Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

How to say Yes and No in Arabic

on May 27, 2015

That year, 1972, was not only a year of improving English but also of getting re-acquainted with Arabic. Everyone took Arabic, but we the four foreigners got to skip those classes since the level was way too advanced for us. However, since we were surrounded by Arabic in the form of neighbors, shopkeepers, street signs, newspaper and television, the learning occurred despite our schooling.

Learning a foreign language directly from native speakers is the only way to speak just the right way. In many languages, there are associated gestures and expressions, or even just snorts, sighs and tones of voice that are never taught in language classes. For example, there is a typically Jordanian gesture which consists of a short jerky upward throw of the chin — meaning, of the entire head really — often associated with an upward lift of the eyebrows and always associated with a “tzz!” sound made by quickly sucking the tongue from the back of the teeth. A sound which is closely resembles the “tsk!” in English.

I first encountered it in a conversation with a beautiful Armenian classmate named Dalida while we were sitting on a bench in the school yard. I asked something, and she replied, “Tzz!” with the cute little snapping up of the head. Confused, I repeated my question, and got the “Tzz!” again. I cannot remember how I finally figured out the meaning of the “Tzz!” but, for my readers’ enlightenment, it means “No!”

yes and no

Mind you, these sound-gestures are usually confined to certain geographical areas. Years later, when I worked as a psychiatric resident in Jeddah, I met a patient from somewhere in the south of Saudi Arabia. She was quite dark, and so had probably some Sudanese blood. I had to take her history, and asked her whether she was married. She kindly retracted one corner of her mouth, the right one, I think, and produced from that corner a very loud, very distinct and well-rounded click! There was no accompanying head movement, no smile, no nod or upward thrust, nothing. Just that click. I was a bit taken aback. Then I repeated my question. Only to get the same click. I wondered whether it was the same as the Jordanian “Tzz!” which would mean “No!” But it didn’t sound remotely similar. What if it meant “Yes”? No? Yes? I was baffled.

Aha! I suddenly found the solution. If she has children, she must be married. So I asked her, “Do you have any children?” She replied with another loud and clear click! If she is not married, then she has no children. If she is married, then she has children. I felt like I was trying to solve a Logic Problem…  “So… You do have children?”  Click!  “Er, so you are married?” Click! If only she had some facial expression, that would help! But no, this lady was totally poker-faced. Oh, God, help me here!

Then, I saw the light. “Sister, how many children do you have?” “Four.” Hallelujah! Four children meant yes, she had children, which meant yes, she was married. Hahaha! The click meant Yes! Puzzle solved! I patted myself on the back… How smart I was!

hand nodding with five fingers together

Mediterranean people, and by extension, Middle Easterners, are well-known for using gestures while speaking, so much so that it has been said that they cannot express themselves if their hands were tied. One common gesture is the ubiquitous hand nodding with all five fingers touching one another and facing upward. You do this one hand at a time, not both. It may mean “a little”, “take it easy”, “slowly”, or “wait a minute”.  It can even mean, “Just you wait, I will deal with you later…” when an angry parent nods the hand at a naughty child.  And I am probably missing a hundred other nuances right here.

They greet each other effusively, with the women doing the pecking-the-air-next-to-the-cheek thing like the French. I’m always confused whether it’s one, two or three pecks. And so, I’m always still sticking my head to the opposite side when the other person is already pulling back. Men, on the other hand, shake hands, then pull each other into a bear hug, slapping their backs as they do so. It is very normal for men to walk together, hand in hand, just because they are good friends. And nothing else. Once, the kids of one embassy staff member came to visit their parents over the winter holidays. We took them on a tour of the University of Jordan. After a while, one of them remarked that there were a lot of them here, right? I did not get it at all. A lot of what? He pointed with his chin at two boys walking hand in hand. What of them? I asked. “Are they not homosexuals?”  I just burst out laughing my head off. No. Not at all. Very common and very normal. Everyone does it.

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than "What good friends they are!"

Probably only penguins of the same sex can walk hand in hand today without anyone assuming anything other than “What good friends they are!”

To go back to actual spoken language, I learned it from everyone in the streets, and from the neighbor kids. One day, we were walking home from school, and a group of little girls in their greenish gingham dress uniforms started following us and trying to talk to us. One of them was very insistent. She kept shouting out loud, in a tone that seemed to be a question, “Addaysh assa’ah?” That apostrophe is actually a strange consonant that only exists in Arabic. It originates in the throat, and is produced by squeezing the back of the soft palate down, a bit like when you prepare to throw up. But instead of throwing up, you slide out a sound that should be smooth and oily, not raspy and retchy. Then you pair it with a vowel, while hopefully still holding on to the consonant. Very tricky affair. So then, this little girl kept asking me, “Addaysh assa’ah? Addaysh assa’ah?” non-stop. I tried to shake my head and say, “La! La!” meaning no, no. That was before I’d mastered the Tzz! trick. But that did not stop her. She then grabbed my left wrist and pointed at my watch, “Addaysh assa’ah?” Oh, I got it! “How much is the watch?” Well, the effrontery! Really! This watch is not for sale! How do I say that? So I kept on saying, “La! La!” and ran to my house, which we’d finally reached, and banged the gate behind us. what time is it The next day, the girls at school translated that sentence to me when I related the incident. “Fawzia, addaysh assa’ah means what time is it?”  And they all had a good laugh. Oh… I see. It was “how much is the time?” for the literal translation.  Time. Watch. They all translate into “sa’ah”. Ah, again, all those traps and obstacles in learning foreign languages…


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