It was in one of William Shakespeare's plays of almost four centuries ago that Juliet said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose… by any other name would smell as sweet."

Drive around in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and you will often encounter a plethora of shop signs, notice boards, or placards that may amuse you, confuse you, or simply defy logic. Spend a few moments mulling over the name, and more often than not, several questionable images roll over in your head as to the nature of these businesses.

Because Saudi Arabia's bewildering municipal laws sometimes dictate that signs in a foreign language must carry the appropriate Arabic translation and vice versa, it is amusing to see how translations of these signs from Arabic to English often get convoluted, and end up taking a wrong turn somewhere. Let me cite some such signs that grace our streets and roads.

One that captures my attention just about every time I pass that shop on a busy street is called ‘Handsome Barber'. More than once, I considered stopping by this establishment to get a better look at this barber. I mean, if you're good-looking, why advertise it? But since I would usually be driving on the other side of the street, I simply did not get a chance to verify this claim.

However, recently I happened to be passing by this shop, and with some time to kill. So I decided to pop in for a quick look. What greeted me was a paunchy middle-aged man in a white T-shirt with his belly extending far over his trouser belt, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, busily snipping away at the head of a patron. He was definitely what I would not categorise as "handsome". Even his customer seated docilely in his chair was far removed from that description!

Bush and Bull

In the central district of the city, a large sign on the outside of a shop screams out ‘Butchery City Center'. Instantly evoking images of genocide in Rwanda or the Balkans, this establishment is nothing more than a meat-seller's. No wholesale destruction, stealth bombers or Nato forces on Kandahar streets. Just large carcases of beef and lamb hanging from metal hooks.

At a downtown commercial centre, a little sign by the entry door of a fabric shop states ‘Bush and Bull'. You might conjure up an image of a local in Manchester or Liverpool. Something along the lines of the "Dog and Duck" on High Street before you realise that what it actually tries to convey is ‘Push and Pull'. Why bother after all if the doors open either way?

In the northern part of Jeddah sits a very large sign proudly proclaiming ‘Jaafar for Petrol and Furniture'. Now that is where your mind has to work overtime. Do you want to purchase gasoline from this enterprising man, or would you settle for fuel-scented arm chairs and bedroom sets? Poor Jaafar. He may be suffering from uncharted delusions or multiple split personalities. What next, I wonder? Abdou for Ice Cream and Travel?

Fish and Ships

Or how about ‘Leila Plumbing and Concrete Supplies' on another street? The name Leila definitely does not evoke images of such a macho establishment. That is, unless you expect to find pastel coloured water pipes, and rose-coloured concrete mix. I would tend to think that names of such places should appropriately be along the lines of ‘Sattam or Mish'al' for … such and such' rather than a delicate and feminine name as Leila or Sara.

There's a ‘Fish and Ships' out there as well. The ships bringing this catch of fish in must have mislaid the chips along the way, for they are nowhere to be seen on the signboard.

Or ‘Giftik'? This one is unusual in that the guy making up this sign did not have to work very hard to please the establishment owner. The actual name in Arabic was ‘Hadeeyatik' which roughly translates to ‘your gift'. The ‘ik' here being the ‘your' portion of the Arabic translation. So he does the next best thing… just add an ‘ik' after ‘Gift'.

‘Abdullah Jamaarek' is one way to advertise oneself and the profession one chooses. From what I gather, Abdullah is a chap who clears Customs (Jamaarek) goods and documents. He asks the sign manufacturer to produce a direct translation, which unfortunately falls short of making sense.

There's a little villa nestled around the corner not far from where I live. A little sign by the entrance gate says ‘No Barking'. I looked around, but could see none of the canine species. Was it possible that owing to the proximity of his villa to the shopping mall, that the owner was suggesting that no one park his vehicle in front of the house?

So what's in a name? Some may not smell so sweet to their owners if they only knew how others reflect upon it.


Tariq Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.