Entering the Hammam is Not Like Leaving it, and Other Moroccan Proverbs

Moroccan derija (Arabic dialect) is very rich in proverbs, adages, sayings, idioms, etc. (wait, don’t all those words mean the same thing?)  Moroccan speech itself is formulaic, with specific greetings and responses exchanged depending on the situation.  To a sick person you say: may there be no harm (mai koon bas), the response being:  may God never show you harm  (lehla iwarreek bas).  Since I grew up in an American home in Morocco, I didn’t have all these “calls and responses” memorized, or internalized, till, well, last week actually.  It’s very awkward to come up blank in response to one of the greetings.  Shukran just doesn’t cut it.  You just have to be a quick study and add these  to your repertoire as you hear them.

Then there are proverbs.  Not quite of the same dire importance as the greetings, but they do add a layer of richness to the conversation.  Usually one person will say the first few words, and the other person will finish.  For example:

Safia:  “The best speech…”

Nora:  “..is concise and meaningful!”

(khairul kalami ma qalla wa dalla).  So now that I’ve memorized every last one of the greetings (not), I’ve moved on to proverbs.   Each proverb is a thin-slice of the culture.   Every time I hear a new one, I learn a little something new about Morocco, a tiny intricacy.

Some proverbs are funny, some are deep.  In fact, those two traits characterize Moroccans and especially Marrakshis.  Living here you quickly come to appreciate these two qualities.  Life’s pills are swallowed with a dose of humor and a measure of grace.

Of course, things like humor and widom-teachings don’t really translate, but translation brings us a step closer to some kind of understanding.  So here goes.

Entering the hammam is not like leaving it.  dkhoul el7ammam mashi b7al khroujou.

When you go into the hammam, it’s all good and dandy, but when you leave, it’s time to pay.  I’d like to add, you’re a whole lot cleaner too.  I’d also like to add that technically, you pay when you go into the hammam.  But you get the idea.  You’d be surprised at how many situations this saying is appropriate for.  English equivalent: It’s time to pay the piper.

The person with no cares, well, his donkey will give birth to a care.  lli ma 3andou hammou, twaldou lih 7martou.

For the person who can’t leave well enough alone.  English equiv.:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Don’t go looking for trouble, or trouble will come looking for you.

One hand can’t clap.  yedd wa7da makat sefaqsh.

We all know this one: it takes two to tango.

The neighbor, then the house.  al jar thumma ddar.

When choosing a home, find good neighbors first.  An Islamic teaching says: take care of your neighbors and that means 40 houses in either direction!  I love neighborhoods where being a good neighbor is still valued and implemented.   When we lived in the old city (medina of Marrakesh), I felt like there was definitely more of that.  Once when I was pregnant, I casually asked my neighbor how she makes the Moroccan pancakes beghrir.  Well, me being pregnant + her being a good neighbor = she showed up with the pancakes about an hour later!  This is also the same neighbor who, when I casually asked her how to cook the two free-range chickens I had just bought, didn’t hesitate for a minute.  She came in, rolled up her sleeves and started washing the chickens (shudder…cleaning chicken makes you the boss of everyone in my book), then proceeded to make the most awesome chicken tajine, like it was no big deal.  From then on, I “casually” asked her about lots of things!

I compare you to who I see you with.  M3amen sheftek, m3amen shebbehtek.

It underscores the importance of keeping good company.  One of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad is (my own loose translation) A person is on the same path as his or her closest friend, so consider who your closest friends are.  English equivalent: Birds of a feather flock together (this is the closest I could get).

Last one, my favorite.

The one who serves a people is their master.  khadimu qawmin sayyiduhum.

This saying comes from the principle that things are often concealed in their opposites.  The one who is humble, who serves neither expecting nor desiring praise or benefit from others, who has a pure intention, is in reality the highest of the high.  Conversely, the one who grasps at power and glory, who desires that people think highly of him or her is in reality enslaved to his or her ego.

Now it’s your turn: add to this list of Moroccan proverbs, or share a proverb or saying from your own culture!