I’m not especially good at languages: I can just about cope with English, on a good day, but ask me to cope with Portuguese or Arabic and I’m struggling. I try learning, but I end up just mastering the most basic of words and phrases. Nevertheless, even with Van Gogh’s ear for linguistic nuance, I can detect an enormous influence of Arabic in Portuguese.
Just a week ago, I was in a jewellery shop, collecting a bracelet which had been repaired for ‘she who must be obeyed’. The lady and gentleman behind the counter were discussing things (in Arabic) when I heard the word ‘fatura’. It made me pay attention, as it is the word for invoice or receipt in Portuguese. Imagine my surprise to learn that this word is the same in Arabic!
We have some lovely tiles around our barbecue area. Mostly blue and white. These are very popular in Portugal and the word for them is ‘azulejos’. I am told that this derives from Arabic, but my Egyptian friends deny this. The word for the part of Portugal which is a real holiday destination, the Algarve, however, does derive from Arabic. It comes from al-gharb, which apparently means ‘the west’ and refers to the westernmost point of the Moorish influence in Andalusia, which is nowadays most of Spain and Portugal.
There are lots of words in Portuguese which begin with either ‘al’ or just ‘a’ and they seem to speak of an Arabic past. Words like alface, lettuce, azeitona, olive and açucar, sugar. Even cenoura, carrot, is drawn from Arabic roots (pun intended).
It’s surprising how many words to do with the land, fruit and vegetables, are originally Arabic. I think it is to do with the Moorish invasions some 1,200 years ago. Even when the Moors’ benevolent rule in Andalusia ended, as they were to a large extent, driven out, their influence remained. Many stayed on, as workers on the land and the words have come down the years to modern Portuguese people.
Not far from where we live, is the main village of our little parish. It’s called Lourosa. The church there has just been beautifully restored. It is 1,100 years old and is rich with Mozarabic references. Mozarabic is the idea of Moorish influences on the Christian culture that coexisted in Portugal at that time. It is one of the oldest churches in Portugal (there are only three other pre-Romanesque churches in Portugal) and is well worth a visit, being richly arched inside.
The traditional Portuguese music, known as fado, has a sound which is very Arabic. Fado, by the way, is often sung as a story and is full of unhappiness. Husbands going off to war, children dying, that sort of melancholic misery. Traditional though it may be, and popular as it certainly is, it does not excite me, I’m afraid. Please don’t spread this around, as it makes me out to be some sort of uncultured philistine, but I think it’s a dirge, a real depressing, minor-key sort of thing. Why, it makes country music sound positively upbeat!