Jason Fredric Gilbert
Pushing the boundaries of weird since 1978

My limited Arabic vocabulary

Arabic was a mandatory subject in our curriculum here in Israel when I was growing up. Not like today when these spoiled little snots get to learn Chinese. Or HTML. And so from the fourth grade when I made aliyah and through the eighth grade, Jacqueline taught us Arabic. And she was a very dignified woman. She wore designer clothes. Thick framed glasses. And chain smoked cigarettes. But I didn’t speak any Hebrew so Arabic was out of the question. But by the sixth grade I had learned how to read written Arabic. And speak a few words in the local dialect. And now that I look back at my Arabic (and that of my mid to late 30’s peers) I get a sense that the whole conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be understood a whole lot better once you grasp the 10 or 15 Arabic words and phrases every Israeli my age knows. Minus the two dozen very colorful profanities (cus emek, sharmuta etc). Which you can find here.

1. Iftach el bab. My brother taught me this one when he came back from Givati basic training in ’92. It means ‘Open the door’ and is a common phrase used by soldiers when knocking on homes in the West Bank and (when he was on duty at least) in Gaza and Southern Lebanon. I can’t imagine encountering a situation in my daily life that would require me to command my Arabic speaking friend to open the door. Unless I had a Muslim girlfriend. And she locked me out once she caught me watching too much porn.

2. Allah Akbar. God is great. But also the last two words any Israeli wants to hear on a bus. Or on a plane. Or on a train. Or on any street in Jerusalem. Because that’s usually what suicide bombers used to scream out right before they blew themselves up.

3. Ikhrab Beitak. I asked M. what words she knew in Arabic. Because her grandmother is Algerian. And her grandfather Moroccan. On one side. And Egyptian on the other. That’s a lot of Arabic. And her mom understands Arabic. And her uncle speaks it whenever he can. But our generation? Not so much. So she runs down the list of Thank You (Shukran), Hello (Marchaba), You’re Welcome (t’fadal) and It’s all good (Sababa) and within five words comes to Ikhrab Beitak. Which means: May your house be destroyed. But house is not just the physical residence. It means your entire household. That’s weird. I mean how many Americans can say May your legacy be decimated in Spanglish?

4. Itbach el Yahud. It’s funny (well not ha ha, but ironic) that Jews know how to say Slaughter the Jews in so many languages. German. Russian. And now Arabic. This phrase is usually scrawled on walls in Palestinian towns and villages. And chanted at various anti Israel protests. And friendly soccer games in Taibeh.

5. Wakef walla ana batuchak. Stop or I’ll shoot. This is part of the IDF’s rules of engagement when on guard duty or stationed at a checkpoint and an unidentified person approaches. Pretty much every 18 year old Israeli – male or female – can order an Arabic speaker to stop or they’ll shoot but would have no idea how to ask directions to the bathroom. Which is the first thing I learn in any new language. And the phrase: Is your daughter 18? As an icebreaker. But I would caution against using that with your Arabic speaking friends.

6. Yom Aasal, Yom Baasal. Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you. Basically this phrase sums up the whole conflict. Some days are good. Some days not so much. Today is not so good. So deal with it.

7. Kol Kalb Bejee Yomo. Every dog has his day. But in this context much more sinister. Calling an Arab speaker, or a Muslim, a dog, is roughly the equivalent of spitting in the face of a Native American Indian. Expect to be scalped. And so this phrase means that every asshole will eventually get what he deserves. Comeuppins in the parlance of our times.

8. Uscoot. This means shut up. Which we used to hear a lot of in Jacqueline’s classroom. Because we were a rowdy bunch of fifth graders. And she would get flustered. And storm out of the classroom. And smoke a cigarette. Because back then teachers could still smoke. Indoors. And then she would come back in and wait for us to uscoot.

9. Jora, Jiffa. A Jora is a reference to the sewage drains. A filthy mouth.So anyone who curses a lot or is generally crass would be told to shut his jora. Jiffa is a reference to filth. As in your apartment is a mess and smells really bad. It is absolutely jiffa. You live in a real dump. In Arabic it literally means the rotting carcass of an animal.

10. Maafan. To suck. Or to be awful. In Arabic it means something that is rotten, past its expiration date, moldy or disgusting. It can be used to describe a person. Like the way M. describes me. When I sit in front of the TV all day on a Saturday. And I don’t want to go out to the mall at night. I’m a real maafan. Or about food. Or about a movie. Or about my job. Ahem…

The other day I was at the famous Abu Hassan humus in Jaffa with my friend P. And he was once a battalion commander in the paratroopers. And speaks Arabic because both his parents emigrated from Egypt in the 1940’s. And he sits down and sees the owner and greets him with: Ahlan wasahlan habibi, ya deek! Which translates roughly as Greetings and salutations buddy, you Rooster! And I half expected a riot. Tables to be turned up. Humus thrown in our faces. Stabbings. But instead the owner’s face lit up and he shook P.’s hand warmly, honored to have been called a Rooster. And the last time I called someone a cock I almost got my nose broken. And soon enough we had plate after plate of humus and ful and warm pita bread. So I asked P. about the Rooster. And he explained. It’s an honor to be called a Rooster. It means you’re proud. You’re a man. You hold your head up high. He says as he puffs himself up and bangs on his chest. “It’s an ego thing.” And he tears open a steaming hot pita. “T’fadel.”

And as I think about my very limited, very useless Arabic vocabulary, I think that the whole conflict could be closer to a peaceful resolution if I knew how to say phrases like: Your wife’s earrings are elegant. Or The roses in your garden are beautiful. Or, Come over for dinner, my wife made some stuffed peppers. Instead of, shut your filthy mouth. Or I’ll shoot you.

Life here might have a chance at being sababa after all.

About the Author
Jason Fredric Gilbert is a film and music video director, published author and acclaimed parallel parker; His Independent Film,"'The Coat Room" won "Best in Fest" at the 2006 Portland Underground Film Festival. He is also the author of two books of screenplays, "Miss Carriage House" and the follow up collection of screenplays "Reclining Nude & The Spirit of Enterprise" He currently lives in Or Yehuda and solves crossword puzzles in the bathroom. Please slap him in the face if you see him.
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