It must be a skill, like fishing, to cast your net into a river of dreams and catch a splendid array of words.

Leila Ahmed, Lyrics Alley


Generosity of Spirit: 5 Wonderfully Expressive Egyptian Phrases

Arabic is a remarkably expressive language in which many words and phrases often have no English equivalents by virtue of their reflection on the values and wisdoms specific to speakers of the language. While many are available and vary from one Arabic speaking country to the other, many acquire a cross-border popularity. In addition to the many quirks and humorous expressions used by Arabic speakers, there are also several wonderfully expressive phrases most particularly heard and used in Egypt. Whereas we tend to think of generosity as entailing more materialistic gestures, these phrases denote a different type of generosity- that of the spirit.

1. Na’eeman (نعيماً):
Usually said to someone after they shave, get a haircut or take a shower, the term is derived of the Arabic words ne’ma (نعمة) and na’eem (نعيم) (blessing and paradise) and is used to sort of congratulate someone on looking cleaner or fresher.

2. Nom Al-Awafi (نوم العوافي):
Where nom means sleep and awafi “wellness,” the term is used to wish someone a sleep free of the type of anxiety or illness that prevents one from a peaceful rest.

3. Kol Sana Wenta Tayeb/ Wenti Tayeba (كل سنة وإنتا طيب):
A phrase said on birthdays as well as religious and seasonal holidays. It translates into something akin to “may you remain well each year.”

4. Ghali W Al-Talab Rkhees (غالي و الطلب رخيص):
Whereas ghali (غالي) and rkhees (رخيص) (literally meaning expensive and cheap) are antonyms, the term is used when one is asked for a favor as a way of saying that any favor is affordable for the sake of a person as valuable as you are.

5. Rabena ye5aleek (ربنا يخليك):
This phrase literally translates into “may God keep you” or preserve the goodness one sees in you.

Humans of Everywhere

Humans of Beirut. Humans of Cairo. Humans of Karachi. Humans of Cardiff. And even, Humans of Planet Earth. By now, we all not only know of the brainchild of 29 year old photographer Brandon Stanton-Humans of New York- we also know of the hundreds of spinoffs from the now viral street photo-blog. The idea is brilliantly simple: grab a camera, take to the streets and capture photos and random stories from random people.

We can all also see the appeal behind this idea. It is the notion that we can associate our lives- our struggles, failures and dreams- with the narratives of people as ordinary as ourselves. This has long been the secret behind street art.

And again like in most social media platforms, we can see the manner in which issues of racism, gender and class all play out, albeit on a platform in which we are talking about ordinary characters with tangible profiles as opposed to more fluid narratives. The process continues to repeat itself: a picture is posted, a stream of racist comment appears and another stream of replies ensues.

Examples include a photo of a man identified as Patrick Dougher, whose quote read, “My dad was just a working class Irish dude. He drank himself to death when I was fifteen, but he was a good dad when he was sober. I remember him taking me to a gay wedding on Christopher Street to teach me tolerance. And that was back in 1971.” When the photo was first posted, the first few comments read things like, “Irish?” “Irish huh I wouldn’t have guessed that,” and “he is the least Irish looking person I have seen.”

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Another featured the photo of an Egyptian man who said, “America is good but Egypt is my home” and even with a caption as simple as this, many commentators responded by “go back.”

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Of course, the redemption here is that comments like these have not escaped criticism.

And yet the question we ought to be asking is, how much progress are we making on the ground in terms of breaking stereotypes and paving way for the more critical view on things? How real are these battles outside the internet?

One analysis of the manner in which we have come to use the internet that I have found intriguing is a video named “The Innovation of Loneliness,” taken from a TED talk by Sherry Turkle. While the main idea of the analysis is that the more we have come to “connect” online, the less actual human interaction we have, we can see its relevance to the social media debates such as those showcased on the Humans of Wherever pages.

How much critique are we capable of offline?

The irony here is that I am using the same platform to present this idea. But my intention is to cast questions whose reflections can be manifested elsewhere, in encounters, conversations, and in the realm of the “real” that has rendered projects like Humans of New York the appeal that it has now.

Narratives of Dissent and Conformity

Perhaps more than prayer, television series (musalsalat) have become the single most distinguished feature of Ramadan for the past few years. If you miss the TV ads, a drive through Cairo is enough to acquaint you with the faces of this season’s soaps. And just as this is hardly a new phenomenon, the same old and tired questions continue to be probed with every beginning of the holy month.

How obscene are the topics?

How can we adapt the content to the spirit of the holy month?

Of course, the range of series available each year will always provide one answer or the other to these queries. And yet it is a third question that appears to be more relevant now than ever.

Are we projecting reality?

For several years now, the answer has been, for the most part, a hesitant yes. The “realist” trend in Egyptian art found its precedents in the work of Taha Hussein and Tawfik El-Hakim’s establishment of colloquial Arabic in the 1930s and later in Naguib Mahfouz’s literature and was in turn, inherited by directors such as Salah Abu-Seif, Youssef Chahine, Tawfiq Salah and later Shadi Abd el Salam as well as critics such as Samir Farid and Sami Al-Salamony, who come together in constitution of a politically conscious cinema that continues producing films conscious to the reality of the Egyptian street.

Whether Abdel Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak, the production of art has continued to influence and be influenced by power dynamics. And thus while the inclination towards politics in film production is nothing new, it is the musalsalat that have noticeably taken a similar turn towards politics since January 25.

In 2011, we saw that several series sought to present narratives at the heart of, and favorable to the Egyptian uprising. And yet thousands of users called for the boycott of many of these soaps. Two examples include Samara, whose lead actress, Ghada Abdel Raziq, has publicly condemned the revolution and Adam, starring Tamer Hosni, who was famously kicked out of Tahrir Square.

What is interesting here is that as opposed to settling for the mere notion that reality was being represented; viewers were interacting with and questioning the very representation of that reality. Whether it is questioning the figures that seek to represent it or the very ideals and concept being projected, we find this a concurrent trend since Jan 25.

One of the biggest hits last year was Al-Da’eya (The Preacher). The series narrates the story of Youssef (starred by Hany Salama), a young sheikh whose television preaching has brought him fame, wealth and a lavish villa in which the struggle between religious fundamentalism and moderate interpretations of Islam plays out. Thus for example, Youssef lashes out at his younger sister Marwa for bringing home a birthday cake (“Muslims should celebrate only religious holidays”), he rejects the man Marwa wants to marry because he’s an actor (haram) and when he discovers that another younger sister is secretly playing the violin (haram, again), he smashes it to pieces. Youssef eventually rediscovers both his love for music and moderate Islam as he falls in love with Nesma (actress Basma), a passionate activist and violinist.

Yet while the character of Youssef may arguably “be the most nuanced depiction of political Islam on the screen to date,” the series’ finale does not stray far from old and tired suggestions for outright policing of religious fundamentalism. The closing scene features Youssef attending one of Nesma’s performances at the Cairo Opera House while antagonist sheikh Ali seats himself a few meters away. Just as he whips out a silent gun and aims for Youssef, the police silently rush in time to arrest him.

Of course, these ideals coincided neatly with the events preceding and following June 30.

This year, we hear that the series Ahl Eskenderia (The People of Alexandria) has allegedly been prevented from screening by the security apparatus for its coverage of the January 25 revolution and focus on the corruption of a police officer in Alexandria. With that, and in light of everything else going on, the prospects of freedom of expression seem drastically low.

And yet at the end of the day, the production of knowledge and art will both continue to be influenced and manipulated by power. These dynamics mean that in addition to asking ourselves whether we are presenting reality, how we are presenting it and who is doing the presentation, we need to push for and create the spaces in which to share alternative narratives.

Remembering Om Al-Donya

The first time I remember questioning what being Egyptian meant was about fourteen years ago when, standing in the kitchen of our Gaborone home I asked my mother, “Mama, are we more black or white?”

Having grown up in a place where the remnant tensions leftover by Apartheid were still very real even to children as young as nine years of age, the question of whether I was more white, black or colored (to use the terms of the time) constantly gnawed at my mind. At school, I would always be part of the somewhat ambiguous category of the “Arab kids”- a group made up of Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians and others that were not really Arab at all but whose features put everybody at loss for categorization.

At home, my parents did their best to avoid the question. Whether this was because they did not actually have an answer or did not want to be the ones to fling me into the bickers at school, I never knew. What was certain was that while they insisted that we were wheat colored– which is a term many Egyptians still use- their main focus was on instilling in me the knowledge of and love for Cairo- home.

And it was through their recollections that I soon came to hear the phrase om al-donya.

And so my questions shifted.

Why is Egypt called Om Al-Donya (Mother of the World)?

Perhaps the most famous answer to this question is that it “is the oldest civilization of the world” and yet to most om al-donya is a much more evasive concept. It is the memory of the calls of the karawan at dusk and the melodies of Om Kalthoum’s Ya Sabah El-Kheir and Mohamed Kandil’s Ya Helw Sabah ringing flowing through the city’s streets each morning. It is the recollection of an era during which the chivalry (gad3ana) of the Egyptian accounted more for its labeling as om al-donya than history.   It is the remembrance of a state of mind and time in which there was to life a certain quality of music- a rhythm that made up the ordinary fabric of everyday living.

By the time we moved to the Gambia several years later, Egyptian became no longer a vague identity that was both geographically and politically far off. The existence of a large community of “Arabs” meant that I came to think of myself as Egyptian (masreya) as opposed to part of something bigger. For the first time, I came to hear my Arabic as Egyptian Arabic. I recognized certain quirks as Egyptian humor.

My affection and attachment to the city grew through my parents’ narratives especially that my own knowledge of Cairo was limited to short vacations through which I saw very little of the city that is now my home.

When I moved back to Egypt to start my university degree, I was stunned by how little remained of the city that has been constructed in my mind for so long because the truth is, Cairo is a difficult place. It is easy to slip into endless complaints about the usual things: the traffic, the noise and the pollution. And yet what struck me most was that the dreariness which the city had come to accept its own injustices. For years, it seemed to me that to live in Cairo was to internalize the notion that you had to be on one side of some kind of privilege or the other.

And then came January 25. The single most vivid memory and dear memory of the revolution to my heart was the sound of “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time, we have missed you” reverberating within my chest as I watched brows contract and mouths outstretch with a unity that I had never seen before and through which I regained my sense of belonging to the space that I had felt had been robbed of its sense of shared humanity.

But until now, I find that no words can unpack the remnants of three years of triumph and defeat, of dreams and downfalls, of the sheer contradiction bred on Cairo’s streets. It seems that now most headlines and literature on Egypt reflect a dichotomy in which you are either lead to believe that there is no hope in the country or to believe in a false sense of progress.

As time wears on, my motivation for starting this blog was the need to create a space in which narratives, experiences and visions from and about the city can be shared. A space in which we can move beyond than this dichotomy.

A place to remember Om Al-Donya.

In And Out of Place

This week features a piece by Sara Salem, a PhD scholar based in Cairo.

Throughout my life I have gone through different phases in terms of relating to where I am from or where I belong. Growing up in Zambia with an Egyptian father and Dutch mother meant that a restless feeling of not quite being settled was always part of my life. During my teenage years I remember this expressing itself as a dramatic quest to find out “who I am” and “where I belong”—something that should probably be attributed to the fiction I liked to read or drama shows I liked to watch rather than some universal human need to belong somewhere. I quickly grew out of that and the question didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. When I was 16, I moved to Egypt, when I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands, and for now I live in California. There were times, of course, when I did think about where I felt more comfortable (Egypt), where I had the most numerous memories (Zambia) and where I felt more out of place (the Netherlands). But these were isolated thoughts, not part of some pattern of not-belonging, and so I didn’t pay attention to them or see myself as going through some life-long identity crisis.

Kafue, Zambia

Kafue, Zambia

It was during my time in the Netherlands when something shifted and I started to think about identity(ies) again. It was a combination of my deepening interest in feminism and postcolonialism, as well as an intense homesickness I felt for Egypt, that made me slowly start thinking about where I belong and where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. The homesickness I was feeling made me interrogate it because of its intensity. Why Egypt and not Zambia? Was I romanticizing Egypt? Was I trying to create some bond with it that was more fictive than real? And I think because of how intensely I felt, I slowly began to be more critical of myself and my position in Egypt. Put simply: I didn’t grow up there. It felt like half of the time, there were so many subtleties and intricate details of everyday life that I just didn’t know because I hadn’t been there. Language, symbols, movies, songs—it seemed like everything was just out of reach.

And could I really call myself Egyptian if I didn’t know these things?

But this, too, passed. The question of belonging comes and goes. In some contexts it gets amplified, in others it becomes unimportant: it is always relational. And of course in many instances being from different places is an amazing experience to have. You see the world differently and in many ways I know that I believe in the things I do because I have had multiple experiences of living in places that are very different from each other. And because of that, the ups and downs of feeling out of place are completely worth it. There is something to be said about not just traveling but actually living in different countries, and seeing details change over time. Political details, social details, personal details. And in the end it becomes so easy and necessary to connect everything: how is what is happening in Zambia and Egypt similar, and how is that related to a British colonial past and a neocolonial present? And more interestingly, how and why is what happened in Egypt different from what happened in Zambia? How is the Netherlands part of this, and how do all of these details tie into a global hierarchy? All of this is not just political or abstract, but also personal. These histories and relations affect anybody living in these contexts.

In these multiple journeys I have found that literature in particular has helped me navigate many of the questions surrounding identity. Edward Said’s autobiography, of course, has been among the most influential in terms of dealing with being “out of place.” Memoirs in general serve as poignant reminders of the ways in which many others often share the questions we face. Whether it was Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage or Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed: A Memoir, stories and experiences of people I can relate to have been very important. More recently Chimamanda Adichie’s work has also been enlightening and comforting, as she broaches topics that are so familiar despite her own contexts being those of Nigeria and the United States. The extensive literature found in postcolonial studies, fact or fiction, has also been vital in trying to understand the different identities I have and the ways in which these are influenced by history, by politics, and by people.

So does this mean that “home” is wherever your loved ones are? I wish it were that simple, but I don’t think it is. Home is complicated because so many things go into creating it. I feel most at home in Egypt, where my family home is, where I’ve spent my most formative years, and where I simply can’t imagine not living. But there are also (many) moments of doubt and many instances of feeling out of place in Egypt. That’s probably something I will feel anywhere, and so it doesn’t bother me too much anymore. In a world where nationalism has come to play such a decisive and important role, often negative, it’s probably best to also see the many benefits of not quite belonging.


Follow Sara at @saramsalem