Last updated on November 28, 2020
Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…
The woman who explains Egyptian Arabic expressions by annotated movie clips.
- Date of birth: 18th of June
- Place of birth: Cairo, Egypt
- Place of residence: Cambridge, UK
- Website: www.bilmasri.com
How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
I recently started the Bilmasri blog and podcast, to provide a free Egyptian dialect resource for intermediate to advanced learners of Arabic.
My career has revolved around the Arabic language one way or the other, as a translator, teacher, and language assessment expert. On a personal level, I’m a perpetual language learner, and a mother of three.
Remark: Nesrin told me that her name is spelled in its original Turkish – “even though it is always being mispronounced in English“.
What was your first Arabic grammar book?
It would have been an unattractive textbook imposed by the Egyptian ministry of education!
What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?
The poetry of Bayram al-Tunsi, written in Egyptian dialect in the first half of the 20th century.
Excursus: Who was Bayram al-Tunsi (بيرم التونسي)?
The Egyptian poet Bayram al Tunisi (1893-1961) was a grandmaster of Egyptian Arabic poetry. He is a hero in Egypt (and in Tunisia) especially among the poor and working-class.
I have lived in Alexandria in Egypt for many years and almost every day, I passed by the Bayram al-Tunsi theater building along the Corniche. Bayram was born in Alexandria, his grandfather having immigrated there from Tunisia which explains the name. He grew up in the Maghribi community of Alex which back then was located in the district of Al-Anfoushi in Bahariya. Anfoushi was the center of Alexandria’s fishermen and became a place for nationalist demonstrations and students.
Bayram was sent to a Kuttab (a religious school for young children where they memorize the Qu’ran). Later he worked in a grocery store and then as a trader to support himself after the death of his father and mother. The cafés and newspapers during World War I were places for angry young people who were fighting British occupation. Bayram founded two satirical newspapers in which he began to publish colloquial poems. He attacked the rich, the corrupt elite, the Sultan and the Grand Mufti for their alliances with the British. He brilliantly played with the Egyptian dialect and its humor. On August 25, 1920, Bayram al-Tunsi was exiled first to Tunisia and eventually ended up in France.
He had troubles with his eyesight and asked to go to Syria for treatment. The French authorities granted his request on the condition that he would not go to Tunisia.
Bayram had spent two years in Syria before the French authorities forced him to return to France. In 1938, on his way back to France, disguised, he escaped from the ship as it passed the Suez Canal – and stayed in Alexandria.
President Gamel Abd el-Nasser granted him Egyptian citizenship in 1954. Bayram al-Tunsi died in 1961 (some sources state an asthma attack).
Here is an example of his writings: عتاب, a poem about the Egyptian workers. It was written in the late 1920s, a few years after the Egyptian revolution of 1919 which had led to independence from the British. Bayram al-Tunsi addresses the injustice between the haves and the have-nots in Egypt. Notice that I translated the poem quite literally.
ليه امشي حافي،وانا منبـِّت مراكيبكم
ليه فرشي عريان،وانا منجّد مراتبكم
ليه بيتي خربان،وانا نجّار دواليبكم
!هى كده قسمتي؟ الله يحاسبكم!
Why do I walk barefoot, while I sew your shoes?
Why is my bed bare, while I fluff your mattresses?
Why is my house a ruin, while I build your cupboards?
Is this my destiny (fate)?
Let Allah settle the accounts!
ساكنين علالي العَتـَب،وانا اللى بانيـها
فارشين مفارش قصب،ناسج حواشيها
قانيين سواقي دهب،ونا اللى ادور فيها
يارب ماهوش حسد… لكن بعاتبكم
You live in proud houses.
But it is I who build them.
You sleep in brocaded sheets.
But it is I who weaves them.
You own wheels of gold.
But it is I who makes them run.
By God, there is no envy.
But I do remind you.
من الصباح للمسا،والمطرقه ف إيدي
صابر على دي الاسا حتى نهار عيدي
ابن السبيل انكسى، واسحب هرابيـدي
تتعـروا من مشيتي، واخجل اخاطبكم
From dawn to dusk the hammer is in my hands.
I bear this burden workday and holiday alike until my day of rest.
The son of the streets is clothed, while I dress in rags.
You shun my steps.
And I recoil from addressing you.
ليه تهدموني واناللي عـِزكم باني
انا اللي فوق جسمكم قطني وكتاني
عيلتي فى يوم دفنـتي مالقيتش اكفاني
حتى الأسيّه وانا راحل وسايبكم؟
Why do you tear me down, when I build up your glory?
I clothe you in cotton and linen.
On my burial day my family finds no shroud (coffin) for me.
Not even sympathy, as I leave you forever?
How much time does a native English speaker need to master Arabic?
That depends entirely on the student’s dedication and the definition of “mastery”, but I would say at least 4 years of committed study of Standard Arabic and a dialect, including a period of immersion in an Arabic-speaking country.
What is your favorite Arabic word?
After some thinking: انسجام.
It means harmony, agreement.
Which Arabic word do you like least?
Maybe ترَعرَع (another word for نشأ, to grow up), simply because of what you have to put your throat through to pronounce it.
Nesrin’s blog: BILMASRI.COM
BILMASRI.COM is for Arabic learners who want a better understanding of how Egyptian Arabic works. Bilmasri includes a blog and podcast with slow readings in Egyptian Arabic, and an Instagram/ Facebook account for Egyptians idioms, expressions and proverbs.
The blog and podcast are for learners of Arabic (ideally anywhere between lower intermediate to advanced level) who have so far been focusing on Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), who may or may not have some knowledge of another Arabic dialect, and who would like to understand how the Egyptian dialect works.
Nesrin explains many Egyptian Arabic proverbs which are often used in older movies. In one example, she analyzes the expression العين ماتعلاش عن الحاجب (also على الحاجب). “The literal meaning is ‘the eye can’t go above the eyebrow’, i.e. everything has its fixed place and that’s not going to change.”
Which Arabic dialect do you like best?
I should of course continue to champion the Egyptian dialect in my answer to this question, but I’ll say Levantine Arabic. I just love how it sounds.
What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?
So many, but I’ll go for the Egyptian اشتري دماغك.
Literally: “buy your head“; meaning don’t let anything get to you, rise above the negativity.
What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?
An Egyptian proverb:
.اللي يتلسع من الشوربة ينفخ في الزبادي
If you’ve been burned by soup you blow on yogurt.
It means that if you’ve had a genuinely bad experience (hot soup burning your tongue), you subsequently become extra cautious (blowing on yogurt, which can only ever be cold). I think it’s very expressive – a proverb you often find yourself wanting to use in real-life situations.
What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?
I’m sure that a lot of very good and clever things were said about Arabic. However, often – and that is all I can think of at the moment – Arabs tend to glorify the Arabic language as if it’s somehow superior to all other languages. Every language has its beautiful sides, its frustrating sides, its idiosyncrasies.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Get a dog.
Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?
Both my paternal grandparents, whom I never met, and my father, whom I miss a lot.
What was the last great meal you had?
My daughter made us a great veggie lasagna last week!
What is your favorite city?
Rome – followed closely by Lisbon, Granada, Genoa, and (for purely sentimental reasons) Bonn.
Which book would you give to a dear friend?
I recently recommended A Small Island by Andrea Levy to a friend. It’’ eye-opening, funny, clever and engrossing (set in Jamaica and Britain in the late 1940s and dealing with the experiences of the “Windrush” generation).
What is your all-time favorite movie?
I couldn’t possibly name one. But Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is definitely up there.
For those who haven’t seen this movie : Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a 2004 American science fiction romantic drama film starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood. The plot: When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories. IMDB-Rating: 8.3
What music do you listen to?
Almost all genres except heavy metal. My top Spotify lists are indie, opera, French chansons, Brazilian bossa nova and songs from the Great American Songbook.
When were you happiest?
On a family holiday in Andalusia. It was everything I hoped it would be.
What is your greatest fear?
Losing a loved one.
What is your life motto?
Live and let live.
Nesrin Amin, thank you for your time.
Picture credit: Nesrin Amin; pixabay.