Y: Let’s start with my dad’s story. So, one day I was asking him for praise or validation, like I always do. And his, so like I showed, I think I was showing him something I was really excited about. And his response- I was like, “do you think it’s good?” And he was like, “the cockroach in the eyes of his mother looks like a gazelle.” And <laugh> he explained like it’s a proverb that his father told him. I mean, his mother told him over and over again. And I was like, “I’m so offended.” He was like, “no, I’m just saying I’m not a reliable witness cause like I’m always gonna think you’re amazing.” But I still, like, bug him about that proverb to this day.
Background: Y is a 20 year old who was born and raised in New Jersey. She now resides in Los Angeles, California.
Context: This story was told to me at a hangout among friends.
Analysis: Y’s proverb reminded me of other proverbs or sayings that relate to the unconditional love of a parent. Although it has a more negative connotation, I thought of the saying “they had a face only a mother could love.” What’s interesting about evaluating these sayings side by side is that there’s a notable difference between the statement of unconditional love coming from the parent, such as in Y’s proverb, versus in the second saying, which is meant as an insult from someone outside of the family. The connotations are vastly different.
She learned it from her mom and grandma in Jordan. She said that the proverb means that a mom never finds a fault in her child.
Original Script: القرد بعين امه غزال
Transliteration: El ‘ird bi aine immo ghazal
Literal Translation: The monkey in his mom’s eye is gazelle
Smooth Translation: The monkey in his mom’s eyes is a gazelle
I found this proverb to be really funny because although I’ve seen moments like what the proverb describes, it’s generally the opposite in my family: it’s usually the aunts and grandmas that see the child as better than they really are, and it’s usually the moms who are quick to tell their children their faults. The background information that one must have to understand the proverb is that monkeys are seen as ugly, but gazelles are seen as beautiful (there are love poems called ghazals because of that connection). Thus, the proverb implies that even if someone is as ugly as a monkey, their mom would see them as beautiful as a gazelle, which comments on the strength of family ties: the love of a mother would gloss over all the child’s faults.
He heard it in Jordan when he was around 15 years old, when he “started volunteering to do risky things.” “If someone wants to do something risky–so that even his life is at risk–his parents would ask him why, to which he would answer ‘they will call me a coward.’ His parents would then tell him this proverb.”
Original Script: “يقولوا ميت “جبان” ولا يقولوا “الله يرحمو”
Transliteration: Y’oulou meet “jaban” wala y’oulou “Allah yerhamo”
Literal Translation: Them saying hundred “coward” better than them saying “God rest his soul”
Smooth Translation: Them saying “coward” a hundred times is better than them saying “God rest his soul”
This proverb reminds me of how I was raised, although I heard a similar English proverb (“Better safe than sorry”) much more often than this proverb. Like my informant, I first heard this proverb from my parents when I was a young teenager; they wanted to make sure that my ego would not cause me harm, especially if peer pressure is present. This proverb implies that Arabs generally value well-being over pride.
She learned this from her brothers in Jordan when they were young. They were trying to convince her to share her treats (she was the youngest and was spoiled), so they would tell her this proverb, hoping that she would give them some out of fear of choking.
Original Script: اللي بياكل لحاله بزور
Transliteration: Elly biakol lahalo bizwar
Translation: Whoever eats alone chokes
I’ve heard this proverb a couple of times, after I choked while eating alone. The proverb is meant to discourage people from not sharing their food, or eating by themselves, likely because Arabs usually eat as a family. This proverb focuses not on giving advice, but on protecting that family tradition.
She learned it from her grandma when she was a kid in Jordan. When her grandma offered her food, and she said that she has no appetite, her grandma would say “Muftah el button lo’meh” as a way to get her to eat a bite to increase her appetite.
Original Script: مفتاح البطن لقمة
Transliteration: Muftah el button lo’meh
Literal Translation: Key to the stomach is a bite
Smooth Translation: The key to the stomach is a bite
I found it strange that there would be a proverb used to convince someone to eat–usually, the problem is getting someone to stop eating. My family has told me this proverb a few times too when I said I was not hungry, and usually a bite did make me hungry. It wasn’t until this week that I realized that this proverb, from the times I have heard it used, is used when the rest of the family is eating. This proverb is not said to give advice, but to protect the Arabic tradition of eating together as a family.