The article below was originally published almost seven years ago, when we had less than a tenth of the traffic we have now. Since the topic is just as relevant today as it was back then, I’m reposting it here in hopes that it will reach a wider audience.
The recent terrorist attacks in Britain and Egypt have once again highlighted the need for Westerners to understand the root causes of terrorism. Dr. Eugene Urquhart, professor of sociology and Resident Sociometrist at the University of Virginia, thinks he has found the answer.
“We tend to overlook the fact that the Arabs have been deeply affected by the removal of the letter ‘u’ from its customary place behind the ‘q’ in Arabic words, names, and place names,” says Dr. Urquhart. “It’s not significant to us, but it’s extremely important to the Arabs. Every time an Arab looks at a map and sees Al Ghardaqah or Qatar, it reminds him of his loss.”
There is even a scientific name for the phenomenon: hypo-upsilonuria, meaning “a deficiency of the letter ‘u’”. Dr. Lucius Burroughs of Oxford University is a linguistic biologist and an expert on hypo-upsilonuria. “It began in the Middle Ages when the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought back the vowels of their Saracen victims as trophies attached to their shields. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the exploitation of the Arab ‘u’ really took off.”
That was when enterprising British inventors discovered that the vowels could be used for fuel in lamps and stoves, and were cheaper to extract and process than whale oil. The u-trade continued, dominated by the British, until the development of petroleum refineries in the latter half of the 19th century. By then the impoverished indigenes of the Arabian peninsula had been systematically stripped of their u’s, leaving them in a distressed condition, one that they remain in to this day. The trade has declined considerably since then, but u’s are still in demand for some uses, such as specialty jewelry items featuring horseshoe motifs.
The effect of this condition on the Arab world is significant. For example, in the original Mesopotamian dialect, the name “Iraqu” meant “Pleasant Land of Peace and Plenty”, but “Iraq” means “Land Where One’s Feet May Be Amputated Without Anesthetic”. Some places, such as Saqqara, tried to make up for the loss by doubling up on the “q”, but to little effect.
“The entire Arabic-speaking community experiences this as a profound loss,” says Dr. Urquhart. “There is even an accompanying psychological disorder listed in the DSM-IV: ‘Vowel Inadequacy Syndrome’, or VIS. Members of Al-Qaeda such as Zarqawi are known to suffer from VIS, but it afflicts many ordinary Arabs, and even prominent leaders such as Qaddafi are said to experience it.”
It is a source of great shame for Arab men, even though certain occupations — such as muezzins, ulemas, and mullahs — have been protected from hypo-upsilonuria. Unfortunately, the shame for men is intensified by the fact that women were generally exempted so that they could make hummus and ululate at weddings and funerals.
When I was Yemen I talked to Qasim al-Qatif as he sat chewing qat in the bazaar in ‘Irqba. “I feel this shame as a stab in my heart every day,” he said. “My brother Tariq and I are planning to go to Iraq and join the jihad against the u-stealing Americans.” Another man sitting nearby, Qatadah al-Qatari, nodded his head in agreement. “My sister Nuha constantly paraded her shame before us, so that my uncle Iqbal and I were forced to kill her to preserve the family honor.”
Hypo-upsilonuria has spread to the West along with Arab immigrants, especially to northern Europe. Restive Arabs in Denmark and Norway are demanding the return of what is rightfully theirs. The problem is so acute that the U.N. has scheduled a conference on the topic, “Fighting the Scourge of Hypo-Upsilonuria”, to be held in Timbuktu in August of 2006.
But the U.N. will have its work cut out for it, since Arabs in Norway are demanding that restitution be made to them in the form of the letter “v”, as is the custom in Norwegian names. “This will be very difficult for us,” says Gunnar Inqvist, the Norwegian Minister of Immigrant Affairs, “because at the moment there is a severe shortage of v’s in Norway.”
The Welsh are experts in the field, and are sending a team of Vowel Restitution Engineers to the conference in Timbuktu. The team leader, Mr. Kynwyl Llwyd of Llandudno, says, “We have had centuries of vowel deprivation in Wales, due to the cross-border vowel raids conducted by the English from the 13th through the 19th centuries. If anybody can help those poor bloody Arabs, we can.”
Staff writers Dudley Sununu and Ursula Underburgh contributed to this report.