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Tag: Humans

3
March 26, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Common Greetings and Phrases

Following on from yesterday, I want to highlight a few of the Arab expressions and phrases that are heard constantly in North Africa and the Middle East.


Assalam wa alaikum: As I said yesterday, this is the most common Arab greeting, meaning ‘Peace be upon you’.  It is uttered constantly, and it would be incorrect to omit it  when meeting someone, entering a shop, and so on.
Ahlan wa sahlan:  An all purpose relaxed greeting, favoured particularly in Egypt, that is truncated to ‘Ahlan’.
Bismillah:  ‘In the name of God’, it is said before a pious Muslim embarks on any activity at all. Before sitting down, before breaking bread or eating, or beginning just about any action that requires a little thought.
Alhamdullillah: ‘Praise God’. It’s used as a reply when someone asks you how you are. Also when one hears good news.
Tafaddul: Literally, ‘Honour me’, is an invitation to someone to sit down, come into their home, and so on.
Shukran: ‘Thank you’.
La illaha illa Allah, Muhammed ar-Rasul-Allah: ‘There is no god except Allah, Muhammed is the Messenger of God’. This is the Islamic Profession of Faith. To repeat it once is to testify once conversion to Islam.
La haula wa la quwwatah illa billahi al aali wa’l azeem: ‘There is no Power or Might accept God, the High, the Great.’ The phrase is sometimes said is an expression of great surprise.
Astaghfirullah: ‘I seek refuge in God’. The expression of alarm, disgust and so on.



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March 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Greeting

In the Arab and Islamic world greeting people is very important. It’s usually much more than a passing ‘hello’, and can often turn into an elaborate exchange of expressions, and an abundant show of friendship. The Prophet noted that people ought to greet each other. And anyone who has travelled in an Arab country, must have seen local people greeting friends and acquaintances, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Here in Morocco there is almost nothing so important as greeting someone, whether a stranger or a friend. Each morning when I meet the guardian’s here at our house for the first time, I spend a moment asking them how they, and how their families are, and of course shaking hands. Hand-shaking is a very big deal in the Arab world. It would be unthinkable for me to greet another man and refrain from shaking their hand. The same goes for public greetings. When you enter a bank for example, or even an elevator, you always say: ‘As salam wa alaikum’, ‘Peace be upon you’.  I suppose it came from the times when you never knew whether a stranger was a friend or foe. And by expressing your greeting, you were declaring that you were friendly, and not about to stab them in the back. In the Arab world it can be considered inappropriate for a man to ask another man about his wife. So you always find yourself being asked “how is the family?” A conversation between two friends will never begin until such enquiries have been made.  On my travels I have noticed that almost all societies outside Europe and North America have such elaborate greetings. They are part of the culture, an expression that runs far deeper than the simplicity of the words. Last week I went to London to two or three days, and in the middle of the trip I found myself getting into a crowded elevator. As soon as I managed to squeeze in, I spent a moment greeting everybody, as I would do in Morocco. I did it on autopilot, and found myself  met with looks of blank amazement. After all, in London there can sometimes be a sense of hostility to outright strangers. But then, as the elevator rose up towards the top of the building, a few of the other passengers nervously greeted me back. It was a heart-warming experience, and I could sense that the others just like me felt energised in some way by the greetings someone they didn’t know.



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Human Interest

Whether you’re writing books or journalism, the best way to engage the reader is to write about people. In journalism it’s usually called ‘Human Interest’. It works in a way I can’t really explain, except to say that people are interested in other people. It’s what makes us who we are. If I’m given a wadge of research about a bomb attack in, say, Gambia, I search through and put aside most of the numbers and statistics. I can slot a few of them in, but they don’t tell the story. What I do is to look for a person, someone with whom my readers can identify, someone who’ll tug at the heartstrings. If you don’t believe me, read any article in the tabloid newspapers and they always lead on a person, rather than on figures. Start with the human, and spiral out, telling the story, weaving in a few facts, conflict and so on. It works every time.



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Start Small

There’s nothing wrong with starting small. Actually, it’s a fine place to begin. Before I wrote books, I wrote for airlines’ magazines and was paid in airline tickets. Most of these were on Ethiopian Airlines, working for a larger than life publisher called Mohamed Amin. I used to knock out 2000-word articles on just about anything that was politically neutral, usually from the back of my bedroom. The editors lapped the articles up and I had a way to travel, albeit to destinations on the Ethiopian destinations’ chart… most of which were off the scale amazing to someone who wanted real adventure. The other thing to do – if you’re really serious – is to get a job on a local newspaper. It’s without doubt the best way to learn your craft as a writer. You handle all sorts of stories and learn the human interest angle in ways that no other training will teach. What’s so important with any craft is to have a strong foundation, and there’s no stronger one than learning at the grass roots.



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Spec

Perhaps I ought to have written this posting before. It’s something that’s really shaped the way I work. As I think I have said previously, I work when something interests me, and never because of the money I may or not make from it. When I was breaking in and had no clips, I would send stuff to editors ‘on spec’, which means that you have already written it. And then, as I got better breaks, I used to go to the ends of the earth to do stories, and I’d pay for the travel myself, only selling the story when I got back. The reason was that there was always a danger that a hot story pitched to a national newspaper would be pinched and farmed out to one of their staffers. If you believe in it, be prepared to do the work and write on spec. In my opinion, it’s what sorts the pros out from the amateurs. I don’t even have a problem about writing books on spec, and know plenty of authors who only work this way. My advice to anyone who’s listening is to have faith in yourself. Never question it. And then others will believe in you as well.



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A Secret

The thing I like about writing a blog is that I feel as if I’m whispering stuff to friends, stuff that I have been able to keep under my hat for years. And as there’s trust, I’ll let you into a little secret. A while ago, when I was doing A LOT of features’ journalism for national magazines (more on that I guess soon), I used to pitch huge stories. They were usually of an international nature. Indeed, I can’t really think of anything I’ve written about the UK, where I was living at the time. The secret is that used to sometimes pretend that I was already in central Africa, or the deepest, darkest Amazon. I’d call the editorial desk (you can usually call editors collect, and I always did… by the time you are put through to the department, they have no idea where the call came from). To make it all seem a little bit more real, I’d go into the garden with one of those slightly crackly pre-digital cordless phones. I kept one specially for the purpose for years after they went out of style. And I’d crouch in the garden, in the shed, where the reception was real nice and crackly, and I’d pitch from ‘the middle of nowhere’. The reason was because if I was known to have been in London, NW2, no one would have taken me seriously at all.



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The Deep End

When you’re getting started, you do too much work, and not the right kind of work, because you’re all over the place. You have good intentions, but it’s only by gradual evolution that you hone your methods, and you see what’s of value and what’s not. I actually believe in this progression of the learning curve, but I also believe that learning curves shouldn’t be too whimsical and easy. I think they should be as steep as hell. As I have written before, a life without steep learning curves is no life at all. Go ahead: dive into the deep end. Grit your teeth and jump. Take no prisoners while you’re at it. That means, set your goals high. It’s much easier to pitch something that’s got bells and whistles, a holy grail… so long as you have a chance at bringing it in. There’s something important to mention here… and it was the bane of my life for a long, long while. It’s that if you pitch something to ANYONE, except something like the Blandford Forum Gazette, they are going to ask you who you’ve written for before. And of course the truth is that you’ve never written for anyone, except your Cub Scout Magazine when you were nine. In the days of old, you could promise clippings which never quite made it because of the mail system. But these days editors expect hot links to web pages. You can send them blog links, but they’re still a bit haughty when it comes to blogs. So you can try and get some articles, small pieces, up on the web, or at least a page for yourself on Wikipedia. It means that when you’re googled, you’ve got a presence. So… yes, it’s a fabulous steep learning curve to try riding the metaphorical bucking bronco on day one. It means that on day two you’re going to be far less raw, even if you’ve been knocked around a bit. But you’ll be on your way.



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The Story

Bear this in mind. Get it tattooed on your back in mirror writing if you can stand to: ‘It’s all about telling the story’. Writing and journalism are about telling the story in such a way that people will listen. It’s about making an impression, and that means it’s about telling the story in a way that will keep them hooked. Sometimes before I write the story or the anecdote down, I’ll tell it verbally to a few friends. I’ll tell it in various ways, keeping the facts the same, and see which telling gets the most dramatic response. When you call an editor, or email one as we now tend to do, you have to deliver the knockout blow. Journalism 101 teaches you that news is not DOG BITES MAN, but ‘MAN BITES DOG’.  And remember that. If there’s any space left on your back, get it tattooed on there too. In the next few days I’ll probably talk about some of the feature work I did. I used to specialise on stuff that got editors flushed with excitement… and I used to promise the articles that were near impossible to bring in. But somehow I’d always manage. So what I’m saying here is to plan the story you’re going to pitch with care. If it’s some tired old has-been story, then revamp it… package it in a new way. Put a spin on it. Tell it with a kick. And remember, editors get hundreds, or thousands, of pitches all the time. They are looking for ideas that deliver the knockout punch.



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Getting Started

So, you take the ‘Tahir Shah crash course to writing’, which is essentially getting published as a journalist with a target of hitting a mainstream newspaper or magazine… and here you are, wondering how to start. The first mistake that everyone makes is that they think ‘OK I’ll give those bloody editors something fabulous and they’re thickos if they don’t take it’. You get my drift. It’s a mistake because editors know what they want. They know it so well that they will only take material (unless it’s a scoop description of Michael Jackson naked covered in honey and feathers standing alone on the Bay Bridge), if it’s in their format. Over the next few days I’ll talk more about formats and how to get an article planned. But the important thing here — and really the key point — is to buy yourself a copy of the newspaper or magazine you want to write for, and analyse five articles. Really look at them, and make notes on where there’s description, raw information, characters, themes and all that. Because writing’s all about packaging. And if I want to sell an editor something, I need to package it in a way that they will find appealing… in a way in which they’ll be ready to receive it.



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Journalism

A fantastic way of staying primed and getting published is writing journalism. Over the next few days I’m going to write some postings on what I have come to see as the most powerful way to learn your craft. I often meet people who tell me that they are taking creative writing courses. I usually smile politely but inside I’m cringing. There’s only one positive thing about such courses, and that’s that they give employment to writers who would otherwise be starving… and in that way they’re a great little wheeze. By far the best way to learn the art of writing is to sell your work, and the finest way of starting, and learning, is to be forced to write to the spec of a particular newspaper or magazine. I’ll give some tips in the next few days. But a great thing to know is that by writing for editors (and even by getting work thrown back at you), you are giving yourself a mini crash course… and you’re getting published and paid at the same time.




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