A person holding a feather – CC via Pixabay/MariaGodfrida A person holding a feather – CC via Pixabay/MariaGodfrida

Stories behind 9 of Egypt’s colloquial proverbs

Wed, May. 16, 2018
CAIRO – 16 May 2018: Every language and culture has its own collection of wise sayings. These proverbs present advice, ideas, principles and values that have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Nowadays, idioms are a part of everyone’s daily routine throughout the world, especially in Egypt.

Arabic idiomatic expressions reflect the wisdom and beauty of the Arabic language, and they depict a general truth that has been realized over generations of experience, representing a sensible view of the entire world.

Many Egyptians use idioms without knowing the wonderful stories behind them. While some Egyptian proverbs are based on actual stories, others have been made up to express a certain idea in specific situations.

1 - Zucchini

In Arabic: hiya kussa

English equivalent: on the clout list

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Zucchini, September 3, 2014 - Wikimedia/MikeMozart

Egyptians use this proverb for referring to corruption, favoritism and nepotism, and especially when a rule does not apply to all people.

The story of this proverb dates back to the Mamluk era. All the gates of the Cairo were closed at night, and everyone was prevented from entering. Therefore, all people had to wait out until the morning to enter, except zucchini merchants because their vegetable goes bad quickly.

This exception angered the other traders because the law did not ensure equality between them. One night, the guards allowed zucchini merchant to cross the gate, so one of the angry merchants yelled “it is zucchini,” explaining to those helplessly watching some traders crossing and others not that the fortunate ones carry zucchini.

Hence, Egyptians inherited the idiom of “zucchini” and repeat it when they see any corruption or illegal acts.

2 – Entering a bathroom is not like leaving it

In Arabic: Dukhul el hamam mesh zay khurugu

English equivalent: to be in deep water

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Emergency exit WC sign, March 31, 2007 - Wikimedia/Hendrike

During the Ottoman era in Egypt, a man decided to open a new Turkish bathhouse. To attract many customers; he wrote on a placard that entering the bath was free.

Therefore, a large number of people rushed in blindly, but when the customers finished and decided to leave, the owner completely refused to return the customers’ clothes until they paid a fee for using the bath.

The customers argued that the placard stated they could enter for free. He then replied: “entering the bath is not like leaving it.” From this moment onwards, the bathroom owner’s response became an Egyptian idiom; Egyptians use this idiom when someone gets involved in a dilemma and is unable to get out of it as easily.

3 – We buried it together

In Arabic: Dafnino sawa

English equivalent: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too or read the riot act

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Two donkeys - CC via Pixabay/JACLOU-DL

Once upon a time, two merchants had a donkey and they overloaded it with work, so they named it “Abo El Sabr” (the father of patience) due to its endurance. One day, their donkey died and they cried a lot. Then, they decided to appreciate the donkey’s efforts and buried it appropriately. The two merchants sat next to the donkey’s grave every day and cried until people noticed their grief.

People asked them about the reason for their sadness. They responded, “Abo El Sabr died; he was a symbol goodness, bliss, helpfulness and mercy," so people thought that they spoke about a holy person or Sheikh.

Overnight, the two merchants built a mausoleum over the donkey’s grave, and people began collecting offerings, gifts and presents for “Sheikh Abo El Sabr.”

A few years later, one of these merchants took the entire amount of gifts collected without splitting them in half; the other merchant threatened to complain to Sheikh Abo El Sabr. His partner laughed and said: “who is Abo El Sabr? We buried him together, remember?” Nowadays, people use the proverb when someone tries to trick and deceive his accomplice.

4 – Those who feared shame, died

In Arabic: Elli ekhtashu mato

English equivalent: No morals

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A house burns-Wikimedia/Kpahor

Egyptians repeat this saying to complain about people who have no shame.

People during the Ottoman era used firewood, timber, wood and sawdust to heat the bathroom floor and water. One day, a fire erupted in one of the women’s bathrooms.

The majority of women rushed to flee from the fire without wearing their clothes, whereas others who were shy preferred death over escaping while naked.

When the owner of the bathroom asked if anyone had died, the doorman told him: “those who feared shame, died.”

5 – The co-wife is sour, even if she is a jar

In Arabic: El-durra murra hatta law kanet garra

English equivalent: A jealous woman will set a whole house on fire

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An illustration of two women fighting in the street – CC via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the most popular idioms in the Middle East, especially when a husband gets married for a second time.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who asked her husband to marry another to be able to have children, as she was infertile. However, her husband refused because he knew that jealousy and fights might erupt between the two wives.

The husband agreed due to his wife’s insistence, but he told her that he would marry a foreign woman to minimize problems that might occur. After a while, he returned to his house with a human-sized pottery jar and dressed it in women’s clothes. He then put the jar in his bedroom and told his first wife he would introduce her to his new wife after he returned from his work.

The husband went to work and when he came back, his first wife told him she was humiliated and insulted by his second wife. Therefore, he beat the jar of pottery until it broke and his wife recognized the truth. She then told him: “the co-wife is sour, even if she is a jar.”

6 - He, who does not know, says lentil

In Arabic: Ele maye’rafsh ye’oul ads

English equivalent: Can’t see the forest for the trees

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Red lentils spilling out of a jar - Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

People use this proverb when they attempt to explain the truth of an idea to others who do not believe it and see it from a different perspective.

There was once a thief who stole money from a legume merchant. Running away, the thief stumbled into a sack of lentils, causing the lentils to scatter everywhere.

Hence, people thought that the thief had stolen some lentils due to hunger, so they blamed the legume merchant for his “cruelty” and they let the thief escape. The merchant said: “he, who does not know, says lentil.”

7 – A monkey is a deer in its mother’s eyes

In Arabic: El-erd fe ein ommo ghazal

English equivalent: A face only a mother could love

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A monkey embraces its mother – CC via Wikimedia Commons

Egyptians say this idiom to criticize people with clearly biased opinions; for example, when people mock someone who admires the beauty or work of someone who actually does not deserve the praise.

The story of this idiom was written by the Greek storyteller, Aesop; he wrote a lot of stories and fairy tales for children in order to teach them moral lessons.

One of Aesop's stories told the tale of the king of the forest who commanded a competition to choose the most beautiful animal in the jungle and to give a prize for the winner. The contest comprised a lion with its cub, a peacock with its young, a cat with its kitten, a zebra with its foal and a deer with its fawn.

However, at the end of the competition, all the attendees were surprised when they saw a monkey with her infant participating in the contest. The attendees tried to convince the monkey to withdraw from the competition, but the monkey completely refused and tried to convince the others that her young is beautiful. The king laughed and said: “a monkey is a deer in its mother’s eyes.”

8 – He, who has a vial on his head, touches it

In Arabic: Ely 3ala rasu bat7a ye7ases 3aliha

English equivalent: Red handed

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A person holds a feather – CC via Pixabay/MariaGodfrida

This idiom is usually used when people are talking in general about a topic, and then someone becomes annoyed and goes on to defend himself.

Long ago, a man lived alone in a small village and raised chickens, but he observed that the number of his chickens was decreasing, so he went to a sheikh at the mosque and complained to him.

The next day, the sheikh decided to gather the villagers to give them a sermon about honesty. During his speech, he referred to the man’s chickens that had been stolen. The sheikh ended his sermon by saying: “I discovered the thief, as he forgot to remove the feather from his head.” A man automatically hurried to clean his head, revealing he was the thief. In time, Egyptians replaced the “feather” with a “vial,” which in turn has been given a different meaning to be a “head injury.” The usage of the idiom remained the same.

9 – Came back with Hunain’s shoes

In Arabic: A’ad be khufain Hunain

English equivalent: to come to grief

People say this idiom when they fail to do or achieve something.

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An illustration of a pair of leather clogs – CC via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, there was a renowned shoemaker in Al Hirah, Iraq, named Hunain, and people came to him from all over the world due to his skill and experience in making high-quality shoes.

One day, a traveler riding a camel stopped in front of Hunain’s shop. The traveler admired Hunain's shoes and started asking him about the price. After much bargaining, they never reached an agreement, and the traveler began talking down to Hunain.

Hunain got annoyed by the traveler’s behavior, especially that Hunain's customers left because they saw him preoccupied with the traveler, so Hunain did not sell anything.

Hunain decided to get back at this traveler by stealing his camel and everything loaded on it. He went on a side road and threw one shoe on the road and a few meters away he put the other shoe.

During the traveler way, he saw a shoe but he did not care because the other shoe was missing. After a short distance, the traveler found the second show. Therefore, the traveler left his camel and went to collect the shoes from the road, which allowed Hunain to steal the camel. When the traveler returned to his home, his relative asked him about his camel and all the things he purchased during his travel. The traveler said: “I returned with Hunain’s shoes.”
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