'Safar': The Arabic word for travel has influenced the English language

The term can also refer to sunny days, a brighter-blazing fire or exile

The Arabic word for travel, safar, is used across dialects and accents. The National
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Ibn Battuta, the famous 14th-century Arab explorer and scholar, is considered one of the greatest travellers in history. During his lifetime, he travelled throughout the Islamic world and beyond, recording his experiences in his travelogue – The Rihla (journey).

In the pages where he details his travels to Saudi Arabia, India, China, Spain and the Mali empire, Ibn Battuta wrote: “travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

Ibn Battuta’s words emphasise the transformative power of travel and the profound experiences that come through the observation and exposure of diverse cultures, societies and geography.

Today's Arabic word of the week, safar, is the word most often used across dialects and accents to mean travel.

Derived from the three Arabic letters seen, fah and rah, safar is also pronounced as safara in classical Arabic.

As a verb, it has several meanings. The first refers to the act of something being discovered, becoming apparent or clear. This definition can be applied to an object, idea or a concept taking formation or becoming understood.

For example, one can use safara in the context of the weather when referring to a sunny day, meaning that the sunlight has turned the skies clear after bad weather or a dark night.

The Arabic expression imraa safira is taken from this meaning and describes a woman whose face is not veiled or who doesn’t wear a hijab – meaning her face is clearly seen. This is not a negative phrase but simply a way of pointing out a distinction between women who do and do not wear a hijab.

Another meaning for safara relates to forging connections between people. The word can be used to describe means of communication that bring groups of people together, such as letters and open discussions as well as messengers and diplomats.

Another verb variant of safara is seffara, which is when a person or object is sent to another place by someone of a higher rank within a family, work or government context. It can also mean to exile someone from the country.

The same word is also used to reference a lit fire that starts to blaze brighter. And in a completely different context, seffara can be used to refer to the act of wrapping an object in cloth.

Aside from these various meanings, safar is most commonly used as the verb to travel. Its official definition is to travel a certain distance and to travel across the land. The word is also used in Farsi, Spanish and Portuguese.

Interestingly, the verb for travel in Swahili is derived from the Arabic safar. The word in Swahili is safari, which is a term that entered the English language in the late 1850s, thanks to British explorer, writer and orientalist scholar Richard Francis Burton.

Aside from bringing the word safari to the western mainstream, Burton also exported one of the most culturally important Arabic stories. He was one of the first to translate a version of The Arabian Nights an epic story where travel is a significant theme – that includes all the stories from the original manuscripts, rather than solely the popular ones. He also translated the text from the original Arabic, rather than relying on previous translations.

In Arabic, safar is also used to describe other facets of travelling. Mousafir is someone who is travelling or a traveller, while wakalat safar is a travel agency and jawaz al safar is a passport. An embassy is also referred to as safarah, referring specifically to a group of people who have travelled or been sent to represent their country.

Updated: April 26, 2024, 6:02 PM