Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ambassador at (Very) Large: Arab Countries Reject Ambassador Because His Name Is an Unintended Sexual Reference

The Media Line, a non-profit news organization established to enhance and balance media coverage in the Middle East, has reported that one of Pakistan's most senior diplomats was rejected by three Arab countries as Pakistani ambassador because his Urdu name, when pronounced in Arabic, became an unspeakable and unprintable reference to the size of male genitals.

Writing in yesterday's edition, Benjamin Joffe-Walt said: 
Up until just over a month ago, His Excellency Miangul Akbar Zeb had lived an esteemed life as one of Pakistan's most senior diplomats.
Mr. Zeb has served as the ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, India and South Africa, the director general of Pakistan's Foreign Ministry and most recently was Pakistan's High Commissioner Designate to Canada.
But Mr Zeb's impressive career hit a hick-up when Pakistan recently decided to send the 55-year-old veteran diplomat to the Arab world, seemingly ignorant to the Arabic translation of the senior diplomat's name: 'Biggest Dick'.
A relatively common Muslim name, Akbar means 'biggest' or 'greatest' in Arabic. While Zeb is a common Urdu name, in Arabic it is a slang reference to the male genitals and not used in polite conversation.
Faced with an uncomfortable conundrum, it seems the unfortunate diplomat's Arab hosts felt that local references to 'His Excellency Biggest Dick' would not go over well.
According to the Arab Times, the United Arab Emirates refused to accredit Mr Zeb as ambassador. Undeterred, Pakistan then tried to send Mr Zeb to neighboring Bahrain instead, where the emissary was rejected again. Then, most recently, Pakistan tried sending Mr Zeb to Saudi Arabia, only to be rebuffed a third time.
None of the Gulf States have made a statement as to why Mr Zeb was refused accreditation.
In an attempt to be fair and balanced, we have to say that Urdu and Arabic are not the only languages that can be caught up in this type of situation.  It can also happen with Hebrew and English.  

One of the Zionist leaders of Israel in he 1880's was a scholar named Yechiel Michel Pines.  We Americans would pronounce his last name as we would a tree.  However, the correct pronunciation, as anyone who speaks Yiddish or comes from an Eastern European background should know, is the same as the aforementioned male body part.  But this pronunciation never got in the way of Pines' fame.

Pines was more than a founder and a scholar.  He is singularly responsible for the Hebrew word for tomato, agvania.  As previously reported in The Jewish Daily Forward,
It’s like this: As Hebrew was being revived as a spoken tongue in the late 19th century, an argument broke out between two of its great champions and rival word-coiners, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Yechiel Michel Pines. Ben-Yehuda wanted to call the tomato a badura, from Arabic bandura, which itself is from Italian pomodoro. Pines rejected that as non-Hebraic and came back with tapu’ah agavim, “love apple,” which he then shortened to agvaniya. To this, Ben-Yehuda countered, correctly arguing that the Hebrew verb agav meant to lust, not to love, and suggesting ahaviya, from the verb ahav, which really does mean “to love.” For whatever reason (perhaps lust seemed more treyf than love), agvaniya won out, and generations of Israelis have eaten lust apples ever since. What this has done to sex in the Jewish state remains a topic for further research.
So why do we have a graphic image of a tomato at the top of this blog post?  Simple!  Remember the old joke about a mohel?

A woman is visiting in Israel and notices that her little travel alarm needs a battery. She looks for a watch repair shop and while she doesn't read Hebrew she finally sees a shop with clocks and watches in the window. She goes in and hands the man her clock. The man says, "Madam, I don't repair clocks. I am a Mohel. I do circumcisions." She says, "Why all the clocks in the window?"And he says, "And what should I have in my window?" 
Finally, the ambassadorial name problem brings to mind a similar situation that was documented in the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian.  If you're a Python fan, you'll know the scene very well.  If not, the clip below is worth seeing.

A tip of the kippah to Judi Felber for calling our attention to this story.

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