From Alef to Zed

 “Boro!” we yell at the influx of emails on Monday morning. “Oy vey!” we say when exasperated. “Yallah!” we say when the work day ends. From morning ‘til evening, the lingua franca at the Center for Middle East Development is a motley blend of Arabic, Persian, Yiddish and Hebrew representing the languages of our multicultural staff and volunteers. It’s hard not to pick up the slang and idioms because, yani, we can’t always find the words in our native language.

(Photo:  Wikipedia )

(Photo: Wikipedia)

With the exclusion of Yiddish, itself a hodgepodge of Near Eastern/European languages brought to Israel by European Jews, each of these Middle Eastern languages bear striking similarities to one another. Hebrew and Arabic are from the same Semitic language family and share phonology and grammar rules. Persian and Arabic share an alphabet and have had a lexical impact on one another. Borrowing and appropriation are inevitable, enriching features of language and culture. While speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew rarely get the opportunity to interact in their place of origin, our small group welcomes words of wisdom, exclamations, greetings, and idioms of all these beautiful, nuanced, ancient languages. 

When we gather around baby photos, the room fills with habibi and our own spin habooboo. An Israeli graduate student remarks I am like the cucumber who rises up and hits the farmer, an inexplicable phrase in biblical Hebrew. When reluctantly volunteering for a task, like organizing the endless papers in Prof. Spiegel's office, we mutter taarof. When parting, we optimistically say we'll see each other soon, inshallah. On birthdays we are wished mazel tov, tavallodet mobārak, and koli sana wa inti tayyiba from each other, friends and colleagues.

Turning a language barrier into a bridge is no easy feat. However, as anyone who has visited a foreign country will tell you, learning a few phrases goes a long way toward mutual understanding. That is, after all, the goal here at CMED. Join the multi-cultural party and learn some of CMED's favorite words and phrases:

From above, in order:

More, in no particular order:

Have any other favorites? We'd love to hear!