Masters of the spoken word, Arabs possess the ability to string together a sequence of verses that rival any in its splendor. The nature of the Arabic language allows for the creation of beautiful poetic prose with its sing-songy endings and melodic rhythm. It almost seems unfair.
A primarily tribal and nomadic people, they relied heavily on the skill of storytelling throughout the ages. If you have ever watched a Disney movie in your life, you are familiar with at least one legendary Arab tale, Aladdin. Many of the folk-tales compiled in “One Thousand and One Nights,” or it’s more familiar English title “Arabian Nights,” trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic folklore.
In Pre-Islamic Arabia the role of the poet was essential to every village. He was relied upon as an historian, oracle, and political activist. Famous poets often had apprentices who would memorize their poetry, sit under their teaching and eventually succeed them.
Stories containing poems, prose and proverbs were not only meant for entertainment, but were vehicles that communicated deeper truths or values, among the most important of which are altruism and hospitality. Around the kitchen table a father might be heard telling his children this well-known story:
There once was a poor Arab man, who was hosting guests in his goat hair tent one evening. Having only a little meat and a little rice, he wanted to make his six guests mansaf. The amount of food, however, was only enough for six people; it wouldn’t be enough to feed his guests, himself and his children. When the guests sat down next to the oil lamps, there was only enough light to see what was directly in front of them. The host served them their food first; he then sat away from the lamp and pretended to eat, making smacking sounds and moving his plate around
His children came up to him and said, “Baba, when will we eat?”
“Your food isn’t ready yet, just wait a little bit longer.” said their father.
He had placed a pot of water on the fire with stones in it. When the water began to boil, the stones bounced around and made the sound of cooking food.
“Let me feed our guests first, then your food will be ready,” he told his kids. The children politely waited for their “food” to be finished, and as they were waiting, they grew tired and fell asleep. When his guests had finished eating, he quietly took their leftovers and fed his children.
There might not be as much time for storytelling in a bustling city like Amman, but the beauty of words is still treasured. A casual observer may not notice the playful verbal exchange in almost all daily interactions. It’s as if you are involved in an intricate dance, each word a step that gracefully sweeps you across the dance floor.
You wish me a good morning and I wish you a morning that is full of flowers.
Read about “May God salute your mustache!” and other Arabic mustache sayings by clicking here.