Musiqa and mousica, the melodic similarities between the Arabic and Greek languages

Emirati authors describe the shared heritage between both cultures at the Thessaloniki Book Fair

Sharjah is the guest of honour at the Thessaloniki Book Fair. Photo: @sharjahbookauthority / Instagram
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The ties binding Greek and Arabic culture are not just limited to the past. They can also be heard in some of our everyday speech in the Arab world.

For example, the Arabic word baqala – used to describe the local supermarket – is similar to the Greek word bakalis.

The term bekheir, meaning well or good and often used in reply to an Arabic greeting, is linked to the Greek word kha-raa which means joy or contentment. Arabic and Greek have similar terms for music (musiqa and mousica) and chemistry (kimya and chimeia).

The Arabic term for Greece is Yunan, which also derives from the Greek word Ionia, the former region of Anatolia in modern Turkey where Greeks resided. These inhabitants are viewed as some of the first Greek communities to have contact with what is now defined as the Levant.

These are some of the similarities described by Emirati authors at the Thessaloniki Book Fair in Greece, where Sharjah is the guest of honour.

“Culture exchange between Greeks and Arabs having been going for centuries to such an extent that when it comes to certain words, it is unclear to what extent each culture affected their respective languages,” Emirati poet and literary critic Sultan Al Amimi says. “The relationship was at times so dynamic that it seamlessly influenced Greek and Arabic words.”

Al Amimi referenced Khalid ibn Yazid, a seventh-century prince from the Umayyad dynasty who was renowned as being a patron of the sciences.

"When he learned that a group of Greek philosophers came to Egypt he brought them to see him and, as a result, ordered the translation of their books from Greek to Arabic," he says. "This initiative is viewed as one of the first instances of language transfers in the history of Islam."

Abdulaziz Al Musallam, poet and chairman of Sharjah Institute for Heritage, also notes how Ibn Al Muqaffa, the eighth-century Iraqi author behind the masterful Arabic translation of children's fables Kalila wa Dimna from the Indian anthology the Panchatantra, also played an unheralded role in bringing Greek literature to the Arab world.

"Not many people knew that he also translated three Greek books into Arabic. He did that by using existing translations in Farsi, which was much more common at the time," he says. "It is also the consensus of Arabic researchers that Greek tragedies went on to influence early Arabic folk tales, in particular how they viewed the concept of heroism."

Al Musallam also recalls how some of the earliest examples of Greek cultural influence on the gulf predate Islam.

He describes how some inhabitants of the region followed Nestorianism, an early Christian doctrine named after fourth-century Greek theologian Nestorius.

As for the music of fijiri, a form of vocal sea shanties historically sung by pearl divers in the Gulf, Al Musallam says it has its roots in Nestorian spiritual chants.

Greek anthropologist Haris Melitids says we are only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding the shared heritage between the Greek and Arab civilisations.

“Arabic translations were crucial in the history of Greek-Arab relations and it is time to reaffirm cultural friendships to strengthen the bonds between people, as culture best represents the spirit of nations,” he says.

“Understanding our shared past and fostering future cultural friendships is more urgent today than ever, as culture is the fundamental element that unites people and enhances mutual understanding.”

Updated: May 18, 2024, 3:16 PM