I’m absolutely certain that you, dear non-native Arabic speaker currently located in Cairo, want no part in anything that could jeopardize the delicate, spotless reputation that foreigners living in Egypt have worked so hard to maintain over the years. In the spirit of this sentiment, TeamMaha has compiled the following brief guide to commonly used titles in Egypt to help smooth out your day-to-day interactions with the population of om al-dunya.

Note that this list is by no means exhaustive; feel free to leave additions or suggestions in the comments section and I’ll adjust the post accordingly.

باشا basha – Originally a Turkish term used in reference to high-ranking political officials under the Ottoman empire, the word is now usually used by people working in the service industry and/or serving you in some way as a means to address you respectfully. This is most often used when speaking with men, but I’ve been called basha once or twice, and each time it was fantastic.

بي bey (bae?) – Similar to basha, above. Not much of a difference in usage as far as I can tell, although this was distinct from a basha back in the Ottoman days.

ريس rayes – Corrupted ammiya form of رئيس which literally means ‘President’ – here the meaning is closer to ‘boss’ (as in, you got it boss!); otherwise indistinguishable from basha and bey to my ears in terms of use.

فندم fendem – This one usually appears when you’re speaking to someone and didn’t hear something they said, but want to appear respectful: يا فندم؟ means something like ‘Sorry, come again?’ Also–you guessed it!–Turkish.

باشامهندس  bashamohandes A term of respect for engineers, which is a highly regarded career path in Egypt. Combination of basha + the word for ‘engineer’–a two-for-one title, if you will.

اوسطى osta – This is usually used when speaking to taxi/bus drivers, but an amiya teacher once told me its for anyone who works with their hands. When you want to get out of a taxi, you can say على جمب يا اوسطى (ala gemb yaosta – note that the ‘ya’ and ‘osta’ tend to kind of meld together).

برنس brins – aka, ‘prince’ in a super Egyptian accent. Usually comes out when someone has done something of note and the speaker wants to express his approval, or when greeting a good friend.

حاج\حاجة hag\haga – Title of respect used for the elderly, associated with the expectation that a Muslim who has gotten on in their years will have made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Use copiously and #respectyourelders.

أستاذ ustaz – Literally means ‘teacher’ and is similar to basha, but can be used as a title before someone’s name; for example, if I’m ordering food on the phone and the company has my name recorded in their database, they may ask if ‘ustaza Caitlyn’ is calling, to be polite. This is also used more often for women in place of basha.

آنسة anisa – Used for young women, and implies that they’re unmarried, if I’m not mistaken. The shami equivalent is صبايا.

حضرتك hadrtak/hadrtek – Not as much a title, but if you speak Spanish, it operates a bit like ‘Usted’–its a polite form of ‘you.’ So if you’re talking to your friend’s mom or a teacher, for example, you might say ازاي حضرتك instead of the more informal ازايك. When addressing a police officer–most often a situation in which you most likely want to be the politest of polite–you can call him/her حضرت الضابط.

When I first moved to Egypt I used to be able to tell whether I was having a good Arabic day or not judging by the nationality people guessed I was: Syrian/Lebanese meant I had thrown a Shami word or two into the conversation, but was generally doing okay; Moroccan meant that my speech was mostly unintelligible but still coding as Arabic; and American meant that I should probably take a nap before trying to use real words again. The spectrum of compliments I’ve received on my Arabic ability over the years has also been quite broad, ranging from delight to suspicion to spontaneous marriage proposals.

But my favorite type of confidence-boost is the conversation I had with a tired Mogamma employee while renewing my visa yesterday:

الاصل ايه؟

(What’s your original nationality?)

امريكية

(American)

بس الاصل

(No, your original nationality)

امريكية امريكية يعني

(I’m American American)

طب انتي بتتكلمي عربي حلو كدا ليه

(Okay, but why do you speak such good Arabic?)

This is one of the great self-confidence related benefits of mastering Arabic as a foreigner, although it is certainly a double-edged sword: after a certain point, people assume that you must be half-Arab, because the number of foreigners–and I use this word mainly in reference to white foreigners–who can actually speak fluent, colloquial Arabic is so, so little. And this, to me, is quite sad.

The Mogamma, an ancient Egyptian temple built to please the bureaucracy gods.

The Mogamma, an ancient Egyptian temple built to please the bureaucracy gods.

Of course, there are reasons why this happens: the majority of Egyptians do speak some English, and if most of your Egyptian buddies received their schooling under the American or British systems, you can reasonably get by living in Egypt with only around 50 words in Arabic (“One Stella please” “Turn left” “Your mother’s privates” and so on). Learning any variety of Arabic is also a very objectively strenuous task, and even if you become skilled in speaking MSA to some extent, you essentially have to start from scratch in order to become capable of speaking like a normal human being in colloquial Arabic. If you pick up and move to another Arabic-speaking country after mastering one dialect, the process repeats. The whole thing is quite daunting.

But still–it is unsettling that people who speak English much better than I speak Arabic receive so little praise for their hard work. Here, I am also thinking about people who learned English out of necessity–people who had no racial or passport privilege to fall back on when words failed them in their new country of residence, and who were denied even occasional affirmations of their efforts and improving abilities. I chose to learn a language that Arabs themselves are often told is second to English (Exhibit A: AUC students who don’t have Arabic keyboard functions installed on their laptops). For that, my efforts are rewarded far more than those of the rest of the world who struggled to master my native language because speaking English is widely considered a pre-requisite for being a valuable human being.

Although receiving periodic praise, surprise, and sometimes absolute bewilderment at my whiteness juxtaposed with my colloquial Arabic ability is very much a satisfying experience, I am constantly aware that race, power, and privilege are all hopelessly entangled in the process of learning a foreign language and living in someone else’s country. No matter how fluent I become–no matter how many swears I know or how many times I nearly convince someone I’m from Mansoura–I’ll always be a white person navigating Arabic. And that journey will always be a political one.

 

Watching TV in Arabic is a fantastic way to get more listening practice and generally improve your vocabulary and comprehension, and I highly suggest all Arabic learners do this during their down time whenever possible. But when you get sick of that, or when there’s nothing to watch except Saudi men practicing falconry and Amr Adeeb flailing his arms about / having his weekly heart attack on air, you’ll inevitably find yourself flipping over to an English language movie. And I’m here to tell you how to make this experience quadruple the fun: pay attention to the subtitles.

This guy.

This guy. Amirite?

There are two things you’ll notice watching foreign films, especially those shown by MBC, which happens to be Saudi-owned: very obviously censored kissing scenes and highly suspect translations. In reality most channels have their own issues in this regard, like Mazzika, which made the questionable (yet also fantastic) decision to provide lyrics translations for all the music videos it shows–in Ke$ha’s Timber (خشب) “It’s going down,” is translated انها سوف تسقط while Alicia Keys’ This girl is on fire becomes هذه الفتاة متحمسة جدا (lit. ‘This girl is very excited.’) The salacious line ‘She say she love my lolly’ from Maejor Ali’s Lolly video is rendered simply انها تحبني كثيرا (lit. ‘She loves me very much’). In short, you have stumbled upon a pure gold mine of Fusha fails.

In terms of MBC subtitling, the sentence ‘He’s gay’ is consistently translated to انه غريب الاطوار (roughly ‘He’s whimsical/eccentric’) despite the fact that a word (مثلي) does, in fact, exist to express this concept in Modern Standard Arabic. The word girlfriend is expressed through the flat صديقة while “Wanna make out?” is butchered into هل تريدين الاستمتاع؟ (lit. ‘Do you want to enjoy?’), which, let’s be real, sounds way more sexual than the original.

And the colorful spectrum of English swears–every single permutation of inappropriate speech you could think of–is reduced to one of two options: تبا لك (screw you) and اللعنة عليك (‘damn you.’ Google translate also purports this to mean ‘by gosh!’).

In this way, taking care to read the subtitles while consuming foreign media in Egypt becomes an exercise in critiquing translations of cultural concepts that are fraught with controversy (romantic relationships before marriage, sexuality, even swearing). Fusha, in my opinion, will never be capable of accurately transmitting the gist of colloquial speech in any language, a sampling of its failings detailed above. Instead of carrying out its intended purpose–actually, you know, translating the text–the use of Modern Standard Arabic to subtitle foreign films and music ends up providing another unintentional layer of entertainment on top of your regularly scheduled program. And I guess that may not be such a terrible thing after all.

 

I was the only foreigner sitting in a classroom of Egyptian twenty-somethings, trying my best to sound just smart enough to let my classmates go on believing I was half Arab of some variety during a remedial Arabic grammar class. Suddenly, a distraction grabbed by attention:

فين المبتدا يا ماما؟ يا ماما!!؟

“Where’s the subject, mom? Mom!!?”

I looked around for some sort of reaction, like the giggles and pointing that always broke out in elementary school when one unfortunate student accidentally called the teacher ‘mom.’ No no, this situation was the reverse: it was our professor that had called the student ‘mom,’ and it was absolutely, 100% fine.

In Egypt, and other significant portions of the Arab world, I’ve been told, mothers and fathers often refer to their children in the second person as ‘mama’ (mom) and ‘baba’ (dad). When I asked a Lebanese friend about this, she couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer for herself, and said, “I guess it’s so they know what to call you–mom, or dad.” This speech pattern also makes its way into many interactions between adults. It’s hard to pin down an exact context in which this happens, but if I said, for example, that I’m feeling a bit down to a friend, they might respond in a coo-ey type voice with ليه يا بابا؟ – literally “Why, dad?” It’s also interesting to note that use of ‘mama’ vs. ‘baba’ doesn’t depend on the gender of the person speaking or being addressed and seems to be quite random–a rare phenomenon in such a gendered language as Arabic.

Does anyone have insight into why ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ are used this way in Arabic? Does this speech pattern appear in other languages?