Down the Rabbit Hole

Is there an Arabic speaker on the blog?

That’s a serious question. You see, for the next book in the Pocketful of Stars series I’m positing a terrorist splinter group that has split off from Al-Shabaab and is based on one of the offshore islands of the Swahili coast. If necessary I can give it a Swahili name, but the fact is that Arabic has more prestige in Swahili culture even though hardly anybody actually speaks the language. And after a few days of tinkering I have reluctantly concluded that one year of intensive Arabic many, many years ago is not going to suffice for making sure up an authentic name, at least if I want to get fancier than “al-[Arabic word].” So… anybody want to help?

This question is only one of the many ways I’ve found to spend too much time on research. It started with reading up on Swahili beliefs in djinn and demons. That’s one aspect of Swahili culture I know nothing about firsthand, because in my time on the coast I found it politic to stay far, far away from discussions about these matters. It was an earlier and less technology-oriented age (no cell phones, and my tape recorder was the size of a shoebox) and I had enough trouble already with people muttering about jinni and shaitani when they heard their voices coming out of the shoebox.

Not to mention the guy who temporarily lost his voice when he heard the tape recording, because he was convinced I had stolen his voice and put it inside the shoebox. That was one time the policy of full disclosure did not work out well!

So, research.

One of my favorite indoor sports.

But reading papers about djinn in Swahili culture led me to an interest in general Islamic views on djinn, and then to books like Legends of the Fire Spirits ($9.99 on Kindle, and totally worth it even if there are only about 5 pages on Zanzibar) and now I’m fighting the desire for books like The Jinn Fly on Friday ($92 to $198 depending on seller).

Thing is, it’s not just the cost, or I’d be investigating interlibrary loan. It’s the calendar time (my experience with getting obscure academic books via interlibrary loan suggests this one would arrive about two months after I’ve finished A Veiling of Djinn) and the clock time (do I really want to spend more time chasing down one more elusive idea than I spend actually writing?). There is also the still, small voice of reason suggesting that very few readers are going to be interested in what, for instance, al-Damiri said about djinn in the Mamluk period – despite the fact that I’ve acquired a copy of the relevant master’s thesis (for free; thank you, Arizona Open Repository).

Plus, I’ve been ignoring other matters for research; tomorrow is already marked for picking my son-in-law’s brains about urban street fighting, and thank you, Number One Daughter, for marrying an ex-Special Forces guy and gun collector.

And then, there is also the fact that the book is nipping at my heels and I’m hearing Thalia’s voice in the first chapter now.

It’s a sin to ignore the characters when they start talking to you; they may get miffed and refuse to communicate when you are ready. (Kind of like djinn, that way.) And the djinn don’t even come into the first eight chapters, give or take a little foreshadowing. So I’m going to take a deep breath, put the Kindle loaded with books and papers aside, and start writing.

And maybe after supper tonight I’ll treat myself to that thesis.

17 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Research is a nasty rabbit hole. Or in some cases a four letter word. I have given up on so many ideas because of research or thinking things through. There’s times though when I should just say FIWO….

    1. research, worldbuilding, history, pages of notes… bored with the story, time to do something else…

  2. I dabbled in Arabic last year, as part (extracurricular) of a Middle East deployment. And according to Google Translate, at least, “Al-Sawad” would be “The Blackness” and “Al-Zalaam” would be “The Darkness.” But it depends on the message the group is trying to send with their name. If they’re portraying themselves as a scouring sandstorm with unstoppable force and divine call, “Easifat Ramal Allah Almuqadasa” is how the app transliterates its Arabic version of “God’s Holy Sandstorm”, or working backward from the Arabic (it’s a good thing the Arabic feminine is so rare, as GoogleTrans can’t tell one from the other in some languages) we have “Al-Easifat Al-Ramliat Al-muqadasat L’illah” (or “Aleasifat Aramliat Almuqadasat Lillah”) for “The Holy Sandstorm,” literally “The Storm of the Sands Holy to Allah”.

    But that would imply a heavy Arab influence, I suspect, as sandstorms aren’t terribly common in the subsahara as far as I know.

  3. As far as the group name goes, most of them are really short, or flat out named for a famous group.

    Hm, flat out calling it “Dar al Islam” and having someone blink, say “uh…that just means every place that’s Islamic,” and the first person going “Yes, terrorists that aren’t very creative and pick a dumb name. MILF in the Philippines did it, too.” might work.
    I think there’s at least one group already using the name, so it’s not unheard of.

          1. It difficult to show off to your terrorist buddies when a chunk of the people you’re supposed to be terrifying are laughing at your stupid organization name. I don’t know enough about these groups, but a fair few of the ones I did know of think their names inspire frar in the infidels. Laughter Rob’s them of that.

            1. I was trying to think of a way to translate what is wrong with “MILF”– the best I could come up with is ‘we are the mother is more sexually attractive than her daughter.’

              Given their culture….oy.

      1. WHoof, I made the mistake of asking my husband– this stuff is his non-geeky hobby– and he rattled off about 15 different terrorist groups that go by “House of Islam.”

        So it’s an extremely good generic name for an Islamic terror group, kind of like “People’s Democratic Republic of Coocooland” is a generic bad place.

    1. I like the Dar al-Islam idea! Nobody ever said these guys were the sharpest knives in the drawer.
      As for sandstorms, yeah, not really a thing on the Kenya-Tanzania coast. Trying to think of natural menaces in that area… “Really Big Flying Bugs That Get Mad If You Spray Flit at Them,”… no, not quite the right image. “Rainy Season So Long Your Brain Grows Green Mold,” and “Too Effing Hot to Do Anything”… oh well.

  4. Kind of talking off the top of my head here, while the coffee brews…

    I’m assuming that your splinter group of terrorists all firmly believe that they are the only ones following the true path, with lots of references to the very earliest days of Islam when a tiny group of true believers won miraculous victories against overwhelming odds, etc. So then, they would likely take a name that invokes those early Islamic times; and as you say, likely in a snippet of badly understood, formulaic Arabic. Or, perhaps, some of the wilder apocalyptic beliefs instead. So, some ideas (all transliterated as an actual Arabic speaker would pronounce them, with the correct not necessarily like a Somali would):

    The earliest kulafa’ (caliphs, successors to Mohammed) are remembered (by the Sunnis) as the “rightly guided”, or “ar rashidoon” (“al kulafa’ ar rashidoon”). “Rasheed” (singular) also means “mature”, “complete” and “perfect”, BTW. So, we could hypothesize a name like “Soldiers of the Rashidoon” (“Junood ar rashideen”), “Partisans/supporters of the Rashidoon” (“Ansar ar rashideen”), or “Army of the Rashidoon” (“Zhaysh ar rashideen”). You can google translate any other noun you’d like, of course (“Sword of the Rashidoon”, “People of the Rashidoon”, etc.) or use a Swahili word instead “Jeshi la rashidoon”, etc.

    You might also focus on the concept of the hejira, where Muhammad and a small group of followers fled Mecca to Yathrib (now called “medina”, the city [of the prophet]). The first tribe to pledge loyalty to Mohammad was the “Banu Aws”, and the second was “Banu Khazraj”. Mohammad went to Yathrib to mediate a dispute between the two tribes, ultimately solving the fighting by declaring both to be Muslims and thus bloodshed between them was banned. The two banded together (as the “Banu Qayla”, a sort of tribal confederation), to then attack the dominant (Jewish) tribes in the area, in which they were extremely successful. Notably, they conquered the “Banu Qurayza”, then executed all the men and reduced the women and children to slavery and concubinage for “tribal treachery”. This is, obviously, one of the roots of modern Arab/Muslim anti-semitism… if you want to go there in your work.

    Alternately, you could build off of “Yajuj wa Majuj”, the Islamic names for “Gog and Magog”, that is, a savage and vicious horde which is to fight against the believers of the world at armageddon. There’s also the “Masih ad dajjal”, the anti-Christ (lit. the most-deceiving messiah), legendarily a man with one blind and bulging eye who leads the world astray into materialism, apostasy, and various calamities. Islamic apocalypse legends, like everyone else’s apocalypse legends, get weedy and weird pretty quick; you can just google for some inspiration, then let your imagination go– there’s no worry about being actually accurate, as people pretty much just make these up out of whatever fever dream they just had.

    If you want something more specifically spirit-related, there are a number of named angels/demons in both the Quran and the Hadeeth. Some you might be interested in are:
    Azrael: the angel of death
    Iblis: Lucifer, head of the evil demons
    Maalik: Angel who guards Hell
    Ridwan: Angel who guards/runs Heaven
    Darda’il: angels sent to seek out and test people’s faith in God
    Mu’aqqibat: guardian angels, who protect the faithful against death before the appointed time
    Kiramaan Katibin: (lit. the two honorable scribes) two angels who record everything good and bad that an individual does

    Hope that gets your juices going, if nothing else.


    1. Wow! The top of your head must be a very interesting place, if that’s what swirls around it even before caffeination. My own pre-coffee brain seldom comes up with anything more than, “It’s morning, isn’t it? AGAIN. Why does this keep happening to me?”

      Seriously, it’s taken me a couple of days to absorb all the goodies in your rich and very timely comment. I’m less than one chapter away from having to give a name to the group, so although I think I haven’t decided yet, one of your suggestions will probably pop into my head as the One Right Name within, oh, 4000 words or so. Thanks for all the ideas!

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