From Beirut with Houb

Maya Nassar will take you on a journey along the streets of Beirut where you will explore the Lebanese lexicon.

The other day, while walking down a popular street in the capital, I encountered the spirit of my people and heard the soul of my country singing. That walk was a revelation of some kind: I discovered why the Lebanese have a reputation for being among the most welcoming, loving and generous people, as well as being gourmets in their own right. Above all, a reality struck me like a lightning bolt – suddenly, I had an epiphany: Romeo and Juliet were not from Verona; but they had to be from Beirut! In this city, the phrase “till death do us part” is taken quite literally; here, we all love till death. Do you need proof? “Yalla, follow me!” Oh, pardon me – “yalla,” in Lebanese dialect, means “come on.”

You can’t find the word in a dictionary, but even if you aren’t familiar with this unique dialect, don’t fret! I’ll do my best to try to explain the words you might hear in the streets here in Lebanon. All you need to do is open your heart and feel their meaning as it flows throughout your body…I must warn you though: some words might sound terrifying, but don’t be scared. After all, the war ended years ago…Here’s the bap – but no, the commotion inside isn’t a fight, it’s just a guy giving a “sahsouh” to his friend. It’s traditional to slap a man on the back of his neck after a haircut. Look, they’re laughing. “Naeeman,” says the barber to the young man to give him a blessing of sorts – one related to soap, water and cleanliness, since it’s something we say to someone who just took a shower. It’s a fresh, clean word that most definitely smells good!

Not as good as the smell of manakish, however, which is coming from this bakery at the corner! “Sahtein,” you’ll hear the baker tell his customer, which translates to “bon appetit” times two – as if one “bon appetit” wasn’t enough… “Sahtein” is a word derived from “sohat,” which means “health.” Then you’ll hear “tikram” in response to the customer’s “shoukran.” “shoukran” is a legitimate word that exists in the Arabic language and means “thank you”; “tikram” in this context means “you’re welcome,” although its literal definition roughly translates to “I hope you become more generous.” Please don’t be offended; generosity is a way of life for my people!

Oh, no! A car accident! “Tabash!” It is such a violent word – much like the accident – used to describe a door being slammed shut, abruptly hanging up a call, or someone falling down or hitting something. Thank God nobody was hurt! The couple in the car, though, are adorable! They are checking up on each other. “Tokborni,” she says. His answer: “habibi.” Well, “habibi” derives from “houb,” which means “love.” Easy enough to translate. Now try not to run away because “tokborni” literally means “bury me”; and that, right there, is the essence of Romeo and Juliet! She’s  asking her lover to bury her – but, don’t worry, not alive! It’s simply a dramatic way to say that she hopes her lover will outlive her; she couldn’t bear the idea of seeing him die first. Mothers often say that word to their children, too. Love always beats death…

Tired of walking? Let’s take a cab. Lebanese taxi drivers are another typical love story. If we ask a driver to close the window, he’ll reply “yes, ‘walaw’!” That word is a Lebanese invention that has absolutely no meaning besides allocating blame. Simply put, the driver is blaming us for requesting something that can be so easily done. It can be used in so many different situations that the great artist Wadih El Safi even sang a song titled “Walaw” in which he blames his  beloved for leaving him and forgetting about the good old days. Would you like to listen to the song? Maybe the driver has the CD; they all have the music of Fayrouz and Wadih. If we ask him, he’ll probably answer “ala rassi” while tapping his hand on his head, since it literally means “on my head.” It doesn’t mean that he’s going to put the CD on his head or drive back carrying us on his head. “Ala rassi” means “with pleasure” or “I’ll serve you with pleasure.” And you know what, it’s been a real pleasure walking with you in these streets while discovering the essence of some typical Lebanese words – ones that don’t really make much sense unless you’re Lebanese and you miss hearing them when you’re far from HOME…