Down in the southwestern corner of the Persian Gulf lies a promontory shaped like a bilakh. It is called Qatar and nobody has been able to give a rational explanation of its name – until now, that is. How I have arrived at this study, itself, is a testament to the insightful suggestions and questions that I receive, from time to time, from friends and readers of this site.
This morning, I received an innocuous inquiry about a possible connection between the word khar [Dar Vasf-e Khar] and the English “car,” as the means of transportation. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word “car” with its various variants and spellings is of pervasive use in the European languages. In German, we are told, the word spelled as karre, which meant a two-wheeled wagon. Because German is a sort of an entry point of our Indo-Iranian words into European languages, I thought of gari, the Farsi word for that familiar two-wheeled mode of transportation in the Iranian landscape.
When I could not make the jump from khar to car, I was asked to consider the connection between “car” and “caravan.” The Oxford English Dictionary concedes the Persian origin of the word “caravan,” meaning a group of merchants, pilgrims or others traveling together. I do think that the connection between car (karre) and caravan (karvan) is coincidental, not etymological. However, this inquiry conjures for me images that I have not recalled for some time.
Think of a karvan — and I see the distant silhouette of a chain-like train or file of camels slowly passing by the dunes along the horizon, with their loads, against a clear sky at sunset. I recall from my childhood that the scene was typically referred to as a ghetarshotor (train, file, row of camels). A more familiar term for this is ghafelah, which in Arabic and Farsi literally means a caravan. While the camel is a familiar feature of a representational karvan, the beast of burden need not exclusively be a camel. A donkey or a mule too could do, but not for desert traffic. The Farsi word for mule is ghater.
Nobody knows how and why the country of Qatar got its name. In the 1868 treaty between the Brits and the sheikh of Qatar the latter was referred to as “Chief of El-Kutr (Guttur).” The British gazetteer Lorimer is quiet on the subject, except to say that the Brits frequently pronounced the name “Gatar.” If the second “a” in Gatar or Qatar was inserted to make the name Kutr pronounceable to the British, then one needs to look at El-Kutr (qtr) primarily as a tribal name. There are also words that could offer an explanation for the name of the country. In Farsi alone – from the Arabic — there is ghotr (thickness, diameter) or aghtar (regions, climates) like in the aghtar-e alam (regions of the world).
According to Rosemarie Zahlan’s writing on the country, Qatar was once a miserable province, with miles and miles of low barren hills, bleak and sun-scorched, with hardly a single tree to vary their dry monotonous outline. It was mostly settled along its coasts, with its settlements dependent commercially on neighbors. Most of the food had to be imported, as was the wood for building boats. It traded primarily with Bahrain and Iran’s port of Langeh. The place was nevertheless an outpost and convenient place of shelter for people caught in strife elsewhere. Demographically, the people where either badu (bedouin) or hadar (townsmen).
If the hadar were the prominent demographic feature of the place, then one could assume a link between the name Qatar and hadar, as for example would be in the Chief of El-Hadar, later Katar).
According to J.B. Kelly, the present day name of Doha, the capital of Qatar, derived from the name Dauhat al-Bidda. This would have meant the abode of Bidda. In that case, the term Qatar itself may well have derived from a word like ghatr possibly meaning “region” like in the Farsi aghtar-e alam.
There is always ghater (mule). It certainly would have had a role to play in the import-export activities of the early inhabitants of Qatar. Maybe not. I think, the name Qatar comes from the aforementioned word ghetar, meaning a train of camels, for example, that formed the ghafelah, the caravan.
If anyone has a better explanation for the origin of the name Qatar, I am all ears!
About Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and is the principal artisan at trapworks.com. Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea>>> Features in iranian.com