Get Out of My Face, You Donkey

Ruhi min wiji, ya hamra. Budrabik kef, these are the two phrases that my preadolescent nephews in Virginia would say to me every chance they got when I hung out with them this past month.  Every time they said them, more animated with each rendering, they would start howling with little boy laughter.  Get out of my face, you donkey.  I ought to slap you.  They would never, ever say that to me or anyone in English.  In English, it is rude and unacceptable behavior, and they know it.  In Arabic, it is funny—to them.  If they were to try it out in the Middle East, I warned them, it might not be so pretty.

These nephews are the first set of my family that look upon Arabic as a foreign language. I’ve taught them how to say things like “thank you” and “have a good evening.”  Most of that has been met with glazed eyes and a response of “Want to play a game on Wii?  We’ll even let you pick which one.”  Anything to stop the language lesson.
But one day their father, my brother, told them what my mother used to scream at us when she’d had enough.  Ruhi min wiji, ya hamra.  Budrabik kef.  Get out of my face, you donkey.  I ought to slap you.  My mother never actually hit us, but she could spin off into cursing tirades, and that to my nephews is a delightful thing–in Arabic.
The appeal of curses isn’t generational, a result of exposure to violent video games.  I can spew obscenities several languages, swear words learned as a child without having mastered these foreign languages in any other way (Aside that is from saying “I love you” in even more languages, which my nephews, being boys, flatly reject learning on principle.)  But I’m someone who, other than when driving, rarely uses “four-letter words” in my native English.  When I lived in LA, I’d hear gringo kids cursing in Spanish like it was telenovela comedy hour.

When I taught ESL in the same town, mostly to Asian students, once they felt comfortable around me, they would ask me with a muted blush just how many different way there were to us the F word.  My brother and I were like my nephews with our German neighbors:  To this day, I can say things in German that would make me cringe in English, but I sadly can’t thank my German publishers for how much care they’ve put into my novel’s translation.

While in New York, I could have easily told the Puerto Rican lady at the Laundromat that her mother was a whore, just like my friend Pedro taught me in ninth grade, but I was struggling in Spanish to ask where to buy laundry soap.  I could have told the Korean grocery store owner to piss off, as my friend Sangjin once taught me, or thanks to my school friend Sandra, I could have made a slightly harsher comment to the Brazilian nanny in the store, all things I would never say in English.  But I couldn’t have wished them a nice day–although I could have told them all that I loved them, which might have been even scarier than the cursing.

There are nuances to bad language though, and you need to know more than how to pronounce the words to understand.  Other things my mother would yell at us when we broke curfews were “May your father’s father’s house be destroyed,”  “Curses on your lord” or  “May they burn the house of your religion.”   My nephews would never repeat these ones.  They carry a frighteningly dire weight in English, even to me now as I translate them.  However, in Arabic, no one thinks of their meaning—they’re not really curses, they’re not religious, obviously not what a person, let alone a mother, would wish on someone with whom she shares the same religion and house—these venting phrases are at the level of “bite me” or “shut up” in American English.  However, say the equivalent of “shut up” in Arabic, and be prepared to pay.  (Note: the very same Arabic curses on houses and religion also double as compliments, such as a famous love song by legendry singer Fairuz that goes something like “may your house be destroyed, your eyes are so beautiful.”  Just a different way of saying “You take my breath away.”)

On the other side of the world, many Arabs, particularly Gulf Arabs, can’t understand the flippant use of the “f” word in many parts of the US. The Arabic equivalent is absolutely taboo to Gulf Arabs, and when it is heard in movies, it gets nervous titters.  Most of these Arabs, however, if having only learned English from the movies, wouldn’t know that not in all places in the US is the use of  “f…k” an equal opportunity, free-for-all, just as my ESL students didn’t when they asked me how many different ways it is used.

Still we like to learn to curse in other languages when we are young because it has easy shock value and because it is a way of acting out without acting out:  The words in another language don’t really have any meaning because the language itself has no meaning to us.  Calling someone a donkey in the US is not like calling someone a cow because a donkey is not an image carried through English.

Foreign curse words have no power because they aren’t channeled through one’s own language, which holds all the ability to make you feel love, anger, hate, unlike a language we mostly don’t understand. Unless it’s set to music, which is the universal language of emotions, foreign curse words only have the power to amuse us. So perhaps it’s okay if my nephews’ next favorite expression in Arabic is inti  akbar hebla, you’re the biggest idiot.  It’s okay, that is, as long as it’s being said with laughter to an aunt, rather than to a stranger who perhaps is not an idiot in the Arabic language.

Zayed University Film Festival In San Francisco

There has been more than one time me in my life when the call to prayer has been a comfort to me, and that includes at 4:30 a.m. yesterday when I had to walk to my car in the dark to go get to school in time for “The Best the Zayed University Film Festival” showing at the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, followed by a live video conference with San Francisco State University and the student organizers and me over here.  Walking in the darkness, I was cursing myself for doing this, but when the call to prayer went off, I felt safe again and remembered that it was to celebrate the great job my students did.  Thanks to Bill Lex for making it happen.

Horse Power and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

Everyone says the UAE has only two seasons, hot and hotter.  But there is a far better season, the film

Sheikh Mohammed

festival season.  The Abu Dhabi Film Festival kicked off last week and is now going strong with 170 films from around the world.  Tops on my list to see are Miral, Carlos, Kingdom of Women, Homeland, Virgin Goat, and the Life of Fish.  The problem with film festivals is that they’re not national holidays so there are so many films we don’t get to see, and it is such a short season, kind of like winter around here.

The festival’s opening film was Disney’s Secretariat, sort of perfect for a country obsessed with horses.  And on that note, I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one of my students, Iman Nawfal, who is interning at the festival this year.

Secretariat is a promising story that will reveal its greatness & beauty on the screen of Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Secretariat is a famous horse with a lousy history in the racing world, but that doesn’t stop Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) from having faith in this particular horse and choosing him to join her team to conquer the male-only-horse-racing world. This movie is not just for leisure watching in the Arab world.  We as Muslim Arabian Emirati relate to horse riding in many ways. As Muslims, it is in our religion to learn horse riding as our prophet Mohammed said that we need to teach our kids horse riding because it’s a symbol of bravery and leadership. As Arabians, being an equestrian is sign of nobility and authenticity as years ago, famous Arabian tribes used to own and bred horses. the passion for horses for ages and they flourished in this area remarkably.  In the UAE, horse racing is a famous sport that is celebrated annually in many emirates. Horse riding is not just a sport to us:,  It is a noble relationship that bonds between the horse and the equestrian. It is a symbol of beauty and greatness. It is as His Highness Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid said “Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse’s back. It is nobility and chivalry.”  In this American movie, we Emiratis can see our love of horse mirrored in the determined Penny Chenery.”

–by Iman Nawfal, Zayed University senior

Kimchi Falafel and Other Great American Meals

Falafel is not falafel–heck it’s not even good food– when it contains eggs, is yellow inside and out, weighs more than a tennis ball, is bigger than a tennis ball, or worst of all, refried.  But such have been my sad falafel encounters in New York, where everyone seems to be peddling falafel, including the pizza joint down the


Really Good Just Falafel

Excellent Just Falafel


street.  There are some pretty passable falafel spots, most particularly Maoz, where the falafel is actually hot and where, in respect to America’a all-you-can eat approach to life, you can add all the fixings you want, which is a good thing except for the inexplicable fried broccoli.  The only item that should be deep fried on your pita is the falafel.

When I was a kid in Minnesota, no one knew what falafel was unless his or her parents were born in the Middle East, but now it’s so ubiquitous that it’s in Microsoft Word’s spell check, like tacos, sushi, and pasta, which used to simply be called noodles before the US fully embarrassed its multicultural obsession with food.

Not that the idea of the falafel hadn’t already been brought over by someone, as when, as a kid, my brother bit into his first veggie burger and declared it “a falafel pancake with ketchup on it.”  Not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, just because you’ve called something falafel, doesn’t mean it is falafel, just like my Japanese students in Los Angeles explained to me that the rolls at Ralphs supermarket are not sushi as they know it, my Mexican students have never eaten jarred cheese product nachos at the movies, and my Taiwanese students in addition to not knowing the fortune cookie, don’t recognize the cuisine at the one-dollar Chinese restaurant.

Different and bad don’t necessarily go together when we look at the Americanization of ethnic cuisine.  Food gets changed here because of economies of time and money, lack of ingredients, and the different taste of the ingredients, including  the local water.  In the spirit of its birth and growth, the US gives you plenty of ways to eat around your cultural and religious restrictions, with creations such as turkey bacon, soy cheeseburgers, and meatless meatballs.  And it accommodates our health issues–although to look around at us not all of us  are paying attention to that part–with fat-free and sugar-free versions of everything, and it can enrich anything, even Turkish delight, with vitamins and minerals and lately even make your gelato—also in the spell check today—organic.
Some American embellishments, like thinking every desert can be dipped in chocolate, even baklava (wow, also in the spell check now) or constantly embellishing savories with roasted garlic are unnecessary, even annoying.  But the country has created a diverse cuisine all its own.
When people disdainfully say the U.S. doesn’t have any real cuisine other than the hamburger, I would ask them what are breakfast egg rolls, pineapple pizza, and wasabi hummos?  American marketers, as if also holding their own food in contempt, have labeled them as Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or Chinese perhaps to give them an exotic edge.  But they are American in reality, ketchupfied and cross-culturized—that’s why it’s called the melting pot, a big culinary helping of food from all over the world.

Even I’ve Americanized falafel, as I think it’s pretty tasty with a dollop of  kimchi—oops, looks like kimchi hasn’t made it into the spell check yet.  Microsoft Word doesn’t know what it is missing on its falafel sandwich.

*Note:  Meanwhile, in Abu Dhabi, American food is getting cross pollinated, like the pizza burger at Burger King, sliced up like a pizza pie.