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Proverbs are wise sayings about life. Arabic is the language of proverbs and sayings. Especially in dialects, people love to use proverbs, which is a nice way to discuss certain things in life without mentioning it by name. Furthermore, you can express a whole chapter about moral teachings in a single line.
.السَّبْع سَبْع ولو في قَفَص
El sab’ sab’ walaw fi qafas means (literally): A lion is a lion even if in a cage.
Meaning: You can’t keep a good man down.
Someone with moral substance will remain so under duress. This saying is not very much in use, but listeners will get the drift if you use it. It is one of a genre of sayings that assert the innate worth of someone by repetition of the same epithet twice. In Egyptian Arabic, “el-Gada’ gada’” is another one that asserts that a “genuine person (is always) a genuine person.”
.أسد عليَّ وفي الحروب نعامة
You behave with me as if you were a lion, while in battle you are like a black ostrich (that flees even at the voice of a whistler.)
This is a famous line of the poet عِمْران بن حِطَّان (Imraan bin Hittaan).
Imraan (died: 703/84 AH) was an Arab poet who grew up in Basra (present-day Iraq). He was first a Sunni and is mentioned by Ibn Saʿd in the second class of the “followers” ( اَلتَّابِعُونَ ) of Basra. It is said that he was converted by his wife to the doctrines of the Kharijites (الخوارج).
.إذا لم تكن ذئبًا أكلتك الذئاب
Be tough as a wolf lest wolves would eat you.
.اللي له ضَهر ما ينضربش على بَطْنه
illi lu dahr ma-yindiribsh 3ala batnu) means one, who is strongly backed will not be struck in the belly.
It is a common Egyptian proverb that is often used in connection with police men. The wordضهر means back (of a human, animal). The Egyptian expression lu dahr (له ضهر) denotes he has backing; he has support.
Depending on the situation, the proverb may also express: The lone sheep is in danger of the wolf. (Chinese proverb)
.على الباغي تَدور الدوائر
What goes around comes around. Or: Payback’s a bitch.
German: Wie du mir, so ich dir. Alles rächt sich irgendwann. Was man sät, das wird man ernten.
In general, the Arabic proverb says that oppressive people will be treated the same: that the status eventually returns to its original value after completing some sort of cycle.
.ساعة القدر يعمى البصر
Literally, ساعة القدر يعمى البصر (saa3at el-2dr ya3mee elbasr) means: When it is time for Fate (to be realized), (one’s) sight is blinded.
This is a very common proverb in Egypt. Meaning: No amount of wisdom can help one escape one’s fate. When time comes for a destined thing to happen, man can’t have much choice to change it. It’s mainly said with bad incidents that couldn’t be changed or avoided.
The verb عمى means to become blind; قدر means fate, destiny; thus, you may also hear: ساعة القضاء
An English translation may be: Accidents will happen in the best-regulated families.
.أحذر عدوك مرة, وأحذر صديقك ألف مرة
Be wary around your enemy once, and your friend a thousand times.
.اختر الرفيق قبل الطريق
Choose the companion before the road/way.
It is a famous proverb that is common in many dialects as well. For example: دوّر على الرفيق قبل الطريق
.أخلص النية وبات في البرية
Reached the goal and spent the night in the desert. General meaning: “The matter is first.”
In the Tatar language, it corresponds to a proverb that is identical in semantics:
Эш беткәч уйнарга ярый (Meaning: It’s okay to play when you’re done.)
.الجعان يحلم بسوق العِيش
ig-ga3aan yihlam bi-suuq el-3eesh literally means the hungry man dreams of the bread market.
It denotes that one’s aspirations are determined by one’s needs.
The Arabic word عيش which literally means life is used in Egypt as the main word for bread.
It approximately means what the following Philippine proverbs denotes: There is no burnt rice to a hungry person. (Nothing comes wrong to a hungry man).
Ready for a quiz? Ten questions about proverbs and sayings in Arabic.
What is your favorite Arabic proverb? Send it to me and I will add it to the list!