After you’ve been in Egypt for a little while, even a week, you start to realize that a basic understanding of Arabic must start with the following conversation:
“Saba al khir?” (There are three ways to say Good Morning in Arabic, and this is the most common one. It means “Morning the Good.”)
“Saba al ful!” (This is the second most common, and the most typical response. “Ful” is the way the scent of morning jasmine fills your nostrils, so roughly translated, this means “Morning the Nose Hit.”
The third way to say Good Morning is “Saba al nur,” which is “Morning the Light.” Arabic, in my humble opinion, is definitely a Romance language.)
“Quais?” The next step is to ask how you are – “Good?” is the slang for that.
“Hamdulullah. (One always responds with “Thanks be to God.” Technically this is really probably Hamdul Allah, but it all gets run together.)
“Inta quais?” (This means, “You good?” Colloquially, “How about you?”)
“Hamdu’lah.” (The even more foreshortened version.)
“Meya-meya.” (This means literally, “a hundred/a hundred”, or more accurately, “A hundred percent!” Basically, “Great!”)
“Meya-meya.” (Which you should repeat back to the person who just said it to you. Congratulations, you can now speak Arabic better than many tourists.)
This is all well and good when you are a tourist who has learned a little Arabic. In fact, the above phonetic conversation will serve you well in almost any situation. When an Egpytian greets another Egyptian, the polite opening conversation takes on an elevated status. It’s like a Chip & Dale marathon where each person tries to outdo each other in a waterfall of polite speech. It’s almost like a race to see who can get the most nice words out fast enough, a contest of kindness. Every conversation, whether in person or on the phone, includes this elaborate dance, with each person saying something like the following to each other, both at the exact same time:
Person 1: Hello, how are you? Person 2: Hello, how are you? I am well!
I am well! Thanks be to God! I Are you alright? Thanks be to God! I
hope that everything is wonderful hope that everything is wonderful
in your life and is as amazing as it in your life and is as amazing as it
is in my life! I am so glad to hear is in my life! I am so glad to hear
you are well! A hundred/a hundred! you are well! A hundred/a hundred!
If the people are standing together at the time, they usually are shaking hands the whole while, nodding politely and smiling at each other. I was once walking with my friend Mohamed in the block between his home and his office when a man jumped out of his car at the intersection and ran over to shake Momo’s hand. Even with his car stopped in the middle of the traffic, the exchange sounded the same as if they had met in his office. On the phone it is just a matter of both talking into their respective receivers simultaneously. In comparison, it makes the typical English greeting seem just a shadow of acceptability. However, every Egyptian has done this same dance about a hundred million times by now, to literally every person they have ever met. So there is a perfunctory quality about it that cannot fail to occur after so many years, like when an American says, “Hello, how are you?” to someone passing on the street and then keeps walking because they didn’t really mean to inquire after that stranger’s health, it’s just how they say hello. But magnified, because the speech must be made, in full, to nearly everyone. Even inside of a family unit, or a business where people talk with each other many times a day, the greeting is only somewhat less formal.
Learn just these few words of Arabic and not only will you have a better trip to Egypt, you will be able to understand many of the conversations around you!