Why ‘wafaa’ should be exported worldwide
Having just returned from Spain — even though I have been there many times before and am aware of the depth of historical connections between Spain and the Arab world — I felt a strong common thread between Arabs and Spaniards this time: A sense of our universal human history.
Perhaps it was because I recently found out that, through my DNA, I am related to the Umayyads, whose roots can be traced back to Arabia and Omar bin Al-Khattab, from the Banu ‘Adi clan of the Quraysh tribe. The Umayyads, of course, were the ones who extended their caliphate all the way to modern-day Spain. Al-Andalus was the jewel of this coexistence of cultures and religions that produced so much of the science, art, architecture and philosophy that we still admire today.
Some right-wing European politicians try to stoke fears of an Arab or Muslim invasion of Europe today. They forget that our people and our cultures have blended at least since the days of Al-Andalus, and that what they created together is the pride of all mankind.
As I let myself get carried away by these major historical currents, I was also transported via Spain to the Americas. With almost all of South and Central America colonized by the Spanish, it is no wonder that their language is now the second most common natively spoken language in the world after Mandarin. Just as Arabs and Muslims had a major impact on Spanish culture and language, so the Spanish had an outsize influence on the Americas.
"Wafaa" translates to a silent generosity that seeks no reward and that will never be questioned, in the same way that the love of a mother for her child knows no limits.
Hassan bin Youssef Yassin
Almost 10 percent of the Spanish language is made up of words whose origin is in Arabic, and those linguistic and cultural influences can be traced all the way to California — whose name originates from the Arab-Muslim concept of the caliph. Spain’s second longest river, Wadi Al-Kabir (great river), is now written Guadalquivir. And the Spanish-Arab concept of law and order installed in the Americas was upheld by the “sharif,” or sheriff, which is still prevalent throughout the US today. There is hence a line that can be traced directly from my ancestors the Umayyads to California, where I studied in the 1950s.
As I think about the importance of words that are exported, and the very importance of naming things, I think of what I believe to be one of the most important words in the Arabic language: “Wafaa.” This is not simply a word; it is an entire world, a culture, a way of life, which is of great importance to me. One could translate it as a faithfulness or loyalty that knows no limits in time, geography or selflessness. It is a silent generosity that seeks no reward and that will never be questioned, in the same way that the love of a mother for her child knows no limits.
As I think of my DNA travelling through time from the Umayyads and the Quraysh tribe, of the Spanish and their Arab-influenced culture and language spreading throughout the globe, I also wish for this idea of wafaa to spread through the hearts and minds of everyone on this planet.
I think it is captivating, in a world filled with so many challenges and difficulties, with the chatter of the internet and social media, to come back to the singular silence of wafaa, of giving without seeking any reward or visibility. It is a comforting idea for me to think that somehow this word and this concept could spread into every language and allow people to comprehend and adopt that silent generosity.
What wafaa says to me is: “Make your way and, when you are gone, I will be there to support your children and their children after that.”
• Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Ofﬁce in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.