Lost In Translation: Funny Arabic Sayings For Beginners

Susan Al-Safadi

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Growing up as a Middle Eastern kid in London, I was always embarrassed to speak Arabic in front of my White friends. Now that I’m in my 20s, I understand how truly baller it is to be bilingual, and am proud to be part of the 300 million strong global population of Arabic speakers. Although I consider myself fluent in Arabic (despite what the examiner grading my Arabic GCSE may say), I’ll always have a more in depth understanding of the English language and a relatively limited one of the Arabic language, at best. You might say I speak Arab(ish). So whilst I can hold a conversation or order a meal in Arabic, what I’ll never understand is the classic funny Arabic sayings I hear my parents use.  

To this day if I don’t know a word in Arabic, instead of translating it, I’ll instantly sub it out for an English one mid-sentence. My mum loves to tell the story of how when we were kids, we’d just apply English grammar rules to Arab vocab, like adding an ‘-ing’ onto the end of an Arabic verb to make it a present participle – ‘mama I’m salee-ing’. Interestingly, a lot of English words get their roots from the Arab language e.g. alcohol, algebra, coffee, safari etc. Being bilingual I also find the amalgamation of my two mother tongues creates a third, pseudo language which more accurately reflects my split identity. Our generation anglicises Arabic words like ‘al salam 3alaikum’ and ‘astaghfurallah’, by shortening them to ‘salams’ and ‘astags’, respectively. It’s not just my vocabulary and questionable pronunciation though: some funny Arabic sayings will never make sense when I try to translate them verbatim to my English friends. But it’s hella funny to try. 

ROOH BALLIT AL BAHAR/ROOH KANNIS AL SAHRA (روح بلط البحر/ روح كنس الصحراء)

This is one of my all-time favourite funny Arabic sayings, and literally translates to ‘go tile the ocean’ and ‘go sweep the desert’. Both phrases can be used in different contexts, but I like to think it means, ‘quit bugging me’. If you’ve got enough time to annoy me, why not get started on tiling the ocean floor? The mental image of someone attempting to do either of these activities always leaves me in stitches. 

SAYIM SAYIM WA TIFTAR 3ALA BASALA (صام فلان وأفطر على بصلة)

Fasting all day only to break your fast on an onion. This gem speaks for itself really – how disappointing would that be? Although as an avid onion lover myself, I think onions get a bad rap; who wouldn’t want some crispy shallots for iftar?

HILEE 3ANEE (حلي عني)

Something your mother might say to her kids, this funny Arabic saying literally means ‘dissolve from me’. Damn mama, go away isn’t enough, you need me to physically disintegrate? It really be like that.

TO2BORNEE/TO2BOR ALBI (تأبرني/ تؤبر البي)

Used to describe someone being cute, we say ‘put me in a grave’ or ‘bury my heart’. Arabs were saying ‘I’m dead’ ironically long before Generation Z. 

DAMAK TGEEL (دمك ثقيل)

Your blood is heavy. Used to describe someone with zero banter or lame dad jokes. 

KOL HAWA (كل هوا)

Eat air. Our PG answer to ‘eat sh*t’.

AL GIRD BE 3EIN OMO GHAZAL (القرد بعين امه غزال)

‘A monkey in his mother’s eyes is a deer.’ Meaning if you love someone, you’ll think they’re beautiful. Can also apply to f*ckboys/f*ckgirls you’ve fallen for who are a 4/10 at best.

The monkey looking for the deer in him his mom told him about.

SIKITNALO AM DAKHAL BI HMARO (سكتنا له دخل بحماره)

We didn’t say anything to him, so he came in with his donkey. Essentially the equivalent of ‘give an inch take a mile’.

HABAK BORS (حبك برص)

We used to say ‘bahibik’ to mama as kids when we’d messed up and she’d throw this back at us – ‘a lizard loves you’. And that’s on growing up not being able to express love. Thanks mama. 

TOZ 3ALEIK/LA TEEZEE (طز عليك)

An ass on you/to my ass. No explanation necessary. 

BALA ____ BALA BATEEKH (بلا بطيخ)

Without ____, without watermelon i.e. I don’t want this or watermelon. This nugget is best used when you’re feeling a little sassy. Someone talks about wanting something or won’t stop going on about it, so you insert their beloved thing in the blank space and watch the light go out in their eyes. 

AL BISSA BITTHIB KHANAGHA (البسة تحب خناقها)

‘A cat loves its strangler.’ Meaning a person will always go back to their aggressor. So the godawful advice of ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ came from us Arabs? We don’t claim it.

BEDO JANAZAH WA YISHBA3 FEEHA LATTIM (بدو جنازة يشبع فيها لطم)

This funny Arabic saying literally translates to ‘he wants a funeral procession so he can fill up on crying’. This guy just wants any excuse to complain. Get the mini violin out. 

IGLIBY WIJHIK (اقلبي وجهك)

Flip your face AKA turn that frown upside down. 

LAGA AL ZIR RAH ISHTARALO BADLA (لقى الزر راح اشتراو بدلة)

He found a button so bought a suit. Describing someone who has jumped the gun on doing something i.e. running before you can walk. 

ILLI YILTASA3 MIN AL SHORBA, YONFOKH BIL ZABADI (يتلسع من الشوربة ينفخ في الزبادي)

He who burns his tongue on soup will blow on his yoghurt. This classic Arabic saying sounds like something you’d find in a B rated fortune cookie, but it accurately describes the phenomenon of being extra cautious of anything after having been burned once. 

AL JANAZA HARRA BAS AL MAYIT KALB (الجنازة حارة والميت كلب)

The funeral procession is lit, but the deceased is a dog. Savage. Expressing when someone is very upset over something trivial, but essentially ‘no use crying over spilled milk’. 

GATAL AL GATEEL WA MISHEE FI JANAZTO (قتل القتيل ومشى بجنازته)

He killed the deceased then walked in his funeral procession. Wow never noticed how many phrases we have about funerals. Dark. Arab equivalent of ‘returning to the scene of the crime’.

TUB AL JARRA 3A TIMHA, WA TITLA3 AL BINT LA IMHA (طُبّ الجرّة على تمّها بتطلع البنت لإمّها)

Flip the jug on its mouth and the daughter will come out like her mother i.e. like mother like daughter. 

IBN AL WIZ 3AWWAM (ابن الوز عوام)

The son of a goose is a swimmer i.e. like father like son. 

NGOOL TOR, YIGOOLO IHLIBOO (نقول ثور يقول احلبوه)

We say it’s a bull, they say milk it. You can’t reason with the unreasonable or the stubborn. Again, the mental image of this Arabic saying is hilarious. 

ILLI IMMO BASALA WA ABO TOUM, MIN WEIN BEDO YJEEB AL REEHA AL TAYBA (اذا ابوه البصل وامه الثوم ،،من وين رح يجيب الريحه الطيبه)

If one’s mother is an onion and his dad garlic, from where is he going to get a nice aroma? i.e. the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. 

visual representation of your parents if someone if you have bad aroma.

FAGA3T MARARTI (فقعت مرارتي)

You have popped my gallbladder (because you’re so annoying).

IZZA KAN HABEEBAK 3ASAL, TILSAHOHOOSH KOLO (إن كان حبيبك عسل ما تلحسوش كله)

If your love is honey, don’t lick him all. I’ll be honest, I’ve got no clue what this one means. 

So there you have it: a crash course in classic funny Arabic sayings and common phrases. Now all you need to be a proper Arab baba is a dishdasha, a cup of shai and a sprinkling of emotional blackmail. Oh, you’ll also have to learn to insult yourself when coming for your kids. Every Arab kid will have heard the phrase ‘ya ibn al kalb/hmar/jazma’ at some point in their lives, which literally translates to ‘son of a dog/donkey/shoe’. Legend has it the Arabic language has over twenty times the number of words found in the English language. And damn, don’t we use them beautifully? 

by Susan Al-Safadi
@susanalsafizzle

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