Tag Archives: arabic

Arabic Proverb

إذا ضربت الماء فسيظل الماء.

Transliteration: iidha darabat alma’ fasayazilu alma

Translation: If you hit the water it will still be water

When someone is trying to explain something to someone else and they are not absorbing the information.

Background Information: Common Arabic proverb used in different parts of the middle east such as Lebanon.

Context: The informant had immigrated to the United States from Lebanon when he was in his adolescence. I started interviewing the informant when he visited my house for dinner. I specifically asked him for a common Arabic proverb and this was the first that came into his mind.

Thoughts: I think that this proverb doesn’t explain much about Arabic culture but is just a simple way of explaining that someone is not understanding what you are saying. It reminds me of the American proverb that says that “talking to you is like talking to a wall”. This just means that that there is no productive communication being made.

A Tame Sort of Trance

During high-school, my dad studied abroad in Brazil for a year. He stayed with a family of Lebanese immigrants who showed him both Brazilian and Lebanese traditions, and always included him in everything. Growing up, I heard tons of stories from his time there. The Brazilian stories were relatively tame – beaches, clubs, schools, etc. But the Lebanese culture was of particular interest.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask him and my mom if they have any stories that I could use for my folklore project.

“I was just thinking about my experiences when I was a teenager in Brazil with a family of Lebanese immigrants who were Druze, and had the belief of many paths to the mountaintop. But they also had a uh.. a spiritualist element. And after I’d been there several months, they let me go to a family ceremony which was on a Sunday. One of the uncles would go into a trance and kind of channel spirits and try to get insight into some of the issues facing the family. So he would stand there and close his eyes, and appear to be communing with the spirits. And everybody would be quiet and sitting around, um, and then he would speak to them. But that was all in Arabic so I didn’t understand a word. Um.. But other than that, then they would say he’s asking about some problems we’re having with the business or this or that, and he would get some direction. They…they had these kind of sessions where one or more of them would kind of be in a sort of trance-like state. So I remember viewing that and thinking that was sort of interesting.”

Whenever I think of communing with the spirits, I picture ouji boards or fire-and-brimstone preachers in the deep south flailing around with snakes on their arms. I picture people getting real serious and asking about life’s deeper questions. It’s quite funny to picture this fairly frequent occurrence, where a member of the family would go into a trance and just ask advice for everyday problems. Obviously, the whole thing was treated seriously, as my dad had to earn a certain amount of trust before he was allowed to attend. But even so, there’s a lightness to it that is not normally associated with channeling spirits.



My informant talked about the world of jinn. In Arab culture, but mostly from Islam there is mention of the jinn. They are kind of like ghosts that live in their own world. They are not necessarily bad. My informant described the jinn as just a spiritual being that existed in another world next to ours.


What I found interesting about this being is the definition my friend gave on what a jinn is. It was not what I had heard before. I had heard jinns being synonymous with genies. It was also interesting to see that these superstitions can be found within the pages of the Quran. (For another version of this spiritual being see “jinn de” in the USC Folklore Archives)

Jar of Butter

This is a joke told by my friends dad:

Uh… There is this guy, lets say his name was Ali Babah. So he …uhhh… he was planning, he has this … he had a cow or whatever you know. He was, he was trying to…. I mean, he had accumulated one jar of butter. He took him like maybe, one or two years to accumulate to make you know this big jar of butter. And he was hang it behind it. He was sitting down and ….. and he was planning out his life, you know his future. So he said “you know what, now is time since I have this big jar of butter I’m going plan on marriage now, you know. (Laughs) You know what I’m saying! So …. He was trying to like sort, you know, the wife and the kids he’s gonna have. He planning “ I’m gonna get a nice wife, pretty wife that she understands me. I understand her. And we gonna plan and having you know some kids. The first kids, if it’s a boy I’m gonna teach him very well, send him to school. And make him obedient to me. And if he listens to me, and if he’s going to be obedient I say ok. And if he isn’t” … He was carrying a stick and “im going to beat the shit out of him,!” he broke the jar of butter and it fell and everything fell… hahaha!

Blue Eyes = Evil Eyes

“People with blue eyes can give you evil eye.”

My informant heard this from her father. People with colored eyes have the power to do harm to you, even subconsciously. She laughs at this statement because her brothers have colored eyes. My informant is from a Lebanese family.

She is a college student at the California State University Northridge. She is very close with her father, often helping him run the family store. We sat down at a coffee shop to talk about folklore form her family.

What was interesting of this piece was that it sounded familiar to a belief form my culture. In Salvadoran culture we believe that people eyes and eyesight can cause “mal ojo” or evil eye. It reminds me of the notion of how the eyes are the windows of the souls. It would make sense that they would also be the seat of our energy.


Translates to “sentence”

It is a sentence to ward of evil found in the Quran. By combining certain sentences other, it can accomplish something, like spells. These sentences can be used for good or evil.

My informant is an immigrant from Lebanon. He lived in a small town called Yarun. Hid family was very poor and lived in a rural area. He had many brothers and sisters.

He states that a lady used ayas in order to help his sister get rid of an evil spirit that was born with her. Because the lady used these ayas to help his sister, this is why my informant believes in magic and in bad spirits.

I gathered this piece from my informant in his house while he served me food.

This piece was interesting because I had never heard about how the Quran could be used for magic. It also goes hand-in-hand with the belief that words have powers. This kind of reminded me of how certain religious pieces are used for different purposes.

Arabic Folk Speech to Handle Fear/Bless

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

I’m from Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.

Piece and Full Translation Scheme of Folk Speech:

Original Script: 

بسم الله

Transliteration: Bismillah

Translation: In the name of Allah (or God)

Piece Background Information:

I’m from Saudi Arabia and in this country the culture is heavily influenced by religion. For example, we are taught from a very young age to say “bismillah” every time something scares or frightens us. Till this day, I automatically say “bismillah” whenever I get startled. It is also generally used whenever you start something to give it a holy blessing.

My sister taught it to me, she would always remind me about that- she’s my older sister. Whenever I get startled or scared of something, like a dog or something when I was little, I would start screaming and jumping and doing crazy things. She would just say “be calm, you shouldn’t be scared of things”. So it kind of just stuck with me and to this day, it’s kind of just a reflex. Sometimes I’m sitting or hanging out with Americans, and I say that, and they’re just like “what the fuck was that?”


Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in the informant’s apartment adjacent to USC’s campus in Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

This piece emphasizes the Muslim ideal of strengthening their connection with Allah through exercising self control, thereby cleansing their minds, bodies, and spirits and also lends itself to this informant’s other accounts such as not believing in wearing a physical/tangible object for protection against the evil eye and instead focusing on the mind. It fits in with this informant’s overarching theme of this informant’s shared accounts with me (see:The Evil/Bad Eye and Arab Folk Beliefs on Protection Against It and see:see: Ramadan and the Ritual Celebration of Eid Alfutr).

Arabic Saying

Original Text:
كل عام و انتم بخير

Phonetic: Kull A’am wa inty/inta bekhair.

Transliteration: Kull A’am wa Inty/inta bekhair. (inty=you female, inta=you male)

Full Translation: May you be blessed every year.

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “Usually said to by one person to another during birthdays, Holidays (especially Eid of Ramadan) or any occasion that marks the passing of a year.

Every Arab speaking person knows this saying. It’s a system of greetings and responses that are seemingly endless in the Arabic language. For instance if some says ‘Kull A’am Wa Inty Bekhair’, you MUST respond ‘Wa inty bekhair’, meaning ‘and you as well’.

The Arabic language is really big on greetings and goodbyes, you could have a full 20-minute conversation just saying goodbye to someone.”

Context of the Performance: Greeting someone in Arabic Society

Thoughts about the piece: This Arabic saying that Reem had presented to me was very interesting, because of how it contradicted with the English language. Firstly, I compared this saying to the traditionally said, “Happy New Year,” when, of course, the New Year comes around. However, in the Arabic language, the literal translation meaning: “may you be blessed every year,” is a huge difference from the English language. To start, the English saying is singular, meaning just this new year is wished well, while the Arabic one is plural, may you be blessed for the years to come. Furthermore, the term “Happy New Year” correlates to the other English term “Happy Holidays” it is a general saying that applies to all cultures, religions and/ or belief system. While, the Arabic saying “may you be blessed every year,” the word “blessed” has specific religious undertones in it. It is also interesting that the Arabic language is big on saying goodbye to someone, while in the United States, it is usually just, “bye” or “have a good day.”

However, I did find a particular similarity, which was that both the greetings are future orientation. While I have heard of some cultures saying, “I hope you had a good past year” (of course, not in English), it is interesting that both the Arabic society and the American one have a future orientated greeting, even though the American one supposedly is only good until the next new year comes around, while the Arabic one transcends to many years to come.

Arabic Proverb

Original Script:

القرد بعين امو غزال

Phonetic (Roman) script: Al gird be ain umo ghazaal.

Transliteration: Al gird be ain umo ghazaal.

Full translation: The monkey in the eye of its mother is a gazelle.

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: “I like this because it just is an example of how the Arabic language can be both poetic and really harsh. Arabic is a language where you can write a whole paragraph based off of one insult. We take our insults very seriously and can’t just say ‘F you!’, you have to do better and this is a good one because it’s saying your ugly but in the most round about way possible.

I can’t remember where I learned it but it must have been around high school.

It’s used around people you know it’s not something you say in polite company. There are a lot of poetic ways to insult people in Arabic.”

Context of the Performance: Insulting a person but politely

Thoughts about the piece: Foremost, I have to say the background on this proverb is hilarious and made me laugh so hard the way Reem had explained it to me. The fact that it is a polite way to tell someone, “you are ugly,” is really interesting. This, of course, is considering that in the English language, there is really no way to tell someone “you’re ugly” politely, except for maybe, “you are not the ugliest.” I also found it interesting how, when Reem said it and noted it in her background of the piece, that it was very poetic, and it did not sound like an insult at all, in fact, I thought, when I first heard it, it was actually a really prominent, as well as polite, saying, but it turned out to be a prominent insult instead. It is interesting that it sounded so nice at first, and that things in Arabic sound “poetic” because that is certainly not the case in English. Furthermore, it is interesting that Reem states: “there are a lot of poetic ways to insult people in Arabic,” which seems that the language in itself is beautiful, and there are no brash insults but rather poetic ones.

When Reem had translated this proverb to me, “The monkey in the eye of its mother is a gazelle,” I actually thought it met that a mother is always proud of her children no matter what they seem like to society. Although, I guess that this is the case with proverbs, in which they do not really make sense to the other culture when they are translated into that culture’s language. For example, they are only relative to that specific culture. Thus, this Arabic “saying” becomes an Arabic Proverb.

Iced Tea

Form of Folklore:  Humor

Informant Bio:  The informant was born and raised in Glendale, California.  Most of the folklore he has been exposed to comes primarily from his father, who is of Arabic decent.  Other folklore has been attained either through media sources (i.e. Reddit) or through personal life experiences in America.

Context:  The interview was conducted in the living room of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item:    A man walks into a cafe and asks the person working there if he has iced tea.  The person says, “No we don’t” and the guys says “Ok” and leaves.  The next day, he comes back and asks the same thing:  “Do you have any iced tea?”  The person says, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t”; the guy leaves.  Comes back the third day, comes back the fourth day, fifth day, sixth day, does it over and over… until the seventh day, the cafe worker finally decides:  I should get some iced tea for him, so he makes some iced tea.  And when the guy shows up and says, “Do you have any iced tea?”  He says, “Yes I do!”  He says, “Ok, warm some up for me.”

Informant Comments:  After telling this joke, the informant immediately tried to redeem this joke by saying that it is funnier in Arabic.  He thinks it is a light joke that is based on the few times when customers are being difficult, but no one event in particular.  Even though most people do not laugh at the joke, the informer thinks it is fun to tell, simply to see people’s reactions.

Analysis:  Irony and repetition play a big part in this joke.  The customer repeatedly appears every day of an entire week until the cafe worker finally decides (on the seventh day) to get the customer what he believes is what the customer wants.  Once the seventh day comes, the customer asks for iced tea again and is told there is iced tea, but to the worker’s disappointment the customer asks him to heat it; thus, making hot tea, which was always available.  This irony is the actual punch line and is the reason why the worker would get frustrated with the difficult customer and would even roll their eyes at him.  It is clear that people identify with the worker more than the customer because the reactions of the people being told the joke is similar to the worker’s reaction to the customer’s request to heat up the iced tea.