As most of you know, Angie and I lived in Jordan for almost fifteen years. We studied Arabic and became fairly fluent. We loved learning Arabic phrases and idioms that communicated thoughts and ideas better than any literal use of language could. In fact, some of the phrases were so unique to Arabic that we continue to use them interspersed with English comments when English words just won’t do!
Recently my father-in-law shared an article with my son about Arabic phrases Deric Gruen wishes we had in English (see his post here). Of the five he listed I regularly used three when I was in the Middle East – saha (صحة used for sneezes, coughs or just to wish “health” for a person); yallah (يلا let’s go; time to get moving); insha’allah (إن شاء الله “if God wills” – used a lot in various ways). But the article got me thinking about my favorite words and phrases I wish we had an English equivalent for…
1. hayk (هيك)= “that’s the way it is” – This is an all-time favorite. Imagine your child asking you one of those questions you don’t want to answer, instead of getting mad and yelling, “Because I said so!” wouldn’t it be better to be able to say, in a calm, cool voice, “Hayk.” That’s just the way it is. Or when you’re in geometry class and you don’t want to do the proof…”hayk” (ok, that one might not gain you any points).
2. ya halla (يا هلا) = “welcome” or “make yourself at home” – This is actually a contraction of the more formal ‘ahlan wa sahlan (أهلاً وسهلاً) which is used all the time in the Arabic world where hospitality is a virtue and obligation. It has the idea that you are part of the family and our home is wide open to you. So while English has a way to say “welcome”, we don’t have the rich invitation and warmth behind the word. Granted, even the Arabic word can be said as a formality, without the heart of it, but that’s true of any language. I always loved the depth and the beauty of the idea that when I say ya halla, I am welcoming you in a significant way.
3. ma’laysh (معليش)= “don’t worry about it” or “no big deal” – I’m not entirely sure of it’s origins. I’ve heard it’s a contraction of three words, but don’t know. It is colloquial so not usually written. Anyway, ma’laysh is a multi-purpose phrase that can be used to tell someone the spilled milk is no big deal or to ask permission to do something…you don’t mind, do you? It can also take on the equivalent of, “meh, whatever.” Very versatile word!
4. haram (حرام)= “shameful” or “forbidden” – It is used to describe things that shouldn’t be done or eaten. But it has come to be used in unfortunate situations to describe things that shouldn’t be. Somebody is sick? Haram. Someone lost a job? Haram. Someone cheated me? Haram on him/her! (shame on him/her…and maybe me…)
5. ‘akeed (أكيد)= “definitely” or “for sure” – This is sort of the antithesis of insha’allah which often takes on a “hopefully” sort of air. ‘akeed leaves no doubt. When Angie and I would schedule an appointment with an Arab and they’d say, “‘insha’allah” we would often say, “Not ‘insha’allah, ‘akeed! to convey the point that this needed to happen. It wasn’t always effective, but it often brought a chuckle and got our message across.
Those are my favorites…but for those who are Arabic speakers, what Arabic words do you wish had English equivalents?
Last time I shared three of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned from Arab culture. Perhaps I’ll share more another time. Today my friend Mark encouraged me to share a few of the ways that living in the Middle East has made the Bible come alive to me. The parables of Jesus especially jump off the page when one understands the cultural context which is still so much a part of the Middle East. The first example will be longer but I’ll include a two shorter ones too.
1. Luke 11:5-13
5 And he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples], “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
As a westerner reading this passage, the first thing I think strange is that anyone would go to visit his friend at midnight. Who would do that? Come spend time in the hot Middle Eastern sun and you will quickly realize that walking long distances during the day was often not an option. As a result, people also were more apt to take an afternoon nap when the sun was its hottest and then to stay up late when the evening air cooled off. This is one of my favorite things in Jordan. No matter how hot the day may be, in the evening there is inevitably a nice breeze and one can sit on his/her porch until very late enjoying the company of friends and family.
The second thing that strikes my western mind as odd is that the fellow at the door asks for three loaves of bread. Only one meal in the Middle East will show you that bread is the most fundamental element of any meal. Especially in Jesus’ day, one would have used bread instead of a fork or spoon. It was essential. And in a village where there may have been just one oven to bake bread for all the families, you knew who had baked bread that day. It would have been unthinkable to set before your guest a partial piece of pita or stale bread…no, you would go to your neighbor who had just baked and ask for a few loaves.
Someone in the west might argue, “Couldn’t they wait until morning? Wouldn’t they be tired? Why not just go to sleep?” But in Middle Eastern culture, if you are in my home I must offer you something to eat and drink and you must accept. For either of us to refuse would be unthinkable.
Now, from my western mind, the man inside the home is completely justified to not get up and give his neighbor the bread. But that’s my twenty-first century American mindset. Again, in this part of the world, especially in that day, if the man refuses to get up and give his friend the bread, the seeker would go to his neighbor and say, “Can you believe Abu Fulan over there? He wouldn’t even give me three loaves of bread…and his wife just baked this morning!” And by morning, everyone in the village would know and the man inside would be shamed. His reputation would be established as a stingy, inhospitable, rude, inconsiderate so-and-so.
In verse 8, Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” Kenneth Bailey in his excellent work Poet and Peasant (Eerdmans, 1976) points out that the word translated “persistence” means literally “persistence in avoiding shame” (pp. 125ff). In a Middle Eastern culture where avoiding shame is the highest virtue, the parable becomes clear. The man inside will get up to help the man asking, not because they are friends, but because he will persist in avoiding shame. He will do the right thing and he will do more (whatever he needs).
And now the parable makes sense…we can approach God and knock on his door in prayer knowing that his character is such that he will do everything in his unlimited power to avoid shame. Therefore we should ask, seek, and knock because it will be given, we will find, and it will be opened to us.
11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? None of us would do that to our children we love…in the same way – and even more! God will not do that to us! We can pray knowing that his character is perfect; he will do what is right! 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Reading this parable in its cultural context makes it come to life. I love that my Jordanian and Arab friends can read this parable and understand its context innately.
2. Jeremiah 2:12-13
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Water is a precious commodity here in the desert. Fresh water especially so. But since springs are often hard to come by people and communities often collect water in cisterns (or nowadays, dams!). This is good and helpful for the summer months when it doesn’t rain and springs run dry, but the water from cisterns isn’t fresh; it often tastes funny; and it certainly smells funny! If you had the choice between a fountain of living water or a cistern, you would always choose the freely flowing fountain of water.
But God’s people had committed two evils. They had left God, the source of pure, living water and run after manmade thoughts and false gods (broken cisterns that leaked!). Unthinkable…yet something we as humans do far, far too often. But living in the Middle East where water is such an issue, the passage comes to life!
3. Jude 1:12
Jude writes about false teachers who were trying to infect the church with their false doctrines. He speaks harshly about them and calls them…waterless clouds, swept along by winds…
Growing up in the Midwestern United States, rain could come nine months out of the year. The other three it was so cold, we would get snow. When I saw clouds on the horizon, more often than not I hoped they wouldn’t bring rain. I wasn’t opposed to rain, but I took it for granted. It rained a lot. If I had a picnic planned or just wanted to be outside playing, I wanted waterless clouds.
Living in Jordan where it might rain between November and April – and even then there might be long periods between rains – I have learned that rain is a precious commodity. When I see clouds in the sky, I get excited because it might rain! Waterless clouds are incredibly disappointing. They offer so much promise that the land will be nourished but then they bring nothing of value. They are a waste.
Jude is telling us that false teachers are like waterless clouds. They promise much – teaching that is edifying and useful – but they deliver nothing. They do not bring life, but death. For someone in the Middle East this is a vivid picture and one that continues to haunt me since the first time its full weight hit me.
Arab culture differs in many ways from the American culture I was raised in. Much of it still retains values we see of biblical cultures in the Old and New Testaments. As I was reflecting on Arab culture and my experiences recently I was reminded of three ways Arab culture has encouraged me in my walk with Jesus.
1. Even before we moved to Jordan, we knew how important it is in Arab culture to host and visit friends. Initially we did not have many Arabs come to visit us, but we enjoyed taking time to get to know neighbors and others we came in contact with in their homes. Often we would take flowers or chocolate or some small gift to thank them for their hospitality. Sometimes we would take a gift that was wrapped or was in a nice bag – perhaps some candles or dish towels. As our children began to make friends at school, they were invited to birthday parties and would, of course, take a gift for the birthday girl or boy.
We began to notice a pattern. If we were visiting a family they would take our gift and set it aside. They would say thank you, but would not open it. We would not hear about it again during the visit though often they would thank us later. At birthday parties, all the gifts would sit on a table in the corner, unopened. Even as guests began leaving, no one moved to open them and no one seemed to object.
When we asked our friends about this we learned it would be shameful, in Arab culture, to open a gift in front of the giver. To do such a thing would be to say that you treasure the gift more than the giver. Instead, the gift is set aside so the hosts can give their guests their full and undivided attention.
I’ve often thought of that in relationship to Christ. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Sometimes I catch myself treasuring the gifts more than the God who gives them. He also said we should “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all (the things we need) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). I want to be a man whose treasure is Jesus. I want to be like Mary, delighted to sit at Jesus’ feet and just be with him. Somehow I know that if that’s the case…whether I have the stuff or not really won’t matter. But wouldn’t it be sad to gain all the stuff and lose what’s most important?
2. When we visit friends, inevitably they make enough food to feed a small army. It’s way, way more than we could possibly eat. Even if they are dirt poor, they go above and beyond what would be expected to provide a feast fit for a king.
Naturally we thank them profusely and tell them how amazingly delicious the food is (even if on rare occasions it isn’t!). In response they always say to us, “في بس الواجب ما” which means essentially, “We’ve only done our obligation.” Now at first this seemed sort of offensive. Us: “Thanks for the amazing meal! It was great!” Them: “We only did what we had to. No big deal.” But as we learned more about Arab culture, we realized that we were hearing them through our American filters…what they were really saying was, “We are so honored to have you visit, this was the least we could do. It’s our delight to do this, but you deserve even more!”
Jesus said in Luke 17:10: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” This isn’t an incredibly popular verse. But I think it points to the same truth that our Arab friends live out when we visit…namely, when you have someone worthy of honor before you, everything you do is the least you can do. It should be our joy and our delight to give all we have and do all we can for God…not treat it like dull drudgery. And the beauty is that he is not a hard taskmaster, but a loving Father and he will bless us for our obedience.
3. Arab culture puts a premium on relationships. Relationships trump task more times than not. For Americans, this can be frustrating at times. We call someone on the phone and we want to get right to the point. Our Arab friends call and they want to find out how our family is – wife, kids, parents, siblings. They want to know about my work. They want to know about my health. Eventually, they will get to the point of their call. But more important – like the giver and the gift – is the relationship. To me, the conversation can seem like a colossal waste of time…to them I am incredibly rude if I don’t ask these questions of them.
I’ve learned, at least in this culture, I am rude when I make the task more important than the relationship. I should ask more about their family and friends and health and work. The relationship is more important. I can wait to find out the information I need, but my friend should know I care. To not call a friend regularly to check in, to see someone from across the street and not walk over to shake hands and greet them, to stop by to borrow something and not sit down for a few minutes for a cup of tea…it all says that my relationship with this person is not significant.
Do I bring that attitude to my relationship with God? Jesus prayed in John 17:3 saying, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” He defined eternal life as a relationship – knowing the one true God and Jesus. How do I approach that relationship? How often do I sit and just “be” with Jesus? Do I linger in his presence and do the spiritual equivalent of asking about his family etc.? Do I listen? Or do I just read a few verses, give a few orders (um, I mean prayers) and hurry off to do the Lord’s work? Does my life reflect that my relationship with Jesus is the most important thing to me? I definitely need to set specific time to sit in his presence and interact through prayer, listening, reading etc. but I also need to tune my heart to walk with him throughout the day…to center my life around Him and let Jesus be the heart of all I do and am.
No culture is perfect. Each has positive things and negative things. I am thankful for the time I’ve had here in Jordan and the way living here has brought much of the Bible to life. I’m also thankful for so many friends who have allowed our family into their lives and for the many lessons we’ve learned and continue to learn through them and their culture.