Reflections on Language and Culture: Egypt

peopleIf the connection between language and culture interests any of you, then you may enjoy reading this. I decided to write it down just so I would have it, but then thought that I should share it with everyone too in case any of you may find it interesting as well.

If anyone is interested in the interconnectedness between language and culture, it is readily apparent in Middle Eastern cultures. In the time that I have been here in Egypt, I have come across the usage of two phrases in particular that are used with, what to me is, astonishing frequency. The two phrases which I speak of are insha’Allah and hamdulaley (I have no idea if that is the right transliteration or not, but that is what they sound like to me.) For those that don’t know, the phrase insha’Allah is probably best translated as “God willing” and the phrase hamdulaley is probably along the lines of “praise God.” Both these phrases are used by everybody in Egypt that I’ve met, whether the person is Egyptian or a foreigner, a Muslim or a Christian, probably even the Buddhists and atheists here use the phrases. It is not the fact that the phrases are used, however, which is so unique, but the circumstances to which the phrases are applied.

I will begin with hamdulaley because it is used to a lesser extent than the other. There are two places in particular that I found this phrase to be used which were both surprising and interesting to me. The first situation is when someone is complementing someone on pretty much anything. I first heard it used in this situation when I was buying postcards with a friend and co-worker who has been here in Egypt for some time. He was chatting with the seller in Arabic, and the seller was commenting on how good my friend’s Arabic was, to which my friend replied “ah hamdulaley.” I particularly liked this usage because it is less egotistical and moves the focus away from what a smart person you are which simply saying “thank you” can denote. The second usage which I now use very often is when someone offers you more food after you have eaten your fill (which will happen almost every meal) and instead of saying “no thank you” you can once again simply say “hamdulaley” and they will desist from the offer. I suppose in this case it means “praise God, I am full.”

abbeyThe word insha’Allah is used in a truly remarkable number of diverse circumstances. In fact almost anything anyone says regarding the future will be followed by insha’Allah. For the most part I enjoy the usage of this phrase because it seems to really be true. In fact I have been using the phrase since before I even arrived in Egypt. I’ve often seen that even the best laid plans can and often do go wrong, (especially if you travel a lot) and so the mentality behind insha’Allah is that we really don’t have much control in the end over the future. Although perhaps this just divulges my slightly fatalistic leanings : ) . Regardless if you agree with the mentality, however, you may be interested in some of the places which it is used.

The first time that I was somewhat confused by the phrase was in regards to traveling by public transportation. I was using the Metro in Cairo and attempting to go to a stop called Mubarak. I wasn’t quite sure what stop we were at, and so I turned to the person next to me and asked him in Arabic if the next stop was Mubarak, to which he replied, “insha’Allah.” I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. I wasn’t sure if he was saying that “God willing” I will arrive at my destination soon, or if he was actually saying that only if God wills it will the next station still be Mubarak by the time we get there. I learned later on that apparently it was the latter option, the stations are only still in the same order as last time if it is God’s will. From what I hear there is actually a joke in other parts of the Middle East about the linguistic piety of the Egyptians in particular. The joke goes something along the lines of, “if you ask an Egyptian what his name is he will say [Ahmed] insha’Allah.”

templeThe reason that I decided to write about this subject now is because for one it has been fascinating to me to see it used over the time since I have been here, but for another I was watching a football match today and the commentators made me chuckle. Egypt was playing a World Cup qualifier match and it was half way through the second half with Egypt up 2-0 and clearly dominating the game. I’m not sure if the team they were playing had even had any shots at goal at all. So the commentators were exuberantly gushing about how well Egypt was playing and how strong they looked out there and they kept saying things like. “Egypt is playing so well today they will certainly win this game, insha’Allah.” And, “there is no hope of catching Egypt now, insha’Allah.”

There is also a funny story of just how ingrained it becomes in people who are not Egyptian as well. The same friend (M) who I first heard use hamdulaley instead of ‘thank you’ went on a trip with another co-worker to Israel/Palestine. The other friend (J) is soon to be engaged with an Egyptian woman (insha’Allah) and uses Arabic almost exclusively in his day to day life and has done so for the past 2 and a half years. As they were walking up to the border with Israel they were discussing how they shouldn’t use any Arabic because it might raise some questions about them and could possibly get them turned away from entering Israel. So they agreed to only speak English, and M (who told me this story) was thinking in his head that J would surely slip up and switch to Arabic because he is so used to only speaking Arabic. They got up to the border guards who started asking them questions like what is your purpose here, where are you coming from etc. When they asked them how long they were planning on staying, M replied, “till Sunday, insha’Allah.” The border guard immediately looked up at him and said, “you know Arabic huh?” And the process ended up taking M over two hours to cross the border whereas it took only five minutes for J. I guess the moral of the story is once you start thinking insha’Allah its hard to think any other way.

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