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Alex and the Sectarian Shibboleth

June 18, 2007

In Glasgow, FTP doesn’t stand for ‘File Transfer Protocol’.

There is conflict in all societies, and people develop codes to signify which side they are on. From choosing the correct time zone in Israel, to the pronunciation of the name ‘Alex’ in Scotland, sectarian shibboleths are a minefield to negotiate.

For instance, among skinheads in Europe, right wing, neo-Nazi Skins used to wear white laces in their boots to signify their allegiance. Left wing skinheads – Redskins, and skins affiliated to RASH and SHARP, used red laces for the same reason. In the US, the code is different.

My first direct experience of a sectarian shibboleth was when I was working construction in Eilat, Israel. I can’t remember the details, but it was something along the lines of the Israelis using daylight saving time and the Palestinians not, so there was an hour’s difference in the time.

One day, starting working on a site with some Arab labourers, one of them asked the time: “as-sa’at eh?”

I replied correctly: “Fi’l Israel, o fi’l Falestin?” – “In Israel or Palestine”?

He chuckled, gave me a smoke and put the ibrik on the coals to make some coffee.

I heard stories of Arabs being asked the time by Israeli soldiers, and having their watches smashed if they gave Palestinian time.

But one of the strangest examples I have come across is with the pronunciation of the name ‘Alex’ in Scotland. Protestants pronounce it the way it is spelled, but Catholics say ‘Alec’, even when it’s spelled with an ‘x’.

As you may know, there are hundreds of years of tribal warfare between Catholics and Protestants here, which manifests most visibly in support for the rival football teams Celtic and Rangers. Making a mistake can have serious consequences.

So you meet some one for the first time, and their name badge, or the email you got from them, says ‘Alex’, you find yourself casting about desperately for evidence. If you’re lucky, they’ll be wearing a Rangers or Celtic top. If they’re wearing an anti-sectarian Thistle top, you’ll be fine too.

Do they have a Scottish or Irish surname?

Is that a faded UVF tattoo on his forearm, with FTP etched on the neck, and a union jack tattooed on his forehead? That would be an ‘Alex’ then.

“Awright, Alex, pal?”

On the other hand, jewellery like a Celtic cross or leprechaun’s staff is all evidence you’re probably dealing with an ‘Alec’. In the absence of any other evidence, I’d call a ginger heid ‘Alec’ as well. Other indicators include: which part of town are you in, what’s the pub like, are his mates called Patrick or Billy?

“See yiz efter, Alec”.

Not one of the things you think of when you go to a country – I am sure the examples from Iraq are similarly byzantine.

Any readers have some examples for me?

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