Forgiveness, pleasure and grace: a lesson in Arabic

“The Arabic language is very rich,” said didactic Nael, one of my first friends in Egypt, and himself a French teacher. The more I learn about Arabic, the more I have to agree.

The great apartment block I live in is known as Borg el Samah, ‘tower of forgiveness…’Almost everyone’s name has a meaning – my old cleaning lady, Sabah, was named after the morning, I met a girl the other day whose name means ‘inspiration’, and a guy whose name translates as ‘pleasure’. I giggle naughtily every time I say it. He is charmed, but confused.

In a country where English language books routinely cost $50 for the shoddiest paperback, I found the massive, massive Ken Follett 'Pillars of the Earth' (the doorstopper about building England’s cathedrals) for a miserly 20LE ($6) on a grubby street corner the other day and today’s find was a $3 copy of ‘Midaq Alley’ by Nagiub Mahfouz, Egypt’s only Noble Peace Prize for Literature for his epic ‘Cairo Trilogy’. The dog-eared book has the names of two previous owners written on the inside cover, both girls, Nashwa (‘ecstasy’ or ‘elation’) and Hala (‘lunar halo glory').

And this week’s lesson: khartoum (yes, like the Sudanese capital) actually means hose in Arabic. I know this cos my shower hose, khartoum el douche, broke and I had to replace it.

On my way to my Arabic lesson (don’t get too excited, people, my new teacher thinks I’m thick as two short planks) I was reading my notes on the metro and a woman sat down beside me and said, 'Are you learning Arabic? You are very smart. I will test you. Can you write my name?” Her name, dammit, started with one of the Arabic letters that has no English translation, ‘gh’. For Ghada. I had to stick my tongue out to write it. However, she was very nice, as befits a person whose name means 'charming; graceful woman'.

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