Lack of Arabic Sarcasm


I remember walking into my grandma’s, in the hot summers of Lebanon and find her sitting on her grey couch that resembles her grey outlook on her grey life, courtesy of a deceased husband leaving her in poverty, with 9 kids. Her nightgown would be drenched with sweat, uncomfortably stuck to her back, for lack of electricity. It has been out for a few hours and will not return for a more. She would spend the good part of the morning cleaning, cooking, complaining, cursing.

When I would visit I would find her seated in such a way indicating that she was about to get up, her limbs furthest apart from each other to minimize skin contact. She would be waiting for the noon call to prayer, sweat beads on her brow, rosary beads in her hand; mentioning God giving her patience.

As I walk in and kiss her forehead, I would ask how she is, and before the words would part my lips, almost expectedly and she would sharply reply “mkayfe!” – entertained

, an Arabic word that shared the same root word with “ventilated” or “air conditioned”. The sarcasm in her voice was patent.

It is a common Arab trait to be a-motional, and the best way to hide emotions is by being sarcastic. Feelings of anger, discomfort, frustration, is expressed too late and too much. Talking about things is not the way people deal with issues; talking about people is. You end up with a group of people who are somewhat emotionally deranged, people who cry at weddings and laugh at funerals, people who are sarcastic.

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I once tried to explain to my grandmother that “sarcasm” doesn’t help, that maybe a more coherent form of expression is needed. The struggle was that there was no Arabic word for sarcasm. The closest one would be “exaggeration” or “mockingly”, but that doesn’t really hit the needle on the head. The other one would be someone who is fooling around with all its root words “t-habal”, “tkhawat”, “tmanyak”, which describe more an attitude than an actual form of speech, and they are the sort of phrases one would use with friends.

I figured that Arabic doesn’t have sarcasm as part of their lexicon because their humor is majorly sarcastic. An Arab person being sarcastic is one that is being funny. Arab artistic humor, the form that is found in daily newspapers as comic strips are all sarcastic in tone. Naji Al Ali’s political satire caricature and comedy theatre, which is a more common form of where Arabs receive their dosage of humorous entertainment, that vastly differ from the neo TV shows that depict buffoonery, all revolve around sarcasm and irony, best described in Ghawwar’s final words in his imaginary conversation with his dead father about the Arab situation: “The only thing missing is just a little bit of dignity!”

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Are you Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shite, Druze or Alewite, Copic or Maronite, Roman Catholic or Roman Ortho … I’m an Arab you idiot!!

How’s this for irony? There is no Arabic word for irony either, and sarcasm is necessary to cope with an Arab reality that is drenched with irony.

I recall walking in on my grandma one cool summer evening. The electricity was on, the air conditioner was working, her children and grandchildren surrounded her, and these days were her lucid years, just before her grandkids started going to college and family gatherings became less frequent. She was eating ice cream that she adored, one that her favorite grandson remembered her by. It was happy around the house with three generations gathered and laughter was in abundance. She was on the same grey couch. I kissed her forehead and asked how she is doing. She sharply replied “Shit!


2 responses »

  1. Recently a Dutch scouting facebook showed a part of the “Scout sarcasm society” facebook. We were surprised by this name, suggesting a negative-humor against scouting. Still it looks serious, positive against scouting. What is the meaning of sarcasm in the name?

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