Saturday, December 09, 2017


My father strode up and down the trench I had just dug, hands in pockets, with the inquisitorial stride of a zealous building inspector, squinting all the while.

“It’s not square,” he commented grimly. He then turned his head sideways and frowned as he resumed his stride.

“It’s not level,” he observed.

As I pondered whether it was worthwhile for me to inform him that as my world view was generally skewed, it followed axiomatically that what I perceived as straight, everyone else saw as off kilter and vice versa, my progenitor pronounced final judgment with an air of resignation, as he rolled up his sleeves and assumed custody of my shovel: “Ατζαμής είσαι βρε.”

Save for the above incident, I have only been called an “ατζαμή” twice in my life. The most recent was over a decade ago when I attempted to assist a newly married friend who wanted to re-construct what he perceived to be a Helladic lifestyle, in wintry Melbourne. According to him, being Greek consisted of using expletives before prepositions in every second sentence and cooking gyros in his backyard on every available weekend. It was in the design and installation of an inordinately intricate contraption for the even roasting of a holocaust of meat, the complexity of which would confound even the designer of the Antikythera mechanism, that I was called upon to act as accomplice. Having miraculously, through copious amounts of prayer and misadventure to rotate, we ululated like ecstatic Trojan women as we impaled pieces of carcass upon the spit, only to have our revels interrupted abruptly by my friend’s incensed father: “Βρε ατζαμήδες, τι βλακείες κάνετε;” Apparently, in the obscure part of Greece whence he had come, it was common knowledge that one’s spit must turn clockwise for best results. He also directed some words of particularly derisive force towards my belief that gyros would taste better, medium rare. Sadly, our friendship did not survive this endo-familial rejection of my friend’s Hellenic credentials and his ensuing food poisoning at my hands.

The first time I was called an “ατζαμή” was when at the age of seventeen I was introduced to a wall-eyed gum chewing girl at a Greek dance, whose sole vocabulary seemed to consist of the words: “I’m bored,” punctuated by a “so” interposed between the first and second words on occasion for emphasis. As she appeared to be rejoicing in her boredom and resplendent within it, I felt it would be a crime to disengage her from it by means of a conversation employing the rest of the words in the English language she was not privy to, and thus left her to rejoin my companions. As I walked away from her, I noticed a ruddy faced man, the girl’s father, shake his head with incredulity and exclaim: “Καλά, δεν ξέρει ούτε να μιλάει”; “Συγγνώμη,” I heard a distant uncle apologise. “Δεν ήξερα ότι ήταν τόσο ατζαμής.”

Generally though, in my household, the word ατζαμής was applied to the description of incompetent tradesmen, which accounts for my firm belief that the etymology of the term was derived from the negative prefix α- and the word for glass, for only an ατζαμή would be so incompetent as to construct windows, without the glass attached. As it turns out, however, the term has deeper and more historical roots.

The word is Arabic and in its original sense, it signifies a non-Arab, or on who does not speak the Arabic language. Literally it has the meaning of "one who is illiterate in language", "silent", or "mute.” In this sense, it is the semantic counterpart to the Greek “barbarian,” though the root of the word ajami is said to have originally signified the act of “dotting,” that is, adding the dots that distinguish between various Arabic letters in a text, for the benefit of non-native speakers who would not otherwise be able to distinguish similar letters from the context. While in English, the act of dotting one’s i’s and crossing one’s t’s is laudable, it Arabic, it is a sign of the foreigner and the inept. The ancient Greeks on the other hand were decidedly uninterested in the describing the process of teaching barbarians to read and focused on the uncouth sounds emanating from their uncultured larynxes when coining the onomatopoeic term that denoted them as existing outside of the fold.

While both the terms ajami and barbarian stem from two respective people’s expansion from their original homeland and their coming in contact with hitherto unknown peoples, within the word ajami, a more sinister history is encoded. In Persia especially, Arab conquerors tried to impose Arabic as the primary language of its subject peoples, with the particularly harsh governor al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ordering the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced with Arabic, sometimes by force, which including cutting out the tongues of Persian speakers, giving rise to the connotation of "mute" for the term. I assume that it is in this sense, deriding my inability to “chat up” my bored beauty, that my uncle referred to me as an ajami, so many years ago. After all, the Arabic verb ʿajama originally meant "to mumble, and speak indistinctly", which is the opposite of what I did that fateful night, for as my uncle informed me, my ineloquence cost me my chance at true happiness, since the girl in question went on to marry someone who is filthy rich and enjoys a fabled lifestyle. My several attempts to explain to him the flaws of his paradigm, mainly that the acquisition of such an oneiric fate was contingent not upon me marrying the girl but rather her husband, something that is rather impossible in these pre-plebiscite, pre-legislation times, have all been met with the inarticulate grunt of the classical ajami. 

In time, all non-Arabs in the Caliphate were referred to as ajamin, including Greeks, although the term is still primarily associated with Persia. As the subject peoples of the Caliphate gradually were converted to Islam, not only did they display an ignorance of the Arabic language, they also knew next to nothing about the Islamic religion and were clumsy, shoddy and incorrect in their observances of its rituals. It was in this sense, that of the rookie, the inexperienced, or the inept that the term entered the Turkish language and from there entered, not only our own, but Bulgarian and Serbian as well.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, “aljamiado” came to denote the rendering of the languages of the Spanish peninsula in Arabic script while similarly, the Ajami script, is the use of Arabic to write the West African languages of Hausa and Fulani.

It is high time, we ατζαμήδες , no longer able to be distinguished solely by the barbarity of our tongues, adopted our own Ajamic script in order to record our own ineptitudes for posterity. I can think of not a few Greek politicians who do history a disservice by not embracing their identity in this fashion, especially when the logic of their argument is often as inverted and convoluted as the Ajami script appears to the uninitiated.

Two Christmases ago, rushing to perform some last-minute errands in the metropolis, I happened to park my car in a rather negligent manner. Returning to my mode of conveyance some time later, I found a note tucked behind my windscreen wiper. Unfolding it carefully, I read: “To the noob who doesn’t know how to park. Learn to park or next time I’ll smash your [insert something to do with copulation here] windscreen.” A noob in the vulgar parlance of course, is an ajami and I was delighted that finally my status would be confirmed by a defenestration that would render me literally without a τζάμι. In one single revolutionary act of destruction, west and east would linguistically meet.

Regrettably, it was not to be. Ever since, in pursuit of my goal, I have parked in the metropolis in ever increasingly flagrant and exaggerated manners. I have amassed a multitude of fines and yet, my defenestrator has saw fit to leave my windscreen intact. Time and time again, I breathe a sigh of disappoint as I try to extricate my side mirrors from the clutches of the parking meter and drive away, suitably listening to something oriental, something in the maqam, or musical mode Ajam, meaning "the Persian mode", corresponding to the major scale in European music, as I run red lights and weave my way out of the path, of oncoming traffic.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 December 2017