Dan Azzi
November 2018


Swearing and Proverbs as a Window to Lebanese Culture

Dan AzziDan Azzi

(Originally published in An-Nahar November 12, 2018)

I was out in a bar the other day. My friends were drinking heavily, unlike me, because last time I got drunk, I woke up the next day married. This affliction curses me with being alert and aware of other people’s actions, while they unwind and loosen up. So they were having massive amounts of fun, playfully swearing at each other, laughing at jokes I couldn’t understand, while I slipped into a reverie and got to thinking. You can understand a lot about a culture from their expletives. Not surprisingly, many contain sexual innuendo, usually directed at females. In Arabic, they revolve a lot about the mother, sister, and certain organs of theirs, relative to yours.

America has evolved from the old days in which they would make a reference to your mother’s promiscuity, to recently, in which the criticism would be leveled at your actions towards someone else’s mother.

One of the worst swear words in Sweden, arguably one of the most civilized countries in the world, is “Jävla.” Roughly translated it means “devil” which in Lebanon is a term of endearment reserved for your favorite child.

When I lived in Hong Kong years ago, I discovered that the worst Chinese expression is cursing you to the 18th generation — quite a long time to hold a grudge — almost as long as a feud in Zgharta.

Of course, there’s also the tone and presentation. When an Italian person curses, frankly, it sounds like a rap rendition of an opera and you’re not sure if you’re being insulted or serenaded. On the other hand, if you get cursed in Arabic, even if you don’t speak one word, its guttural sounds which sound like the Klingon language from Star Trek, leave you no doubt that you’ve got a problem.

My nomination for the Cursing Oscars is an old Yiddish one: “May all his teeth fall out, except the ones that hurt.”

If you want to understand Lebanon more, start by examining the idioms. For example, the term “nouveau riche” is a derogatory term here, distinguishing between recently acquired and inherited wealth.

The other day I met with someone who described herself as elite. The funny part is that she was from a bland neighborhood in Achrafieh, with old buildings, still riddled with bullet holes, because their occupants are not willing or able to repair them. The apartments there were old-style, with no ensuite bathroom. In fact the toilet flushed though a chain hanging from the ceiling, basically a hole in the ground (“Arabic toilet” as some of you might remember). However, after all these shiny new glass towers were built, suddenly these old buildings were located in “Beverly Hills” and people like her started to really believe that they were part of the elite.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “nouveau riche” as “a person newly rich.” Simple as that. In America, you might also call him a “self-made” man, which is one of the most complimentary descriptions you can give a person there. But in Lebanon — nope — a person who was born in the lucky sperm club is to be revered. Thus, someone who did nothing, achieved nothing, but happened to inherit a fortune from daddy, is admired. Mind you, daddy himself may have inherited from granddaddy, or even made the money illegitimately, but that doesn’t seem to matter for the purposes of positioning in the societal pecking order.

Proponents of this term believe the nouveau-riche are tacky in their ostentatious display of newly acquired wealth, like the requisite Rolex watch or Chanel bag, ubiquitous in any of the fancy downtown restaurants. So most members of both the nouveau and vieux riches display their wealth through “signée“ trinkets and ornaments. The only difference is that new money just doesn’t know how to wear the same brand in a subtle manner, because it takes that “je ne sais quoi” to wear a Rolex and still look humble … or so they believe. The paradox is that if you ever run into a rich person who doesn’t care about conspicuous consumption, they would be labeled an even worse term in our culture – “bakhil” or miser.

A common compliment in Lebanon is to say someone comes from a “beit siesi 3ariq” or “a deep-rooted, ingrained political family,” as Claude el Khal, pointed out in a Facebook post years ago. Most people seem to miss the flaw in this line of thinking — that in a democracy, someone should never be entitled to his position, through a combination of his birthright and the reservation of a particular post to his sect.

An amusing anecdote illustrating this happened during a meeting at a prestigious public institution years ago. All the senior posts are distributed by sect: Maronite, Sunni, Shi’a, Armenian, etc. To answer your probable question if you’re not Lebanese, yes, when Armenians immigrated to Lebanon a century ago, they metamorphosed from a nationality into a religion.

Anyway, here’s my recollection of the conversation with one of the senior folks who wanted to offer me a job:

Him: “What religion are you?”

Me (surprised by the intrusive question): “Umm. I’m not really that religious.”

Him: “Yes, but what were you born?”

Me: “I was born Christian.”

Him: “Which denomination?”

Me (getting more uptight): “Maronite.”

Him: “Ah, OK, I think we could maybe place you in position X.”

Me (recalling the cliché “Willing to relocate for the right opportunity”): “But I’m willing to convert for the right opportunity.”

Not convinced? OK. Here are my ineloquent attempts at translating some local idioms and proverbs:

Any wonder there are so few women in positions of authority in the public or private sector? My friend, from earlier, aspires to be part of this spoiled, entitled elite, who inherited all their wealth and power. Next time your building loses its electric current or you see trash dumped all around you, or in the sea, and you wonder why twenty-eight years after the war, the government still hasn’t solved these simple problems, like every other respectable country, think about this: Your political representative, who’s supposed to be accountable to you, feels entitled to his position and will always get elected … by you … because he’s one of the vieux riches.

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