Monday, February 25, 2008

Casse-toi, pauvre con...

Sarko is rude - but how to translate it into English? At some agricultural fair in France he offers his hand to a farmer, who tells him: "Don't besmirch me with your touch!" to which the Premier replies: "Casse-toi alors, casse-toi alors pauvre con."

The BBC translates this as "Get lost then you bloody idiot, just get lost!", which it says is a "mild" translation. Apparently some bloggers prefer "sod off" and have gone so far as to translate it as "fuck off, asshole" or "fuck you, prick".

I think "sod off" is a bit outmoded - people just don't really say it much these days. The best translation of "Casse-toi" (casser - to break) is perhaps the American "Beat it". It's rude, but it is not a sexually explicit word. I actually think "Get lost" isn't bad at all.

"Pauvre con" translates directly as "Poor fool". In terms of register and the contempt it implies, I think "Prick" is about right in a UK context, "Prick" or "Asshole" would be fine in the US.

Final versions - "Get lost, prick!" (UK) and "Beat it, asshole!" (US).

Knew that French degree would count for something one day...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Look out China...


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Bash the bishop!

Whatever you may think about The Archbishop of Canterbury's comments about aspects of Sharia law becoming integrated into British law, you have to admit that this Sun headline is fantastic.

Is Rowan Williams encouraging a situation where decisions on certain matters are devolved to the various religious authorities, as is the case in some countries where atheism basically isn't recognised? What about simply having one law for all and a separation of church, state and judiciary? On the other hand, if it were a voluntary code and you could opt out of Sharia and into British civil law then what is the problem? If it is a case of allowing Muslims greater freedom to have more of a parallel civil law system along the lines of the already existing Jewish Beth Din then would it not be unfair to deny one religion something that is granted to another? Are we all just programmed to go nuts when we hear the word Sharia?

These are serious questions and it's a really important debate. As it boils on I guess it's worth remembering that our more or less liberal society evolved out of something much less liberal in the past - and if it was possible for us to make this step then it's probably possible for others too. It's irrational to imagine that our essence is liberal while their (Muslims') essence is barbarically strict. It's also historically incorrect - girls in some Arab countries were jumping around in miniskirts during the 1960s and they still do, just not so much on the street. Islam is also 600+ years younger than Christianity. In the end, Muslims will decide for themselves what kind of Islam they want. Perhaps all the upheavals of the current time are part of a kind of Islamic Reformation. It hits the West at moments like 7/7 and 9/11 - but overall it's an internal dialogue and struggle within Islam. The more we slag off Islam, the more we give succour to its hardliners - the very people the West is most worried about.

I also wonder if many of those who decry Sharia the loudest would not like to see more authoritarian rule here anyway - the "bring back hanging" brigade. It has struck me, wandering about some of the Arab world, that what you see there - close knit families, low street crime, a policeman on every corner - is exactly what Daily Mail types wail that they want for the UK. Just without all the Arabs, of course...

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


It seems we are hitting the curve. In a pre-Olympic context where all the hype is about China's rise, where US presidential candidates are talking of breaking with the past, where it is accepted that the Iraq war began under a false pretext and was largely characterised by blundering - in this context perhaps the Western world is beginning to get beyond murderously simplistic ideas of "terrsts" and revise its obsessive contempt/fear for/of Islam.

And where better to start than somewhere that we don't even consider to be the Middle East anyway - Andalusia in Spain.

Al Andalus is the subject of a splurge of attention flattering its myriad architectural, artistic, scientific and social accomplishments.

In the book God's Crucible: Islam and the making of Europe, David Levering Lewis lauds the 'convivencia' - co-existence - between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Muslim Andalusia and regards it as a shame the Muslims armies did not cross the Pyrenees and conquer the rest of Europe.

About a week ago, we had The Art of Spain on BBC4, in which critic Andrew Graham-Dixon talked about how Islam was part of Europe's DNA (maths/science etc) and that the only place where you could see this explicitly was in Andalusia.

And about a week before, that scientist Jim Al Khalili argued in the Guardian that there should be more respect for Islamic scientific achievements and scholarship (not solely about Andalusia).

I personally had no idea about Andalusia before hitting the road to Syria, where I was surprised by the frequency with which people there cited it as the pinnacle of civilisation. Yeah yeah, I thought, you guys would say that because you were in charge. Wonder if the Christians and Jews were so happy. Furthermore, given the Middle East's chaotic present one might well hark back to a time of former glory as a source of pride.

But but but - it struck me that maybe some respect was after all as I wandered through an exhibition of Islamic inventions in Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall (my favourite) - including a model of the machine used by Abu Abbas Al Fernass, the first man ever to attemt to fly. Amin Maalouf's Leo L'Africain gave a vivid picture of life in Muslim Granada as it fell to the Christian Reconquista.

And it is indeed time for a bit of respect vis-a-vis Islam and the Islamic world. Tolerance is the buzzword but I don't like it - it implies a state of affairs in which people simply don't show the distaste they have for one another. Surely it is more enlightened - and more fun - to look at the achievements of other civilisations and find respect for them. In any case, other civilisations do not simply disappear just because we denigrate them.

For the last few years Europe has had an obsessive and schizophrenic approach to Muslims. How many times have I heard average Brits repeat: "Their (Muslim) values are just not compatible with ours." When pressed, they inevitably single out attitudes to women, although that isn't the source of their worry.

At root, Europe can't allow Muslims to be different - but at the same time it cannot countenance the idea that Muslims are actually the same as Europeans. Seeing as booting them out would be ethnic cleansing, the only course of action left is to loudly condemn them, to send a clear and ringing message that they are the underclass and shouldn't get any ideas.

The Mohammed Cartoons farce - in which the Telegraph et al first gleefully proclaimed that Muslims who didn't like our freedom of speech could sod off back to their miserable dictatorships and then became enraged at the sight of a few hapless clowns with placards saying "Death to the enemies of Islam" and demanded they be banged up forthwith - really summed it up for me. Freedom of speech for us and not for you.

Definitely time for a change.

Monday, February 04, 2008

China gallery

I've been mooching around the China gallery at the British Museum after Mandarin class. I was struck by the red lacquer pots and dishes, which I had no idea was a hard natural plastic made from the resin of a tree found only in China and a few other countries. Next come a Ming Dynasty porcelain bowl covered in blue enamel; a cloisonne teapot, a technique that spread to China along the Silk Route; and a 14th Century Yuan Dynasty porcelain dish.

The Chinese characters are just awesome, with calligraphy retaining an importance in writing (like in Arabic) in a way that it has not done in Roman script. Top left is running script from the 4th Century and the museum tells us this particular bit of writing apparently sets a standard that has never since been matched; bottom left is draft script from 8th Century; top right is standard script from the 8th Century; and bottom right are simplified characters from a 20th Century dictionary.

These pix explain the way bowls and vases weremarked according to the Dynasty during which they were produced.

There were also a few characters hanging about: a judge's assistant in hell; an 8th Century tomb guardian; one of the eight Daoist figures of perfection; and my favourite Buddhist Bodhisattva, sitting relaxed on the edge of his shelf while his buddies remained fixed into their cross-legged poses.

On the South Asian side of the gallery, this cheery chunk of column from an Indian temple with dancing girls carved into it was a breath of fresh air.

Not many girls in the Islamic Art gallery however, but some awesome Arabic calligraphy, every bit as beautiful as the Chinese characters. These include a Quran from Andalusia and an 19th century vase made in Italy imitating Iranian styles.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Faretheewell, greasy spoon

My Dad gives up alcohol for Lent, a friend of mine is giving up booze for the good of his wallet and rice (!) for his waistline and now I'm going to join this orgy of abstention and give up something myself - greasy spoon fry-ups.

Reading the Star on Sunday as I munched my £3.75 Budget Breakfast at the Local Cafe in East Finchley (2 bacon, egg, sausage, beans, mushrooms, 2 toast, tea), it struck me that my fry-up really was to food what the Star is to journalism.

I felt the arteries furring up as I consumed the dry flourescent pink bacon, processed sugary beans instead of real vegetables, a flexi-tube of dubious meat that no self-respecting German would contemplate and the kind of British sliced bread that I have never seen anywhere else in the world.

At the same time, bits of my mind curled up and died as I read 'Ghost busties on call for Anna' (an expose of how the ghost of former Playboy playmate Anna Nicole Smith is stalking the hotel where she died) as well as the exclusive scoop that 'Cops are weeks away from nailing the killer of Rhys Jones' (POLICE are closing in on the teenage gunman who killed schoolboy Rhys Jones, the Daily Star Sunday can reveal).

So enough is enough - but I don't take this decision lightly. I have loved wandering out of the house on a weekend lunchtime and settling into a bustling cafe, grabbing a tabloid and washing away a hangover in a tsunami of cholesterol. Later as an agency reporter in London I was never happier than leaving a pointless doorstep job and pitching camp for a few hours in the nearest spoon. During this time I visited many a caff all over London - the most expensive in Mayfair offered an £8.50 breakfast including poached eggs for the hacks skiving from the Kimberley Quinn house.

It's because I love the fry-up so much that it has become something that needs to be given up. But it's also the case that my ideal of the fry-up has diverged from the reality of the experience. Context has also shifted - the workman's caff no longer represents a haven from work, a port in a storm. I no longer have a life where weekends have a texture unlike workdays. And I have trawled the greasy spoon equivalents in other parts of the world and made the unexpected discovery that cheap and cheerful fare doesn;t have to be a heart attack on a plate.

In the Levant, the staple of small round hot freshly baked breads, hummous, olives and various salads is an absolute joy and the little places that peddle the stuff clearly are the equivalent of the workman's cafe. Miracle of miracles - you actually feel healthier after eating it. In Spain, the Bar Diegos and Manolos push changing daily menus for around £5 including starter, main course and dessert. Real dishes. In my humble opinion, the Bar Diego at the bottom of a tower block in Barcelona's Bellvitge district deserves a Michelin star. It's rammed every day with office and construction workers.

So farewell, Greasy Spoon. Like the Daily Star, you will go on because people are willing to pay money for you, and while strange, it is also something to be celebrated - as it is on the awesome eggbaconchipsandbeans. But panning back, not a few aspects of English life seems unsuited to the laws of natural selection and poor diet is one of them. Basically, I want to feel good.

Otherwise not much going on - I'm waiting for my China visa and in the meantime reading A Travellers History of China, a useful concise starter overview, skating across a lot of fascinating China blogs and learning Chinese with the excellent Julia from Link Chinese.