The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Blogging the Soulfisher, Part II

The Soulfisher begins comprehensibly enough, but it is not very long before we start encountering problematic words:

ṣaida ana 
ṣaida ḏmn ṣaidia bhir
ṣaida ana ḏbhir mn ṣaidia 
uriša ḏkulhun kalia

A fisher am I,
A fisher, who is chosen from the fishers!
A fisher am I, who is the elect of the fishers
and the chief of all the trawlers!

The final word in this section, kalia, is a cipher. The word kalia, which usually means “hindrances” or “restraints,” does not make any sense within this context, particularly since it appears to be parallel to ṣaidia. Drower and Macuch suggest a derivation from an Arabic word كلاء kallā’– meaning “riverbank” or “harbor,” but this does not seem to fit the context either. Strangely, I cannot find this word in any of the dictionaries available to me. The word kiliata below, which is parallel to našbia “nets” and appears to be from the same root, suggests that this word refers to those who fish with nets rather than spears. According to Edward Ochsenschlager, the question of net-fishing vs. spear-fishing still divides the communities of the Iraqi Marshes; while most fishers use nets to catch fish, the Mi’dan reject them as unmanly, and prefer to fish with spears alone.

lhauria mia iadanun
lgiṣia gauaiia utalilia mbašqarnun
lnašbia ulhauria uel kiliata kulhun aiilna 
usaiarna agma bhabara 
uspintai lagazia ulamistakarna

I know the watery marshes.
I recognize their inner trails and mounds.
I enter all the nets, pools, and pens.
I traverse the lagoon in darkness,
and neither does my ship pierce them nor am I held up.

The word hauria is clearly related to the Arabic word خور khawr-, which is synonymous with “gulf” or “(river-)valley” in the standard language, but in the dialects of southern Iraq refers specifically to the constellation of very shallow lakes that characterizes the region.

Given the similarity between the cluster hn and the letter  in the Mandaic script, one might surmise that the hapax giṣia actually reflects a form like gihnia, from a root g-h-n meaning “to bend.” Drower and Macuch assure us that a word of this root still appears in local usage, referring to the type of path trodden by water-buffalos as they pass through the reeds, which bent down by their feet and bodies. The word talilia is yet another hapax, which Drower and Macuch relate to Arabic تل tall- and Syric ܬܠܠܐ telālā.

The narrator then goes on to explain that he does not “pierce” našbia, hauria, and kiliata, and neither is he held back by them. The first of the three plainly refers to nets or snares; the third is likely derived from the same “restraints” mentioned above, leaving the second, which (as we’ve seen) also means a kind of marsh lagoon. It is likely that all three refer to different types of trawls and trap nets that might be damaged by a more careless fisher making his rounds.


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