Worlds of words

Sarah John

MUCH of the time I don’t know what people are saying to me. I respond with a smile, a murmur, an unintelligible answer, and hope that I appear all-knowing. The Lebanese are fond of using proverbs to express their feelings – according to a Lebanese researcher, we have over 4,000 proverbs. Most of them rhyme and are quite pleasing to the ear. I confess, however, that it takes me some time to decipher them.

‘If you are afraid, don’t speak. But if you speak, don’t be afraid,’ I was told when I entered the field of journalism.

During interviews, I would often find myself on the threshold of a small house in a poverty-stricken area wondering whether my photographer and I would find a place to sit in the family home. But the welcome was always the same: ‘If our houses are too small to receive you, our hearts will do so.’

My father has absolutely no luck in business ventures. When he bought some real estate, the Lebanese civil war erupted and the land became worthless. When he invested some money in stock, the market crashed. ‘If he should go to sea,’ my mother is fond of saying, ‘the sea would dry up.’

My mother seems to understand the world of proverbs. ‘He who gossips with you will gossip about you,’ she would say sternly to me when a friend came over with an exciting piece of news.

She strongly believed in family unity. My two sisters and I grew up listening to her favourite proverb. ‘You and your sister against your cousin,’ she would repeat when refereeing fights between us and friends. ‘And you and your cousin against the stranger.’

At times when I stubbornly refused to comply with her wishes, she would patiently say: ‘He who doesn’t agree with you, try to agree with him.’

And when I suspected a neighbour of swiping one of my toys, my mother was quick to advise: ‘Shut your door rather than accuse your neighbour.’

At times I resorted to proverbs myself. A favourite proverb that I used frequently as a child to lord it over the neighbour’s younger kids goes: ‘She who is one day older than you, has one year more experience than you do.’ And with that I was deemed worthy of making up the rules of our games.

During my wedding reception, a guest studied my husband. ‘He seems a good man,’ she whispered to me. ‘Put your hands in cold water.’ In other words, rest assured.

As my parents bade me goodbye at the end of the reception, I must have looked rather forlorn, for the same guest approached me again. ‘Remember,’ she said, ‘the home which reared me doesn’t forget me.’

In many ways, Lebanon remains a traditional country, especially with regard to women. Virginity is prized. In fact, men prefer to marry a woman whom ‘no-one has kissed on her mouth but her mother.’ Many parents are eager to marry off their daughters as ‘a girl’s marriage is her protection.’

And so it goes.

A man is ‘well fed from his mother’s milk’ if he is strong and healthy.

A person who takes ‘one step forward and two steps back’ is hesitant.

And a person ‘above the wind’ is rich and prosperous.

Young people are told: ‘Lying will get you lunch but not supper’ – meaning a liar is shortly discovered.

Up-and-coming career persons are warned that ‘there is not a tree which the wind cannot shake’.

The wealthy are reminded that ‘money from earth remains on earth’ – in other words, you can’t take it with you once you’re dead.

When someone suddenly reappears after a long absence, it is said that ‘it has been a long, long time since this moon made its appearance.’

A proper Lebanese person would have a ready response, ideally another proverb. Unfortunately, words fail me in such situations. If my mother is nearby, she rises to the occasion as I stand there helplessly nodding. But my father – who like me gets lost in the world of proverbs – taught me a trick.

‘Just say “May God bless you”’ to everything,’ he said. ‘It gets you off the hook.’

I’ve tried it. And except for a few strange looks, it works most of the time.

I’ve also managed to memorize two or three proverbs. I am still waiting for an occasion to use them.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 368 magazine cover This article is from the June 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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