Monday, April 03, 2006

Language Jollies, part II

I wrote my earlier post about language less than a month after I'd arrived in Syria; now, 6 months later (can it really have been that long?) here are some more thoughts about this complicated and beautiful thing called Arabic. This is a very long post, and I'm afraid parts of it (all of it?) may be a little too deep into technicalities to be of general appeal. Nevertheless, the language is the topic that I've been spending most of my time learning about and experiencing, and I've come to love it dearly. Here's a table of contents, to make it as easy as possible for you to skip around and read at your leisure. I'll say that parts I. and VI., with their direct examples of language, are perhaps the least technical, but the rest have some good anecdotes about my own experience with the language on the ground. I know that one is not supposed to blog in bulk like this -- but so it goes.

[By the way, this is not the big post I had mentioned before that was in the works. This one I've put together over the past 3 days. That other one's been shelved indefinitely. :]

I. Fun with Religious Expressions

II. Arabic's Multiple Identities

III. Spoken Arabic in Action

IV. Arabic as Often Taught

V. Dialects in Contact

VI. Jokes!


For months I've been meaning to do some writing about the use of religious expressions here. In general Arabic is so rich with all kinds of special expressions, religious and otherwise, but the religious ones play such a uniquely integral role in the everyday language of Syrians that I've wanted to write about them in particular.

[Transliteration? I'm not following any system, but trying to make it easy for non-Arabic speakers to read, as well as clear to Arabic speakers what I'm writing. For the `ein I use this [`] little thingy, and for the hamza I use this one ['] -- when I use it at all that is. I also am often writing qaaf as hamza. And if you don't speak Arabic, ignore those last sentences. Sorry.]

To start out this discussion, I first have to let loose a rant about one of my pettest peeves: allah does not mean Allah. The Arabic word allah is an alternative pronunciation of al-ilah, which means "The God" -- it does not mean "the Muslim god". This was the word used for God in Arabic long before Islam existed, and today it is the word used for God by the many Christians, Jews, members of other religions who speak Arabic. This means that whenever you see (for example) a newspaper caption reading: "Here protesters carry signs reading 'We put our trust in Allah.'" this is wrong. The sign actually says "We put out trust in God". Would you ever see see a caption telling about Spanish protesters "putting their trust in Dios"?

I think this is so important because I believe the persistence of this mistranslation helps contribute to the bad rep that Islam has in a lot of non-Muslim countries. It encourages the notion that Muslims worship some strange god, while in fact they worship the same God as Christians and Jews. The fact that it's the same God from the same line of religious traditions does not deny the differences between the religions, but at least it's a first step towards more understanding -- a commodity we're in need of.

I would also like to make a hypothesis that the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (writing Allah instead of translating it) stems not from a conspiracy against Muslims but instead from Muslims themselves living in non-Muslim countries. According to my knowledge, because the Arabic language has a special importance in the religion of Islam (the word of God was revealed in it) it is commendable to know it and to use it. So I imagine that converts to Islam who don't speak Arabic -- or children of Arab Muslim immigrants to other countries -- can manage to use at least allah and even while speaking their other language. Maybe from this usage it caught on. Any thoughts?

Now let's get to it: I've collected a bunch of everyday phrases, all of which have some religious element to them. Some are well-known outside the Arab-speaking world and some lesser-known -- but they are nowhere near the full count. Religious expressions are so common I feel like every week I'm learning a new one. Why are they so common? I heard that in Islam it is commendable to mention the name of God, and from this these expressions became so very popular.

For a foreigner coming from a place where one is not used to hearing the name of God mentioned at least a few times more in any regular brief conversation, this apparent constant presence of God can be a little intimidating at first. As I became aware of the pervasiveness of these expressions, I wondered: is everyone really religious, or have these expressions lost their original meaning? I've found both to be true; in general, religion pervades life much more thoroughly here than in the U.S., and yet a lot of times expressions seem to have lost their original meaning or changed it. There are no hard and fast rules. My teacher made the point that the meaning of any given expression really depends on who is saying it and who is hearing it.

Take for instance religious expressions in English. We have more than I ever realized before, but still nothing close to Arabic. "Oh my God!" is a phrase said all the time in English, but how many of those times is speaker really intending to implore his or her Lord in heaven? It depends on who it is, and on what situation they're saying it in. Here are some other ones in English for you English-speakers to ponder: "Jesus!" ; "God forbid!" ; "God knows how much/many!" ; "Thank God" ; "God bless you" [after a sneeze] ... just think for a second about how you do or don't use these, and what you actually mean or think about when you say them.

Here we go: Unless otherwise noted, these expressions are used by people of all religions in Syria -- Christians, Muslims, and even non-religious people. And remember, these are just a selection of the vast library.

- al-hamdulilah = "thank God" or "praise be to God"

Sometimes shortened to just hamdullah this might just be the most common of them all. You most often say it in response to the question "How are you?" The idea is that no matter how we are, we owe our thanks to God. You can either follow it with a descriptive adjective about how you are, or you can just leave it at the praise to God. This is especially convenient if you are not feeling so great and trying to follow that old saying, "If you can't say anything positive, don't say anything at all." It's a good reminder for me when I'm not in the greatest mood. It is also appropriate say this after someone sneezes.

- allah ma`ak = "may God be with you"

This is one of the "goodbye" phrases you can say in Arabic, used when addressing the person who's leaving. I mention it because I remember a scene in a Syrian TV series when a boss wanted a worker to leave his office and said allah ma`ak in such a particular tone of voice that it clearly meant nothing but "Get the hell out!" A reminder that context is so important for all of these.

- as-salaamu`alaykum = "may peace be upon you" followed by its response:

- w`alaykum as-salaam or the full response:

- w`alaykum as-salaam wrahmat allah wbarakaatoh = "may peace be upon you and the forgiveness of God and His blessings"

One friend described this to me as a greeting that is particularly Islamic, and in my experience I've found this to be true. It's usually used when you greet someone but can also be used when parting.

- in sha allah = "if God wills" "God willing"

It is bad form to say anything about events in the future without including this phrase, since we can be absolutely positive of nothing in the future. When people say it, they generally really mean it, and I've found this to be a very true phrase -- you never know, in fact, something might happen out of your control preventing you from meeting your friend at the cinema at 8 pm. It has even entered my language reflexes: for example I was telling my family (in English of course) the other day what day my plane was getting to JFK airport, and the in sha allah just slipped out right afterwards. On rare occasions, however, I have found people use this as a way of hiding the truth. Example: Me: "Hello, do you have this kind of batteries?" Guy: "Tomorrow in sha allah we'll have them." I discovered the next day that he actually meant: "I don't have any, but I don't want to have to tell you that."

- wallah = "by God" as in "I swear by God"

This is an extremely, extremely common word that we could also translate "really" as in "I really don't want to go" or "I swear" as in "I swear I'm telling the truth!" This is one (because of it commonness) that seems to be used without needing a thought to the original meaning.

- ballah = "by God"

This has two pretty distinct uses: It's often as a question: "Really?" "Are you serious?" to which the answer is always a hearty "wallah!" You can also use ballah meaning "please" as in "Let me off at the next bus stop, ballah"

- yaa rabb = "Oh Lord"

This one can commonly be used before undertaking some strenuous movement or activity -- perhaps just sitting down or getting out of a low chair. Also could be used as a complaint: "yaa rabb, why isn't the bus here yet!!"

- allah y`ateek al-`aafiye = "may God grant you health" with the response:

- allah y`aafeek that has pretty much the same meaning.

This is a very useful multi-purpose polite phrase: it can be used as a greeting, a farewell, or in place of "thank you" -- used especially with strangers, or with someone who has performed some kind of service for you.

- allah ywaff'ak = "may God grant you success"

- allah ytawwal `amrak = "may God lengthen your life"

I put these together since they're often used in similar contexts: when pleading or asking for something politely, or when thanking somebody for something. With most of these polite phrases you can turn them into insults with just the change of a few words. For example allah ytawwal `amrak can be altered to allah y'ata` `amrak = "may God cut short your life" Similarly: allah laa y`ateek al-`aafiye = "may God not grant you health" ; allah laa ywaff'ak = "may God not grant you success". These are pretty serious insults, I gather, so be careful, kids.

- allah ysaamhak = "may God forgive you"

I like this one because it has a very specific use: when you want to respond to something that someone else has said when you disapprove of it: "Don't say that!!" -- often in a half-joking way.

- na`eeman with the response of allah yan`am `alayk

Translation of this one is tricky. Literally, we could go with "The blessings of God!" and then "May God bless you!". True translation is even harder, since you say it only when someone has just taken a bath or shower, or just gotten a haircut or their beard trimmed. There really is no comparison in English. Once the father of one of my friends asked me what we said to each other when we got out of the shower -- he was amazed and could barely believe that we didn't say anything in particular -- to not do so would seem so rude to him.

- yaa muhammad = "Oh Muhammad!"

This is one of many religious phrases for expressing surprise or amazement at something. This one, is naturally only used by Muslims but Christians have one used the exact same way:

- yaa maryam = "Oh Mary!"

- salli `al-nabi = "pray on the prophet"

This is another one that is supposedly used specifically by Muslims. Used when you want to tell someone to slow down or calm down about something -- presumably stemming from actually telling someone to take a moment to pray. I make sure to mention this one since it has proved to me the true universality of all these expressions in the language: I once heard it used by a Syrian Christian. At the time we were staying at a mountain monastery (Deir Mar Musa) talking casually with a small group of people. I was the only one present who took notice of this, of a Christian using what is in origin a Muslim phrase. The Muslim friend of the Christian who had said the phrase did not blink an eye, let alone say, "Hey, that's my prophet you're talking about!"


I commented briefly in my earlier post dealing with language about Arabic's identity crisis between its various spoken and written forms. This truly is a fascinating issue that is impossible to avoid. Almost everyone (whether Arabs or students of Arabic) has a very strong opinion about it, and is most likely willing to discuss or argue this issue ad infinitum. Controversy: what fun!

The conventional wisdom for students of Arabic is that you must study formal arabic: either Fus-ha (the classical language of the holy Quran) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, the language of newspapers and satellite TV news stations). Considering that these two (Fus-ha and MSA) are separated by 14 centuries, they are remarkably close to each other; the big differences between them are changes in vocabulary and a few minor grammar differences. For the purposes of this, I'll call them both written Arabic, even though it is spoken for certain purposes (news broadcasts, speeches, sermons...).

The CW continues that one should venture into studying the spoken dialects of Arabic very cautiously, if at all. The reason stated for this is that there are significant differences between the Arabic spoken from region to region, so if you learn one dialect, you're limiting yourself to just a city or a region. Also, spoken Arabic can never be written (except in the cases of a few renegade fiction writers) so if you learn the spoken you are cutting yourself off from all reading and writing.

At some level, I think this Convential Wisdom is bunk, and here's why: Let's judge what it means to be fluent in a language by taking the example of an average, educated Arab person. This person grew up (whether in Libya, Aleppo, Yemen, or Baghdad) speaking Arabic, in the dialect of his or her particular region, of course. This young Arab most likely starts to hear written arabic spoken when he or she begins to attend religious services (whether Muslim, Christian, or whatever else) and then as soon as schooling begins and though the equivalent of High School, written Arabic is studied as a subject in school. Keep in mind that despite the essential importance of written arabic in so many aspects of life in any Arab country, no average educated person ever stops speaking the spoken Arabic that they grew up with, even if they mix in phrases from written or work at a job (newscaster) that requires them to speak written Arabic. The spoken is their language just as much as much as the written is.

Thus, judging from the reality on the ground and not from any ideology about how Arabic should be, basic fluency in Arabic means speaking one dialect and being able to read and write spoken Arabic, not just one or the other. If we take this for granted, then for foreigners comes the issue of which to study first, the written or spoken. I studied written Arabic for two years in college (without coming close to fluency but learning a lot) before coming here to Syria and focusing on the spoken language. More recently, I've gone back to working on written Arabic as well. The vast majority of people will tell you that you must study written Arabic first, otherwise the dialect you study will confuse you when you get to written. Although my previous studies in Arabic have helped me so much in learning the spoken, I'd be willing to question the Conventional Wisdom on this point as well, that maybe it could in fact be good to study spoken Arabic first. My proof for this is to look at how every Arab learns: first the spoken, then the written. Of course students' goals may specify what they want to study: for example, anyone interested in religion must study the Fus-ha branch of written Arabic.

It may sound silly to the uninitiated that I'm making such a big deal about the importance and value of the spoken language, but any Arab or student of Arabic will know that there are plenty of folks who consider spoken Arabic a worthless mess and not a language -- even as they speak it themselves. The name for the spoken language (`Aammiyya) means "slang" -- and that pretty much describes how the spoken language is considered around here. (N.B. that I'm purposefully not using that word to describe it.) The fact is, it is not slang. It (like every language) includes slang words and phrases, but those are a tiny minority of what the language contains. There remains, however, a very widespread attitude here that it's not really a language. For example, a friend of mine acknowledged the worth of learning the spoken Arabic, but when I told her some details about my lessons she said, "But `Aammiyya doesn't have grammar!" She thinks this because she's never studied that grammar, but of course it's there. Another friend told me (while speaking the spoken language) that he prefers Fus-ha and that he wishes all Arabs would speak it.

One funny result of this language duality in Arabic is people's perceptions of other languages. Many people think that British English is like Fus-ha and American English is like `Aammiyya -- Ha! In fact, being here and encountering this problem has made me thankful that my native language has no classical form. Sure we have some words we usually only write, and other words we usually only say, but there are no big differences in grammar, vocab, or usage. Also: because there's no pure English, there's less language snobbery than in Arabic. For instance, in English a novelist or a columnist can use an informal spoken-language phrase as an effective tool in their writing. In Arabic, it seems that what's most admirable in written style is what is farthest away from spoken expression -- even if that spoken expression is directly rooted in the classical Fus-ha Arabic. Ick. Down with snobbery.


The part of the conventional wisdom saying that the dialects are the slangy "language of the street" (and therefore only useful for gossiping, joking, and trash-talking with uneducated people), was so well drilled into my head that I was surprised and overjoyed to find it untrue. What has proved this to me most over the past months has been my work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. I've been volunteering doing various activities with the Youth Volunteers group of this organization (which is the exact same thing as the Red Cross).

In December, the Red Crescent (al-Hilaal al-Ahmar) participated in a 96-hour nationwide disaster preparedness exercise. That means al-Hilaal had to have a corps of volunteers ready for all of those 96 hours during which various "disasters" would take place, calling on the services of the volunteers, testing their response time. I showed up at the branch office for the one shift I'd signed up for and suited up -- along with the 30 or so other youths -- into gray jumpsuits supplied to us. The night passed without getting called out to rescue any "victims" but it certainly was a quirky little experience. I talked a lot with people, played some cards, and we all ordered out for fatayer (those tasty little pie thingies) before going to sleep crowded onto some crunchy mattresses.

What most struck me about this evening -- and the reason I brought it up now -- was when we received our instructions about how the procedures worked and what we might be called to do. Naturally -- though perhaps surprisingly -- everything was spoken in spoken Arabic, but this was no joking or gossiping -- we were being instructed how to be better prepared to protect and save the lives of innocent victims. Also, these are not uneducated people we're talking about: Syrians aged between 18 and 30, nearly all of them in college or already graduates. And yet throughout this, everybody spoke the regular old Damascus spoken language. For someone to have stood up in front of us all and start speaking written Arabic would have been absolutely preposterous. It would have approximately the same effect as somebody speaking Shakespearean English at a similar meeting. The reaction would be, "Who the heck does he think he is?"

Everything I've done with the Red Crescent, whether it be talking with the residents of the old folks' home we visit, consulting with the administrator of the school where I teach, or attending the weekly meeting with all of the Youth Volunteers -- all of it has used exclusively the spoken Arabic, the so-called `Aammiyya.


This reality on the ground of how regular Arabs use their language is in stark contrast to how the language is taught here at any of the language institutes for foreigners. I can talk in particular about Damascus University's program, since I was enrolled in one of their courses in January and February. The basic attitude of these places is that foreigners must only learn written Arabic and not touch the spoken with a 10-foot pole. What this means is that the scores of foreigners who come here to Damascus to study Arabic can do so -- but many come for months without ever being able to speak a single, complete, correct sentence to their Arab neighbors, since these programs only teach the written Arabic, and that in a way that emphasizes theoretical grammar above all else and shuns anything to do with spoken.

The result of this is that these programs become isolated environments that have nothing to do with the life going on around them. My friend Farah was enrolled in one of the beginning classes at Damascus University and on her first day the teacher asked "How are you?" "tamaam," replied Farah, using a word that she'd learned from a Syrian friend meaning "perfect" -- a word that is part of the most classical Arabic. Yet her teacher clicked her tongue and corrected Farah, encouraging her to use instead a response that is rarely used in the spoken, "jayyid." This anti-spoken prejudice was even embedded into the system: for Farah's spoken test, she was told that use of so-called "`Aammiyya" words would result in points taken off.

Similarly, in my class we were given scenarios to act out with a partner: My partner Maria (from Spain) and I received one that called for one of us to be the proprietor of a restaurant and the other a customer who forgot his wallet at home. We were of course required to speak these in written Arabic -- but to deal with such a situation in real life using Fus-ha -- it would just be ridiculous! "innanii ureedu an adhhaba ila bayti li'ajii'u binuquudi" Let me try to put that into English: "I do desire to betake myself to my house in order to bring forth my currency." Can you imagine anyone saying that? So these classes become totally detached from reality, teaching students to speak a language as it is never spoken.

Not only is this way of teaching a big waste, but it also has a terrible effect on how all these foreigners experience Syria. I saw this effect most clearly riding the bus from University one day. I didn't usually take this certain bus, but that day I was meeting a friend at Bab Tuma square, which is where the vast majority of foreigners live here in Damascus. There were about 10 foreigners on this bus -- all clustered in a couple rows of seats and talking loudly in English about what happened last night: "Did you see how drunk so-and-so got?" "Did she really end up sleeping over in his room?" Did these people have any awareness of our Syrian fellow bus-riders, some of whom certainly understand English? Sometimes these foreigners tried to speak in poorly pronounced (and poor) Fus-ha with each other, but that was almost worse than the English to my ears. I wished I could have disappeared, or at least to go sit at the other end of the bus

A British guy sitting across the isle from me and I began to make small talk. When I told him my nationality he gave me an over-exaggerated "shhh" and said, "American?? Don't let it out out of the bag!" as if the Syrians around us on the bus were likely to attack or kidnap me at any moment. I guess this was an attempt at some kind of joke, but at its heart it really wasn't, I'm sure. I don't know how long this particular Brit had been in Damascus, but I couldn't believe his ignorance and rudeness towards the people he's living among. Maybe, I've thought, if he had been learning the language in a way that put him in natural communication with people, he would have learned that Syrians as a matter of principle are extremely welcoming to people of all nationalities -- see my previous post on when I went to the anti-American demonstration for proof.

I should point out that a huge number of foreign students here are Muslims studying with the goal of being able to read the holy Qur'an. For most of these folks they would have every reason to study only the formal written Arabic -- not only is this the language of the holy Qur'an but also the spoken language among the international Muslim community. For them, these institutes are focusing on the right thing, but for students like me who are interested in a lot in addition to the religious context of Arabic, they fall short.

I don't want to come out of this seeming like a big hater of written Arabic -- I'm not. I love the fact that it so amazingly logical, that it's pretty much the same as it was 14 centuries ago, and that it is shared over such a wide area of the world. The reason I'm pushing so hard for the spoken Language is that it's seriously oppressed as a serious field of study in the current situation. Also, I've been mostly studying spoken Arabic here. My logic behind that is that I can study Fus-ha all I want once I get back to the U.S., but here the opportunity for experiencing and practicing the spoken language is unique. And we must remember that the spoken and the written share so much in common that the study of each of them can help each other, as long as the differences are kept clear.


The other reason mentioned of the Conventional Wisdom for not studying spoken Arabic is the differences between dialects. While it is true that speaking and understanding just one dialect cannot get you around every corner of the Arab speaking countries, the situation is not as drastic as all that. The most important thing to remember is that though every Arab has grown up speaking one dialect, everyone here has a large capacity for understanding other dialects, a capacity which decreases the farther one goes from one's hometown. For this reason, a Moroccan and an Iraqi would have a great deal of trouble understanding one another, while a Damascene and a Palestinian would have very little trouble at all. Besides the significant differences in pronunciation, the words that change between the different dialects make up a small percentage: no more than 10% of words. Most of those shared words are also shared with written Arabic too. [I don't know if those statistics include the North African countries east of Egypt -- I doubt they do in fact]

I don't want to de-emphasize the differences too much, since they can be significant, but let me give some examples of how the different dialects interact with one another on the ground.

Damascus is known by the name ash-Sham, which is also a name that refers to the whole region. What is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were all together known as Bilaad ash-Sham (Lands of Sham) with Damascus as it's capital -- this is before the European powers came in during WWI and carved up the region into the current nations. My point is that for a long time Damascus has been a central point in the region; people speaking all different dialects have come and still do come to trade, find work, and study.

For this reason the Damascus dialect is more well known than others and yet at the same time the city becomes something of a dialogue melting pot. Among this mix, there of course remains the very thick Shami dialect which is characterized by, among other things, extending the final syllable of sentences with rising intonation. People who come to Damascus for work or study usually pick up at least some elements of that Damascus dialect, but rarely all of its thickest and most slangy elements. Because of this situation, many living here and originally from other regions can switch back and forth from their native dialect to the shared dialect spoken here.

What's even more fascinating than this is the ability among people of the region for shared understanding without the need to switch into one another's dialects. I've experienced this in a limited way from the traveling I've done here. In Halab (Aleppo), for instance, the word for "what" is ish as opposed to the Damascus shoo that I've grown familiar with. Having learned that and a few other bits of info about the Halabi dialect before going, I was able to manage talking with Aleppans without the need for us switching into each other's dialects. (I must mention that in the grand scheme of things, these two dialects are very close.) It is also common here for people to enjoy talking about the other dialects -- this mostly involves making fun of them, but from that mocking comes a general knowledge about the surrounding ways of speech.

I saw this phenomenon of shared understanding most dramatically while riding in a taxi from Amman to Damascus. There were five Syrians with me in squeezed into one of these boat-wide classic American cars used as the inter-city taxis of the region. We had to wait for 2 hours at a rest stop since the border doesn't open up for taxis until mid-afternoon, and this gave us a good chance to talk.

The driver was the most talkative of all: I never learned exactly where he came from in Syria, but his speech was thick with elements that I've learned to be part of the Beduin dialects. For example, he pronounced the letter qaaf as a hard G and bii replaced fii as the "there is/there are" verb. For me, being only the slightest bit familiar with this dialect, I had a great deal of trouble understanding all the details (and the point) of the long story he narrated with dramatic pauses and all sorts of rhetorical expressions. It had something to do with a certain shady character cheating some other folks out of something or other, with lots of travel between countries on airplanes...

Seated up in the front seat next to the driver were two young men from Aleppo, both having gone to Amman to pick up their visas to Singapore where they were headed to attend some computer conference. On my left was a large man from Raqqa (a small town on the Euphrates) dressed in a very nice suit. His dialect also had Beduin elements (the hard G for example) but it was clearly distinct from the driver. He works in China as a businessman. Next to me on the right was a less talkative fellow, whose dialect I couldn't identify but who was most certainly not from Damascus. I was seated squeezed in the middle of the back seat, listening to all of them.

The miraculous thing was that everyone stuck to speaking their own dialect throughout and no one (except for me, rather desperately!) ever felt the need to say, "Uh, excuse me, could you say that one more time?" They all did fine understanding one another and communicating with one another without needing to switch into any sort of common tongue, whether that be Fus-ha or a common dialect like Damascus's. In fact, with the modest contributions I managed to make to that soup of accents and words, I was proud to be the sole Damascus representative.

[While I've been writing this post over the past few days, I was loaned a book that deals with how all the different types of Arabic fit together in peoples lives and the relationships between the dialects (among other things). I've only just started to read it, but it's great fun, and of course the author is drawing from a wider range of experience and research than my humble observations. Already I've learned some great new things. For anyone interested, it is: "Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties" by Clive Holes, Georgetown U. Press]


The main way I've been learning something about these dialects is through studying jokes. There is this great radio show here called "Nikte-Life" -- Nikte means joke, so I guess you could translate the title Joke-Life, but the important part is not the meaning but that they managed to stick an English word in there somehow. A new 5 minute episode comes out each day, containing 5 jokes and repeated 4 times each day.

My teacher has recorded a boat-load of episodes and every lesson we study an episode or 2 -- among other more literary pursuits. Not only is it great fun to be studying jokes, but it's also gives access to a wide range of everyday language and a great deal of cultural insight. Most jokes are in the Damascus dialect, but a lot of them take advantage of the comic properties of all the dialects: there have been Egyptian, Beduin, Haurani, Halabi, Jordanian, Syrian Coastal, and even Sudanese!

The jokes come in the form of dialogues between two or more people, and the actors who do them are terrific. In the U.S. there's no such thing anymore as radio dramas, but here they're still honing their skills at making the human voice, in and of itself, both captivating and hilarious. Sometimes the only thing that's funny about these jokes is the brilliant delivery; the content can be very lame. Whether funny or not, each joke is followed by uproarious canned laughter that lasts for much longer than any of the jokes deserve.

I must admit that I often tell one or two from these Nikte-Life jokes at social gatherings -- they are always well-received and I always learn a few new jokes in return. I think it fits in with the importance of proverbs in this culture that I wrote about before: there exists an incredibly rich shared spoken language heritage.

Here are some favorites:

-Young Woman: Dad... there's this young man ... who would like to ask you for my hand in marriage...

-Father: Does he have money?!? I mean, does he earn a lot?!?!?

-Young Woman: Hm, how strange! He asked me the exact same question about you!

Plenty of them fall into the universal husband-wife joke category:

-Wife: Honey, I'm going over to visit our neighbor; 5 minutes, I'll be gone 5 minutes only!

-Husband: Okay, goodbye Dear.

-Wife: Sweetie, I've put a dish on the stove; every half hour stir it a little, okay?

Also, lots of bad puns, a few of which translate easily...

-Customer: Do you have color televisions?

-Store Owner: Of course, ma'am, which would you like?

-Customer: Give me a green one, please.

... and most of which need some explanation: in Arabic the word for "hour" and "wristwatch" (and "clock" for that matter) are all the same: saa`ah

-Doctor: Take this medicine. Every saa`tayn [two hours] on the dot!

-Patient: But Doctor, I only have saa`ah wahdeh [one watch]!

And like jokes the world over, many take advantage of people being stupid:

-A: Um Hamdi! What on earth are you doing??

-B: Hm! It's as if you're not seeing today. I'm installing the heater! [The sobia, this type kerosene stove which is a real cultural fixture here in Syria]

-A: You're installing the heater outside??

-B: Yes, because outside is colder than inside.

-A: Excuse me, mister, where's the other sidewalk?

-B: There's the other sidewalk over there.

-A: How strange! I was just over there and they told me it was here.

This last one is a good example of how oftentimes the stupid person in the joke is assigned a different dialect than Damascus -- this person happens to be speaking in the Halabi dialect. I gather that this works in a similar way to how people make redneck jokes in the States.

A few take special advantage of the radio format, and make the joke out of how the listener can't see the situation:

[driving noises]

-A: Watch out, man, there's a telephone pole in font of us, what's wrong with you?

-B: I see it, I see it!!

-A: I'm telling you watch out. Watch out, we're gonna hit that telephone pole, dammit!

-B: I told you, I see it!

-A: Wha-- Aaaaaghghghghgghhh!!! [car crashes into telephone pole] Agh, Agh!! May God not grant you success! [see 1st part of this post] Help us!! Didn't I tell you to watch out for that telephone pole?!?

-B: Look, I saw it, but you were the one who was driving!

Some play on the language of politeness:

-Customer: One coffee, if you please.

-Waiter: How's your coffee, sir? [i.e., how do you want your coffee?]

-Customer: My coffee's well, thank you. How is your coffee?

This one plays on the relatively similar sound of the words for coffee (ahwe) and family (`a'ile) and the fact that "How's your family?" is one of the everyday polite questions one can ask when greeting another.

There have been a couple that make fun of a Beduin coming into contact with modern life. One with the Beduin riding in an airplane for the first time, one with the Beduin who thinks his son is in love with a foreigner named "Nokia" ("Didn't I tell you to only marry your cousin, you dog!") and my favorite where the Beduin goes out for Pizza (Or Bitza, rather, since Arabs have some trouble with the letter "P"). I won't write it all out because it's long and because it would be impossible to translate the drastic difference between the thick Beduin dialect and the hip, urbane speech of the Damascene waiter.

The gist is that the Beduin tells the waiter he's forgot something to go with the Bitza... The ketchup? ... no ... the mayonnaise? ... no ... "What," he says, "Do you think I've never eaten this Bizta before? You brought the what's-it-called, this Bista, but you forgot to bring the bread!!"

The joke is that people here (not just Beduins) eat lots of bread with every meal, and this poor foolish Beduin guy doesn't get it that Bitza with bread is a little redundant. I can vividly imagine the type of restaurant where this takes place: very "hip" and "modern" decor, young folks lounging around who are just way to cool for themselves, and "western" food which is likely to be rather terrible, by anyone's standards.

I couldn't write about jokes is Syria without mentioning Homsni jokes. Basically, the people of the city of Homs have been selected as the "dumb blonds" of Syrian jokes -- why, I don't know, since everyone seems to agree that they are wonderful people. There are lots of jokes about Homsnis. The best one I've heard recently is this: The people of Homs and Hama are having a battle, and they're set up firing at each other from behind barricades. From the Hama side someone shouts out: "Hey, Abu Muhammad!" and then Abu Muhammad on the Homs side stands up and they shoot him. "Hey, Abu Khaalid!" and the same thing happens to Abu Khaalid. This keeps going until half the Homsnis are dead, so the remaining ones call a meeting. They realize they're going to have to do something if they want this to stop. The smartest one of them stands up and says, "Okay, next time, Abu `Ali, you stand up instead of Abu `Abdo when they call his name.

The other day I studied one from "Nikte-Life" that was remarkable because it didn't have a punch line at all, but rather described a situation that any Syrian would presumably know and could laugh about:

-A: Damn, damn these terrible times. I was once "Prince Nakis" who played the world on his fingers [=was in control of everything like a puppeteer] and a thousand people wanted some sign of all that money I had. But then I suffered a killer relapse, and where am I now? Selling radishes on a board in the vegetable market. Oh, I hope people will buy, at least, at the very least so I can earn the price of the tobacco for this pipe of mine. Seriously, seriously, these are terrible times!

-B: For this pipe of yours? Of course no one's going to buy your radishes with you sitting there, one leg on top of the other, and your nostrils about to knock on the clouds [=you've got your nose in the air; you're pompous], and your snout is stuck out front [=you've got that grumpy face], and you've put this pipe stuck inside it, and you're calling out with disgust: "Radishes, you idiots! Radishes, you riffraff!"

I'll close with my most favorite, since it has some true cleverness to it. But to let those non-Arabic speakers among you figure it out yourselves, here's a glossary of some key words: rizz = rice ; djaaj = chicken ; shuurba = soup ; baarid = cold ; saakhin = hot. If you don't get it, try saying the "French" words out loud.

-A: Look, bro -- you -- I mean -- I told you I don't know how to say a single word of French, I mean -- why do you insist on embarrassing me...

-B: Hey, this is the most delicious and very best restaurant in the city -- and do you need to talk poetry? OK, now as soon as the waiter comes, put "oh" after every word you want to say and it will become French-like. What, is it chemistry?

-A: Now, I just put "oh"?

-B: Yeah, just "oh". What do you think? -- Ha! Look, here he comes, get ready!

-A: Yes, uh ... waiter? If you please, I would like ... rizz-oh and djaaj-oh and a bowl of shuurb-oh.

-Waiter: baarid-oh?

-A: No! saakhin-oh!!

So there you have it. A whole cart-load of saved-up thoughts about this crazy Arabic language. In sha allah I have been able to pass on to you some of the joy I get from it. Allah y`ateekon al-`aafiye.


Anonymous Zaher said...

ya'teek alf afeyeh .
thanx alot i like your blog it's raheeb :)

'bot the nikteh life thing ..i allways isten to them on my way to the university but i never laught at them ..but somehow you made me laugh :D

2:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have two comments about your nice Blog:
The first is about the usage of the word Allah. I have been paying a good deal of attention on this issue, and I have noticed that the European media is translating this word in its real meaning and that is God. On the other hand in the American media, it is another story; there you find some prejudice firms, like the Fox news channel, deliberately use the word Allah to give the viewers the sense that Muslims are some kind of a pagan sect that worship a God named Allah, with no relation to Christianity or Judaism. Another reason for the bad usage of the word is the American English it self. I have in front of me two American dictionaries one is called the Merriam-Webster which defines the word Allah as the supreme being of the Muslims (note the prejudice) and the Lexicon Webster that defines the word as: the Arabic word for the Supreme Being. In the end it depends on the intentions of the user.
The second is about the difference between the Arabic slang and the classic Arabic. This debate about the two have been going among Islamic and Arabic scholars since the fourth Century Higery, that is approximately for a thousand year, and it will continue until the end of history, for a simple reason. What you call the spoken Arabic is a constantly evolving language with time and surrounding circumstance, take the slang of the Arab North African Countries like Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Their slang is a mixture of Arabic, French, and Berber. For that reason the Arabs of Asia don’t understand the Arabs of North West Africa, when they speak to them in their dialect. Meanwhile you have the classic Arabic which is the Arabic of the Holy Koran. This language is fixed in time, you can add to it but you can never change its grammar because of the Holy text in the Koran. Modern Arab poets were able to break the rules of Arab poetry but not the grammar. The classic Arabic is preserved by the Holy Koran.

2:51 PM  
Blogger RCC said...

thanks for adding these helpful and relevant comments. The bit about the reason for the split in Arabic and the permanance of written Arabic (the Qur`an) is exactly right, and I should have discussed that in the first place.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Was searching on the net for language schools in Syria for the summer and came across your blog. Loads of information! Thanks.. any way to direclty ask u some questions re studying in Syria!

2:02 AM  
Blogger RCC said...

sure, just go to my profile and there's a link to my email there.

8:01 PM  
Blogger upyernoz said...


as always i enjoy reading your posts.

by the way, the `amiyya/fus-ha division is called "diglossia." several other languages have it (creole vs. french in haiti, high german vs. local dialects in germany, austria and switzerland, etc).

it really is a sociological phenomenon as much as a linguistic one. in diglossic languages the "high" form of the language is generally seen as the real language, even if people don't speak it in their day-to-day life. the colloquial form of the language is generally seens as a corruption of the "purer" high form.

and anonymous is right. the quran is what keeps fus-ha around. if islam didn't exist, there would be no "arabic", there would be "moroccan" and "egyptian" and "syrian" (i.e. various `amiyyaat would just be called different languages) essentially, that's what happened in europe. no one pretends that spanish, italian, french and romanian are just corrupt versions of latin anymore. without a religious motive to anchor the dialects to each other, they we were allowed to acknowledge that they are really different languages.

2:30 AM  
Blogger RCC said...

Exactly right. I'd be interested to know what the history of the similar language diglossia is in Europe over the past 2 millenia. When did the romance languages cease being considered "dialects"? In what ways did Latin have to weaken to allow for this to happen?

It's also interesting to speculate about what the future of Arabic is headed for. I'm quite certain that it's not headed the same way as the current European situation, thanks to every literate person's constant use of formal written Arabic. But the situation is certainly not static, and the ways in which the spoken language is affecting the formal language (and vice versa) are hard to trace, thanks to the fact that the dialects are very much under the academic radar -- only very few are recording and studying them.

For instance, in every one of the church and mosque sermons that I have heard while here in Syria, which should supposedly use only "Fus-ha", I have heard a lot of "`aamiyya" being used. And it's not "switched to", I mean, the speaker does not all of a sudden change to 'aamiya and then back. Many of their sentences mix elements from each. One priest occasionally slipped into saying the qaaf as a glottal stop (a feature of spoken) even in the same sentences in which he was pronouncing the case endings on his words.

Another time, in the one Jum`a sermon that I heard, the Imam burst out with "lek shubak!?!" (what's the matter with you?). It would be hard to find a more "slangy" phrase, but it was quite an effective rhetorical device, and what's more, no one present took the slightest notice. In fact, when afterwards I mentioned to my friends who had brought me to the service that he used some `aamiyya, they asked me, "Oh, did he? How?"

It happens the other way too: when speaking people often encorporate phrases and expressions originating in written arabic, even as they use the grammitical rules specific to the spoken language.

So unlike the historical language situation in Europe, Arabic, in all its forms, remains somehow unified as one language. The question is, are its various parts headed closer together or farther apart?

11:25 AM  
Blogger upyernoz said...

When did the romance languages cease being considered "dialects"? In what ways did Latin have to weaken to allow for this to happen?

i'm not sure when it happened. i know in the early middle ages educated people wrote in latin and it wasn't considered proper to write in the vernacular--a situation that reminds me of arabic now. but by the end of the mideval period somehow the romance languages had managed to break away from latin.

i think the reason that could happen in europe and is unlikely to happen with arabic in the middle east is because of some of the differences between islam and christianity. the latin version of the bible itself was already a translation from hebrew and greek. christianity is not committed to a single liturgical language in the way that islam is to arabic. translations of the quran are called "interpretations" of the it, and are not considered to be qurans themselves.

it's also interesting to note that there is a single arabic dialect that has managed to break off and get recognized as a separate language: maltese. i don't think it's a coincidence that malta is a christian country.

there's also other political forces in the middle east that work to keep arabic in its current state that did not exist in europe.

the two biggest political forces in the modern arab world are arab nationalism (baathism, nasarism, pan-arabism, whatever flavor you prefer), and political islam. both are committed to the fiction that "arabic" is a single language, and not a family of local languages. islamists are committed to a universal arabic because of the quran and classical arabic. arab nationalism posits that arabs from morocco to iraq are a single people, unified by a single language. that requires fus/ha or MSA. arab nationalists and islamists are at odds about many different issues facing the middle east, but they are basically on the same page when it comes to the issue of arabic. with both pushing a unified arabic and with few other serious political forces pushing in any other direction.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I do not agree that there is a prejudice evidenced by the usage of Allah in English. Allah has become part of the English vocabulary in the same way sheikh and kebab have. Yes it is possible to use other English words to convey the same meaning but why do that when the Arabic words make sense too.

3:03 PM  
Blogger RCC said...

There is, in fact, a big difference between words like "sheikh" and "Allah". Sheikh (etc.) has entered English language because there is no obvious parallel word by which to translate it. Allah, however, has a direct and accurate translation: God. We use sheikh and kebab because it would be awkward to say "respected old person" for sheikh or "strips of grilled meat" for kebab.

I agree with you, however, that use of Allah is not always an indication of prejudice. Many Muslims use the word, and other Arabic expressions, as an expression of their faith. There is of course nothing wrong with that, but when we hear western/christian "pundits" or "experts" talking about "Allah, the Muslim god," there is no doubt that they are using the word as a weapon to alienize Muslims and harm the great and complex civilization of Islam.

8:33 PM  
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