Stone carving and colored pastework from an historic house in Damascus, Syria, from Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City, by Brigid Keenan (Thames & Hudson)
A little while ago, Language Hat posted a question about a phrase identified as Persian, basa basa:
The Arabic phrase “basa basa” means to ogle, cast amorous glances or make sheeps' eyes at someone [is it Persian? Arabic? Arabo-Persian?]
I'm always looking for good conversation topics with my father-in-law, so when we had lunch with him a few days later, I asked him. "In Persian - and we borrow this from them - bas means "enough" - you know, that's what you'd say when your host is coming around with the pastries and tea for the third time." (That was exactly what my Persian friend, Shirin, had told me.) "But basa basa...well, let's get the dictionary."
He sent me to the lower section of one of the bookshelves, behind the teetering tray-table with its precariously balanced arrangement of dried flowers, books, papers, and the perpetual-motion clock he picked up last year from the bargain room at the retirement home ("It's amazing! You never need to wind it and it doesn't even have a battery!") "There." He pointed at two large volumes bound in old red leather. I handed the first one to him. He smiled happily as he took it into his hands. "This is a treasure," he said. "The best Arabic dictionary there is." He began scanning, turning the pages with his long fingers and saying words out loud. He wasn't finding anything that satisfied him. I went into the kitchen and drew some water, and went out onto the balcony to water his plants. "Making sheep's eyes, you said?" he asked. "I'm just trying to see if there's anything here that could serve as a root word for that...but it's not anything familiar to me."
"OK," I said, after a while, "let's give up," and we talked of other things. In another half hour, my husband and I thanked him for a good visit, and went home.
As I was making dinner that evening, the phone rang, and my father-in-law's excited voice was on the other end. "You didn't say it was bas bas!" he said, repeating the phrase in a way that, to my ears, sounded identical but obviously wasn't. "I was sitting at dinner and thinking about it and saying it over and over to myself, and then it came to me all of a sudden - you see, in Arabic we have two "s"s. There's the English-kind of S, like "Sam"and then there is the other "s". This is the other one. It's called "sah" and when you say it the tongue comes up to the roof of the mouth." He demonstrated. I tried to repeat after him, and failed, as usual. But I was happy that the mystery seemed to be solved.
"Oh!" I said. "That's fantastic! Good for you! Now, what does it mean?"
"It means to look at someone....illegally," he said, drawing the word out to its full length and clearly enjoying himself. "In a way designed to cause trouble, to make people talk." In a society where young unrelated men and women weren't even supposed to look at each other in the eyes, I could well imagine what he meant. He laughed, thinking back. "We used to say it all the time."