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Abri and Ebru: clarifications

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  • Jake Benson
    To respond to Lavinia¹s question about the term Ebru (and apologies for not addressing this right away), Yes, Ebru has become a popular girl s name in Turkey
    Message 1 of 2 , Oct 12, 2002
      To respond to Lavinia¹s question about the term Ebru (and apologies for not
      addressing this right away),

      Yes, Ebru has become a popular girl's name in Turkey today, and yes,
      ³Abru² can mean ³Eyebrow².

      Since you have brought this up, I think that it is important to clarify
      some issues. Before I start, let me say that I¹ve also made many mistakes
      and assumptions over time. What is the most difficult thing is to ³unlearn²
      particular concepts that we find so appealing that we become very attached
      to them. Only by breaking down and analyzing everything from as an
      objective angle as you can muster will allow you overcome obstacles, and
      keep falling into conceptual ²traps², no mater how appealing we may find
      them. I¹m still learning, and like any student, this take time and a lot
      of sustained focus to clarify. For many of these issues, I¹ve learned by
      making the mistake, only to be enlightened by others who are ³in the know².
      My knowledge of these languages is basic at best, and my observations are in
      no way immutable.

      Some of this discussion has been posted before, but since you¹ve brought it
      up, I¹ve taken a few days to write something a little more comprehensive.
      Please understand that I am in no way trying to dismiss what your friend has
      said, as he has certainly offered you one accurate translation of the word.
      However, if you read on, you will see how your question touches on several
      problems regarding interpretations of terminology offered in contemporary
      marbling literature.

      First of all , please bear in mind that in most early Islamic manuscript
      sources on marbling known, the word used is ³abri², pronounced ³ebri² in
      Modern Turkish. Both Persian and Ottoman Turkish sources spell the word
      this way. The word ³ebru² in entirely absent! Personally, I feel quite
      strongly that when we discuss historic pieces, it is best to use the term
      that was current at the time. I don¹t use the word ³ebru² when discussing
      works prior to the 19th century in Turkey, nor pieces from Iran or India.
      Unfortunately, my email program doesn¹t support the full range of Unicode
      fonts, so I cannot write the words in the Arabic script (hopefully this will
      shortly change- but I¹m not sure that Yahoo will comply with the Unicode
      Standard any time soon). Of course, not that many on this list can read
      Arabic script, but it is an important element when discussing translations.
      So I will transcribe the individual letters into English.

      For the word abri, the letters in Arabic script are alif, ba, ra, ya.
      It has been suggested that the word "Abr" means something "colorful, or
      variegated" in Chaghatay Turkish (A Central Asian dialect that was spoken by
      the Chaghatay Timurid Dynasty, and subsequently used in India by the Mughal
      Dynasty). The final Ya would make the word descriptive in an Arabic
      grammatical convention used at that time. In Persian, Abr means clouds, so
      some have translated Abri to mean "Clouded" or Cloudy". What is the word
      describing? Well obviously ³paper²! In Persian, the full term is ³kaghiz-i
      abri², literally ³clouded paper².

      There has been a contentious debate surrounding the etymology of the
      words abri and ebru. I feel very strongly it is not enough to rely on the
      sound of a word alone- despite the fact that this is a technique used by
      some linguists (but not all!) to analyze word derivation. The reason for
      this is that we have written sources that give us specific examples of word
      usage, placing it within a very particular context. In this case, the
      context is what is called the ³kitab-khana² (what the Ottomans referred to
      as the ³kütüphane²) or ³library/scriptorium². That context should be
      carefully considered in this discussion. There are other examples where
      creative "definitions" have been applied to terms that have no basis in any
      manuscript sources. I do find it interesting that most of the vocabulary
      used in the context of the kitab-khana are primarily Arabic, followed by
      Persian terms. By this, I¹m referring to artistic modes and methods
      mentioned in manuscript sources. The word for paper (Kaghiz, Kagit, kaghaz)
      is of Turkish origin, and by the 11th century is found in use among Arabs in
      North Africa. It is probably the single Turkish term that has come into
      common use in Islamic manuscript production- though most arabs today use the
      word ³waraqah². The earliest mention of the word abri is the 16th century
      Indo-Persian technical account, Risala-ye Khoshnevisi. This term in¹t
      nearly as widespread as the term for paper, and is limited to the Eastern
      Islamic world, where the Persian and Turkish languages were the common,
      native languages..

      I have been told that the modern Turkish word ³ebru² has evolved in
      Turkey because it conforms to Modern Turkish rules of vocal harmonics.
      However, I should mention that the word ³ebri² also fully conforms to those
      same standards as well as ³abru². So I don¹t think this is a very good
      argument (although it is commonly cited). Exactly why is "ebru" used
      instead of "ebri" or ³abru²?- I'm not sure it can be answered. "You say
      Po-TAY-to, I say Po-TAH-to" is perhaps as good an answer as any. A master
      pronounces something a certain way, and then the student keeps repeating it.
      There is no mechanism when training to check the authenticity of the
      teacher¹s sources. To do so would be ³questioning the master² and was
      certainly discouraged. So I think that in such a climate, these
      pronunciations and resulting definitions slowly crept into use craftsmen,
      who didn¹t consult the dictionary every time they learned a term.

      I've found only one Ottoman source spelled "Abru" (Alif, Ba, ra, Waw), in
      the "Yeni Lugati" Ottoman Turkish dictionary published by Sir James Redhouse
      at the turn of the 19th/20th century. This entry states the meaning of the
      word to be marbled paper. So it shows that the word somehow slowly changed
      and evolved, by the turn of the 19th-20th century, the word Ebru had come
      into use in Istanbul. Yet it is only used in modern Turkey, and nowhere
      else (aside from the current popular use of it in Europe and America) when
      referring to marbling.

      Abru can mean "eyebrow" in Persian, and Central Asian Turkic dialects.
      Abru also means a "Water-course" in Persian. Some have suggested the term
      could mean "water-face" or "water- surface", but there is a problem with
      this assertion. The term "ab" does mean water, and "ru" literally refers to
      the face of a person, or a person's countenance, but not just any "surface".
      It¹s like saying that someone has a "watery face"- (perhaps from crying or
      profuse sweating?).

      Abru can also mean ³honorable². This is probably derived from the other
      meaning of ab- which can be translated to mean ³father² (same in Classical
      Arabic) , so ³abru² as an honorific title could be derived from the literal
      meaning of ³father-faced². A famous poet and calligrapher in Timurid Heart
      was named Hafiz-i Abru- literally ³Preserver of Honor². Sorry, but we don¹t
      know as yet of any examples of Hafiz-i Abru¹s works on marbled paper. The
      term Abru used when mentioning important personages is quite common.

      One poem in praise of "Eyebrows", written over a combed marbled pattern
      is inscribed by an early 17th century calligrapher named "Faqir 'Arab", also
      known as "Arab Shah". From what I understand, he emigrated from the town of
      Shiraz in Iran to work for the Adil Shahi Sultanate in the early 17th
      century. This poem is DEFINITELY not praising marbled paper, but I do find
      it ironic in light of the discussion. The features of a beloved's face are
      common topics in poetry- and eyebrows are certainly frequently mentioned in
      that regard. So far I¹ve only found found one poetic reference to marbled
      paper, that is actually written on marbled paper, but it doesn¹t use the
      term ³abri² at all. On an unfinished album page in the Sackler Museum at
      Harvard, a dipstych has been written in the upper left corner. Only the
      first verse is fully legible (though perhaps our modern scanning abilities
      could help change this). It states ³This picture is a garden of my
      imagination². Otherwise, the overwhelming amount of poetry written on
      marbled paper makes no mention of the writing surface.

      There is room for a kind of compromise regarding these word
      interpretations, and I think this is very important for anyone entertaining
      this discussion to understand. It is very common throughout non-Arab parts
      of the Muslim world to highlight double meanings in poetry by refering to
      the meaning ofa word in two different languages. Dr. Annemarie Schimmel in
      her book Calligraphy in Islamic Culture mentions how the word for
      ³calligraphy² in Arabic- Khatt, has another meaning in Persian, ³The soft,
      downy hair on the cheeks of a youth². The delicate wisps of calligraphy,
      particularly scripts like Nast¹aliq and Shikasteh, are reminiscent of these
      ³downy-soft hairs². So there are euphemisms employed in poetry that
      intentionally play on these double meanings- to the delight of the listener.
      Perhaps ³abri² is another such example of a word-play implying both
      meanings. Given the ethnic diversity of populations in the regions where
      marbling developed, and a prevailing highly evolved poetic culture, this
      nuance seems entirely possible. This appeals to me far more than arguing
      that the word must derive from a single language, which I find is often
      advocated by individuals who harbor a strong nationalism, and refuse to see
      cultural diversity surrounding them. Feridun made an excellent analogy- he
      pointed out how in Europe today is is not uncommon to meet people who speak
      three languages. In ³Eastern² Islamic culture (essentially, non-Arabic
      Muslims), Arabic was used in a mosque and for religious studies, Persian
      was used for academic studies- literature, science, and legal documents, and
      then Turkish, Urdu, Kurdish, Baluchi, Pashto &c- all the ethnic dialects
      were used in the home. In time that changed, but this was the common
      feature of societies in the Eastern Islamic world.

      My knowledge of these languages are basic at best, and I am certainly no
      linguist! It is my sincere hope that other scholars who are better
      qualified can tackle this subject given the plethora of evidence to ponder
      over. As marblers, we are the ones who have to petition and beguile the
      scholar¹s to get them interested. This is the main thrust behind forming an
      on-line database; to compile these sources into one place, making it easier
      for a scholar to better assess the information presented. Once I¹ve
      assembled all the sources in their original form in one place (I¹m only
      lacking one, and waiting for it to arrive from India), it will much be
      easier to present the materials to the relevant linguistic scholars to pour
      over. This way those scholar will be making interpretations using all the
      available sources, and make a very informed decision. Otherwise, it is
      something of a perpetual guessing game.

      Without possession of the full set of facts, we only persist in creative
      brainstorming- a useful exercise, but also one that has proven to be
      extremely misleading at times. Allow me to provide you with a very
      detailed example of how misleading such interpretations can be, and how
      ingrained they can become. The word for stencil marbling- Œaks (meaning
      ³opposite² or ³contrast², pronounced ³akkase² in Modern Turkish, and a close
      relative of the word ³akis², meaning ³mirror²) is of plainly Arabic origin,
      but this fact seems to have eluded Turkish paper historian, Mehmed Ali
      Kagitici, who erroneously (and frankly, quite surprisingly) translated it to
      mean ³White Bowl². The two word are spelled very differently in the Arabic
      script, (Œaks is spelled Œayn, kaf, sin. ³White bowl² would be spelled as
      two words- alif qaf- ³aq², meaning ³White² (spelled simply ³ak² in modern
      Turkish- they don¹t use ³q² today), then kaf, sin, ha- ³kase² meaning ³a
      cup² or ³bowl²). Only the Arabic term Œaks is found in sources or
      manuscript production (along with a majority of Arabic words used in the
      context of Islamic manuscript production). Despite this, the meaning ³White
      Bowl² has been routinely repeated by contemporary marblers.

      I should mention that this term Œaks is given in the Redhouse Yeni
      Lugat, referring to colored borders (personally, I would like to know how
      this word may have originally been pronounced in the Ottoman- I propose
      ³Akas². It is a mystery to me why the term ³akkase² is used at all)
      Somehow the term has come to mean something to do with borders in Turkish
      art, rather than the original meaning which was very broad and general, and
      was used when referring to stenciling in a number of different methods and
      appications, even those outside of manuscript production. The term
      ³Silhouette Papers² has been used in a variety of Western sources on
      marbling- Albert Haemmerle, Rosamond Loring et al. These papers were
      mentioned by Nedim in his lecture on alba amicora at the IMG. It is
      interesting to me that these papers are specifically termed ³kaghiz-i aksi²
      , literally ³stenciled paper² in a manuscript written in the Persian
      language by a 16th century Hindu artist working in the Mughal court named
      Anand Ram Mokhles entitled the Me¹rat ul Istilah. Another very thorough
      description of the processing of making these kinds of papers is mention the
      the early 19th century Persian Treatise Risale-ye Jeld Saz (which also
      mentions marbling ­ kaghiz-i abri) I have wondered if the terms kaghiz-i
      abri and kaghiz-i aksi may form a pair of rhyming terms that were used by
      Kitab-khana artists- as some terms were grouped in rhyming pairs (another
      example being ³vassali² and ³fassali² used by illuminators and bookbinders,
      interpretations of these Arabic terms are quite varied- not enough time to
      delve into this pair of twins here and now).

      Another example of misleading interpretations currently encountered in
      marbling literature is in reference to a man by the name ³Shebek² who is
      mentioned posthumously in the oldest Ottoman technical account of marbling,
      the Tertib Risale-i Ebri. This name has some unique historical
      significance. It was used as a kind of shortened nickname in reference to
      an Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan, and this usage can be found in a variety of
      manuscript sources as well as in a caption of a painted caricature of
      Shaybani Khan. This kind of ellided nickname or title is common in Persian
      and Turkish, and some other examples are ³Mirza² which is a shortened form
      of ³amir ­zadah² literally ³Princely- commander². The title ³Mir² is a
      shortened for of ³amir². This word shebek also literally translates as
      ³monkey² in Turkish. This nickname may have been used intentionally-
      Shaybani Khan was not very well liked. He was very violent, puritanical
      (Something of a ³Mullah Omar² leading a band of ³Taliban² at the time-
      illiterate but posing as an ³orthodox² leader who forcibly imposed his views
      on the local population). The painting I referred to above depicts him as a
      grotesque figure surrounded by implements of learning and a musical
      instrument to give him a pretense of culture- though as mentioned, he was
      illiterate- and this painting is thought of as a caricature. Shaybani Khan
      was largely responsible for the destruction of the last vestige of the
      Timurid Empire, and succeeded in driving Babur out of Central Asia to
      Afghanistan, (starting Babur on the path to conquer India, similar to his
      ancestor Timur , or ³Tamerlane² and eventually become the founder of the
      Mughal Dynasty). For these reasons, many viewed Shaybani Khan with
      contempt- from India to Istanbul, and his dynasty was short lived.

      Please understand that I¹m NOT stating that Shaybani Khan is the same
      person who is mentioned in the Ottoman manuscript about marbling. I¹m only
      relating this lengthy discussion because there has been an increase in
      publications that simply translate the name to mean ³monkey², but provide
      none of the historical background or context for this name. Interestingly
      enough, this has led to further misunderstandings. Someone wrote to me that
      they thought Shebek ³must have come from India because he LOOKED LIKE A
      MONKEY² (Caps are added for emphasis). The obvious racist implications of
      the statement aside, it is yet another clear example of what can happen when
      someone is convinced they know how to translate something, but fail to
      locate the term in the specific, historical context.

      These examples highlight the dangers that can be incurred by relying on
      the sound of a word alone- and hence it is best to not rely on the opinion
      of just any contemporary native speaker to tell you what a word means,
      unless they are familiar with the specific context. Even a good linguist
      can remain totally oblivious to the highly evolved and specialized
      terminology used in manuscript production, and make these mistakes. It also
      shows how it never hurts to check our sources and ensure that information
      being disseminated is accurate. Once we have al the sources together, in
      one place, and made available, can we embark on a truly cogent discussion of
      the processes, terms, and their given meanings. It is my hope that in time,
      given support from the marbling community and the incorporation of a a
      non-profit Marbling Society, establish a web site on our own secure server,
      we can then pursue funding for the database containing these materials to be
      made available for everyone to peruse.

      I hope this helped to elucidate the issue somewhat- I know it isn¹t easy to
      understand. Each time I write about it, it¹s an exercise for me to try and
      write about it as best I can. If you¹ve understood my point, then I¹ve
      succeeded, and the time taken to write this has been worthwhile.

      Here¹s to the clarity of a ³clouded² art!

      Jake Benson

      Benson's Hand Bindery
      Fine Custom Bookbinding & Conservation
      Hand Marbled Papers
      1319 B Summerville Ave.
      Columbia S.C. 29201
      Phone: 803.799.1853

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    • Gail MacKenzie
      Thank-you, Jake. I enjoyed reading your essay and I think you really are quite a linguist!! Wasn¹t it your speech in the Maryland conference that turned
      Message 2 of 2 , Oct 12, 2002
        Thank-you, Jake. I enjoyed reading your essay and I think you really are
        quite a linguist!! Wasn¹t it your speech in the Maryland conference that
        turned gitgel back into gelgit?? Gail

        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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