Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Decrypting cheery Lebanese sayings

Free vinegar is sweeter than honey.

Spit against the wind, and you’re likely to get spit in your eye.

A mother uses her wings to gather her children; a father uses his to fly away.

He who learns only by his own mistakes will die young.

The emptier your pocket the more your shortcomings.

These are some of the proverbs you will hear if you visit the villages of Lebanon.

According to the late author Salam Racy, who made Lebanese expressions his hobby and wrote books about them, it’s by visiting those villages and listening to the villagers’ constant stream of sayings that you are likely to start understanding the real Lebanon.

What the villagers say, however, is not always comprehensible to the novice.

It is when you dig for the roots of their expressions that you come across cultural nuggets. For example:


If you say someone is combing his beard, you’re saying he’s preparing himself for a high position or reward, or seeking one.

The saying probably started when beards were regarded as a status symbol. Since combs were rare in those early days, bearded notables went to barbers to have their beards combed. But when the comb fad started, a man who combed his beard in public was regarded as getting ready to assume high office or to cash in on something or other.


A person who “sees himself” is a conceited person who keeps admiring himself in the mirror. The Narcissus-practice gave birth to the “seeing oneself” expression, one of the most common in rural and urban Lebanon.


The rhyming expression (la salam wa la kalam) is used when someone passes by without saying hello, for fear the greeting will draw conversation.


A person who greets people “with the back of his hand” is one who does so reluctantly or with asperity. The expression dates back to the days when an exalted religious or political personality would greet a lesser person by stretching his hand horizontally, palm down, over the outstretched hand of his inferior, expecting his hand to be kissed, not shaken.


Meaning a person who is late to an appointment or is not where he should be must not be judged until he shows up and explains why.


The reference in modern days is to people of influence who can make things happen or prevent them from happening. In the old days, however, the reference was to villagers with magical powers who did and undid things by actually knotting or unknotting pieces of thread or strands of hair.


“Stick stopper’ is the Lebanese equivalent of “whipping boy.” The expression is said to have been spawned by marital problems: A man who was displeased with his wife often grabbed a stick and shook it in her face, stopping short of hitting her with it. When his anger was uncontrollable, he would often turn the stick on something in the house and smash it. The idea was that by breaking the object, he would let off steam, and thus “break the evil.” The object he chose to vent his rage on was the “stick stopper.”


This is an expression prefixed to the phrase that invariably precedes words spoken in anything but the polite classical Arabic. (In English, it corresponds to saying or writing something “in plain English.”)


The “chair” here denotes public office, and the expression means that candidates who run for public office and make a lot of promises to get the required votes forget their promises when they are elected.

But according to Racy, the root of the expression, far from being political, is an old humorous tale involving a monk and the confession chair.

It is said that a Lebanese monk, Andraos by name, used to break his fasts in secret, hiding eggs in his cell and helping himself to them when no one was looking.

But the truth will out, and rumors soon got to the head of the convent who asked another monk to spy on Andraos. Caught red-handed, Andraos was summoned by his superior and plopped to the confession chair.

“I forget,” said Andraos blandly.

“How can you forget what you did 15 minutes go?”

Said Andraos: “It’s funny, but I find that this chair has a terrible effect on the memory. If you don’t believe me, sit on it and let me ask you a question.”

The superior sat on the chair and Andraos asked him, “Father, what were you doing with Hanneh, the gardener’s sister, under the olive tree last night?”

The superior rose abruptly, saying: “You are right my son. The chair makes one forget.”