Obama's British codename: Is it an insult?

Scotland Yard gave President Obama the codename of "chalaque" during his visit to Britain. The Daily Mail says it's a derogatory term in Punjabi. Asra Nomani's grandmother confirms it's not a nice term in Urdu or Hindi either.

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    President Barack Obama and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron after a joint news conference in London, May 25, 2011.

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By Asra Q. Nomani

Newsweek/DailyBeast

Before President Obama’s arrival in London, The Daily Mail ran a story under the headline “Codename ‘smart alec’: British police label Obama with ‘mildly offensive’ Punjabi word for visit to U.K.” Scotland Yard says its computers randomly picked a codename for Obama, “chalaque,” for his visit to the country. But the newspaper quoted a Sikh community leader saying the name is often used to “denigrate” someone. Yahoo News then picked up the story, featuring it on its homepage under the headline: “Obama Code Named ‘smart alec’ in Britain.”

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As someone who grew up hearing chalak used to describe someone who is a notch below diabolical, I had to laugh. The West may try to assert cultural prowess economically, militarily, and diplomatically, but Obama’s codename is yet another example of cross-cultural communication lost in translation.

I double-checked with the best person I could find on the nuances of the propriety of South Asian culture: my mother, Sajida Nomani, a native speaker of Urdu schooled in the highly mannered culture, called adab in Arabic, of Lucknow, India, a sort of Charleston, S.C., of South Asia. She is a grandmother with a discerning ear. Chalak, as it’s usually spelled phonetically, isn’t just a Punjabi word, but also found in Urdu, Hindi, and Bengali. Verbally, Hindi and Urdu are very similar, and Punjabi and Bengali are related to Hindi and Urdu.

No doubt about it, she said. “It’s an insult.” My mother dusted off our edition of the Oxford Practical English-Urdu Dictionary, published in Lahore, Pakistan, by the Oriental Book Society on Ganpat Road, and turned to page 156 [PDF], where she read the definition of chalak. It read: “adj. skilful; knowing; crafty; sly.” My father, Zafar Nomani, then faxed me over a copy of pages of the dictionary, including 156.

Trust me, when they mean “skilful” and “knowing,” that’s not meant as a compliment. The word is a derogatory term for anyone older than about 7. For a youngster, it can mean clever, like, “What a cunning boy.” Think somewhere between Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver and the Uriah Heep character from Dickens’ David Copperfield. Or Tom Sawyer from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

But for a grown man, especially, it’s a putdown. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger, for keeping from his wife, Maria Shriver, the secret of a baby born to his housekeeper: a real chalak. Or Bernie Madoff, for swindling foundations and the elderly out of millions: a definite chalak. Osama bin Laden for hiding out in the Pakistan military garrison town of Abbottabad, miles from the nation’s capital? Definitely, 100 percent chalak, though most of his sympathizers wouldn’t insult even bin Laden by calling him a chalak. Rather, they’d say the Navy SEALs were real chalak for keeping Operation Geronimo a secret from the Pakistanis. Meanwhile, if he knew the word, comedian Jon Stewart would say Pakistan has been a real chalak for pretending it didn’t know bin Laden was in Abbottabad.

As you can see, chalak is in the eye of the accuser, er, beholder. But Chalak in Chief is not a compliment.

If someone tries to con someone, we’ll say, “Oh, he really tried to be a chalak.” Or if someone is trying to get out of trouble, others will say, “Oh, he is being a real chalak.” Or if one ethnic group wants to put down another ethnic group, they’ll say, “Oh, they’re real chalak.” On Yahoo, a Bengali speaker explains that chalak is used to talk about a swindler: “We would say ‘Buddhiman’ for knowledgeable person, and ‘Chalak’ for anyone trying to outsmart other(s).”

For some real pop culture references on chalak, you need go no further than Bugs Bunny. Blogger Muhammad Ahmed posted a Bugs Bunny cartoon, dubbed in Punjabi, and called it, Chalak Khargosh, or chalak rabbit, for poor, misunderstood little Bugs.

A company based in Houston, the Chalak Group, with executives rooted ethnically in South Asia, appropriately asked the question on its website, “Why Chalak?” I’m sure more than one self-respecting “aunty,” as older women are called in South Asia, clucked their tongues at the use of the word in a business name.

“The word CHALAK is Hindi…” the website says. It talks about one meaning, which means “overflow,” if the word is pronounced “chu-luk.” “The other meaning is ‘wise or intelligent’ if pronounced chaa-laak,” it claims. But, on its website explanation, the company can’t hide the real meaning of chalak: “The Chalak Group is a dynamic business organization led by several young and energetic entrepreneurs. These WISE GUYS started their company back in 1998 with an OVERFLOW of energy and excitement.” A caption on a photo of the five principals from the company reads, “The Chalak Group Wise Guys,” and a photo of the founder has his tongue sticking out, just a little indelicately. Nice wise guy move, letting his chalak flag fly.

Now Scotland Yard could borrow a page from the Chalak Group and claim it meant no insult but thought of Obama as “wise or intelligent.” That would be classic chalak.

Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace. asra@asranomani.com

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