Through the month of Ramadan, Gulf News brings you Emirati proverbs, what they mean and the socio-cultural context of their usage in everyday life.
Yiit bakahil-ha ‘ameit-ha
Literal translation: I came to apply kohl to the eye, I blinded it.
Other meanings: Kill them with kindness.
In rendering a service, he unintentionally did an injury.
Gist: Emirati women use kohl, or black-powered resin, as an adornment similar to an eyeliner. Many decades ago, they also applied it to the eyes of babies, and small children because they believed it would enhance eye health. They obtain kohl by burning olive oil and capturing the soot it produces. This proverb deplores the unintended damage caused when trying to fix a problem or situation, similar to turning an eye blind when trying to beautify it by applying kohl.
The word amay is masculine and singular. Aamya is feminine and singular. Aimyan is “plural” carries a range of meanings:
1. Blind person: There is a Gulf proverb l-’awar biin l-aimyan baasha, which means that ‘the one-eyed person in the country of the blind is considered to be a king’.
2. Amay l-galb, which means ‘hardening of character’.
3. Ama l-‘alwan, which means ‘colour blindness’.
4. Ama l-baSiira, which means ‘lack of insight’.
Halaat ith-thob rig’itah minnah w fiih
Literal meaning: A dress is beautiful when it is patched using its own material
Gist: This proverb urges someone to marry a relative rather than a stranger. It can also encourage two business parties to keep their business between each other. In the UAE, women wear the abaya, which is a black long cloak that covers most of the body and the face. Some women, especially older ones, wear the burqa, which is worn over the abaya. Some women also wear a ghishwa to cover their eyes in the sun. Men formally wear the kandoura, which is a long and comfortable robe, which they wear with a gotra, a headscarf held with an ornate headband called agal. Another term for the kandoura is the thoub (plural), and the dishdasha.
When a person buys a new dress, people may say thoub i-aafiyah, which can be translated as ‘good health’.
— Naseer Isleem is a senior Arabic language lecturer at New York University Abu Dhabi. His book, Popular Proverbs: An Entrance to Emirati Culture was published in May this year.
— As told to Sami Zaatari, Staff Reporter
lia-yaleh min ‘isheitan
Haste is the devil’s work
Gist: This proverb suggests that people should make their decisions after carefully studying all options, and hints that rushing to conclusions could lead to mistakes.
The origin of this proverb rests in this regionally renowned tale: There was once a merchant who used to travel the world looking for the most advantageous trading deals. One day, he decided to travel to faraway lands, and said goodbye to his young and attractive wife, and his son. The merchant eventually reached a large city where he found a group of wise men standing in a market, selling proverbs. One wise man said: “Who is the lucky one who will receive my great proverb? Only ten golden dinars!” The merchant replied: “I will buy it from you!” The wise man said, “I am going to share with you a proverb I do not want you to forget. Please remember it wherever you go. The proverb is Iia-yaleh min ‘isheitan.”
The merchant spent more than 10 years away from his family until he finally decided to return home. He bought enough goods to fill a large ship and returned to his family. When he arrived at his city, he stored the goods in the merchants’ market and rushed home. It was late at night when he opened the door of the house and tiptoed inside to surprise his wife. As he entered his bedroom, he found his wife sleeping, and next to her, a young man. He became enraged and unsheathed his sword, ready to kill his wife. As he raised his blade high up, he instantly remembered the wise man’s words. He put down his sword and cleared his throat. Immediately, his wife awoke and said, “Son… son, wake up, your father has returned!”
The wife and son embraced the merchant. As the merchant held them close to his heart, he repeated, “Thank God, and thanks to the wise man who sold me a precious proverb for a cheap price.”
‘il-fluus tyiib l-’aruus
Literal meaning: Money can fetch the bride
Other meaning: He who pays the piper calls the tune
Gist: This proverb is said in a context that indicates that money can make anything in life come true.
On the topic of money, historically, bedouins used to consider coins more acceptable than paper money. Eventually, they started accepting and using paper money, which was introduced around the 1930s. External rupee, or Gulf rupee, became the official currency in 1959. The UAE did not have a single currency unit till 1971, and a year following the 1972 unification of the UAE, a nationalised and unilaterally accepted currency was introduced. Today, the national currency is issued by the Central Bank, located in Abu Dhabi.
This proverb also brings out the question of marriage and dowry. The UAE Government has been investing in a Marriage Fund in order to help Emirati couples. The groom and his family are expected to present a variety of gifts like silk, jewellery, perfume gifts to the bride, with which she creates her elaborate trousseau called zahba.
The prenuptial celebrations, filled with traditional music and song, last between three days and a week before the wedding night. For the ladies, henna night, when the bride’s hands and feet are decorated with henna, occurs a few days before the wedding night. Today, it is common for the bride’s relatives to organize a lavish gathering where female guests are presented with precious gifts and a large feast is held. While the men’s celebration can be more modest in scale, the gatherings tend to involve a large variety of traditional dishes.
illii ysiir blayya ‘ziimah yargid blayya frash
He who goes uninvited will sleep without a mattress.
Gist: This proverb urges people not to expect much if they force themselves onto a situation. or try to impose themselves on others. Another version of this proverb goes: illi yi-yii bilya da’ii yi-lis bilya frash. Another version is illi ma yinzigir ma yitwaayeb which means ‘He who is not invited is not going to be fully served’.
In Islamic societies, no excuse will be entertained if one is declining an invitation. If an uninvited person accompanies one who is invited, they should seek the host’s permission first.
In the UAE, warm hospitality reflects one’s generosity, courtesy and intimacy within the community. Emirati households make sure that the majlis or ‘reception area’ is always perfumed with incense and Oud and is prepared for the guests’ arrival. People invited to a majlis are expected to remove their shoes at the entrance. Men and women will be seated in separate areas. It is important to stand up when outsiders and older or higher-ranking people make an entry.
When greeting a Muslim person of the opposite sex, it is customary to refrain from shaking hands unless they extend their hand first. Both genders may not be comfortable with shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Conversations normally start by inquiring about the guests’ and their relatives’ well-being, which deepens the amicable bonds within the larger community.
Serving coffee with cardamom and other ingredients is an essential component of a hospitable reception for guests in Emirati households. It is also customary to serve ‘al fuwaalah, which consists of fruits, sweets and crackers which are served to guests before the coffee is poured preceding the dinner.
People are expected to accept the food and drinks that are served and to consume them using the right hand.
illi ma yani fi-shidda la 3adatin lah fir-rakha
Literal translation: He who did not visit me at times of hardship, no need for him at ease, or a friend in need is a friend indeed.
Gist: A true friend is one who gives you a hand when you are in need of help. There is another version of the proverb: illi ma zaarni w-diyar mkhiifeh la merheba beh w-diyar ‘amaan meaning ‘He (who) did not visit me when (our) houses were scary, he is not welcomed when the houses are safe’.
The term, shadd yshidd can carry different meanings:
1. To pull, or drag. The word shidda can mean ‘hard times’, or shaddni min ‘abaati could mean ‘He pulled me from my cloak’.
2. To tie together, to tie up. HaT ghraTHah foug THahr l-hmar w shad-ha could mean ‘He put his things on the donkey’s back and tied it up’.
3. To bring together, to muster. Shidd heilek w-dris zein could mean ‘Pull your strength and study hard’.
Ish-shams ma tighaTa b-khams
Literal translation: The sun cannot be covered with five (fingers).
Gist: A proverb addressed to someone, usually an enemy, to mean that regardless of the injustice, the truth will ultimately be revealed and the guilty will pay the price. Also, some may say, bibay-yin l-horr m-lborr, which means ‘Gold will show (be distinguished) from wheat’. Comparing gold with wheat may have a relationship with the fact that they both have the same colour and they are so valuable for their owners. They were also two products that were often traded in the Arabian peninsula.
Idha tikhaawa l-gaTo wil-faar wa kharaab d-daar
Literal translation: If the cat and mouse become friends, the house will be a mess.
Gist: This proverb is said to describe the warming ties between two ill-mannered persons, which may cause negative impact on the surroundings they live in. Someone may shout the proverb anytime the names of the two ill-mannered persons are mentioned.
Adhaarii tisgi (tisji) l-b’iid w tkhalli l-griib (l-jeriib)
Literal translation: ‘adhaarii waters the remote and forgets the closer
‘ein ‘adhaarii is a well-known water spring that irrigates palm trees planted miles away but fails to provide water to those that are in its immediate surrounding. This water spring has become a metaphor for people who favour distant acquaintances, forgetting the closer and more deserving [people they know].
There is another proverb that carries a similar meaning: ‘ala Sobah w yo’aan w ‘ala l sharii’a w ‘aTshaan,
“Sitting beside a big pile of dates and being hungry: sitting beside the water and being thirsty.” Some people only use a portion of this proverb by saying: ‘ala sharii’a w meyyit ‘aTash, “Sitting beside the water and he is dead thirsty.” Some Emiratis also say: ‘aw-wana w hataata be’iid, “A tall palm tree that feeds the far (instead the ones standing under it).” There is also a common phrase among Arabs: ‘al-‘aqrabuuna ‘awla fil ma’ruuf, “Charity begins at home.” The term khalli, “let, keep, be, make” is an imperative that can be used with or without an attached pronoun to produce different meanings:
1. With an attached pronoun + adjective
khallik m’addab | Be polite.
2. With an attached pronoun + adverb
khallik fi l-beit| Stay in the house!
3. With an attached pronoun + human noun (make, let, have someone do something, allow)
khalli rbii’ek yiylis wyaana | Allow your friend to sit with us.
4. Without an attached pronoun + non-human (keep, leave)
khalli idduularaat wyaak | Keep the dollars with you.
5. With an attached pronoun + a verb (make, have, let)
khallih ywalli | Let him go.
Galbi ‘ala bni ‘infeTer w-galb bnayya ‘alay-ya ‘ashadd min l-hajar
Literal translation: My heart goes out for my son like fire, and my son’s heart goes out for me harder than a stone
This proverb describes the heartbreaking reality of children’s love for their parents never matching the latter’s endless devotion to the former.
Yet’allem l-hsaaneh fii ruus-l meyaaniin
Literal translation: He learns barbering on crazy people’s heads
Another meaning: The blind leading the blind
This proverb describes opportunists who always attempt to make use of others. It can also refer to people who learn how to perform a skill or a profession by practising it on others. There is a story behind this proverb. It is said that one of the Ottoman rulers was in need of money and ordered his tax collectors to collect from the rich people. A wealthy man thought of a way to avoid paying the taxes: he hid his money in a safe place and declared bankruptcy. He began working as a barber, cutting the hair of poor people and passers-by without charging them any money and would tell people that he did this service for the sake of God. Other rich people who knew him from before used to pass by him and say the above proverb. Poor people would come in multitudes to have their hair cut. The Ottoman ruler eventually lifted the tax collection from the rich, so the stingy man quit cutting hair and went back to being rich.
WaSeit mai wistefaadet maydah w-yaleit
mai ma yabeta l-waaldah
Literal translation: I advised Mai, and Mayadah got the benefit (of the advice) and I wish Mai had never been born (to her mother)
This proverb is said when someone invests in a person (it can be a son, daughter, friend) but it ends up as a waste of time and money. In addition, someone else may be reaping the benefits of such an investment instead. There is a story behind this proverb. Mai was the only daughter of a rich merchant to whom her mother brought the best teachers in order to teach her the different sciences and for her to become a well-educated woman. Mayadah was Mai’s poor neighbour and best friend and the two girls used to spend the whole day together. Mayadah would also sit in the class with Mai when Mai’s teachers came to give their lesson. On the day of the exams, however, Mai had retained no knowledge while Mayadah answered all the questions correctly. Mai’s mother was very upset about her daughter’s failure and, sadly, said the above words.
‘imTaarha aind ‘ithmaarha
Literal translation: The true good of rain is when we see trees’ fruits
In the UAE, the weather tends to be very warm and humid. July and August are considered to be the hottest months of the year and temperatures may reach the high 40 degree Celsius (104 F). In both January and February, the average temperature is 10-14 C (50-57 F). Meanwhile, the average rainfall in the coastal region is less than 120mm (4.7 inches), but it increases in mountain areas where it reaches almost 350mm (13.8 inches). During the summer months, rain in the coastal areas sometimes brings floods in valley beds. Occasionally, the region experiences severe dust storms which brings down visibility. Emirati people rejoice when rain falls and they exchange congratulatory messages by saying: ‘mabruuk aleikom ‘ar-rahmah’ which means ‘Congratulations for the mercy’.
Emirati people consider rain as a type of mercy sent from God and as a sign that the harvest will be abundant. They mean that the true good of rain is when we see trees rich with fruits. At times, rain falls far away from cultivated areas and as a result, it is of no benefit to the plants.
Literal translation: Your tongue is your horse
Other meanings: Think twice before you speak
Or: Rein in your tongue
This proverb urges someone to watch carefully what he or she says, since words are a reflection of one’s image. Some say: “‘ihfeTH lisaanek w khal n-naas Sidgaanek” (Watch what you say and befriend people). Others say: “leit regebti regbet b’iir ‘agaayis l-chelmeh w-na ‘asiir” (I wish I had the length of the camel’s neck so that I could measure the word while walking). Finally, Emiratis also say, “min gaal ‘akthar chan ‘akhsar” (He (who) talks more, loses more).
ma ye’ref reTni ‘illa wild beTni
Literal translation: No one understands my talk except the child who comes out of my stomach
Other meaning: He picks it up fast (the meaning)
This proverb describes the high level of understanding between two people who share a strong bond or kinship. Their closeness allows them to understand the needs of the other without one of them speaking about it.
aedher ‘aqbah min dhenb
An excuse is worse than the fault
This proverb describes persons guilty of aggravating their offence by coming up with a silly excuse or justification. There is a short story behind this proverb: Once upon a time, a king hired a jester for the entertainment of his court. One day, the king ordered the jester to make a mistake, and then to come up with a lame excuse. While the king was sitting alone in the garden of his palace, the jester sneaked up behind him and slapped the king on the back of his neck. The king became extremely mad at him and he shouted in his face, “You idiot! How could you do this to me?”
The jester replied in a quiet tone, “Sorry, Your Majesty, I thought that you were the Queen.” The king became more angry, but the jester said to him, “Was that not what you ordered me to do? This excuse is worse than the fault, isn’t it?”
haw-wid gabel tidkhel
Knock on the door before entering
This proverb urges people to knock on the door when visiting others before entering a majlis or a house. A person should knock three times and pause after each time. If no one responds, then that person should leave. In the UAE, in order to avoid accidental encounters with female members of the family, male guests never enter the house before the host indicates that it is fine to enter. The host tells the guest ‘houd’ in a voice loud enough for the women to hear. A member of the household replies with the word ‘heda’, indicating that the way is clear for the guest to enter.
‘iSber aala Tiin lein yliin
Wait for the mud till it becomes soft
It requires patience; good things come to those who wait.
This expression reminds an individual of the virtues of patience. When one is patient, everything happens in the right way and things come together in the harmony they are meant to.
Another proverb is also used: daraj daraj w-’ala Allah l-faraj, which means’ ‘Step by step, God will bring relief.’ People also say, ‘iSabir miftah l-faraj, which means, ‘Patience is the key to a happy ending’.
Aind l-buTuun ti’mal-’yuun
Literal translation: Where stomachs are concerned, minds are lost
Other meaning: Fat paunches have lean pates
Gist: This proverb describes a situation wherein a person’s rationality and wisdom are overpowered by extreme hunger.
Hospitality plays a major role in UAE society and is integral to its customs. Firstly, guests should always arrive slightly later than the time agreed upon rather than earlier. Then, as part of Islamic tradition, people eat with their right hand and will often sit on the floor. Emiratis will not place their feet on a foot rest, or cross their legs since it is considered rude to show the soles of one’s feet in any way. They usually welcome their guests with dates and qahwah, or Arabic coffee, which are offered on arrival and are available to the guests throughout their visit.
Emirati cuisine is a blend of many Middle Eastern and South Asian culinary influences. Many people erroneously believe that Levantine dishes, such as shawarma, hummus, tabouleh and mixed grill, which are served in restaurants in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, constitute Emirati cuisine. Meat, fish and rice are the core ingredients in Emirati cuisine. Lamb and mutton are the more favoured meats followed by camel meat, and finally beef. For drinks, they prepare coffee and tea with cardamom, saffron, or mint. Breakfast often includes breads like regag, khamiir and chebab, served with cheese, date syrup, or eggs. Sweet options include lugaimat balls rolled in sesame seeds and drizzled with date syrup.
Other desserts include khabisa, or flour bread crumbs blended with sugar, cardamom and saffron.
Min yTiih l-yemel kithret sichaa-chiineh
Literal translation: When the camel falls down, the butchers are abundant
Other meaning: When the tree falls, one runs to get his axe
Gist: This proverb describes a situation when someone makes a mistake or gets into trouble, and consequently, faces blame and severe criticism from others. In this context, the butchers seizing the opportunity to slaughter the fallen animal is an allusion to the fact that the downfall of others prompts many to take advantage of their plight.
il-yayaat akthar min isayraat
The arriving ones (chances) are more than the departing ones
This proverb is said to encourage people to seize the opportunities, to be optimistic [in life] and to keep their spirits up at all times.
The following story is linked to this particular proverb that demonstrates the importance of always looking to the bright side of life. A fisherman wanted to teach his son how to be patient and never lose hope. One day, he asked his son to go to the sea and count the incoming waves. That day, there was a strong tide and the boy returned to his father and said to him: “All the waves were moving backwards, what was I supposed to count?”
The father replied: “Do not say such a thing, dear son. Rather, you need to say that the coming ones [waves] are more than the departing ones.”
illi bil-jidir ytalla’ah l-mallaas
What is (hidden) in the pot will be (visible) to the ladle
This proverb reminds one that only time will reveal the good and the evil in one’s souls.
It is also said: ysiddek mentherii a’n mekhberii, which means “It is enough (for you) to look at me in order to know what is inside me”.
There is also another common saying: ya maakil ‘id-diich foug rasek riish, “O’ you who ate the rooster, you have feather on top of your head.” Another proverb that carries a similar meaning is: ‘idha begheit a’ounah barrij fii lounah’, which translates as “If you want his help, look carefully at his face (in order to understand his inner hidden feeling.)”
‘illii ma lah ‘awwal, ma lah taali
He who has no past has no future
This proverb describes a person who pretends to be, for example, loyal and sincere after he has proven to be otherwise. People also say, ‘lii ma lah jidiim ma lah yidiid’, which means ‘He who has no old has no new.’
In the Emirati dialect, there are many common expressions that contain the word ‘aw-wal’ (‘beginning’) like: min ‘il ‘aw-wal, “from the beginning,” ‘aw-walan, “first of all,” ‘aw-wal shai, “the first thing,” ‘aw-wal mar-rah, “the first time,” and ‘aw-wal ‘ams, “the day before yesterday.”
‘il-khishaash ytiih w-lbisr yt’alleg
The unripe dates fall off and the good dates remain clinging
‘al-khishaash is a weak and rotten date that falls off the palm tree before it reaches maturation and ‘albisr is the healthy date fruit before it ripens.
The proverb is said to indicate that performing good deeds will forever be remembered, while spreading evil will lead to failure. Furthermore, good persons are not easily tempted to deviate from the right path but evil ones will eventually stumble and fall.
This proverb is also chanted in a popular game practised across the UAE by young children. A group of kids hold hands and start moving in a circle, pulling their friends with strength until one falls down and thus breaks the circle, at which point he or she leaves the game. The game continues until only two players remain and the referee announces the winner from the two players.
l-ism shaayi’ w-l batin yaayi’
The name is famous (but) the stomach is empty
This proverb is said to anyone who boasts of their wealth when, in reality, they are poor and helpless. It can also be said of people who bear honourable names but whose personal character does not live up to such an honour.
The following proverb has the same meaning: ‘ishiifa shiifa wil-ma’aani the’iifa, which means “Looking good from outside, weak from inside.”
People also say a similar proverb: yshuuf ‘in-nakhl w-la yidrii bid-dakhl, which means “He sees the [many] palm trees but is unaware of the income.”
This proverb urges someone not to assume that the owner of palm trees is the richest and luckiest since he could be the poorest if his palm trees do not produce fruitful dates.
ya ghariib kuun a’diib
O’ stranger! Be polite!
This proverb urges a stranger to behave and act politely. People also say: kill daar A’eT-ha dellha wella ‘akhyar sir w-khellha, “Give each country [you visit] its share of respect, otherwise, walk away and leave it.”
In the UAE, the word ‘ar-rasm’ means “tradition,” and the Emirati people highly value their customs and values. They say, gaT’ likhshuum w-la tark ‘irrsuum, which when translated means, “Rather cut the nose than abandon the customs.”
il-khonfos fii e’in ummah ghazaal
In the eye of his mother a beetle is a gazelle
‘as-sibaal fii aein ‘ummah ghazaal
In the eye of his mother a monkey is a gazelle
Other meanings: ‘All her geese are swans’ or ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’
This proverb applies to anything seen as valuable by its owner, even if it is not as valuable as he or she assumes. For instance, mothers have a tendency to see their children with their hearts rather than with their eyes, viewing them favourably even when he or she is not the most beautiful one. In Arab culture, the reference to the gazelle is used in different poems and literature as a symbol of beauty. When this symbol of beauty is contrasted with the beetle or a monkey, the comparison between the two becomes clear. Another proverb that carries similar meaning is, ‘Diyayit-hum faras’ (‘Their chicken is a mare’).
There is a short story behind this proverb: When a rooster is accidentally killed by someone, the rooster’s owner rushes to the judge weeping and crying. “The deceased rooster used to wake us up for prayer and laid eggs that we used to eat,” he laments. The judge laughs as he understands that the man is only exaggerating [the importance of the rooster] in order to get the highest compensation for his loss because how can a rooster ever lay an egg?
saam zidd l-liyaali w-fTer A’ala SafSuuf
He fasted the most rewarding nights, and then broke his fast with a small bird.
This proverb describes a situation when a man works hard and tirelessly without expecting or obtaining any substantial profit.
During Ramadan, Muslims break their fast at sunset by eating dates, following the example or sunna of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and then enjoy the iftar feast with family, friends and the entire community of believers. However, a person would not be able to replenish all their strength when only eating a small bird.
In collaboration with Naseer Isleem. He is a senior Arabic language lecturer at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD). His book, Popular Proverbs: An Entrance to Emirati Culture was published in May this year.