Friday, November 05, 2004

Portable Language

My home seems to enjoy a constant stream of visitors from abroad, many of them the now grown children of friends who are more than happy to explore the exotic East from the comfort of a relatively familiar base. I have amassed quite the collection of guide books that get left behind and a good collection of "Teach Yourself Arabic in A Week" books as well. But there are some Arabic words that are essential to every visitor to Egypt and quite a few that export well also. So I decided to make my own list of Very Useful Arabic Words:

Salaam Aleikum - Peace be upon you, the standard greeting with the standard response of Wa Aleikum Salaam in the short form.

Zayik or Zayek - the first being feminine, How are you?

Ilhamdulilah - Thanks to God is the response to "zayik", as it is the response to almost anything, including the signal that you have eaten all that you possibly can at a lovely dinner table and will burst if offered one more pastry.

Bukra - Tomorrow is when everything happens, unless it happens "Fil mish mish" or in the apricot season which means don't hold your breath. Apricot season used to be so short that if you blinked it was over. We have a longer season now, but things still are happening fil mish mish.

Ma'alesh - A wonderful Arabic word meaning so many things. I just ran into the back of your car? Ma'alesh (I'm sorry, it's not so bad, sh*t happens) I walk into a store looking for something and don't find it so I say "ma'alesh" as I'm leaving in apology to the clerk. Your dog dies and you are feeling miserable? Ma'alesh. These things happen. I'm sorry you're sad.

Yani - My all time favourite useful Arabic word and the one that most visitors take with them. It means "that is to say" or "it translates to". Why doesn't English have a cute little word like this? Example: "We're coming over at 4 pm; yani, when the kids get up from their naps."

Inshallah: As God wills. This is the tag to every statement of intent. I will be there at 7 am, inshallah. I will go to the Opera Thursday, inshallah. Used to drive me crazy until I noticed that things do indeed tend to happen as God wills. I may plan to meet a friend for coffee but if the sink plugs and I have to wait for a plumber, it isn't going to happen. In the US people assume that if they say something will happen, it is simply a matter of will. I guess will isn't good enough in Egypt and you definitely need the help of the Creator.

There are many more words that are useful to visitors and residents but not so many that give the sense of the difference in culture. Nothing here is cut and dried. Everything is conditional and has its own fate. Human desires and actions are not enough to ensure that something will happen. One of the first and hardest lessons to learn on moving to Egypt is to throw away those long pads on which people write the list of all the things that they are going to do that day and to buy a very small pad. I used to be able to complete ten or twelve tasks a day in Toronto with two small children in tow. In Cairo if I get two done, it's been a very good day.

Aleikum salaam wa rahmat allah wa barakatu. Upon you be peace and the mercy of God and his blessing.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Yani" means the same in Hindi as well. Its interesting to know the same word means the same thing in another language!

I love reading your blog, btw. :-D

Shafaki said...

Very nice.

ألِف said...

Yani means the same in Hindi because most likely it was borrowed from Arabic. You'll be surprised at the number of words that are. I get surprised myself when I watch a Hindi movie at the number of words I can trace back to Arabic, if I concentrate enough.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a fuller meaning of Salaam Aleikum, and came across your blog. I'd like to relate a story that happened to me today. As I was taking a train into Manhattan with my wife, a gentleman sat down next to my wife. He was rather large, and sort of forced himself into the seat. My wife and I exchanged glances, smiling to each other - life in the city - it is always crowded.

Then, however, the gentleman unfurled his arabic newspaper, whch caused him to push more into my wife. My wife used the non-verbal body language of a seasoned subway rider, and pushed back a bit. The gentleman seemed to take no notice.

As I left the train to make another transfer to another train, the same gentleman follwed me as well, and said something to me that I did not quite make out. As we both boarded the other train, I said to him, "excuse me, but did you say something to me?" He said, "that lady is crazy." I said that lady is my wife, and tried to explain
"she was annoyed because you did not read your newspaper folded, so you invaded her space."

I gave him a little demo of the "New York Times" fold, and said in closing, "that's my advice to you, you can take it or leave it."

He looked a little startled, so I think he took me for another crazy American. As we both got off the train at the same stop, I said "Salaam Aleikum," as I walked passed him. He just smiled briefly and said "salaam." in return. I hope I built a very s

Malaika said...

"Yani" means the same thing in swahili! Which I guess is not surprising because the swahili language is a mix of a variety of languages, one of which is arabic.