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.