Renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabani once penned the words, “My lover asks me: What is the difference between me and the sky? The difference, my love, is that when you laugh, I forget about the sky.”
All over the world, the sky is a metaphor for something greater than ourselves. Qabani creatively illustrates this through his words by playing with our collective notions of how grand, inescapable and limitless the sky is.
This week’s Arabic word of the week, samaa, which in all Arabic dialects means the sky, is a universal symbol of awe, inspiration, divinity, knowledge and so much more.
The word samaa is a noun, the plural of the word samawa, which means a portion of the sky. And so while samaa means all the portions of the sky together, or the whole sky, samawat is the plural of samaa, meaning skies.
Samaa is made up of four Arabic letters; seen, meem, alif and hamza. The root of samaa is the word sama, which means anything or anyone that is either physically high or tall in stature.
The official definition of samaa is a higher space that surrounds the Earth or the element that faces and surrounds the Earth.
Samaa also means any element or physical object that is high above something else or covers it. So, in some instances, especially in classical Arabic, samaa may not necessarily refer to the sky. It can mean the ceiling of a room or the roof of a house or the highest branch of a tree. The sky, however, is considered the highest of these elements.
In many religions and cultures, the sky carries many rich and powerful associations. A symbol of the divine, a connection to creation, a metaphor for the heavens.
In Islam specifically, samaa is mentioned many times in the Quran in different contexts. Most commonly it is referred to as a built element made up of seven layers that cover the Earth.
Other words derived from the same root of samaa are also associated with the concept of highness, in both positive and negative connotations.
For example, sama is a verb that refers to thinking of oneself as better or acting better than those around you. It is, to use an English phrase, someone who acts “high and mighty”.
Another example is soumu, which means someone whose social standing or emotional state is higher than others. It can refer to a member of a royal family or someone who has achieved great success in their field of work and has a great knowledge on a particular topic. Soumu doesn’t only have to be used in reference to people but, depending on the context, can describe any element that is considered greater than its surroundings.
The 2008 Egyptian film, Alwan El Sama El Sabaa (The Seven Colours of the Sky) starring the celebrated actress Laila Elwi, uses the metaphor of the sky as part of a sacred and spiritual journey.
The story follows characters from different walks of life, balancing the road between true love and material or sinful temptation to purify their hearts and spiritually travel through the seven layers of the sky.