Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fatima's Faux Up

I've resisted the urge to debunk or highlight the inanities that Fatima Bhutto has sometimes recently spouted, both in written or verbal form, for a long time. This despite the fact that since she started writing exclusively for "gora" publications (i.e. The Daily Beast, The New Statesman et al) and undertook a foreign tour to promote her book, her grasp on local reality seems to have become tenuous at best. And this I did simply because a friend laconically admonished me by saying "She's just trying to sell her book, yaar, so let her." Indeed, I contained myself even though her mantra seems to have become that any criticism of her positions or words is simply the work of bitter Pakistanis in the employ of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) out to get her, and the only people with any grasp of the reality of Pakistan are foreigners who accept what she says unquestioningly (and it's not like I'm the only one who's noticed).

Fatima Bhutto: instant expert (Photo: The Independent)

But, you know, there's a limit to how much ridiculousness I can bear. Especially when that stupidity is lapped up by even more clueless foreigners who present her various twists of facts and reality and her ignorance as some sort of gospel truth to their readers and viewers.

The reason I have been forced to break my self-imposed silence is this latest seemingly innocuous gem of an interview with her about five books she would recommend people to read. I say 'innocuous' because, for once, it doesn't involve her tweaking facts to suit her political agenda but only a bit of unbelievable ignorance. One could argue that I have chosen to focus on a really minor point in a minor interview but, for one, I believe it is emblematic of far greater issue, of people presenting themselves as experts on something they have no idea about. (Maybe that's why the site's tagline is 'Become an instant expert'.) Secondly, this minor bit of ignorance has been blown up as the defining part of the interview by the website in question. And third, I have a natural aversion to English-speaking people bullshitting about non-European languages.

Here is the bit of Ms Bhutto's imparted knowledge (presented in reference to American involvement in Pakistan) that made my head explode:

"In Urdu the word that we have for imperialism I find to be particularly telling. It’s samraj. What you have to realise is that Urdu is not a language where we have words for computer, or wifi or text messaging. It’s not a language that automatically updates itself as others do, like Arabic or French. So samraj is especially important because it literally means the raj of Uncle Sam."

Yes, believe it or not, Ms Bhutto thinks (no doubt with astute research and a wildly associative mind) that 'samraj' refers to Uncle Sam! Tell that to etymologists who trace the word to at least as far back as the ancient Hindu Sanskritic text Rig Veda (dated to between 1700BC-1100BC) when Urdu was nowhere on the horizon and which literally means "emperor." Emperors are imperial, no? (Thus 'imperialism' was easily translated as 'samraji nizam' in Urdu; incidentally 'istemaar' is also often used as a synonym though it technically refers to 'colonialism.')

But Ms Bhutto's faux etymology is not her only bit of ignorance. She decides she must explain why 'samraj' exists as a word in Urdu, mindbogglingly connecting it to the use of English language words in Urdu. First off, her basic understanding of the word's origins is wrong. Then her claims that Urdu has no words for 'computer', 'wifi' or 'text messaging' is inane. Urdu does: they are 'computer', 'wifi' and 'text' or 'sms'. They are as much a part of Urdu as 'telephone' or 'TV' or 'machine'. Incidentally does she know the Arabic word for 'radio'? It's 'radio', but with a soft 'D' since Arabic has no hard 'D'. Does she know the Persian word for 'photocopy' or 'stadium'? They are 'fotocopy' (with a soft 'T' because Persian has no hard 'T') and 'estadyaum'. Even the French purists have a hard time keeping universally used words out of the mouths of their compatriots. Oh, and the word for wi-fi in French? Wi-Fi.

"Not a language that automatically updates itself"??? You would have to be a total ignoramus about the evolution of Urdu as a lingua franca, bringing together words from Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Sanskrit and even English (among other languages) to make such a remarkable claim. If anything, the inclusion of these English language words, among thousands of others, is proof of the language's inherent dynamism and openness. That is how Urdu was essentially formed in the first place. And it is a far more "automatically updating" language than either Arabic or French incidentally.

But on a bigger scale, Ms Bhutto's claims about linguistics fly in the face of how all living languages enrich themselves in general. By her skewed logic, English is a poor language too since most of its words derive from Latin or old French or Gaelic and yes, even Sanskrit and Urdu. Words like 'dacoit', 'doosra', 'balti', 'jungle', 'juggernaut', 'trignometry', 'shampoo', 'bandana', 'sentry', 'pariah', 'khaki', 'bangles', 'cheetah', 'pyjama', 'bazaar', 'cheroot', 'bungalow', 'avatar', 'cummerbund', 'guru', etc. etc. etc. all derive originally from Indian languages but are considered part of proper English.

Oh, and the word 'raj'? Guess where that came from.

Moral of the story: Don't talk about things you know nothing about.

Tailpiece: Incidentally, if you have an interest in the linguistics and evolution of Urdu, you might wish to take a look at this very interesting talk by linguist Dr Tariq Rehman, given at the TEDx Conference that recently took place in Lahore:


Mackers said...

I really really hope that fbhutto at least reads all your efforts to correct her, on twitter. I would be even more pleased if she was aware of the existence of Cafe Pyala. Somehow, though, I doubt that she considers it important to read Pakistani print and blogs

Ahsan said...

Waiting with bated breath for a correction of some sort.

God, she's dumb.

Anonymous said...

She must not have watched any patriotic Hindi movie ;)

karachikhatmal said...

that video is awesome! thank you so much for sharing it...

with her book choices, at least fbhutto was odds on with shame - possibly the best book about pakistan and its identity crisis. but she forgot the best part of the book - the turkey slaying daughter who represents us in the author's mind.

Anonymous said...

Oh oh that's a cover blowing off!!
Fatima, run, it's yours!

jawad said...

Lets keep our eyes on the ball. I think that its cute that she made up an etymology. This does not make her dumb.

I think that it is vasly more important that she acknowledged her grandfather's mass murder in Balochistan. Calling it a mistake is an important first step. Next step would be to call it a crime against humanity.

Anonymous said...

may be she was joking
she can't be this dumb?

what would she think of the word f**k in Urdu .. what doe it imply ?

when we say "Ranng f**k ho gai"

Mahine said...

Oh my God I don't know whether to laugh or cry! 'Samraj' - please tell me how that pseudo intellectual brat could be this clueless. She has done irreperable damage to Pakistan time and time again! How can we shut her down?

Amber said...

Not a fan of Fatima Bhutto but still, why must everyone gang up on her and treat her the way they do? So big deal if she messed up on her Urdu, is that really worth slandering her over in public like this? All these blogs and people who have nothing better to do than b*itch about other people or anything of that nature is so sickening! What are you even getting out of telling people all this? Do you think anyone even worships or follows her to begin with? As it is, there's so much hate all around us, everywhere, and I can't believe intelligent sounding people like you will contribute to that. Forgiveness and ignorance really needs to become a part of our life!

George Fulton said...

Did you know the name Usman originally referred to a man from American. As in US – man. Fatima told me so. By the way, is dacoit commonly used in English. It’s only a word I have come across here in Pakistan. Never used in the west. Great piece on the entomology of Urdu!

Shan said...

@George Fulton: Um yo mean "etymology" right? "Entomology" is the study of insects. :)

Omar said...

I'm trying to give Fatima the benefit of the doubt because she's hot. I mean my first impression was that she couldn't have been serious...maybe it was one of those tongue-in-cheek-oh-look-at-my-clever-word-play things that didn't translate so well in print.

nayyares said...

Dr. Tariq did awesome speech, thanks for the share :)

Hadi said...

You make some very good points. But lets be fair, we know what she meant when she said 'Urdu does not have a word for computer'. It means we don't have an 'original' word for it, and its something borrowed,whereas samraj or imperialism is more of a part of our culture, for which we have words from our own language to refer to.

Umair J said...

She's managed to do a thorough job of eradicating any semblance of doubt over her intelligence levels. This would be really funny if it wasn't so tragic.

Anonymous said...


She's kidding.

Feorge said...

Good post, but Arabic does have a non-Western origin word for radio, which is اذاعة

Arabic also has words for computer and calculator and satellite (although, like radio they are not as widely used as the borrowed Western words).

While Fatima is idiotic for suggesting that French or Arabic "automatically" update themselves, there is a notable difference between them and Urdu.

Arabic as a language has an inbuilt system in which new words can be conjured up to deal with new subjects. The Arabic word for computer literally means "calculating thing". The Arabic word for blogger (which is widely used) literally means something like "note-writer".

(While this capacity exists in the Arabic language, the updating doesn't happen "automatically", but is done by people eager to protect the language from "corruption").

Urdu on the other hand does not seem to have this capacity as it was a creole language from the start, and therefore it has a long tradition of borrowing words, originally from Arabic and Persian, and now from English.

All of the above has nothing to do with Fatima Bhutto

Anonymous said...

are we sure that she didn't mean it and was purely satirical? If that isn't so then I'm just surprised over how ignorant she can be....

Salman Latif said...

Haha!! Why, I'm not surprised. Bred and educated amid goras, I'll expect her to know little more than nothing about local society, incidentally the very topic she chooses to comment on over and over again. No end to 'intellectual morons', is there? :D
Interviewer: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
FB: Exposing the myth of my father's murder(who happened to be Pakistan's greatest, most democratic and what-not patriot) in a series of programs with Pakistan's top scholar, Ali Azmat.

Kalsoom said...

This reminds me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when the father has the inane desire to relate every word to Greek - except Fati Bhutto wants to relate everything to her own musings in her head.

Anonymous said...

Very Good piece. I will also like to mention here about Pakistanis belonging to upper and upper middle class and mostly working as NGO's establishment, they all are like Fatima Bhutto. They talk one theela wala, one rickshaw wala and start talking about the poor people of Pakistan with authority. They even write reports and send to foreign donors by talking to a small group of people of a certain class, community. Whereas their authority misrepresent Pakistan, but it also bought wrong results from donors for poor people.But, who cares when their family members, and friends are enjoying hefty salary as heads of differnt departments.
very good piece. Mubarikbaad

mehreenkasana said...

Wow. No, seriously. Wow.

kurhi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Meh! Fatime Bhutto has proved that she is related to Homer Simpson somehow.

Is she enrolling in Mensa anytime soon?

IZ said...

While I have never had much time for FB and her rantings and ravings, I also do have some sympathy for her. She is after all a smarter-than-average upper class Pakistani, with the same kinds of certainties, biases, philosophical outlook, conspiracy theories, and education (or lack of one) you will find for others from her strata in society. In her case she has used her name to leverage fame and fortune out of the kind of drawing-room babble we hear around us. Its probably more fitting to ignore her than to waste time in trying to engage with her ideas and thoughts seriously.

Shankar Bali said...

Hey, I am in agreement with your article. I just had a little quibble with Samraj.

You are right of its Sanskrit origins but its meaning is..

Samrajya: Empire/Kingdom
Samrat: Emperor/King

Of course Madam Bhutto's interpretation can only be called hillarious.. Samraj as Sam's Raj.. amzing LOL

guppy said...

Fear not. She has issued a clarification.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Please note that the literal meaning of the word Samraj is not Uncle Sam’s Raj. We have sought clarification from Ms. Bhutto on this issue. She has confirmed that she meant to have said that this has become the common, colloquial meaning of the word. We offer our thanks to our readers, who were quick to point out this inconsistency.]

I was really curious to see if her Urdu diction could stand up to Bilawal Bhutto's immaculate delivery of 'roti kapda aur makaan'. The youtube clip I found, puts him ahead, but only just.

Vishesh said...

I agree with your views, but wanted to point out a correction. There is no word as Samraj in Sanskrit - it's is either samraajya (which means empire) or samraat (which means the emperor)

The point of the post stands nontheless. Association with Uncle Sam is ROFL material

hushed said...

At least this might break the pseudo self righteous shell that she had on. She is afetr all human. Poor thing. What if she hasn't had enough exposure to the language. Let her dabble her way through it.
Let her be.Cut her some slack. She's hot. She can get away with it. Are we jealous? Not at all. Proud? Not quite either.
I'd prefer Aisam over her any given day. What if the dude stutters while speaking in public? At least he makes sense if not poise.

Anonymous said...

It's kinda hilarious how completely skewered she's been getting on the website which published that interview. Not a single positive comment! But now that they've inserted the "editor's note" of a "clarification" from FB that "she meant to have said that this has become the common, colloquial meaning of the word"... I have to ask, where exactly has that become the "common" colloquial meaning???

Keep digging baby, keep digging.

Tilsim said...

Sam-raj (with an American accent); i actually quite like it. Has a nice ring to it:)


Sam-Sam raj.

kurhi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anand said...

Just a tiny correction- If by "balti", you mean "bucket" and not the sauce made of roasted ingredients, then the origin of the word is Portuguese, as are the words "saabun" (soap), "pau" ( in pau-bhaji), "kamraa" (room), "igreja (ghar)" (church), and many more.

Omer said...

I think this should be obvious that SOBAS was written on the directions of the ISI. The degree of fact-distortion in that book cannot be accomplished without their asheerwaad.

XYZ said...

@Mackers: Oh I'm sure she's aware of it even if she pretends otherwise.

@Ahsan: You got your wish. As @guppy pointed out, there is now a "correction" on the site. Unfortunately they've also changed the opening intro (taking out the Uncle Sam reference) without acknowledging that it's been reworked. Knew I should have got a screenshot!

Incidentally, her new explanation is also wrong, as Anon424 indicates. No one understands 'samraj' as 'raj of Uncle Sam' even colloquially even though in today's unipolar world obviously mostly imperialism IS associated with the US. American imperialism would be called 'amreeki samraj'.

@karachikhatmal: You're welcome. It is a good talk! Personally, I found Shame too polemical and bitter as a novel, however, and one of his weaker books. But I read it a long time ago, may be I should go back and read it.

@Mahine: You wrote: "She has done irreperable damage to Pakistan time and time again! How can we shut her down?"

Really? Irreparable damage to Pakistan?? I mean I may have issues with some of what she says and I may wish she would give more consideration and nuance to some of her pronouncements, but I certainly don't believe for one minute that she is the cause of damage to Pakistan... let's lay that blame on people who have wielded and wield real power. So I'm sorry but 'shutting her down' is not on my agenda.

@Amber: I think you missed the point entirely. You write: " that really worth slandering her over in public like this? All these blogs and people who have nothing better to do than b*itch about other people or anything of that nature is so sickening!"

Slander is verbal, I think you mean libel. But how is anything I have written libelous? I have merely pointed out her mistake which even the website and she has acknowledged now. And if reading blogs is so sickening to you, why do you continue to trawl the net to read them?

You also wrote: "Forgiveness and ignorance really needs to become a part of our life!"

Haha. I'll accept forgiveness but ignorance? No way.

XYZ said...

@George Fulton: 'Dacoit' may not be in use in the West anymore, but it is part of the Oxford English Dictionary. Coined I think by the British colonialists from the Hindi 'dacait' obviously.

@Shan:Haha, mebe George Fulton (if it indeed is THE man) is still obsessing over the cockroaches issue.

@Omar: Sigh. Male hormones are SO accomodating.

@Hadi: It is not a question of 'what she meant'. It is simply wrong. And so are you about 'our culture' and 'own language'. Unless you put a time limit on them, English words are as much a part of our language and culture as Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian or Turkish. As I pointed out (did you even read the post?) words enter 'our language' all the time and become 'our' words. See also Feorge's comment.

@Feorge: Thank you for a very illuminating comment. Really. Much appreciated. Incidentally, Urdu too has a bunch of people out to protect it from 'corruption' but nobody pays any heed to them. It may be because they're idea of translation is so archaic (example: the official word for 'loudspeaker' -which everyone uses- is 'aala-e-takabbar-us-saut' or literally, 'tool to amplify voice'- now tell me, who in their right mind would choose the latter over the former?) that they have made themselves irrelevant.

@Anon1113: NGOs I want to tackle in a separate post sometime. But yes, you have a point.

@Shankar Bali: Samrat and Samraj are very closely related and I think you will find that in the Rig Veda, the original word for 'emperor' is 'samraj'.

XYZ said...

@kurhi: Your comments have been removed because of their totally unnecessary abusive nature. Please express yourself civilly and without going into crude personalized invective.

@Vishesh: Please see my response to Shankar Bali above. Am open to correction (am no Sanskrit expert) but I did see a reference to the word 'samraj' in the Rig Veda.

@Anand: Thanks. Was referring to the English use of the word 'balti' as in 'balti gosht'. Obviously meanings change over languages and time. Also am pretty sure the word 'kamra' comes from 'camera' in Latin that means chamber.

Anonymous said...

Confession: I used to rather like Ms Bhutto's writings until a few years ago. I remember her columns for The News and her series of articles on Lebanon for the same paper which were well written, sensitive and perceptive.
And then two terrible things happened which seemed to have unhinged her: Zardari's coming to power and her decision to go looking for fame and fortune in the West to hawk her book.
The combination of Zardariphobia and gora adulation seems to have had a hugely detrimental effect on her writing and her thinking, and brought out its latent streak of shallowness, brattishness and arrogance. Sad, really.

kona berwalla said...

i thought she was joking too, until i realized otherwise.

the talk video was nice. thanks!

TLW said...

I concur with Anon 4:15's history of "liking" Fatima Bhutto. Used to like her, not so much anymore, probably because of the reasons he's pointed out.

Related to that XYZ, could you point out the symbiotic relation that Tariq Ali and Fatima Bhutto seemed to have established? And why Tariq Ali focuses, nay obsesses on Zardari so much when that toothy bugger doesn't seem to have that much power to change anything? He only adds to the crescendo of PML-N (and points rightwards) bevy of voices that give the impression of attempting to destabilise the government.

Anonymous said...

common guys, would we be even having this discussion if she wasn't this good looking? i mean, come on.