This guest post was written by Hossam Abouzahr, the man behind The Living Arabic Project (www.livingarabic.com), a compilation of multiple dialect and Fusha dictionaries that contains the largest Egyptian dialect dictionary and (what will hopefully soon be) the largest Levantine dialect dictionary. A half-breed (Arab-American), he found out that Arabic is actually beautiful after escaping from Arabic classes and meeting cool teachers who introduced him to the fun side of the language.

Anis Freyha, the famous Lebanese linguist and professor of Semitic languages, wrote that he actually planned to make his dictionary of Lebanese colloquial dictionary, معجم ألفاظ العامية اللبنانية., English – Arabic, but then felt that it was important for Arabs to know the origin of their language, and made it Arabic – Arabic instead. I’m translating his dictionary now for The Living Arabic Project, and what I’ve noticed is that at times the dictionary focuses more on the origin of the words than it is about their meanings.

The origin of words shows how languages are interconnected, and how they’ve come together to form what are the present-day Arabic dialects. While beautiful in and of itself, word origins are also practical. They help learners tie words together and place them in social and historical contexts, making language learning easier and more fun.

To prove my point, here are some words that you probably won’t forget after reading about their origins, and you might also learn something about history and Arab cultures in the process.

 

شَرْمُوطة، ج شَرامِيط.

Meaning: Whore

Origin: From the French “charmante,” meaning lovely, charming. French soldiers used the word during the French occupation to refer to escorts and prostitutes, or the lovely women who responded to their needs.

 

فَلافِل

Meaning: Falafel

Origin: Though commonly thought to simply be the plural of the word فِلْفِل, meaning pepper, there is a another camp that claims that it is Coptic in origin. No, this is not just an Egyptian consipiracy to steal Falafel from the Lebanese. The argument is that in Coptic, the three words fa-la-fel mean “of many beans.” Coptic Christians invented Falafel as a substitute for meat during fasts. Whatever the origin, it sure is tasty, especially when obtained from a dirty, greasy دكان — in fact, the dirty the tastier.

 

مْؤَيَّر

Meaning: dick-ish, dick-like

Origin: From the base word أَيْر, which means dick, or as Lisan al-Arab defines it, “one of the crudest words for the penis.” أير actually comes from the Greek “eros,” but here the Levant folk improved on it. مْؤَيَّر commonly means “dickish,” but is probably literally translated as “one turned into a dick.” This is mainly a Levant word, and generally Egyptians won’t know it. I once had to define it for an Egyptian professor, much to her horror, and told her it means لقد جَعَلَ اللهُ منْهُ زُبًّا.

 

بِخّ

Meaning: boo!, and commonly used as peek-a-boo! With kids.

Origin: Coptic. I mainly wanted to include this word to point out that almost every Arab country and often even sub-regions has a different word for peek-a-boo. In Palestine I’ve heard بَقُّوْسِة, and in Lebanon دَقَّانِة. Children’s language, especially rhymes, tends to preserve ancient words.

 

كُشَرِي

Meaning: Kushari, that wonderful Egyptian street food consisting of noodles, rice, beans, lentils, fried onions, and sauce (and sometimes other random things depending on the region).

Origin: It’s actually from Hindi, from the word “kitchiri.” The meal is quite different in India and Pakistan, where it tends to consist of rice cooked in broth with some meat and a شوربة added on top. Kushari probably came to Egypt from India through the British during the 1800s. For the British soldiers, this would have been not only a tasty and cheap food, but also a safe food. The noodles that are added to it in Egypt are probably from an Italian influence.

 

عَرْص

Meaning: Pimp (commonly used as an insult)

Origin: Supposedly this was the name of an official position in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior during the English occupation. At that time, prostitution was legal, and the عَرْص was the police officer who was responsible for conducting patrols and ensuring that prostitutes had their licenses in order. It now is now commonly used as an insult in most Arab countries.

 

تَبْصِيْرَة

Meaning: snack

Origin: 100% Arabic – not all fun words have to come from another language. تَبْصِيرة is from the root صبر, meaning patience, because تصبيرة gives you the patience to wait for the main meal. Although this is entirely proper Arabic in its pronunciation and derivation, it is only used in Egyptian colloquial.

 

سَحْلَب

According to Oxford’s English dictionary, the English word sahlep is of Arabic origin, from خَصْيَتَيْ الثَعْلَب, meaning the fox’s testicles. It was actually the name of the orchid from which sahlep is made. The word ثعلب probably entered into the Levant area and what is now modern Turkey, where many languages don’t have a th sound and transform it into a t or s sound. Then along the way the ع became a ح (since the ح is simply the unvoiced form of the ع). The final “p” in English might be from the Turkish influence, where many voiced consonants, when they are the final letter of a word, become unvoiced. For instance, the word طالِب becomes Talip in Turkish.

 

حَمْرَن / اِسْتَحْمَر

Meaning: to act like a donkey / ass

Origin: 100% Arabic, from the word حمار (donkey). Although completely Arabic, and the derivation rules that they follow are also perfectly good Fusha, these words are only used in colloquials (حمرن being Lebanese, and استحمر being more Egyptian but broadly understood across the Arab countries).

 

مَرَدَ

Meaning: to be rebellious, recalcitrant.

This word, being Fusha, is actually from the shared Semitic root م ر د .The root may be tied to the name Nimrod (نمرود), known in the Bible for disobeying God and being oppressive. In the Levant dialects, the word تْنَمْرَد is used to mean to act like a tyrant (although in Egyptian, according to Badawi and Hinds’ dictionary, it means to make worldly wise).

 

بَنْشَر

Meaning: to puncture

Origin: Probably from the English puncture. In the Levant countries you can go to the بَنْشَرْجِي to get your tires repaired. Here you can see how the Turkish جِي is added to an English word to form a purely Arabic creation.

 

بُوْبْرَيْص

Meaning: common gecko

Origin: the phrase is probably from the folk belief that the gecko causes a skin disease (either vitiligo or leprosy, depending on who you ask). بوبْرَيْص is the Lebanese pronunciation of أبو بَرَص, the father of leprosy.

 

مَصَأري

Meaning: Money

Origin: This is the plural of the word مَصْرِيَّة. Under the Ottoman empire, the Levant area used the currency known as the عُثْمانِي. When the Empire was broken up after World War I, the عُثْمانِي was replaced by the Egyptian Guinea, الجنية المصرية, which was shortened to مصرية. The plural is now commonly used in the Levant countries to mean money, even though the currency is now the لِيْرة. On a few rare occasions one might still hear the singular used, but this is not common.

 

طز

Meaning: to fart

Origin: I don’t know the origin of the word, but the root طز is quite useful for referring to the ass or things that come out of it. طيز means ass (I still remember my wife’s Arabic teacher getting mad at her for using it instead of مؤخرة , which is the more polite word for the rear). طَزطَز means to do many farts. Across the Arab countries one can hear the phrase طُز في, often translated as “to hell with…” The word طَوْبَز, used in Lebanon, is probably also from this root. طوبز means to behind over so the ass is exposed, and can be used to mean to bend over and fart or to bend over and get shafted.

 

As obnoxious as I was with my word choices, I hope you do actually remember these words. Studying word origins shows the richness of the languages and the history that has developed them. Many Levant words are derived from or shared with Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. Studying word origins also shows the linkages between the Arabic dialects and the strange divergences that occur between them (the brave amongst you can search for the root قلط in the Egyptian and Levantine dictionaries on the Living Arabic Project). Arabic, in its full complexity, is rich and deep, but only by exploring it will you really find it enjoyable.

Both Levantine and Egyptian dialects are filled with phrases and idioms that reference food, and in some cases, the word used to describe a certain food item can have an entirely different meaning in other contexts. Because it is understandably confusing the first time you hear a person’s sleeping patterns compared to a dead, fermented fish, we’ve compiled some of the most common food words/phrases in both dialects here.

كوسة – kosa: Egyptian

You’ll probably recognize this word as describing a zucchini (or ‘courgette’ for our British friends), but in Egyptian dialect, kosa can also refer to useful personal connections (or وسطة – wasta) you have. In practical terms, if you have enough kosa/wasta at Mogamma El Tahrir, you can get yourself a longer visa extension or even avoid waiting in the stamp line entirely, saving yourself hours of misery in your own personal hell.

بتنجان – baatengan: Egyptian

بتنجان is the Egyptian version of باذنجان, the MSA word for eggplant. However, a baatengan can also mean a bullshit excuse or explanation. If you’re trying to convince your friend to skip an obligation for example, you could press them to come up with اي بتنجان (any old excuse) to get out of it.

عنب – ‘enab: Egyptian

This literally means ‘grapes,’ but my soccer (football?) coach always says it when I’m doing something right (which, unfortunately, is not very often).

زبيب – zabib: Egyptian

In the kitchen, a zabib is a raisin, but it is also the term used to describe the greyish blackish bump you find on some Muslims’ foreheads (apparently in English this is called a ‘prayer bump,’ which is a significantly lamer term, in my opinion). It is basically developed from lots of praying, but can also be a sign of insulin resistance, fun fact.

In Syria, this is rather more blandly called الطبعة السودا ‘the black imprint’. Cultivating it was apparently never as popular a fashion in Syria, though.

 

A man with a gnarly beard and zabib.

A man with a gnarly beard and zabib.

عوجا – ‪3ooja: Syrian

This is a pretty obscure kind of Levantine finger food which is apparently a kind of green almond (?) soaked in water. Some people pronounce it 3ooje (and probably spell it عوجة). Apparently along with kuusa (less often), Syrians use this to describe chaos or mess: الدنيا عوجا. This is probably related to the word a3waj ‘bent’ (whose feminine is 3ooja too), maybe from the plant that it grows on, I don’t know.

بطيخ baTTiikh: Syrian and Egyptian

Used to call someone an idiot in a way that isn’t swearing but is nonetheless kind of offensive: yaa baTTiikh! To be fair, watermelons don’t have particularly developed cognitive skills.

Relatedly, in Syria: لا… ولا بطيخة laa… wala baTTiikha ‘neither… nor a watermelon’ means ‘neither X nor anything else!’ For example, if somebody calls you his 7abiibti, you might respond laa 7abiibtak wala baTTiikha!

ما حدا بقول عن زيته عكر maa 7ada bi2uul 3an zeeto 3éker: Syrian

Literally ‘nobody says their olive oil isn’t pure!’ There are apparently lots of local variations, including maa 7ada bi2uul labano 7aamiD ‘nobody says their laban is sour’. This expression means something like ‘nobody says that stuff they’ve produced is bad’, and is usually used to demonstrate somebody’s honesty when they’re saying bad things about projects they were personally involved in – I believe what he’s saying, because nobody would say their own oil wasn’t pure unless it wasn’t!

مهبر méhber: Syrian

From la7@m habra ‘high quality (red) meat’ or ‘de-boned meat’. Someone who is méhber (maybe this means that he only eats red meat?) is rich.

بله وشراب ميته béllo w shraab mayyto: Syrian and Egyptian

In Egyptian, bellha wishrab mayyitha

‘Wet it and drink its water!’ There used to be an amazing video from an Egyptian talk show demonstrating exactly what this meant, but it seems to have been taken down. It means ‘forget about it’, ‘it doesn’t matter’ or – with the right context, I guess – ‘you can take that idea and stick it up your arse!’

(OK perhaps this one only marginally counts as food but whatever, billo wshraab mayyto imo)

خبز وملح khébz w mél@7: Syrian

‘Bread and salt’. Usually used in the expression في بيناتنا خبز وملح fii beenaatna khébz w mél@7 ‘there’s bread and salt between us’. This means that you owe the other guy some loyalty because you’ve eaten together! I guess this was originally a reference to hospitality norms, but now it often means ‘we’re friends’ or ‘we know one another’. I might’ve done you a favour, but don’t mention it – there’s bread and salt between us!

Syrian Salabina is a Facebook group that produces a lot of memes and short comedic videos. salabiina سلبينا is a slang term for somebody who makes jokes out of everything. It’s derived from the verb  سلبها على séléb-ha 3ala, which means something like ‘pretend not to know things in order to trick someone’ or ‘act stupid’. This suffix -iina – though I have no idea where it’s derived from – is apparently used to make pejorative nouns in a similar way to the suffix -ji. It occurs in at least one another word, fakhfakhiina, which you might translate as ‘posho’ or ‘stuck-up’ (from فخفخة fakhfakha, the maSdar of tfakhfakh ‘act posh’, ultimately derived from fakhkhaame ‘fancy, elevated’).

Anyway, this (quite dark) meme is characteristic of their humour and also contains some puns (woo!!! puns!!!!) which are always good in vocabulary building.

syrian salabina

الإعلامية: الجيوش المشاركة في الحرب السورية لم تحقق أهدافها بعد
ميسي: لك من كتر اهداف الجيوش يلي عم تقصف سوريا ما ضل في جمهور
al2i3laamiyyah: aljuyuushu lmushaarikatu fii l7arbi ssuuriyyati lam tu7aqqiq 2ahdaafa-haa ba3du
Meesi: lak min kitr ahdaaf ijjuyuush yalli 3am té2Sof suuriya maa Dall fii jémhuur
News presenter: The armies taking part in the Syrian war have not yet realised their goals
Messi: With all the goals scored by the armies striking Syria there’s no spectators left

The first line is in MSA and probably doesn’t need that much explanation. بعدُ is an adverb used quite a lot in MSA for ‘yet’ (although some teachers of Arabic/native speakers don’t like it, for some reason).

The second line depends on a number of football-related puns which I’ve tried (semi-successfully imo!!!) to transfer into English.

لك lak – very difficult to translate into English, but often prefixes emphatic or assertive statements. Useful to start using.

من كتر min kitr – here, and very often, من indicates the source of something (‘from’ can also do this in English sometimes). كتر is obviously from كتير and means ‘the large amount of’. It can be followed by a noun, as here, or it can have a ما suffixed to it and then be followed by a sentence: من كتر ما عم بحكي تعبت min kit@r ma 3am be7ki t3éb@t ‘I’ve got tired because of how much I’m talking’.

أهداف ahdaaf – the plural of هدف. You’ve probably learnt this as ‘goal’ or ‘aim’ in the sense of something that someone wants to achieve – the sense it’s used in the first line. In MSA coverage of football, however, it also means ‘goal’ in the football sense (it’s also used in 3aamiyye but I think gool is probably more common).

يلي yalli – a regional/personal variant of اللي. I don’t think there’s any particular reason why one is used over the other.

عم تقصف – the word قصف is used a lot in discussions of war and fighting, I think more than in English, and means ‘strike’ or I guess ‘attack with explosive weapons’. So قصف is the normal word used for mortar attacks, shelling, artillery fire and airstrikes. It’s also used in football terminology, as English ‘strike’, for goal-scoring.

ماضل في maa Dall fii – ضل means ‘to remain, to stay’. I suppose it’s derived from MSA ظلّ. The last word, في, is the في used to mean ‘there is’ or ‘there are’. They could equally have said فيّا or فيها ‘in it [fem]’, referring to Syria.

جمهور jémhuur – this is another pun. جمهور can be used for ‘audience’ or ‘spectators’ at a football match, but it’s also used for ‘the people’ (as in جمهورية).

So yeah. That’s dark.

 

In the Levant and probably most of the Arab World, when a man wants to get married to a woman, he goes to see her father and requests her hand in marriage. This interaction is quite awkward, and has spawned a whole genre of jokes. Here is one from the internet:

شب رايح يخطب
مرحبا عمي انا جاية اطلب ايد بنتك
طيب عمي ازا قدرت تاخد الموبايل من ايدا خدا كلا وبلا مهر ازا بدك
shabb raaye7 yikhTob

mar7aba 3ammi ana jaayye eTlob iid bintak
Tayyib 3ammi iza 2der@t taakhod ilmobayl min iida khida killa w bala mah@r iza biddak
A guy goes to get engaged
“Hello, sir, I’ve come to ask for your daughter’s hand.”
“Look, son, if you can get the mobile out of her hand you can have all of her and without paying if you want.”

شب shabb – ‘young man’ – equivalent to MSA شاب. Its plural form is شباب, as in al Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group. Uncomfortably. شب is often used to mean just ‘guy’, with no age really implied (or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking – a Syrian friend of mine once said ‘you know even if a guy dies at the age of 90, we say ‘he went in his prime!’).

خطب khaTab/yikhTob – ‘get engaged [to someone]’. khaTab refers specifically to what a man does when he initiates the engagement. Women انخطب nkhaTab (the passive). Yeah. The verb takes a direct object. Here it has no b- because it is attached to raaye7 in the meaning of ‘to get engaged’

عمي 3ammi – literally ‘paternal uncle’, but in the Levant, 3ammi and 3ammo are used for any man a generation older than you with whom you have a reasonably informal relationship (i.e. not teachers or bosses, probably, but taxi drivers and your parents’ friends, yes). Because kinship terms in the Levant are reversible, 3ammi is also used for anyone to whom you are 3amm, regardless of gender. So in the second line – where I’ve translated it as ‘son’ – he’s really just using the same term of address as the young man is using for him. يا عم is also quite often used as a generic ‘man!’ though not here, I don’t think.

جاية jaayye – the observant among you might have questioned the شب’s use of a feminine participle. In most Levantine dialects, جاية always has a taa marbuuTa. جاية is often used in the sense of ‘I’ve come to’ or ‘I’m here to’, usually with a b-less verb following it. Possibly this is an example of an active participle being used to express a result (having come) instead of a continuous action (coming).

ازا قدرت iza 2der@t – this is either an accidental misspelling or a deliberate phonetic spelling (without knowing the writer we can’t be sure). Syrians in particular, in my experience, are given to very phonetic spellings of 3aammiyye, whereas Palestinians tend to spell colloquial words more similarly to their MSA equivalents. That said, this guy hasn’t spelt قدرت as ئدرت, as he might have done. اذا is not always followed by a past tense in Levantine, and to me the use of the past makes it seem a bit more hypothetical – ‘if you can get the phone out of her hand [but you probably won’t be able to!]’

ايدا, خدا كلا – iid-(h)a, khid-(h)a, kill-(h)a. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how Syrian and Lebanese drop the h, in -ha and -hon a lot of the time, although when I’m transcribing things myself I usually include the h for clarity. In many dialects, akhad ‘take’ has an irregular imperative خود khood which acts like a hollow verb: when a suffix is added (like -ha) the long vowel is shortened to u, which in dialects with the u-i merger then becomes khid. When he says خدا كلا this is a pun based on the idea of asking for someone’s hand (i.e. ‘don’t just take her hand…’).

بلا مهر – a mah@r is the opposite of a dowry – whilst a dowry is paid by the wife’s family to the groom for being kind enough to take her off their hands, a mahr is paid by the groom to the family in exchange for their daughter. Make of that what you will.

Ha ha! Women and their telephones am I right guys!!! Ha ha ha ha!

Guest Post by Christ Hitchcock for #TeamNisreen

This expression – اسم على مُسَمّى – is apparently found everywhere in the Arabic-speaking world and is an excellent go-to compliment – as long as the person you are speaking to has a nice name. It basically means ‘your name describes you exactly’. If you meet someone called نادرة (rare), وسيم (handsome), باسم (smiler) or جميلة (beautiful), this will probably go down pretty well. I wouldn’t suggest citing it in response to a surname like عدوان (aggression), though, or to someone called غيث (light rain). I’m still working on finding out if this proverb was used in the days when people were called things like معاوية (bitch in heat).

Above is a video of the omnipresent Lebanese comedian Adel Karam beginning his talk show Hayda Haki (هيدا حكي) with a skit based on this saying. He introduces the section, as is usual for him, with a brief conversation with the frontman of his house band, Chady Nashef (a famous guitarist in his own right):

شو عدولة؟
Shu 3adduule?
What is it, Adel?

3adduule (also 3adduul, 3addaal, etc) is an affectionate nickname for someone called 3aadil – this pattern is used with lots of names (7ammuude, 7ammaad, 7ammuud).

سارد عليك هيك عم اطلع فيك
saarid 3aleek heek 3am iTTali3 fiik
I’m just lost [listening to your music], you know, looking at you

سارد means ‘lost in thought’, or ‘away with the fairies’.

اطّلع بـ means ‘look at’, and is the normal expression in Levantine. Bi- almost never appears with pronoun suffixes, being replaced with fii (as above) in most Levantine dialects.

خير؟
kheer?
What’s up?

This question is a useful one used when somebody looks ill or upset – it means something like ‘I hope everything’s all right?’ or just ‘what’s up?’

حبينا نسألك شغلة
7abbeena nis2alak sheghle
We want[ed] to ask you something.

7abb can be used in past and present in basically the same meaning: حبيته ‘I love him’. The first person plural is often used when a speaker is really only referring to themselves: ما تواخذنا maa twaakhiz-na ‘please excuse me’.

شغلة sheghle – thingy, thing

قول
2uul
Ask away!

هلأ كل بيت الناشف متلك هيك وجههن بشوش ومهضومين؟
halla2 kill beet innaashif mitlak heek wijjon bashuush w mahDuumiin?
Are all the Nashifs [his surname] like you, with smiley faces and friendly?

بيت beet plus a surname, or in some places in the Levant دار + surname, refers to the extended family of that surname. I guess in a Game-of-Thronesy context, ‘house of X’ can be used the same way in English. بيت مين؟ or من بيت مين؟ are very common ways of asking ‘what’s your surname?’

وجه wijj or wishh is almost never, if ever, pronounced as wajh in the Levant; it’s either pronounced with a double j or a double sh. It’s singular here, and has a singular adjective, بشوش, agreeing with it, even though in English we say ‘their faces’, not ‘their face’. These sorts of constructions, where there are multiple people who each possess one of one thing, are generally singular in colloquial Arabic (like French): قلبكن, حياتكن… When you want every person to only raise one hand, you can say رفعو ايدكن! rfaa3u iidkon! ‘raise your hand(s)!’

كلهن مهضومين بس أنا اهضم واحد
killon mahDuumiin bass ana ahDam waa7id
They’re all friendly, but I’m the friendliest.

It’s often claimed by Arabic teachers that af3als can’t be formed from non-simple adjectives. This isn’t true in MSA and it’s not true in colloquial either!

عن جد؟ اي بس إنه… ما في واحد وجهه ناشف؟ منين اجت؟ يعني بيت الناشف…
3an jadd? Ee bass inno… maa fii 7ada wissho naashif? Mneen ijit? Ya3ni beet innaashif…
Seriously? Yeah, but I mean… isn’t there anyone whose face is grumpy? Where did it come from? I mean the name Nashif.

ناشف naashif – the first pun of a long, long string of bad puns. ناشف means ‘dry’, but it also means, of a person, ‘cold’, in the sense of keeping people at a distance. Somebody whose face is ناشف is someone who is unfriendly or austere.

هاي ما بعرف… جد جدي يمكن… بس لأ كلهن بشوشين
haay maa ba3rif… jidd jiddi yimkin… bass la2 killon bashuushiin
That I don’t know… maybe my great great grandfather. But no, all of them are smiley.

A lot of the puns are not really that funny and largely target Lebanese politicians and singers (it’s always possible that if I knew more about the careers of these individuals I’d find them funnier) but some highlights include:

1:00: أو مثلا… سعد حريري مية بالمية لا بوليستر لا خيطان نايلون
Aw masalan… Sa’d 7ariri miyye bilmiyye laa bulyester la khee6aan naayloon
Or for example… Saad Hariri is one hundred per cent neither polyester or nylon thread

حرير is silk. حريري means ‘made from silk’.

1.03: عندك تمام سلام عليكم بلا زغرة آدمي وتمام
3indak Tammaam Salaam 3aleekum bala zeghra aadami w tamaam
There’s Tamam Salaam Aleikum, without any disrespect, friendly and good

Tammaam and tamaam are of course nearly homophones; the rest of the joke is predicated on turning his surname, salaam, into a greeting (salaam 3aleekum).

آدمي (pronounced in Lebanese like eedami) is obviously from آدم and means ‘friendly, polite’. Its plural is أوادم awaadim. 

بلا زغرة is ‘without disrespect’ – زغرة is from صغير (you may have noticed that it is pronounced zghiir in colloquial; I guess before the advent of mass literacy this left its root open to being reinterpreted as z-gh-r). بلى زغرة, depending on who you ask, is either outdated and only used as a joke or very common. To me it’s associated with quite a conservative style of politeness. You can ask, for example, مين انت بلا زغرة؟ if you want to remove some of the directness of the question.

ليش عند مثلا جورج عدوان تموز
leesh… 3indak masalan juurj 3adwaan tammuuz
For example, you’ve got Georges Adwan Tammuuz.

عدوان تموز – the ‘July aggression’ (I’m not sure this is the typical English translation), a term for the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

1.13 أو زميله مثلا بطرس حرب الإلغا
aw zamiilo masalan BuTros 7arb il-ilgha
Or his colleague, for example, Boutros [Harb] Dissolution War.

I don’t think حرب الإلغاء actually has a Wikipedia article in English, but there’s a short explanation in Arabic here. The joke is extended by the similarity or closeness implies by ‘his colleague’ and the closeness of the two concepts.

عندك علاء حكيم وفهيم ومش لئيم
3indak 3ala 7akiim w fahhiim w mish la2iim

عندك حكمت ديب ولا عفنا الغنم

1:31: أحمد فتفت الجفصين
A7mad fatfat ijjafSiin!
Ahmad [Fatfat] took off the plaster [cast]!

This pun is probably based on Ahmad Fatfat’s previous career as a doctor.

فتفت fatfat is derived from فتّ ‘crumble’ on the pattern fa3fa3, which normally – along with a number of other patterns that are used to produce new verbs, like fa3wal, foo3al etc – either produces a meaning of ‘doing X again and again’, or lessens the impact of the verb.

جفصين jafSiin is the Lebanese word for ‘plaster’ (the stuff you put on a broken arm – in Fusha جِصّ and in Syrian جبصين jabSiin).

خالد ظاهر من الكتلة
khaalid Daahir min ilkitle

غازي زعيتر وزيت مع بصلة هيك وورق نعناع
ghaazi z3ayter w zeet ma3 baSle heek w wara2 na3naa3

أميد رحمة من السماء
amiin ra7me mn issama

وأمين جمايل وغزايل وجبايل بيي
w amiin @jmaayel w @ghzaayel w@jbaayil bayyi

2:00: ميشيل فرعون الأشرفية مش الجيزا
Misheel Far3uun ilashrafiyye mish ilgiiza
Michel [Pharaon] is Pharaoh of Achrafieh not of Giza

One for the Egyptians. Achrafieh is a famous area of Beirut. Pharaon’s family are very rich Christians; Achrafieh is, I think, a predominantly Christian area.

علي عمار الحوري هينين ككوبل
3ali 3ammaar il7oori hayyiniin ka kuupl

 

2:12: عندك… الياس بو صعب هين؟
3indak… Ilyaas bu Sa3b hayyin?
There’s… is Elias Bou Saab easily overcome?

هين is ‘easy’ (not promiscuous but easy to deal with or ignore – don’t misunderstand if someone describes someone else as سهل, either).

عندك خالد حدادة وبويا  وش بوليش
3indak khaalid @7daade w buuya wijj poolish

2:22: سليمان فرنجية بيلعب محبوسة
Sleemaan Franjiyye byil3ab ma7buuse
Suleiman Frangieh plays mahbuseh…


Ma7buuse and franjiyye are different kinds of backgammon.

2:25: أو علي بزي… طبيعي مش سيليكون!
aw 3ali bazzi… Tabii3i mish silikoon
Or Ali Bazzi… natural, not silicon!

بزي evokes بزة bazze ‘breast’, and for some Lebanese people they’re homophones. As one of the world’s biggest centres of cosmetic surgery, Lebanon really has the market cornered on breast implant humour (no, really).

هلأ هي القصة مش بقى وفقت بس ع السياسيين يعني… في الفنانين
halla2 hiyye il2iSSa mish ba2a wef2et bass 3a ssiyaasiyyiin ya3ni… fii lfannaaniin

الفنانين كمان نفس الجو… لبستهن اساميهن لبس
ilfannaaniin kamaan nafs ijjoww… libsiton asaamiyyon lib@s

2.43: قليلة كاظم الساهر ليلية؟  بيبجبجو عيونو يا شيخ
2aliile kaaZim issaahir leeliyye? Bibajbju 3ayuuno yaa sheekh
Doesn’t Kadhim al-Sahir stay up late? His eyes are swelling up, man

قليلة aliile is literally ‘a small amount’ or ‘not worth considering’. It’s used a lot in contexts like 2aliile yitzawwaj 3aleyyi? ‘[are you saying it’s a] small thing that he should marry [a second wife, having married] me?’ – it is used, generally, in questions, with a rhetorical ‘it certainly isn’t a small thing!’ kind of meaning. Here it’s being used with the following pun kaaZim issaahir leeliyye to mean ‘isn’t this name very accurate’/’isn’t this pun very appropriate’?

سهر sahar (yishar) is ‘to stay up late’; ساهر is its active participle, so Kadhim al-Sahir literally means ‘Kadhim who stays up late’, which is the basis of the joke.

ليلية leeliyye is a Lebanese expression meaning ‘every night’. This completes the name – kaaZim issaahir leeliyye ‘Kaazim who stays up every night’.

بجبج bajbaj is ‘to become puffy’, of eyes, either from sleepiness or crying too much. It’s plural here agreeing with ‘eye’. It took me ages to work out what he was saying because bibajbiju is contracted to bibajbju and then has a vowel reinserted to become bibajibju, with the stress staying in the same place, which messes with your perception of word boundaries.

2.52 هيفا وهبة أعضاءها بعد عمر طويل
heefa wehbe a3Daa2a ba3d 3omr Tawiil
Hayfa [Wehbe] has donated her organs after a long life.

The pun here is based on وهبة, which is related to the word وهب ‘to donate’. The normal term for ‘organ donation’ is وهب أعضاء wehbe sounds like the active participle waahbe ‘has donated’.

3.16 راغب علامة عالية… عجب كبير
Raaghib 3allaame 3aalye – 3ajab kbiir


Ragheb Alama – described by Wikipedia as a Lebanese ‘singer, dancer, lover, fighter, composer, television personality and philanthropist’. Raaghib is ‘desiring, wanting’, and 3allaame is a mark – as in a mark in a test.

Incidentally, Nisreen نسرين is a kind of beautiful flower, and Maha مها means ‘wild cows’. Yeah, that’s right. Just mull that over.

 

 

 

Today’s guest post includes a very exciting announcement made by our new friend Chris.

Nisreen frustrated about the perennially high degree of humidity in her native New York

Nisreen frustrated about the perennially high degree of humidity in her native New York

This is Nisreen. Nisreen is a chronically lonely Syrian-American living in New York, with a Syrian father and a Palestinian mother. She is, in fact, Maha’s doppelganger – and Maha’s falling in love with her cousin out of sheer loneliness, and Nisreen’s parallel love story with her own paternal cousin, might well have been avoided if they’d only managed to meet one another instead of spending all their time looking woefully into a camera and monologuing about their respective misery.

In case you hadn’t guessed or seen her before, Nisreen is Maha’s Syrian double from the super rare Levantine edition of the عامية videos from al-Kitaab, the Arabic resource everybody loves to hate and hates to study from. Nisreen – poor, neglected, Nisreen – has been forgotten for too long. I am not Team Maha. I am, proudly, Team Nisreen! In this spirit, I’ll be contributing some Levantine posts to this blog, trying to give Levantine colloquial expressions some of the same great exposure Caitlyn has been giving to Egyptian.

Of course, Levantine is spoken in Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, and encompasses a huge number of local accents and varieties. A lot of words – especially slang, but also very normal terminology – have several different local variations. And some words, as you might expect, will not even be understood in other parts of the same country (try calling a curtain a jlaale to a Latakian and see how far it gets you). The dialects I’m most familiar with are those of urban Syria and Lebanon – which are more similar to one another than they are to urban Jordan and Palestine, generally speaking – but I’m going to try and include stuff from as many major dialects as possible, and point out specific regionalisms and features of particular dialects. As a rough guide and for people who are familiar with only one Levantine dialect or not at all, here is a list of the major differences:

  • Kint vs kunt: most Lebanese and Syrian urban dialects (there are exceptions, like Homsi) do not have distinct i and u sounds in stressed syllables. Words like كنت are pronounced kint, قدام as eddaam, شفت as shift. Exactly what the vowel here sounds like depends on the consonants around it and the dialect of the speaker – some Lebanese people, like the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, pronounce kint more like Most Jordanians and Palestinians, meanwhile, have distinct vowels and say kunt, shuft etc (an exception to this is Galilee Arabic).
  • -a vs -e vs -i: With the exception of people from the southernmost areas of the Levantine area, most urban Levantine speakers pronounce final ـة not as –a, but as some kind of –e sound. Some speakers, particularly of Lebanese dialects – see Marcel Khalife or Feyrouz, for example – pronounce it –i. This also applies to some –a sounds which are not, in MSA, ـة – شتى is shite or shiti (have you heard the song حبيتك بالصيف by Feyrouz?), for example, and some people say soode or soodi for سودا. Some speakers who pronounce the –i say something closer to –e for ـي to keep the sounds separate! Also, many Syrians and Lebanese use inte for their masculine ‘you’, and some Lebanese say ane for ‘me.’
  • Aa vs ee: Aleppan and many Lebanese dialects have very ee-ish long aa sounds similar to a long version of the e in English pet – Egyptian has a similar sound – and these are sometimes so similar to ee that they can be rhymed with long e, as in the Mashrou’ Leila rhyme:

واذا كنتو اتنين يا اهلين شي فلتان w-iza kentu tneen ya ahleen shi falteen ‘and if there’s two of you, oh wow! What a scandal!’

  • Byiktob vs biktob – most Palestinian and Jordanian dialects, and some Syrian dialects (e.g. Homsi) use aktob/baktob and yiktob/biktob for ‘I write’ and ‘he writes’. Most Syrian and Lebanese dialects, meanwhile, use iktob/biktob and yiktob/byiktob. This can be very confusing at first when meeting speakers of other dialects. Most Syrian and Lebanese dialects also drop the ‘I’ prefix before single consonants: biddi ruu7 ‘I want to go’.
  • I6la3 vs 6laa3 – most Syrian and Lebanese dialects have an imperative of form one verbs which works by lengthening the internal vowel – طلع becomes طلاع, كتب becomes كتوب ktoob and نزل becomes نزيل nzeel! Jordanian and Palestinian dialects, however, form the imperative in the same manner as MSA.
  • The qaaf: most urban speakers pronounce the ق as a glottal stop, but many Ammanis, particularly men, pronounce it with a g sound, as do many speakers of non-urban dialects. Some Palestinians instead pronounce a k, whilst Druzes and Alawites often pronounce it as a q! Almost all speakers preserve a qaaf in some words, like ثقافة or موسيقى, although even here there are exceptions (especially for Lebanese people for some reason).
  • -aan words: All of us who have studied al-Kitaab or Egyptian 3aammiyyah are familiar with words like تعبان for ‘tired’, even if they’re not strictly speaking proper MSA. Levantine dialects have a lot more of these than any other dialect, particularly in the Syrian/Lebanese area, and within that, most specifically within parts of Syria itself, where many, many verbs form their active participle this way. Some specifically Syrian examples are وصلان for واصل, عرفان for عارف and my personal favourite, فطران fa6raan for فاطر – i.e. ‘having had breakfast.’
Upset because she’s not fatraane

Upset because she’s not fa6raane

That’s all from Team Nisreen for now – but stay tuned for more guest posts (ان شاء الله) that will finally give Nisreen the platform she’s been forced to concede for so long to her sinister Egyptian doppelganger.

Let’s see if you can make any sense of these questions and statements that are the most confusing and also just sound really oddly specific the first time you hear them:

Discussing an upcoming trip:

هتقعدي فين في الغردقة؟ – Where will you sit in Hurghada?

In a heated discussion with my landlord about an electrical problem that causes lightbulbs to burn out twice a week:

المفروض يعقدوا اكتر من تلات ايام!  – They should sit more than three days!

Inquiring as to a friend’s whereabouts:

هي قاعدة عنده – She is sitting at his place.

And the creme de la creme from our dear friend Jordanian Dialect:

 هو قاعد يمشي عالجامعة – He is sitting walking to university.

You may now be asking any of the following questions: How was I not aware all this time that Arab culture is so concerned with sitting? Have Jordanians really mastered the art of sitting and walking AT THE SAME TIME and managed to keep it quiet all these years? Or am I perhaps missing something that Team Maha is about to so graciously clarify for me?

The word for sitting in Egyptian & Shami Arabic (يقعد, اسم فاعل: قاعد\ة) is used abundantly and takes on wildly different meanings than that of its English counterpart, which is good news for anyone with a love of bizarre literal translations. يقعد often means ‘stay,’ as you might have guessed from the first and third examples, as well as ‘last’ in certain contexts (batteries, laptops, and so on). The final example given above employs a different usage than what we normally see in Egyptian, kind of working as a verb of being for a present progressive verb (aka, denoting that something is happening right now at this very second). That beautiful moment is where you get things like, ‘He is sitting walking,’ ‘The sun is sitting setting’ and so on.

Something else useful to know is that قاعد also plays a role in expressing the concept of ‘sitting around’ just like English: هو قاعد ما بيعملش حاجة – ‘He’s sitting around doing nothing.’ I find it so incredibly satisfying to learn that two languages express a concept in nearly the exact same manner, and these are rare gems for the English/Arabic combo. Another important note: after some, I don’t know, two years of using this word literally every day of my life, I still can’t pronounce the damn thing correctly half the time thanks to the formidable qaf/hazma + 3ayn combo. My best advice is to listen to a native speaker saying this word on repeat and then practice pronouncing it in the mirror until you successfully master the sound of choking on your own tongue twice in a row.

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.