As a second-generation nuss-nuss (“half n’ half”) Arab American who is Lebanese and German, it was only in my adult life that I took a keen interest in my grandparents’ language.
I took a standard Arabic course in Seattle, then traveled to Lebanon to learn the spoken language, only to be evacuated in the summer of 2006 when bombs started dropping on Beirut during a brief war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Four years later, I found a comfortable space to learn Arabic in Syria, living with another nuss-nuss, studying with a tutor, and practicing my street language skills while traveling the countryside by bicycle.
But mostly, the context that I grew up learning Arabic was in the house and with relatives. Their words carried a great amount of love. And if for the majority of my life, I only knew five Arabic words and they made it to my generation, I figure, they’re probably pretty good words!
If only we had these five in English:
Men eating to their “two-healths” — or sahtein — in Damascus.
I suspect many of you have had the experience of sitting next to someone having a coughing fit and were not sure what to say.
“Bless you” — like for a sneeze — doesn’t quite cut it.
Put simply, saha means “health.” What made its use unique for me — and I realize not all Arabic speakers use it this way — is its application for a cough.
Later in life, I learned saha can be used much more extensively and was even self-duplicating in the version of sahtein, or “two-healths,” used at meal time to wish good eating, to which the eater replies ala-albeck or “to your heart.”
The author filming on the go with his young friend on bike in Aleppo, Syria.
As a kid I had no idea that yallah was Arabic, I just knew that I was late.
Used as liberally in Tel Aviv as Amman (so I’ve heard), this playful word lets you know it’s time to get a move on. It has been adapted for modern times; give “yallah-bye” a try to end a phone call like you were born cruising the Corniche in Beirut.
Yallah, let’s get onto the next word already!
In my family, smallah is often accompanied by pinches on the cheek and “you’re getting big” comments. Smallah is often used in praise of a baby or something pretty darn cute, but also means “hold the envy” and “save the evil eye.” Amazing how something so complex — expressing both adoration and lack of spite — can be encompassed in one word.
True story: the author saw this elder at a cafe in Damascus.
Apparently wallah is much more common around town, but I grew up hearing wallah. Wallah in 1990s American TV English is something like “for real, though” or more plainly, “I swear.”
Is there a way to affirm with greater confidence the utter truth and assurance of your statement then following it by wallah? I think not.
Use it with conviction, and the occasional wink.
Can you imagine the heat I would get for leaving out this gem?
“God willing” I suppose is the literal transition, but it means so much more.
It’s a word that’s used widely by the passive-aggressive or flaky friend who can’t commit to something (“inshallah”), it can be used with true heart and hope, (“inshallah!”), or how about just honest to goodness uncertainty (“inshallah?”).
Khalas. That’s a wrap! — my half-Lebanese American version of Arabic’s best, that is.
Let’s have my favorite Syrian-American bilingual hip-hop artist take us out.