‘Abu Dajaj’ surges in Iowa

Buttigieg learnt Arabic at the Bourguiba School of Modern Languages in Tunis, which he attended in 2005.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, February 6.AP)
All in the name. Pete Buttigieg speaks at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, February 6.AP)

Emerging suddenly as a leading contender following the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses, Pete Buttigieg has found himself the focus of new attention.

Some of that attention has gone to how to correctly pronounce the White House hopeful’s last name. The pronunciation exercise has become a trending subject in internet search engines and even a challenge on TV talk shows. For many people, especially in the United States, Buttigieg is an unusual last name with no obvious pronunciation cues.

In a campaign stop, the 38-year-old son of linguists tried to shed light on the semantic roots of his family name: “’Tigieg’ means ‘chicken,’ so ‘Buttigieg’ probably means ‘owner of poultry’,” he said.

In the Arabic language, from which much of Maltese language is derived, Buttigieg’s last name would hence be: “Abu Dajaj.” However, “bou-edgege” would be a more accurate transliteration reflecting the phonetic inflection of the Tunisian Arabic dialect, which has more directly influenced the Maltese language.

The presidential candidate once noted the proximity of his parents’ place of origin to the northernmost country of Africa, Tunisia. “If you draw a line from Sicily to Tunisia, it will go through Malta,” he was quoted as telling an audience a few weeks ago.

Buttigieg’s father, Joseph, was a Maltese English professor who migrated to the United States in the 1970s. His mother is a linguist. The name is common in Malta where one of the early presidents was a Buttigieg — Anton Buttigieg.

Pete Buttigieg, who studied at Harvard and Oxford, speaks seven languages, including Arabic, which he learnt at the Bourguiba School of Modern Languages in Tunis in 2005. The school is one of the main foreign language schools in the Arab world. It attracts professionals, students and researchers from Europe, the United States and Asia.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine last year, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor reminisced about his stay in Tunisia. “Tunisians are very friendly. They’ll befriend you at the drop of the hat. They’re like Egyptians,” he said.

He admitted that the friendliness of Tunisians made him initially queasy. “At first you think there’s something shady going on. They’re trying to get something out of you because, if somebody comes up to you on the street trying to get a cigarette or asking what time it is, next thing you know they’re inviting you to coffee and you’re like, What is this? Especially if you’re from New York, I’m sure there’d be only more suspicion. ”

He admitted another misperception about Tunisians as he “couldn’t get anyone to talk about politics.”

He presumed at the time that the authoritarian regime of then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali “had successfully created a generation that didn’t care about politics.” Buttigieg eventually realised his conclusion “was evidently wrong because it was Tunisia of all places where the ‘Arab spring’ began six years after I was there.”

If elected to office, Buttigieg would be the first US president to speak Arabic. Familiarity with foreign languages and with cross-cultural differences between the West and the Arab world would be a quantum leap in US politics. Some former presidents are said to have not even possessed a passport before entering the White House.

Like most democratic hopefuls, Buttigieg advocates changing US foreign stances that would include reintegrating Iran’s international nuclear deal and offering less support to Israel’s annexionist policies. But electoral pledges may take a different shape once the 2020 vote is done.

For now, Buttigieg is using his 2014 military experience, as a US Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan, as a campaign asset. During his tour of duty, he was in charge of interpreting intercepted data about money flows to terrorist groups.

The vantage point of a war veteran, he said, could be pertinent “when decisions are made that could send people into a conflict.” He insists that “that perspective is needed, especially when we’ve got a president who thinks that strength is the same as the chest-thumping of the loudmouth guy at the end of the bar.”

Until mid-July when the Democrats have their nominating convention, Buttigieg will have a lot of pitching to do before defeating other hopefuls, including latecomer billionaire former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, for the party’s nomination for president, and then in November going against the “loudmouth guy” currently at the White House. Quite an uphill battle for the young candidate.

Whether that happens or not, Americans will have time to get used to his last name. In the Arab world, however, “Abu Dajaj” will definitely not be a tongue-twister. At worst, people will wonder what “the Lord of Poultry” is doing at the White House.