there was really no competition either. Just making the effort to write 5-10 pages of ‘project’ would be enough. Nobody’s gonna ask you if you have any prior experience in fieldwork, interviewing people, taking pictures of architectural details, read enough about the problem you’re going to research, know the language well enough to be able to talk to people etc. etc.

Now, I’ve never ever applied for this kind of thing. Not that I wouldn’t want to go, not that I wouldn’t need the money. It’s just I found the idea of writing a research plan troublesome. For the life of me I couldn’t make myself to write down what I expect to learn from the trip (and that’s what the plan was  supposed to be about). If I already know what is there to be found, what purpose does it serve to go there? If I don’t know what is there to be found, how can I predict what would I find? What if I made a prediction but then, out in the field, find a much more interesting topic? Pretending to be certain when I wasn’t seemed beneath my dignity. Silly me.

Of course, for most of the students taking time to apply for study trip funding it was all about having an exotic (and cheap!) vacations, not doing research. Their only worry was to get the money, so their focus was on making the project look good, not make sense. I mean recently I’ve been asked to support (ie. to write “yeah, it’s a great project and you should totally fund it”) such a project – it was about the language and customs of Iranian Georgians, yet they tried to link it to Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Nabucco gas pipeline and whatever else. I asked one of them if they were serious about it and he replied “Absolutely! We’ll be drinking only later, when we get to Georgia”. Sweet.

Anyway, I’d soooo like to see a proper study trip – you know, with a supervisor actually teaching the students how to do research, with the topic of research following up or expanding upon what they had already done in class, with the results being used afterwards (used in class, published)… Above all else – in a controlled, known beforehand environment, not based on ‘predictions’.

Mandela vs. Botha

“The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith – a book I bought at the Schiphol airport – is a really enjoyable book. It tries to tell something about the post-independence history of the continent not by being as encyclopaedical and wholesome as possible, but by focusing on a few ‘case studies’, fates of a few countries and a few leaders to demonstrate a general problem. It spends a lot of time on being anecdotal and biographic and I must say this approach works quite well. Anyway, one of the anecdotes is about Mandela.

So it’s early 1980s, Mandela’s as in prison as ever, but the apartheid authorities are starting to figure out that they’re in a dead end and that they might need to talk to Mandela sooner or later. So they approach him. It goes quite well, so one day they secretly drive him off prison to meet ‘somebody important’. He’s escorted into a basement where a man awaits him. This man is P.W. Botha aka Die Groot Krokodil (‘The Great Crocodile’), the man in charge of the whole regime. Mandela’d obviouslynever met him before  but surely’d heard a lot of bad things about him. And reciprocically, I suppose. Anyway, the moment Botha sees Mandela entering the room, he stands up, smiles, comes closer and shakes Mandela’s hand in greeting. Later – and this was the most shocking moment for Mandela – Botha himself pours tea for his ‘guest’ and they spend the next hour or so chatting about cricket and rugby.

Imagine now, there’s this guy, who basically personifies a vile, immoral, universally condemned regime founded upon racial inequality, hosting his own public enemy no. 1, a paragon ‘rebellious Negro communist terrorist’ and being all cordial and affable. No trace of, you know, racial supremacy, just cricket talk, because that’s what gentlemen talk about when they don’t know each other very well (and thus have to avoid divisive topics like politics). A beautiful scene, isn’t it?

Now, the reason I’m writing about it (apart from it being beautiful) is that quite often people see their political opponents as embodiment of evil, child-eating monsters or something like that. Quite silly. A ruthless dictator with a blood on his hands may well be a reasonable, cultured, open-minded gentleman with refined manners. Viewing such people just as a composite of all kinds of character flaws is dishonest but also dangerous, because it leads to contempt and underestimation.

But there’s a further twist to that. We’ve said that a dictator might be a great person to talk to. Be it as it may, the said talk may actually lead nowhere. Such was the Mandela / Botha case. They talked and maybe not exactly liked each other, but recognised each other as partners, people to make a deal with. The point is, no deal was made. P.W. Botha famously backtracked at last moment before his 1985 parliament speech which was supposed to be ground-breaking and the apartheid regime continued for a couple years more.

Was “Soviet” Soviet enough?

While reading Andrzej Pisowicz’s excellent grammar of Armenian, I came across an interesting bit of info:

Apparently when Soviet Armenia came to existence, an issue of how to name it arose. As Russian word совет [sovet] means literally ‘advice; council’  a logical and  obvious option would be to take its Armenian equivalent խորհուրդ [khorurt] and form an adjectival form from that (it would be խորհրդաին  [khorertayin]). Thus, “Soviet Armenia” would translate to “Խորհրդաին Հայաստան” [khorertayin hayastan].

Logical and obvious it was, but only from diaspora Armenians who always used the name.  Apparently, the Soviet Armenia’s authorities didn’t like the word խորհրդաին [khorertayin] presumably it was too local-sounding or maybe had an unwelcome ‘bourgeois’ flavor, and insisted on using an ugly calque սովետական [sovetakan]. It was only in the aftermath of the 1965’s manifestations when the republic’s official name was changed from Սովետական Հայաստան [sovetakan hayastan] to Խորհրդաին Հայաստան [khorertayin hayastan].

Now, the reason the above tidbit seemed worthwhile to me is that in Polish just like in Armenia the adjective “Sovet” has had two different forms: a slave-translated one ie. “sowiecki” and a native one ie. “radziecki”. The interesting thing is that their “political value” was just the opposite of the Armenian forms. In Poland it was the calque “sowiecki” that was banned by the communists because it sounded (and still does) derogatory. It is used mainly by the anti-communists. The official and favoured term was “radziecki”.