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7/11/09 Nishan, continued (Rated PG-13)

After writing the previous entry, I had the word nishan on my mind. So when I found myself walking through Berberville with a close Berber friend, passing by the home of someone I’ve found … challenging, I decided to take the term out for a spin. As soon as we were out of the main thoroughfare, I turned to my friend and asked, “Is he nishan, or ifrgh?” She furrowed her brow, so I repeated my question more slowly and clearly, using hand signs. Nishan was easy enough – a bladed hand pushing directly forwards. For ifrgh, I wove my hand in a sinuous path away from me, like I was illustrating a snake or a fish in a game of charades.

She shook her head and said, “I don’t understand.”

I gave up on the idiom and said simply, “Is he a good man or a bad man?” Her forehead cleared and she gave me a look that was hard to read, before copying my handsign for ifrgh.

Then she added, “Why do you ask?”

Since I don’t know the expression for “He just seemed like it,” I settled on saying, “I believe he is ifrgh, but maybe I believed wrongly, maybe I just don’t know, so I wanted to ask you.”

She nodded emphatically. “When it comes to girls, always—” and she repeated the handsign. I nodded, too. She continued, “He has a wife, he even has daughters, but still, when it comes to unmarried women…” Her voice trailed off.

And then my very, very nishan friend, my quiet, modest, studious, nishan friend, did something completely unexpected. She curled her lips in a sneer and spat out the single word, “Asserdun! I threw my head back and laughed.

An asserdun is a mule. What Americans in a previous century would have referred to as an ass. Apparently, this is one idiom that’s just… universal.

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