Mashaallah is an oft heard refrain when it comes to conversations about children, something I’ve been hearing all around me lately since school started. I have five grandchildren – mashaallah! My daughter is two years old – mashaallah! They’ve just started school and they love it – mashaallah! My son is learning karate – mashaallah! It goes on. What’s interesting is the term mashaallah is said by all and sundry, no matter what religion one is. In southeast asia (and dare I say, anywhere else apart from the middle east), it is generally perceived that anything arabic with the word Allah in it, has something to do with Islam. In the middle east however, the phrase is used freely by anyone, as are many other ‘islamic’ phrases.
A quick google search will tell you that mashaallah is used to express respect, joy and admiration, and is usually said in response to good news, meaning something along the lines of ‘God has willed it’. The word allah, essentially translates to the word god in English, so saying something that is as simple as ‘oh my god’ (which I notice everyone says no matter which god one believes in), is the same as saying ya’allah in the middle east. If one were new to the middle east, I can see how using the word allah would make someone feel a little uncomfortable thinking it is reserved only for the muslims, but don’t worry, it isn’t.
I’ve noticed here that the salutation of how are you? and the typical response of, good thanks, is very much taken at leisure here, there is never any rush to get to the topic at hand no matter how urgent. It is perceived as polite and an essential part of ‘hello’ or ‘hi’. If the speakers are middle eastern it would go, Hello how are you? The response is always, good, alhmadulillah, ie, i’m fine, thank God. Another common phrase preceding this salutation is Assalamulaikum which in Singapore is a phrase mostly used between Muslims. In the middle east, it is a greeting exchanged between just about everyone (and one must be clear that there are Christian arabs as well as Muslim arabs, the arabic language is not reserved for only Muslims), meaning peace be upon you. The Arabic response is always walaikumsalaam. In English, it’s quite a universal greeting isn’t it, to wish peace for someone? It isn’t a belief system to wish peace for someone, right, be it in Arabic or any other language. So enter a crowded room, and let’s say the host introduces you to a string of people, you would greet each with assalamulaikum, unlike in Singapore where it’s used when you stand outside someone’s door and are checking if anyone is at home, by yelling it and then waiting for a response.
Alhamdulillah is also used to express gratitude for anything one might be talking about, for example, alhamdulillah, thank God, the children got places in the same school, or, alhamdulillah, thank God, I didn’t hurt myself tripping over the cat. This phrase is extremely common and quite self-explanatory.
Wallah is another phrase I hear, meaning, ‘by God’ or ‘I swear by God’, used for example (or ya’ni if you want to be authentic, the arabic equivalent of the American like) the way one would use the english word, Seriously?? Ya’ni, you swear? Aywa (yes), wallah!
Another phrase equivalent to yaallah also meaning ‘oh my god’ in english, ya’ni, OMG!!!, would be yarabbi (which is really pronounced as ya-raw-bee, rabbi being another word for God), also often heard to express.. well anything, really, but usually frustration, shock or stress, like (ya’ni) when I walked out of the pharmacy today to be battered by gusty winds and a terrific sandstorm that suddenly (and I truly mean suddenly) arrived from Mecca, Yarabbi! (but wallah I was genuinely worried, as I had my daughter with me and flying sand hurts…!). I remember when I was in the 6th grade in Moscow, and sitting in the art club after school, the teacher who was (is?) of Egyptian descent, came from Egypt, and is Christian, explained to me how she and people back home would always use the phrase ya rabbi. I remember thinking this was intriguing, because my family always used the phrase. I even remember her name, Mrs Rhodes (she married and English man), and her son Patrick was in my class.
The best phrase is Inshaallah, if God wills it. Ya’ni, inshaallah your abaya will be ready in two days. It’s almost as if we’re saying, it’ll be ready in two days, but let’s not jinx ourselves and say affirmatively it will be ready in two days, in case something cocks up somewhere and it’s only ready in five. It’s a safety net. Out here, 70% of the time, you can almost count on whatever they’re ‘promising’ is not going to happen, because, well, God just didn’t will it. Sorry not sorry. But don’t worry, there’s always the remaining 30%, and that’s not too bad. Being patient is a good quality to have.
Of course there are countless other favourite phrases, but I’m terrible at language, I keep forgetting that han’ here does not mean ‘yes’ like it does in Delhi. But inshaallah, I will learn more.
and just for fun, here’s a video of the worst sandstorm Jeddah’s seen in about ten years.
and another with my profound commentary as to how it feels when sand flies in to the eyes and mouth.