Essential Arabic Phrases from Om El Donia (Alexandria)
Arabic is one of the top five most common languages, with many dialects spoken throughout the globe. Among these, Egyptian Arabic is the unofficial lingua franca of the Arab world.
Despite walking into my year as a MENAR Fellow in Egypt with what could be described as a nearly impenetrable language barrier, I dedicated myself to absorbing as much as I could of Egyptian Arabic.
As I picked up new techniques in teaching language fluency and literacy in my role as a classroom teacher, I also saw myself undergoing a parallel journey of language acquisition.
Learning Arabic has been one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made this year. I owe what I know in large part to my sharp-witted tutor, and also to friends and colleagues, as well as a multitude of endlessly patient and good-humored neighbors, shopkeepers, street vendors, and passersby who all played the role of circumstantial conversation partners.
Throughout this journey, I’ve found a new appreciation for the great meaning carried by minute details. I’ve found myself listening more closely and growing closer to people around me in the process.
Often the smallest details convey the most significant meaning. I recently made the mistake of telling someone, “Ana bakelem araby micaserat,” instead of “Ana bakelem araby micasr,” and just that one single mistakenly added syllable changed the meaning from, “I speak broken Arabic” to “I speak Arabic nuts.”
While I do sound admittedly nuts speaking Arabic, I’ve learned that letting go of perfection and my inhibitions has been as essential to learning the language as it has been to embracing life here in Egypt.
Communication promotes understanding. A little has gone a long way towards genuine moments of human connection. I’ve come to believe more than ever that intentional communication is one of the most sincere forms of care. It demonstrates a willingness to enter into new situations with curiosity, humility, and commitment to meet people on their level. Learning Arabic has opened many doors—sometimes literal ones—I’ve been invited into more people’s homes than I ever could have imagined.
Language plays a significant role in shaping people’s lived realities, and can say so much about a culture. After nearly a year of trials, tribulations, and triumphs with the Arabic language, I wrote this post to give some insight into a few of my favorite Egyptian Arabic phrases that I feel give unique insight into Egyptian culture.
Come, drink tea!
You might hear this condensed version of the phrase “ta3ala eshrab shay” from a number of different people. [Note: "3" is often used in writing to denote the Arabic letter "ain," which does not have an equivalent in English.] The bawab on your street. The neighbor you pass in the stairwell. The person you just asked for directions. Regardless of whether they actually have any tea or not, the important part is that they thought to invite you.
That’s a pity
There’s no direct translation in English for ma3lesh, but the meaning becomes clear when you hear it in use. You spilled coffee on your shirt? Ma3lesh. Car broke down in traffic? Ma3lesh. Don’t have any change? Ma3lesh. It’s an incredibly versatile phrase that acts as the verbal band-aid on all sorts of day-to-day wounds.
A story goes that generations ago when farmers wanted to sell their produce, they had to wait in long lines under the sweltering sun to have it weighed by distributors. Farmers who grew kousa, or zucchini, were allowed to cut to the front of the line because zucchini withers quickly in the sun. Today, somebody with kousa is the kind of person who is always at the front of the line, a person with a lot of influence.
It would not be uncommon for a street vendor to make your foul [fava bean] sandwich and then refuse to take any money, replying “khally,” which comes from the word for “keep” but means something more like, “no need to pay.” It is a gesture of goodwill that essentially means, “this one’s on the house.” When someone says this (after paying the right amount, of course) the appropriate reply is, “robena ykhaleek,” or “may God keep you.”
Sabah al kher
When you say good morning in Egypt, it is always more than just good morning. It is the "morning of blessings." Alternatively, if whoever you are talking to is really going above and beyond, it could also be the morning of any number of flowers (sabah al fol… sabah al yasmine… sabah al ward…) Sometimes the exchange goes long enough until you’ve named the whole garden. Mornings in Egypt give new meaning to the phrase, “Wake up and smell the roses.”
Somebody who is sousa is a bit too clever for their own good, and uses it to cause all kinds of trouble. If you are also a primary teacher, like me, you definitely know exactly what I’m talking about.
The key to many of Egypt’s most delicious desserts is cream, or eshta. It makes sense, then, that if we agree that something is cool we’d also say it’s eshta.
You light up the world
Egyptians aren’t afraid to let you know that you brighten their day. More than that, you’ve just brightened up the whole world if you hear someone tell you minowar. It’s no wonder that Egypt has among the highest number of sunny days in the world.