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!


27 thoughts on “Entering the Hammam is Not Like Leaving it, and Other Moroccan Proverbs

  1. I loved these!
    Very early in the morning here so I’m not awake enough to think up many.
    “He who lies down with dogs shall get up with fleas….”
    “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”I think moss is meant to be comfortable…..
    Of course, the one I like best is
    “Love your neighbor as yourself” which means if you want a nice house and good health, nice clothes etc you should wish these blessings on everyone else too too.
    Coming to Marrakesh on 16th FEb. Hope to see both you and your mother, inshallah.
    Love from snowy NY oxox

    • Love thy neighbor as thyself. Such a powerful ideal. The same exists in the Islamic tradition. “Your faith is not complete until you love for your brother what you love for yourself”. The polar opposite of envy.

  2. Meriem says:

    In an exchange like the one with Safia, If you don’t know the ending to the saying, you can just nod in agreement and say: “Dakshi lli kayn” (or in English you’d say “yup, you said it!”).

  3. Nisrine says:

    It is just amazing how you got the right meaning of all the Moroccan proverbs , my favorite one is: lli ma 3andou hammou, twaldou lih 7martou. hahahahahaha this is so true , another one that has basically the same meaning as this one is : mahadha kat9a9i ou hya katzid fal bid .( djaja)

    Miss you ❤

  4. Hi again:

    Well I was about to leave the blog when this post came up.
    Since I usually commute to Chichaoua,I spend time on the bus with friends joking,gossiping…and sometimes we just play on English-Moroccan translation to some proverbs/adages/quotes,etc.
    Here I would like to add some more if u don’t mind.

    ” Warih,warih o ila Ema sir o khalih”= ” show him,show him,if his blind go and let him”.
    “Nokta b nokkta ifid lwad”=”Drop by drop the river floods”.

    This is my web site:http://www.hellochichaoua.com
    I would appreciate ur comments.

    • Salam Nora:

      Thank you.The website as you might have noticed is not fully accomplished,but I’m working eagerly on that.I have been using Kompozer designer ,it’s simple and feasible, and most of all it’s free.


    • I like the first proverb you quoted. It reminded me of a situation I experienced in the past. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t change a person, and just move on.

  5. Catherine says:

    Very interesting, Nora, thank you! When I lived in Morocco I occasionally shared English proverbs with Moroccans and often met with the response “Oh yes, we have something very similar in Arabic” – one of the few times the two cultures seemed to approach and smile at each other in recognition… Two proverbs I like in French are “le bossu ne voit pas sa bosse mais seulement celui de son confrère” – a variation on the theme of Jesus’s motes and beams, though more anatomically accurate – and “l’art est de cacher l’art”.

  6. Meriem says:

    There’s one that I heard a while back: “Fwjah lktab ynhabb (or kaytbas) ajjeld”. For the sake of the book leather is kissed. This is said in the context of someone doing something that they don’t necessarily want to do, for the sake of love for someone else.

    • Mari says:

      Wonderful post Nora!

      I want to share some of my favorite proverbs from my native country Georgia (not the state of Georgia). Did my best not to lose the meaning in a translation.

      “Whatever you give away is yours and whatever you keep is lost”

      “One who does not seek friendship is an enemy to himself”

      “Everyone is equal when it comes to death. Its spear stubs us all… It’s better dying splendidly then living reprehensibly”

      • Mari, I love the first proverb you mentioned. There is something like that in the Islamic tradition. Another related one is “Wealth does not diminish with charity”. Thank you for sharing.

      • Mari says:

        Thanks Nora. Although Georgia is an orthodox Christian country, our literature is greatly influenced by Sufism.
        Your blog is a pleasure to read!

  7. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    شكرا ً على المشاركة
    جميل جدا ً معرفة الثقافات الأخرى و بهذا التفصيل

    المقولات معظمها تتشابه في عالمنا العربي و التقاطعات كثيرة و لكن يبقى هناك صفة مميزة لكل لهجة/دولة 🙂

  8. Hey, Sallam,

    Thanks for posting all those proverbs! I myself can never remember them :/ But I do have one that I think is funny: kol khenfouss 3and mo ghzal, which basically means everybody is loved by at least one person: their mother.

    Unfortunately I dont know the word by word translation :/


  9. annoura says:

    Hi, Nora,

    I came across your website yesterday by chance. It’s so great! Thank you so much!!!

    kol khenfouss 3and mo ghzal is translated literally: Every beetle is a gazelle in the eyes of its mother. Am I right?

    The one I heard lately: lli ma 3ndou lflus klamou msous — If you don’t have money you speech is insipid (not important) — is an ironic way of giving you an idea of how to find your way with Moroccan bureaucracy. Sad but true.

    Anna (Noura)

  10. Sara says:

    I studied abroad in Rabat for a semester back in college and was exposed to a similar “call and response” type thing. When I would get home from the hammam my host mother would say something like – “Marhaba, Sara!” to which she told me I was to reply something like “Lie dek sah!” But I never had any idea what we were saying to each other (yeah, I cheated and used mostly French the whole time I was there). I knew enough to know “marhaba” means “welcome”, so I’m assuming I was totally misunderstanding what she was saying…

    One time a stranger even said it to me as I was leaving a hammam, so I assume it was a widespread thing, and not just my host mom’s thing.

    Oh, my host mom grew up in Fez, I don’t know if that matters.

    Any ideas what this means? Has anyone ever heard something like this before? It’s always puzzled me! 🙂

    • Sara, yeah it’s a very common exchange: “Bessahha!” (to your health), the response being “Allah yateek sahha” (may God give you health). It’s another way of exchanging blessing and remembering God with everything new and good, be it a meal, a hammam session, new clothes…

  11. Annette Jacques says:

    Hello Sara, I love your website, T’Barkellah. I’m visiting beautiful Morocco with my husband for New Year, Inshallah, and do appreciate your helpful tips and advice.
    Despite my French name, I am Latin American, living in the US, and wish to offer three Spanish proverbs:
    Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres.
    (Tell me who your companions are and I’ll tell you who you are).
    Another: No hay mal que por bien no venga (Every cloud has a silver lining).
    Lastly: La fruta no cae lejos del árbol (Literally, fruit does not fall far from the tree).
    Baraka Laufik,

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