Posts in Arab culture

Among only ladies again

This time I was invited to a traditional Arabic, more specifically a “hijazi” restaurant. Twice a week, the place is reserved for ladies only. And so 8 of us gathered in colorful seats and sofas: from the USA, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Slovenia.

We were treating ourselves with dates over Arabic coffee and tea, the afternoon turned into evening and the tables around us were steadily filled with other groups of girls and women. From noticeably “western” to a mix of locals, the hall was bursting with life along with a small fountain positioned in center of the room.

There were no scarves and veils between us as one would expect outside in the street. In fact, it is very difficult to guess which of the ladies, for example, wears the niqab, because the latter, together with the abayas and scarves, is left at the reception.

a tall arabic coffee pot with small ceramic cups with oriental sofas in the background
- Among only ladies again
Traditional arabic coffee serving

As we were served our last course on a platter of traditional delicacies from the Hijaz region, which includes the city of Jeddah as well, a blonde woman in an extravagant dress with an animal print walked in. A vivacious lady who I am sure demands and receives all the attention in any room she enters. She greeted her company of friends and every now and then circled the room, sitting down at one table and then the other.

When our time together was almost over, she approached us.

“Do you speak Arabic or English?” She measured us with a smile and curious eyes. Such a diverse company is not something one sees every day even in this vibrant society. But she focused her gaze on me most of the time.

Something piqued her curiosity. Something about me stood out in her book, and she had to uncover this secret.

“Where are ‘you’ from?” She popped the question with her finger pointed at me, right after we explained that we are from all over and that we speak English, and some also speak Arabic.

“From Slovenia,” I answer and immediately notice a smile widening on her face.

“Oh yeah, how are ya? I’m from Montenegro! ”

In an instant, I switch to my broken Serbo-Croatian and turn on that Balkan spark, I get up to hug her without hesitation.

I admit, after such a long time, I was caught unprepared in the social wilderness. I was this close to crying. Luckily I didn’t!

We exchanged a few more words alone and then took each other’s phone number to stay in touch.

“You have to come visit me! I have a pool you know, and another house in Mecca. You and your husband are both welcome!”

What a day! What an adventure.

Ladies only Cafe

Ladies only cafe. After a year and a half of living in Jeddah, I visited one for the first time.

Saudi Arabia still has it’s infamous separate entrances in some restaurants; this means entrance for families and entrance for singles. According to a basically unwritten rule, only men enter the singles sections, whereas families, couples and women in groups or alone enter elsewhere.

It has been some time now that the separated entrances and sections are no longer legally required. But why change something out of the blue if people are used to something and it suits them? After all, certain amount of money needs to be invested in renovating the buildings themselves.

And let’s not forget, “ordinary” mixed cafes and restaurants have been part of the scene in Saudi for quite a while.

But why shouldn’t there still be spaces only for ladies who, for religious, cultural or other reasons, do not take off their veils, scarves and / or long sleeves in public? Where they can let their hair down and enjoy a cup of coffee with their friends outside of their own homes.

Last week, I gladly accepted the invitation of my American friend Aileen, who has been living in Saudi Arabia with her Egyptian husband for the past 5 years.

How was it, you ask? Pleasant! Relaxing. We drank iced tea, nibbled on vegan chocolate cupcakes and chatted about cats for 2 hours.

What’s in a name? The Peanut Story

Peanut is not an actual nut. It’s a legume. We’ve all heard that before.

It also had different names throughout history. Ground nut, pindar, monkey nut … Those are the English versions. But did you know the peanut not only had, but still has an existing infamous name in some Arabic speaking regions of the world — specifically some countries of the Levant?

A few months ago, my husband and I had one of our debates on racism in the environment we come from and the one we are living in today. We sat on a terrace of a Lebanese restaurant, enjoying their famous cheese pies, which are our favorite go-to delicacy when we don’t feel like preparing food at home.

“Racism is legally prosecuted here in Saudi Arabia. If not for reasons stemming from the teachings of Islam, then certainly because many Saudis are black,” Tamer explained to me.

“But surely there is prejudice and intolerance, just like in any society. You’re not going to say there’s no racism here!”

He replied with a smile, “Of course there is. In such a crowd of expatriates from all over the world, in a mixture of hundreds of cultural backgrounds … I can think of an example right this instance, as we are having this labnah pie with zaatar. You know what they call peanuts in the Levant?”

Slave nuts.

My jaw dropped upon hearing those two words. Tamer went on to explain how peanuts are the “nuts of slaves” because the Levant region imported this crop (and still does today) from countries with a majority of black population, more specifically from Sudan. If you, dear reader, have any shadow of doubt about the intent behind this name, read on.

Based on the example of the Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia), I can report the following: Peanuts are called Ful Sudani, translated to “Sudanese nuts” (or legumes for the correct term) in Arabic in the markets of these countries.

Those who came across my lenghty article titled Sudanese menu (a few posts back) may remember that Sudanese households always have ful to serve. What I have in mind, of course, are the fava beans, cooked, sometimes mashed, and they are a must for breakfast, sometimes dinner. From this we can easily conclude that Arabic speakers classify peanuts more appropriately as legumes, as they place them in the same family along with the beans. The “Sudanese” legume is one that has a specific national reputation in Arab countries, and the English speaking part of the world knows it as a peanut.

But how do Sudanese differentiate between beans and peanuts? If my attempt of a linguistic discussion has not yet deterred you and you are not afraid of further complications, I invite you to read on.

In Sudan, in everyday conversation fava beans are called ful. In formal speaking situations or when it is necessary to distinguish between the two legumes, they name it Ful Misri (فول مصري). The secret lies in the Arabic name of the country of Egypt (مِصر; Misr). Simply put, fava beans are therefore “Egyptian legumes”, whereas peanuts are “Sudanese”. And since language puzzles can be even more mind boggling and thus more interesting, you will be happy to know that Sudanese, of course, do not call their legumes Ful Sudani.

Tamer remembers how, in his early youth, small bags of peanuts were always sold by old ladies during school recess. This is how the snack came to be known as the “old ladies’ nuts” (فول حاجّات; Ful Hajjat). The old lady/woman (حاجّه; hajjah) and old man (حاج; hajj) in this case derive from the Muslim custom of pilgrimage to Mecca (حج; hajj); the journey is mostly done by older people and so in Sudan it is customary to address senior gentlemen and senior ladies affectionately but at the same time respectfully with hajj and hajjah.

Ful Hajjat packed in small bags at a street vendor in Sudan

From the lovely “old ladies’ nuts” in Sudan, we head back to the Levant area. There, slave nuts are present both in everyday conversation and news on television and online. Don’t believe me? Type فول العبيد (pronunciation Ful Al Abeed) into your browser. The results may surprise you. Of course, there are none if we start looking in English. Yet in Arabic, one comes across many pages which handle the name of the legume in question with a complete devil-may-care attitude. Let me come to your aid by attaching this video from YouTube.

Title of the video from Syria: Start of harvest season of the Slave nut in the northern countryside of Hama, amid a decline in production compared to previous years.

بدء موسم حصاد فستق العبيد بريف حماة الشمالي وسط ضعف في الإنتاج عن السنوات السابقة

تحذير: قد يحتوي الفيديو على مشاهد مؤلمة لا تناسب الجميع ولا ينصح لأصحاب القلوب الضعيفة بمشاهدته، والمقطع ليس لصدم المشاهدين وليس للتشجيع على العنف، هو لنقل …

I also came across this photo on Facebook, the author of which, of course, was horrified by the packaging in which the peanuts were packed. The writing in Arabic says فستق عبيد which literally translates to Slaves’ nut. Photo was, according to its author, taken in Lebanon.

Photo posted on Facebook in May 2020:
https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=858455687974533&id=100014303280427

For a more pleasant conclusion, I can also use the Slovenian name – pronounced arasheed. According to our dictionary quotations (see this article in Slovene), the name came through the French language (arachide) from New Latin (arachid) and further back from Greek (arákhidna), meaning “lentil-like peas”. However, when I mentioned the peanut name in Slovene to Tamer, he hurried to explain to me enthusiastically that in Arabic there is the same sounding word Ar-Rashid (الرشيد; Al-Rashid), which means wise man. Although in this case there is no objection to our experts in etymology, we often wonder and sometimes laugh at the language bridges between Arabic and Slovene. These bridges lead to new worlds, spread knowledge and bring awareness of the paths we as a society have yet to traverse.

Dear / Sister

One of the things in Saudi Arabia that makes me pull out my (in)famous eye roll?

When someone addresses me in English with “sister”. Better said, keeps addressing me. All the time. “Sister this”, “sister that” … Last time I caught myself muttering to myself again that we’re not in a convent full of nuns to be going on and on with this sister business.

Of course, this is in truth an honestly kind gesture. In the Islamic world, it is used to address anyone, even in formal situations: at the post office, in the hospital, in the supermarket …

From Arabic, the terms are actually literally translated into “my sister” and “my brother”. Tamer says it sounds very unifying in the original language.

In English and Slovene, however, so much gets lost in translation. The possesive pronoun “my” disappears and at the same time it sounds a little strange. At least to me.

The reality is, that a good part of my communication is limited to writing, since nobody goes out much these days; so I am faced with being a “sister” mostly on Facebook and in text messages.

In addition to “sister,” I’m even more allergic to the word, which is mostly used by expat ladies from Pakistan; they simply love to use “dear” at the start or end of their sentences and they reign supreme in all the chat forums.

Slovenian language simply cannot convert this nuance of charm, in a formal conversation or basically any stranger. In my head, it translates as totally condescending, patronizing.

Each time, I have to distance myself and decipher the purpose of the message in addition to my second language.

Have you ever faced a similar language predicament? When something just doesn’t work in your native language and sounds so insincere …?

Scented Smoke

“Would you like some bakhour …?”

When Tamer asks me this, my answer is always, “Yes!”

It fits perfectly especially when we tidy up the apartment and then there’s only one thing left to do: this traditional incense. We have quite a supply from Sudan, all natural mixtures of sandalwood covered with oils and sugar, and fragrant resin.

When he lit a little bit of bakhour, for the first time since my arrival in Saudi Arabia, I quickly sensed the smoke with a sweet aroma, and exclaimed: “Sudan!” It smelled like Sudan.

Of course, bakhour is a traditional Arabian incense which is famous and popular in the North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Saudis also have their own concoctions with perhaps slightly different admixtures.

So we can be worry-free when we run out of our fragrant treasures. We will simply go to the local market and gather new ones.

golden plated bakhoor burner, different kind of incense around it in bowls

Tie your camel

A while ago I’ve read this old saying in Arabic, which is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. “Trust in god, but tie your camel.”
It immediately made an impression on me and I easily pinned it in my mind for later. It felt so simple and practical to me, positive in some way, encouraging.

Regardless of one’s religion or cultural background, I am certain that we can see it as an example when we are considering our own abilities and intelligence. We can achieve so many things with what we are already given. Don’t you agree?

Have you heard of this saying before ?
Do you know any other saying or proverb that is close to this Arabic one?

I invite you to share your own view on this “tied camel” saying. You are most welcome to also share some other saying that may be close to your heart and inspires you with optimism.

Abaya

– Do you know Al Bawadi?
– We always just drive by, but I haven’t been there yet.

My new friend Zahwa from Sri Lanka proceeds to tell me that they have all sorts of abayas at that market, practically the same ones as in shopping malls, only cheaper. And scarves and tunics, dresses …

Abaya is the most common women’s outerwear in Saudi Arabia. Anyone in the West may just think that we practically wear robes here. “How much money can one actually spend on a plain robe?”

Well, if we are talking about a completely ordinary black abaya without decorations, the prices start at 10 €, from 20 to 30 € for the more beautiful ones, with patterns, with pockets, colorful ones … The prices of designer abayas in boutiques go sky high. In shopping malls, prices really turned out to be inflated, and bargaining is not that much of an option there. So I suggested with glee that we go to Al Bawadi together soon.

This was my first experience here at a market without my husband by my side. I didn’t even think I might have any problems on the way. “I’m going to get one of those fancy abayas,” I said to myself. “And I already know how to bargain a little.”

We arrived to Al Bawadi, where Zahwa quickly reminded me I should get ready for loud invitations from the shops. But nothing could have prepared me for what was waiting for us around the corner. Indeed, every salesman did his best to lure us to his stall. In Arabic, in English, out loud, almost too close, behind us after we already passed …

I found one at the third or fourth stall. Beautifully patterned abaya with a belt and fringes at the bottom. Boho style, modern! I haven’t had one of those yet. It cured my “abaya fever”. For a while … And I even managed to bargain for a reasonable price.

After that things almost got out of hands. Two more scarves, a smaller purse (I really needed it), sunglasses (I also need those every day), and in the end one more abaya-like-cardigan in royal blue. This will be for receiving guests or visiting friends.

Zahwa reassured me that I managed to haggle for a fair price at just about every vendor, and that nobody ripped me off. So I may have been right for a reason: there was nothing to worry about how I would manage alone at a market in Saudi Arabia. I already know a thing or two after all!

Bazaar

Bazaar. Oh how I missed it! ❤️ Which is kind of weird for me because I don’t usually do well with crowds. Apparently, the long-lasting social distancing pushed me in another direction. People from of all over, a variety of goods, carpets, fragrances and, last but not least, moving stalls on wheels, swaying under all the colorful vegetables. And the noise, which is not noise at all. Every seller is trying to invite customers, “Merhaba” and other greetings are heard, some are shouting their prices like at an auction, while… Read More

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Alhamdulillah

When you find yourself lost for words in Arabic when someone asks you how you’re doing … Alhamdulillah is always the right choice; you get out of the predicament and at the same time you may give the impression of a more worldly and sophisticated person. Literally translated, it means thank God, as we all say in our own language.

When you listen to Queen out loud in the car, you sing bis-mil-lah in harmony with them as their Bohemian Rhapsody is playing … So you know what to say when your Arab friends invite you for dinner and you may go: “Bismillah” before your first bite. Translated: in the name of god. Interestingly, bismillah is also to be said before we put on new shoes or a new piece of clothing.

When a friend from Egypt complains to you about how much it hurts after her wisdom tooth was pulled out, all you can say is that everything will be fine, inshallah. Because you wish for it and believe it will be. The saying, however, means “by the will of God.”

When you arrive to Sudan and all these curious aunties at the airport ask what you are doing there and you tell them that you have come for your own wedding … “Mashallah. Mashallah. Mashallah.” These words have been kindly said to me with blessings countless times and it sounds so beautiful when they are uttered with good wishes. Compliments are always expressed with the side of “mashallah”, even when you praise skill, effort, appearance … All that is good we assign to the will of God.

Have you ever traveled to Arab countries and heard these sayings on the streets or in the bazaar? Or maybe you accidentally switched your TV program to any popular Turkish series … In those we can often hear inshallah and the rest.

Tea

Tea. And more tea. Different varieties. With mint. With milk.

In large heavy teapots at a roadside stall. Visibly fuming steam is like a beautiful detail from a scene with a sunset.

How lucky are we that we emptied our thermos during our trip – now they can fill it up to go for the price of 5 or 6 cups.

We were returning home from Taif to Jeddah and along the way we drank some really good black tea with mint. With just the right amount of sugar, and per our request the seller added some milk.

This is how we now prepare it in our own kitchen. We add fresh mint leaves to the traditional Sudanese “milk tea”.

Such little things brighten up everyday life and bring back fond memories of his family home as well as our anniversary when we went for a short getaway from the city to the mountains. ❤️