To immerse yourself totally in any culture, it’s not enough to learn the language, try the local cuisine, listen to music or read different publications.
In my opinion, there are two major things that you really need to understand are: idiomatic expressions and sense of humour.
Idiomatic expressions are also known as idioms.
Every culture is full of them and if you live in a place like the Middle East where people share the same language but with different dialects, you’ll get plenty of them to keep you entertained for years to come.
Studying Spanish for many years now, I came across many idioms that I liked and keep repeating now and again in English and in Arabic starting with the phrase: “as the Spaniards would say…”. One of my favourites is: “Raise crows and they’ll gouge your eyes.” This is used mainly for ungrateful children.
When using this idiom in particular, many Spaniards would suffice with the first part “raise crows” and go silent as the rest of the idiom is well known.
Another favourite one is: “God helps those who wake up early” which describes the blessings of being an early bird.
Or: “Never look at the teeth of a gifted horse” which describes accepting gifts gracefully.
There are many idioms that are close to what we have in Arabic, for example: “The drop that overflowed the cup” which we have in Arabic as “The hay that broke that camel’s back”. Or “A wooden spoon in the house of the blacksmith” describing people who focus on other people’s issues rather than their own.
In Arabic we’d say: “The door of the carpenter’s house is unhinged”.“A bird in hand is better than 100 flying” in Arabic becomes: “A bird in hand is better than 10 on the tree”.
Another similar one is: “to be a zero on the left” which translates exactly the same in Arabic meaning: being worthless.
There are some funny idioms such as: “it costs an eye” or “it costs a kidney” describing expensive things and “making blood go bad” when overthinking about something.
The one that always makes me smile is: “Sin ton ni son” which means without rhyme or reason.
The first time I heard the expression, I thought it was Chinese.
Till it was written down and explained to me! One of the idioms that were hard to understand translates directly to: “in case of the flies” but what it means is: “just in case.” So, you’d carry an umbrella or an extra cash, in case of the flies.
The fly is also used to show suspicion or going on a huff such as: to have a fly behind the ear or to become a fly.
Flies are also used to describe the virtue of silence: “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth”.
But when it comes to the virtue of patience: “They didn’t gain Zamora in one hour.” Another hard expression was the description of prince charming as the “blue prince”. My question was: why blue and not green for example? Then you learn that green is the colour used to describe lack of experience, ecology and — funny enough — flirty old men.
White on the other hand is the colour that describe the scarcity of money or when your mind goes blank.“To have the black” describes bad luck while “becoming purple” describes being overstuffed with food.
Next week we proceed to understanding other people’s humour, the tricky part in all cultures.
By Rasha al Raisi – a certified skills trainer and the author of The World According to Bahja.